Walk and seek

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 2013

True to its name, the portraits of four beautiful women can be found in Simei, or "four beauties" in Chinese.

The quartet of legendary beauties in Chinese history - Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan and Yang Guifei - appear as wall murals in seven blocks of Housing Board flats in the eastern suburb. Each woman is depicted in a mural in two blocks, except for Yang.

Over at the Swiss Cottage Estate in Bukit Timah, a quiet loop beyond a tiny community garden teems with dense foliage and trees.

So put on your walking shoes as Life!Weekend maps out other little-known trails in Singapore, where you can take in nature or snippets of history or both.

These are secluded turns within the Simpang Kiri and Ulu Sembawang park connectors and a deserted Muslim cemetery next to busy Victoria Street.


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Where: Beyond Goldhill Avenue a

Duration: 30 minutesnd Goldhill Rise, into Swiss Cottage Estate

To get there, you go up the gently sloping Goldhill Avenue and Goldhill Rise off Dunearn Road and past the rows of private houses in Swiss Cottage Estate.Storyteller Verena Tay, who lived in a house along Goldhill Drive from 1968 to 1996, used to jog along a little "secret valley" as a teenager.

At the end of the road, a tiny community garden blooms, with a veranda crammed with mismatched tables and chairs.

Beyond that is Ms Tay's secret valley: a three-point forked road teeming with dense foliage and trees.

The road, on which there is no sign bearing a name, starts with an access path for utility vehicles and is surrounded by state land.

There are odd remnants that stand out: a little shelter that looks like a mini bus stop and a swing door with floral tiles amid the foliage.

The little loop is framed by an imposing black and white bungalow. And from this perch point, you see the Chinese International School and Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) in the distance.

Head towards Malcolm Road, where there is a cluster of colonial black-and-white bungalows, till you pass the back gates of Catholic Junior College and Tanglin Community Club.


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Where: Muslim graveyard off Victoria Street

Duration: About 30 minutes

Passers-by use it mainly as a shortcut, treading out a dirt pathway to and from the bus stop.

But the deserted Muslim cemetery next to busy Victoria Street offers a slice of history.

The land was previously owned by Wakaf Syed Mohamed Abdul Rahman Aljunied, a descendant of Syed Omar Aljunied, an Arab spice trader and businessman known for his generosity who donated land for religious buildings, such as Masjid Omar Kampung Melaka in Clarke Quay.

In 1927, Syed Abdul Rahman Aljunied built the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah next to the cemetery to commemorate the elder Aljunied. The madrasah is still in operation.

Members of the Aljunied family used to be buried there. But their tombs have since been moved to a corner of the oldest mosque in Singapore, the Masjid Omar Kampung Melaka in Clarke Quay.

Many tombs at the Victoria Street site are unidentified, possibly because the Aljunieds used to allow many Muslims outside their clan to bury their family members there, even if they could not afford to pay for a plot.

On the other side of the cemetery, near the Masjid Malabar, a mosque managed by the Malabar Muslims, who are originally from Kerala in India and settled here, is another small "royal graveyard", says Ms Savita Kashyap, a director of research and consultancy at the Singapore History Consultants. The firm specialises in heritage education and research consultancy services.

Those buried there could be descendants and followers of Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, best known for signing the 1819 treaty with Sir Stamford Raffles that turned Singapore into a British colony.

As evidence for this, Ms Kashyap cites a 1836 map by Singapore's first colonial architect, G.D. Coleman. On it, he had marked the area off Jalan Kubor, where the site lies, as "tombs of the Malayan princes".

But as most Muslim graves are left unmarked, she says, this makes them difficult to trace.

However, there is one way of telling if a grave belongs to a male or female, she says. Rounded tombstones are believed to belong to a male, while flat ones which are curved at the sides typically belong to a female.


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Where: Simpang Kiri park connector, off Yishun Avenue 2

Duration: About two hours

This 3km route along Sungei Simpang Kiri features lush vegetation along a canal and a wide path for joggers and cyclists.

You can get here from a turn in Sembawang Road, through Yishun Avenue 2.

But for a more secluded walk, try strolling through the other way from Andrews Avenue, which is dotted with private houses.

Besides construction works taking place towards the end of the route, the stretch is tranquil, offering a peek of the Straits of Johor opposite.

But train your eyes on the canal, where horseshoe crabs are commonly found.

The stretch also teems with water birds, such as the egret, herons with a milky white plume; and the kingfisher, known for its vibrant colour.

There are some surprises on the ground as well, such as apple snails, which are freshwater snails unique for having both gills and a lung.

If you need a rest, a shelter stop is sited midway, with two bench seats. A basic fitness corner is located at the end of the stretch. Slap on insect repellent and pack enough food and water.

There are coffee stalls at the corner of Admiralty Road East and Sembawang Road if you want a fuel stop after the trek.


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Where: Simei Streets 1 to 4

Duration: About 11/2 hours

A wall mural of Yang Guifei, a Tang Dynasty consort blamed for sparking a nationwide revolt, faces off with Ms Jacqueline Chew at her provision shop daily.

"It gets a little scary at night," says Ms Chew, 26, who has been running her family's provision store for the past eight years at Block 107 Simei Street 1. Her store is directly opposite the portrait.

Yang, whose famed beauty apparently led the people to demand that the enamoured Emperor Xuanzong put her to death, appears with rouged lips, heavily lidded eyes and talon-like nails.

During the day, however, she barely gets a second glance, says Simei resident Tan Ji Sing, 30.

Mr Tan, who is between jobs and has lived in the neighbourhood for about 12 years, says: "Perhaps residents are clueless as to what it represents because it has always been part of the landscape."

Simei, which means "four beauties" in Chinese, features the portraits of three other legendary beauties at the void deck of various blocks in the estate.

Diao Chan, a Romance Of The Three Kingdoms character who used her beauty to pit two male characters against each other, coyly peeks over her shoulder next to a bike stand at blocks 141 and 146 in Simei Street 2.

A portrait of Xi Shi, who lived during the spring and autumn period (770-446BC) and was sent to seduce the king of a rival kingdom, sits at the lift lobby of blocks 116 and 123 in Simei Street1.

Over in Simei Street 4, at blocks 226 and 229, you can spot a painting of Wang Zhaojun, an imperial consort who caught the eye of the emperor only when she was presented to a neighbouring tribe lord.

The murals date back to 1987 and 1988 when the blocks were completed, says a Housing Board spokesman. Each mural is about 2m tall.

The name "Simei" may have been given by the HDB when it was trying pitch the estate as an attractive place to live in, says historian Tan Teng Teng, who has an interest in toponyms.

She explains: "For residents, you would want your home to be beautiful, and naming it after the beauties has that effect."


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Where: Ulu Sembawang park connector, off Mandai Road

Duration: About an hour

This 1.5km gentle trail runs along the periphery of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve and is overrun with greenery.

The route is fairly shaded and gives off a mysterious forest vibe, helped in part by the huge kampung fruit trees straddling the path on which squirrels jump and swing.

Along the way, you can see sprigs of wild ripened bananas on the ground. Forget about taking these bunches home though. They are filled with seeds and are neither as sweet nor fleshy as those sold in markets.

The route also includes a rest shelter with a maroon roof and seats.

Along the way, take a peek through a fence to the right, where there is a private nursery with long rows of potted plants and ferns. It cannot, however, be accessed from the route.

Do not forget your insect repellent - the mosquitoes here attack with a vengeance.

This park connector is currently closed for repair works and will reopen in March.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 2013.

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