Sunday, 11 August 2013

Walkathon One

Thu, Aug 8 2013
A hike through Jalan Besar, Balestiar, Serangoon and Geylang.

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them. Unless otherwise stated all photos were taken by me. The route map is at the end. )

We met at the bus-stop outside Lavender MRT, in front of V hotel. Two other adventurers (SJ and SW) had shown up and we three musketeers set off at about 4pm, cutting through the back of V hotel in the direction of Jalan Besar and beyond; the route had been planned in advance. Fortunately, the rain of the day had stopped just in timeJ.

Jalan Besar-Lavender
The Jalan Besar district is described in one of the Heritage trails identified by the National Heritage Board (NHB) so I will only mention here some of the more interesting things that I saw and (mis-) remember. The link to the NHB site is:

The use of the name ``Lavender” for the area of that name was supposedly a joke: A long time ago, the area between the now Lavender Road and Kallang was mostly stinky swampland and a rubbish dump. The cleaning up and re-development of the area led to some creative naming.
In days of yore, Jalan Besar used to be a major throughway: In Malay, ``besar” means ``big” and ``jalan” is “road”. Of course the Jalan Besar Stadium, which in its hey-day was the centre for football, is the main landmark of the area.

The Jalan Besar locale has a large number of roads named after the French or British (Kitchener, Petain, Verdun, Somme, Beatty, etc): The colonial powers of the day felt that it was appropriate to name some streets in their colony after their victorious World War-1 generals, leaders and battles (which happened in Europe).  
There are some colourfully restored shop houses along Petain road and also elsewhere in the area and beyond. I learnt that it was none other than Stamford Raffles who mandated the structure of shop-houses in his Town plan, in particular the requirement that they have a covered five footway (``lima kaki” in Malay). Photo:

(SW indicated to us some activity near Flanders Square, which is opposite Petain Road. It surprised me greatly to learn that it was a licensed nightbirdie reserve (see Geylang below). I have taken a short cut through this area from Mustafa Center several times and had not noticed anything unusual except that it is very quiet.)

The Holy Trinity Church with unique architecture and history is on Hamilton Road. Here is a photo:
 (photo from Google Street View)
Opposite the intersection of Petain and Serangoon Roads is the Indian temple from which the annual Thaipusam walk starts (ending at the Tank Road temple). SW told us that he has been doing the walk for years with a pot of milk balanced on his head, but without the skewers. Photo:
We went behind the HDB flats on the right and found ourselves on Race Course Road. The Sakya Muni Buddhist temple (of ``1000 Lights”) was just shutting its doors when we reached. Diagonally opposite it was another landmark, the Leong San temple. Photo of 1000-lights temple:

We headed down Race Course Road and turned north along Balestiar Road passing by the sports and recreation clubs on our left. SW turned out to know a lot about trees and told us how to identify many of those on the roadside. Photo:

(Oh, there used to a horse racing course along Race Course Road. That explains its name.)

The Balestiar trail is another marked by the NHB. I happened to pick up a booklet on it a few days ago at a public library and had browsed through it on my bus ride to the start point of the Walkathon.

Mr. Balestiar was the first American Consul to Singapore. In addition to being a consul, he owned some sugar plantations which bordered the current road named after him.
The official NHB Balestiar Trail starts after the intersection with Moulmein Road. We walked along the left-side of the road and could easily spot the heritage markers for the temples and some Art Deco buildings and restored shop-houses.  Photo:


Balestiar Point is a building which apparently made a wave in the 1980’s for its cubist design though I doubt anyone notices it much now. Photo:

The Shaw building marks the location of the Malay movie studio (which apparently still exists, dormant, at the back.) where some of P.Ramlee’s movies were shot; I remember watching some of those movies on TV as a kid.  
We did not explore the side streets of Balestiar, some of which apparently have traditional bakeries, but we did notice some possibly famous eateries (e.g. chicken rice) along the main road. Other than eateries, Balestiar Road is supposedly THE place to go if you need lighting and related fixtures for your home. There were also many shops specialising in bathroom fixtures.
However, for me, the most interesting sight was the Zhongshan Park next to the Sun Yat Sen Villa. The unique landscaping of the park and the panelling of the adjacent buildings gave it an unusual, almost exotic, atmosphere. This extract from Wikipedia perhaps some light on the mystery: ``Zhongshan Park (traditional Chinese: 中山公園; simplified Chinese: 中山公园; pinyin: Zhōngshān Gōngyuán) is a common name for Chinese parks, in honour of Sun Yat-sen, better-known in Chinese as Sun Zhongshan, who is considered by many to be the "Father of modern China". Currently there are more than 40 Zhongshan Parks in China, and some in overseas areas.”
Photo: Through the park towards the SunYatSen Villa. The spire of the Burmese temple is in the background.

