A fisherman village. Pirates. Gun emplacements. We learnt some fascinating facts about Singapore’s Alexandra neighbourhood during a heritage tour!
“A heritage trail in the Alexandra area”, they’d said.
I started off amid a motley assortment of folks across all ages and races and heights, gathering around the exit of Labrador Park MRT. I didn’t quite know what to expect. It seemed an unlikely starting point and the only trail I could see was a pavement marked by a spatter of bird poo.
So it was a surprise when one of our guides led us around the corner and into a completely different world.
I listened to Swee Keng and Harry, two of our guides, enthusiastically talk about the various flora and fauna in the area. Harry also grew up in the area. You didn’t have to be a biologist or even much of a nature lover to be fascinated by the sea almond tree, “the pharmacy in a single tree” with a number of medicinal properties, or the Gelam tree, once used to help waterproof fishing boats.
“This terrain had a lot of value at that time,” Swee Keng said of Berlayer Creek, just a stone’s throw away from what is now West Coast Highway and the Pasir Panjang Depot. “Fishermen lived here, relying on their surroundings,” he added. He shared fascinating snippets about the fishing community that once thrived there, pointing out a tree whose pods were used by the fishermen to stun their fish so they could be netted up. The fisherman carried attap back for the roofs of their homes and gelam bark for their boats.
We emerged from wetlands onto the sea and Keppel Harbour. Tucked away, it seemed like a peaceful place, perfect for a morning jog, evening walk, or even as a reading spot.
Until Swee Keng explained how it had once been strewn with the bodies of victims of the many pirates that had roamed the area. In fact, he said, there had been so many pirates plundering the nearby islands and any vessels that sailed there, that the British had actually chosen not to use the harbour at first.The pirates had even displayed the skulls of their victims as macabre trophies. It took the efforts of a certain Captain Henry Keppel to finally clear the harbour of the pirates and turn it into a safe dock for trading ships.
I have an imagination. I don’t think I’ll be peacefully reading a book at Keppel Harbour anytime soon…
At this point, I didn’t feel like I was in modern day Singapore with its towers of concrete in sight. No, I was meandering through an older Singapore, a bystander travelling back in time, hearing not the noise of modern life, but the lingering echoes of the past that have shaped a nation.
We were led to Fort Pasir Panjang, where Harry spoke eloquently about the fort’s place in Singapore military history. Though initially, this fort had the dubious honour of becoming obsolete as soon as it was completed, thanks to the guns having become outdated and superseded by better ones! Still, the fort actually retained its significance through World War II, the Battle of Pasir Panjang and the Japanese invasion at Bukit Chandu.
I stared at the gun emplacements with awe, imagining the tunnel systems underneath and listening to the sounds of soldiers long gone as they trudged through to prepare and load the gun. I imagined the now garden-like, quiet area once came alive with the sound of marching feet and tense activity.
Those marching feet followed me down to Gillman Barracks, one of the final parts of the trail, and the site of the former living quarters for soldiers and officers. Janet, our third guide, told us anecdotes of how the nurses from Alexandra Hospital came for a swim at the Barracks swimming pool once a week and of how the Barracks were sold by the British to the Singapore government for the princely sum of $1! It was interesting to hear of the evolution of the Barracks – from a military living space that once hosted hundreds of soldiers with stylish black-and-white bungalows for the officers just across the road, to a village of eateries and restaurants, to what it is now, an art cluster run by NTU.
At the end, I thought about how I’d expected to learn a lot of information – and instead, had learned a lot of stories, from a group of gifted storytellers who volunteered for My Community and made history come alive by peppering the information with snippets of trivia, humorous anecdotes and first-hand tales.
I thought about how these tales focused on people. And in the end, that is what heritage is – linking the past to the present, through people and their lives.
This story is co-written by our volunteer writer, Mona Thyagarajan, MSW.