Street View: Winds of change stirring in seaside park

Hidden in a secluded corner of Singapore, Sembawang Park is a quiet retreat for those who want a break from city life. But change is coming to the park, which is getting a facelift.

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THERE was no electricity or water supply when Mr Lim Hock Lye first opened his restaurant in the quaint seaside bungalow in Sembawang Park.

That was 1981.

He had to set up a generator and lay his own pipes to draw water from the main road some 200m from his restaurant in Beaulieu House, which overlooks the Johor Strait.

The bungalow, which has Victorian-style ironwork and neo-classical plaster details, was built around 1910 as a seaside retreat. It was designated for military use when the Sembawang Naval Base was developed nearby in the 1920s to 1930s. From 1940 to 1942, it was the residence of the most senior British naval officer in Singapore, Vice-Admiral Geoffrey Layton.

The bungalow, now a conserved building, probably got its name from one of several sites with that name in Britain.

"We put in a lot of work to keep up this place," said Mr Lim, who has been running the restaurant that sells Chinese and Western fare for the past 32 years.

The 58-year-old, who was formerly in the civil engineering business, added that he decided on the career switch because he wanted a change. "I also like the serenity of this place and its architecture," he said.

Back then, Sembawang Park was marked by Beaulieu House, a jetty, a nearby shipyard and several kampungs surrounding the area.

More than 30 years later, the park - tucked away in the northern corner of Singapore - is undergoing a facelift.

The kampungs have disappeared, and the shipyard is about to be phased out.

New private residential projects have sprung up in the vicinity.

Loose floorboards on the jetty, which is more than 70 years old, have been replaced by sturdy ones.

The park itself is also in the midst of an overhaul.

Sections of the park have been cordoned off for upgrading works carried out by the National Parks Board (NParks).

New amenities will be added, including a promenade, fitness corner, barbecue pits, toilets and shelters, said NParks.

The park will also have a new children's playground modelled after a battleship, inspired by its maritime history.

These works are expected to be completed in the second quarter of this year.

Even the type of visitors who frequent the secluded park, which is at the far end of Sembawang Road, has changed over the years.

When The Straits Times visited the park this week, only four groups of anglers were on the jetty. There were also several couples who were taking leisurely strolls near the jetty, and joggers who had completed their evening run.

While it is usually quiet on weekdays, the place comes to life on weekends when visitors descend upon the greenery to take strolls, cycle, fish, or just soak up the sun, said Mr Lim, who lives nearby.

"The crowds that come here have changed over the years," he said.

"Before, there used to be more families; now, there are more youngsters and couples, as well as expatriates who live nearby."

The weekend crowd means business for Mr Lim, who said he pays more than $15,000 in rent each month to run the only eating place in the park.

The businessman, who signed a new nine-year lease to run the restaurant in December last year, hopes to attract more customers even though frequent visitors like the quiet ambience of the place.

Mr Lim said he hopes that the upgrading works at the park will be completed soon, because he has been getting fewer customers since the construction began about two years ago.

"But they're adding more facilities and carpark spaces which is good. Hopefully more people will come after it's done," he added.

Others share his sentiments.

"The renovation is a bit slow," said Sembawang resident Lu Poong Liang, 57, who takes brisk walks in the park almost every day.

"I look forward to it being completed," said Mr Lu, who is in the trading business. He goes to the park on weekends to jog with his two grown-up children.

Retiree Cher Hian Boo, 63, who has been visiting the park for the past 40 years, added: "The carpark should be extended because it cannot take the large weekend crowd."

While old-time park-goers welcome efforts to improve the park's facilities, they hope that the changes will not be too drastic.

Said Mr Lim: "I hope they won't make too many changes to the park. This was originally designed by a Japanese architect, and has unique qualities.

"I didn't like it when they changed the design of the pavilions."

Some visitors, like naval architect Jerome Lim, 48, are concerned that the phasing out of the nearby shipyard will change the park's identity.

"It is one of the last working remnants of the old naval base and it contributed so much in terms of employment and the economy of the area," said the Sembawang resident, who has been visiting the park since he was eight.

The history buff, who wrote a blog post about Sembawang Park in February this year, feels that developments, such as installing boardwalks along the beach and phasing out the shipyard, may cause the park to lose its appeal as a place that is "gentle" and has "less clutter" compared to urban Singapore.

"It is an old place that is full of character - partly because of its history, partly because of its physical structures like the kampung mosque, the seawalls and the jetty," he added.

Built in the 1920s, the shipyard served as part of the Singapore Naval Base to defend Britain's interests in Asia-Pacific. It was converted into a shipyard in 1968 and is one of the area's key landmarks.

On Jan 31 this year, the Ministry of National Development announced in its Land Use Plan that the shipyard facilities will be phased out, freeing up waterfront land for new business activities for future needs.

Ms Margie Hall, honorary secretary of Nature Society (Singapore), said: "It's important to keep Sembawang Park and the shoreline as it is because it retains memories for all the people who used to live in the villages here."

Mr Lim, the restaurant owner, said he hopes the park will retain its charm and not become too commercialised.

Said the businessman, who plans to hand over the restaurant to his 32-year-old son when he retires: "The environment here is quiet, you don't hear much of the traffic around, the trees are almost 100 years old - it's very peaceful and I hope they will maintain the greenery and serenity of this place."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 24, 2013