A path in the park heading in the direction of the Sun Yat Sen Villa highlighted some historical milestones and mentioned the name of Mr. Lim Nee Soon. There used to be a place called Nee Soon in the north of Singapore named after the person who owned some land there (more on this below).
Adjacent to the Sun Yat Sen Villa is a three-story Burmese Buddhist temple with very well maintained gardens and a Bodhi tree. Interestingly, the temple is still called the Burmese temple, as indicated also by the tourist markers along the main road and the NHB booklet, -- rather than a ``Myanmarese” temple. Photo:

(Similarly, Ceylon Road in Joo Chiat is still Ceylon Road though the country is now Sri Lanka.)
But, due to the change from dialect to Mandarin, the locale that for eons was Nee Soon in Singapore is now Yishun (I have since discovered that the community centres in Yishun still use ``Nee Soon” in their name. Hmm, a compromise?)

We headed back to Ah Hood Road, crossed through the Ramada hotel and Balestiar Road to go up Irrawaddy Road.

The name ``Irrawaddy” triggered some memories of school geography lessons --which in the good old days required us to memorise tons of facts about other countries. I remembered it to be a river in Burma. Was it a coincidence that a Burmese temple was nearby?

But then I noticed Shan Road. That too reminded me of Burma and wait, Rangoon Road was not far away! The dots began to connect. A check with the NHB guide confirmed that the area had a Burmese connection, with many other road names (including Moulmein!) being of Burmese origin.

So those ancient geography lessons finally came in useful.
What is on Irrawaddy Road? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some hospitals (SW and SJ admired some flowers by the fence of the Ministry as two policemen watched. The sign only said ``No photos or videos”.)

Next, we cut through the Velocity mall and landed on Thomson Road heading south towards Serangoon Road. It is here that I was surprised to learn (from SW) that some Mahogany trees grew along our roads! They have huge pods which burst to disperse their unusual winged seeds.
Along Thomson Road we saw a building belonging to the ``Red Swastika Society”. Most people probably don’t know that the original swastika symbol is of ancient origin and has some positive symbolic significance in Hinduism and Buddhism. On the other hand, the symbol used by an infamous extremist organisation during WW2 to promote their ideology was actually a mirror-image of the traditional swastika. Photo:

 (photo from Google Street View)

We reached the location of the KK hospital, the place which delivered many Singaporeans. The original KK hospital building is across the road from the current building and is now used by the LTA. ``KK” is short for the original name “Kandang Kerbau”, which literally translated means ``Buffalo Stable” (kerbau means buffalo in Malay. The wish to dis-associate from buffalo stables is what probably led to the name truncation for the new hospital).  The photo shows the original KK building on the left (behind trees) and the new one on the the right:

(photo from Google Street View)

Some of you might know that there is not only a Kerbau Road further down but also a Buffalo Road! Why so much reference to buffalos? There used to be buffalo stables in the area. Indeed some side streets off Serangoon Road still have the stables which have been converted to other use now.

Serangoon Road
As we headed in the direction of Little India MRT, we passed the open field bordering Hampshire Road. As it was a public holiday (Hari Raya) the atmosphere was similar to a Sunday, the area being full with foreign workers socialising and having meals seated on the ground.

An aside: Little India has remarkably few street names of Indian origin. Also the origin of the name ``Serangoon” seems obscure---see wikipedia.
We stopped for a while to look at the only North-Indian temple in the Serangoon area, the Shree Lakshminarayan Temple, and then took a meal break at a restaurant around the corner from Tekka market. (At one point in time Tekka market was re-named Zhujiao centre until public unhappiness caused the return of its dialect name ``Tekka”.)

During the meal ,conversation turned to the different ethnic groups and how to identify where people came from. SJ enlightened us on the dress sense of young ladies from China: Different places were influenced by different cultures e.g. European or Korean.
After the meal we walked down the main Serangoon Road taking in the sights and crowds. The intersection with Kitchener Road, leading to the City Square Mall, has a gateway which originally belonged to the New World amusement park in the Jalan Besar area (closed in 1987).

