Hot spring and British naval history feature in NHB's Sembawang heritage trail

The Beaulieu House at Sembawang Park. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - There used to be two worlds in Sembawang, said former resident Leung Yew Kwong, one within the British naval base and the other outside.

Inside the base, which reached as far inland as the Former Admiralty House, which is near Sembawang MRT station today, were open pastures of green, large black-and-white bungalows and toilets that flushed.

Outside the base were kampungs with living conditions similar to other such settlements spread across colonial Singapore. The homes were cramped, fire-prone and lacking basic amenities.

"The two worlds rarely crossed," said Mr Leung, 68, a principal consultant at management consulting firm KPMG.

This dual reality is at the heart of the National Heritage Board's (NHB) latest heritage trail - its 21st - covering Sembawang, focusing on its unique naval and community histories in the north of the island.

Thirty-one stops, including Sembawang Hot Spring Park, Singapore's only natural hot spring on the mainland, have been marked out after much research, and there are three routes to choose from.

Each route takes between two and three hours to complete, showcasing many landmarks of the British naval base - which was returned to Singapore in 1971 - and community institutions such as mosques, temples and coastal villages.

Mr Alvin Tan, deputy chief executive of policy and community at NHB, said at the launch of the trail on Tuesday (July 13): "I have lived in Sembawang for nearly 20 years, but this trail has thrown up new nuggets of information. We thought it was timely to launch it right now due to the increased demand for domestic travel."

Covid-19 has put a stop to going overseas for vacations.

"Sembawang is the only housing estate in Singapore with a strong naval heritage and has a very strong active online community," he added.

One interesting nugget is that former national team striker Quah Kim Song played football with dockyard workers in the open fields of Sembawang when he was younger.

Another is that the area is home to Singapore's oldest-known rubber tree, at the Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang, a mosque built by kampung residents in 1963. The tree in its garden is now about a century old.

Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang in Jalan Mempurong is home to Singapore's oldest-known rubber tree. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Mosque chairman Mohd Amin AB Latip, who hopes that its inclusion in the trail will increase footfall, said 50 cents were collected from each house in his village every week for a year to build it.

The Lee Foundation also chipped in $10,000.

"Fifty cents had the value of about $20 now, so it was quite a lot," he added. "But people still gave because they wanted to. There were no engineers then so all the villagers used their hands to build it together when we could."

Within walking distance of the mosque is Gibraltar Crescent, where the oldest black-and-white bungalows in the naval base are. These were built in 1929 by the British and are today rented out by the Singapore Land Authority.

Black-and-white houses along Gibraltar Crescent in Sembawang. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Throughout the years, they have also been used to house British officers, possibly commandeered by the Japanese during the occupation in World War II to screen propaganda films, and taken over by Singapore Airlines to train its air stewards and stewardesses.

Sembawang's colonial history is tied to its role as an important naval facility for Britain's Far East Fleet during the pre- and post-World War II decades, due to its proximity to the narrow and defensible Johor Strait.

It led to the British constructing the Sembawang naval base, which boasted the world's largest dry dock in the 1930s.

Although visitors will not be able to enter the area, which is now home to a shipyard run by Sembcorp Marine, its size is apparent from the outside.

NHB said it worked with three online Sembawang community groups to get more information and photographs, and has incorporated their contributions into the trail.

Three open calls on Facebook for memories reached more than 300,000 users and attracted more than 300 comments. A total of 29 residents' entries were eventually selected.

Log onto the Roots website to find out more.

Three things to know about Sembawang

1. It played a key role in the introduction of rubber to Singapore and Malaya

Botanist Henry Nicholas Ridley, who became director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1888, ordered the planting of 1,095 rubber trees in Sembawang forest reserve.

These were tapped for latex, which was sold. He convinced planters that rubber planting was commercially viable and distributed seeds to them.

2. Sembawang hot spring water was bottled up

People visiting the Sembawang Hot Spring Park in December 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

The public first learnt of this hot spring in 1908 when the newspapers reported about it. The water was later bottled under the brand Zombun by a local beverage company, and touted for its medicinal properties.

Another company, Fraser & Neave, also bottled it under brands such as Zom and Singa Water.

In 2020, the Sembawang Hot Spring Park opened, allowing people to soak their feet in a cascading pool. It also has egg cooking stations.

3. Sembawang's earliest known inhabitants were the Orang Seletar

Some believe that the Orang Seletar descended from the seafaring Orang Laut, while others think they were forest dwellers who adapted to life in tidal creeks.

They were there in the early 20th century and relocated when land was acquired for the British naval and air bases in the 1920s.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.