Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sembawang - Black & Whites

In 1919 Viscount Jellicoe (what a great name) first muted his concerns about the need to secure the shores of Singapore and to have a military base in this part of the world, following the deterioration of ties between Europe and Japan after the First World War. However it wasn't until much later in 1928 that a decision was made to start building a naval port, shipyard and base at Sembawang, in the North of Singapore. It took 7 years to build and was finally, officially opened on 14 Feb 1938.

Sembawang, named after the sembawang tree, was home to the British Navy, with Seletar close by home to its Air Force. It was a large naval base and this of course meant it needed much housing for its personnel. This can be seen by the differences in design, size and grandeur of the many dwellings, from small one storey bungalows, right up to large, stately stand-alone homes for the elite of the naval officers.

The homes were designed by Sir John Jackson Ltd, but still took their design from the earlier Anglo-Malay designs, albeit now built in brick and concrete, no longer the timber frames of the older homes. The roads around the estate are named after former British colonies such as Gibraltar, Bermuda and Lagos.

The houses were built in the 1920s and 30s and what make these different from others I've seen is that they were built with underground air raid shelters, both communal and individual. As you wander around the area you will see undulating mounds in front of the homes or in greens in front of them with blocked entrances, slabs of concrete and indeed chimneys protruding from them. Although I didn't spot tit, apparently there is an entrance to one now almost hidden by a banyan tree and its roots. The largest bunker can be found at Malta Crescent. Many of these homes although coming under the cloak of 'Black & Whites' in fact were never originally black and white but painted so at a later date.

As mentioned the base was officially opened in 1938 and was closed in 1942 just before the Japanese invaded. Throughout the Occupation the Japanese used the base for the three years until it was returned to the British after their surrender. It continued as a naval base until 1968 when it became Sembawang Shipyard, as it remains today.

I have visited a number of times and have brought friends on walking tours of the estate and its surrounding areas. Each time I have entered from the East off Canberra rd, walking up hill along Ottawa Rd. Here we pass by blocks that could possibly have been offices but also remind me of accommodation blocks that I remember from my time living on Air Force camps. As you reach the top of the slight hill there is a green space at the top, surrounded by tall trees, where myself and a friend have spotted a couple of sea eagles.

From here I explored the large grander properties, many on stilts and with garages and servant quarters to the side or rear. I explored the area between here and Admiralty Rd East and Sembawang Rd. As you near Admiralty Rd East the homes you find here are newer, built in Art Deco red brick and pebble dash designs, very familiar to homes of the 1930s in the UK, indeed those of many of my family whilst I was growing up. Many of these homes seem to now house kindergartens for the local children. It is good to see these homes very much lived in and looked after, after seeing so many empty. There is a security car driving around continuously as well and many appear to be managed by the same company.

As you cross over Admiralty rd East and enter either Kings or Queens rd the homes are very different on this side, as you make your way through to Sembawang Park and the coast. Here they appear more eclectic, older, with some made of timber frames, wooden shutter boarding and open framed windows. Sadly many are empty and neglected on this side.

This area has a southern English village feel to it, with a mix of homes, both detached, semidetached and even terraced, amongst a few larger properties, all set along small winding roads, amid high hedges and tall trees. One could almost expect to bump into Miss Marple, solving one of her murder mysteries! 

As you walk through this side you pass by what looks like it was once a village hall, again wooden framed and boarded, sadly in a poor state, with many rotten boards and the eaves and roof in disrepair, such a shame. The posters and drawings, still visible through the windows, show it was once used by the community as a school, or kindergarten or even Sunday school.

As you exit the northern side you enter into Sembawang park, with the shipyard dominating the left hand side of the horizon. You walk thought this small park until you come to the edge of the Straits overlooking Malaysia. Here you will find Beaulieu House now a restaurant but originally built as a weekend retreat for a plantation owner in 1910. The British later acquired it and it was renamed after British Admiral Beaulieu, it was conserved in 2005. Beaulieu House overlooks the small Mata Jetty, which is guarded by 2 eminent "officers" standing astride the steps down to the jetty!

Take a walk through both sides of Admiralty Road and enjoy stepping back into the past. For me the northern side is much more rural and tranquil

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