Just after the intersection with Lavender Street is the Kwong Wai Shu Hospital. It sits on the grounds of the original Tan Tock Sen hospital (which is now in the Novena District). Photo:

(photo from Google Street View)

We headed down Lavender Street and turned into Kallang Road in the direction of Geylang. On the right is an old temple (1888) built by workers from the gas-works which used to be located near there. I remember the huge blue cylindrical structure (25 storeys!) dominating the skyline in those days.  See photos here
The gas-works were shut down in 1998 but parts of the dismantled structure were made into art-work and are visible in the nearby secluded Kallang Riverside Park. This park is the only one I know which has signs in a particular foreign language (not one of Singapore’s official languages). This is because the park is popular with foreign workers of a certain country. (Discovered this fact one day when I was cycling through the area).

After passing the Kallang River, Singapore’s longest!, we turned into Geylang Road. The restaurants at the initial stretch were doing roaring business with tables spilling onto the road.  

We detoured from the main road and walked through some side-streets where some nightbirdies were to be seen. Some of the nightbirdies were probably not independent, as their handlers were probably nearby, but in any case these street nightbirdies, of varying plumage, were unlicensed, as opposed to those residing in the official nightbirdie reserves.

The houses which served as official nightbirdie reserves were clearly marked to distinguish them from private residences nearby. For example, the former had `Welcome” signs on the front, with gates open and the porch brightly lit (often with one of the lights being red). In some cases a smiling birdie-assistant would be outside inviting passer-by’s inside. We also noticed that all the official nightbirdie reserves proudly displayed the national flag (it being National Day soon).
The unlicensed nightbirdies on the other hand seemed to congregate near budget hotels which were probably used for privacy when a nightbirdie admirer was found. However the economies of supply and demand seemed to have created other options, with some unlicensed lodgings in neighbourhoods being used by unlicensed nightbirdies and their admirers.
It being a public holiday, the nightbirdie areas were very busy with birdies and admirers of all sorts. At some point we saw some of the nightbirdies scatter quickly as nightbirdie-catchers were seen to approach.

(Earlier in the evening, at around 4pm, when I was on my bus ride to the Lavender meeting point, I passed the main Geylang Road and noticed nightbirdies very obviously posing at several doorways of the shop-houses. It seems that some  nightbirdies have adapted to sunlight, or was it a case of the early birdie catching the worm?)

We got back onto the main road and continued walking. Two thirds of the way down Geylang Road it became quiet and we stopped for a drink at a kopitiam before proceeding down to the Paya Lebar intersection.
At City Plaza the other two musketeers decided to call it a day and left by bus and MRT, leaving me to continue the adventure.

(Earlier in the evening, when I was on the bus ride towards Lavender, the City Plaza area was packed with holidaying foreign workers. Now at 10pm on a holiday, it was deserted. City Plaza was a popular place in its hey day a few decades back. Now it is a speciality mall, containing  mostly fashion wholesalers though they probably sell retail too). Photo:
(photo from Google Street View)
Joo Chiat-East Coast Park
I cut through Haig and Onan Roads to make my way south along Joo Chiat Road. Near Joo Chiat Place there were a few nightbirdies socialising with their admirers but otherwise the road was quieter than usual.

As I passed one foot-massage establishment an assistant on the sidewalk asked me if I needed a massage for my tired feet. I was tempted but I decided it would be better to keep my momentum and moved on.
There was a bigger crowd as expected near the intersection of Joo Chiat Road and East Coast Road, with people having a late night snack or tea. I took a P break at the corner mall and then continued on south, through the underpass to the East Coast Park.

There were still quite a number of people at the park, some enjoying a barbecue or fermented veggie/fruit juice.
I headed east and when I was close to the next underpass I got a call from MK who wanted to know if I was planning to night-cycle (it was part of the original tentative plan). However as it was getting very cool and windy, with red skies, suggesting the coming of rain, and me feeling slightly tired, I decided to call it quits and headed home, reaching at about 11.15pm.

Except for the Balestiar-Thomson stretch, in previous adventures I have cycled through each of the other locales mentioned in this walkathon summary. I think I might revisit the Balestiar area by cycle one day, maybe through the Whampoa river connector, to explore some of the side streets I missed on this walkathon.

Overall, the walkathon was enjoyable and we hope to make this a regular event, exploring different neighbourhoods of the little red dot.
Stage 1:       Lavender-Balestiar-Serangoon –Lavender Loop :  8km

Stage 2:       Lavender-Kallang-Geylang-Paya Lebar Stretch:  5km

Stage 3:       Paya Lebar-East Coast Park:  3km

Total time for stages 1+2:   6 hours, inclusive of 1.5 hours break

Total time for stage 3:  1 hr

Route Map

The red line starting at ``A" (Lavender MRT) shows stage 1 (see above). The black line shows stages 2 and 3.

(map from Google Maps)