Every day I see Pulau Ubin.
I don’t mean from within, but from without, two-and-a-half kilometres away, from the public balcony of our condo in Pasir Ris, which offers a grand view of Ubin in all its greeny, islandy, stuck-in-the-nineteen-fifties glory.
Between the Pasir Ris beach on the mainland and Pulau Ubin is a narrow bit of the Johor Strait, which separates Singapore from Malaysia. If I look to the right, eastwards, I can see it opening into the South China Sea. If I look to the left, I see it leading to Pasir Gudang, Johor, an industrialised port and petrochemicals hub, from where palm oil and other biofuels are shipped around the world, and whose containers and cranes and chimneys with nighttime flares offer a stark, Mordor-like contrast to the serenity around.
From the Pasir Ris beach, in other words, with a little turn of the head one is presented with two visions of planet earth. Pulau Ubin is the pre-industrial, bucolic paradise that our hearts pine for; Pasir Gudang the post-industrial ugliness that our lifestyles demand. The world that we miss, and the world that is.
These poles attract a bewildering array of marine vehicles. Paddle boards, pedal boats, sailboats and windsurfers bob around, between Pasir Ris and Ubin, around the kelong fishfarms, their leisure interrupted by the workhorses of the sea: tugboats, tankers and container ships heading to Pasir Gudang; naval vessels and cruise ships on their way to repair at the Sembawang shipyard.
Ever so often the Pasir Ris peace is disturbed by the repeated blaring of some giant ship’s horn, as it tries to scare off tiny leisure craft in its way. The captain must feel like a trucker who’s driven the whole night through and is about to park—only to discover that in the loading bay there are children playing hopscotch.
After an hour on the Pasir Ris beach, gazing at Pulau Ubin’s trees and Pasir Gudang’s concrete, listening to kayaks being dragged across the sand and waves crashing in the wake of ships, one feels immersed in the duality that is modern Singapore: a tropical island that is also an essential cog in a globalised economic machine.
Pasir Ris reminds us of who we are; of who we’ve become.
“In 1852, the Government made at this time eight pits and nine traps for tigers in various parts of the island. The son of the headman at the village of Passier Reis was in the jungle cutting wood in January when he was seized by a tiger. Hearing his cries, his father ran out and found the tiger dragging him into the jungle. He grasped his son by the legs and tried to drag him away, but the tiger kept his hold, growling furiously, and it was only on several persons coming up and assisting him that he let go his hold and ran into the jungle. The unfortunate young man was quite dead when the tiger dropped him.” – Charles Burton Buckley, “An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore”, 1867
The first published mention of “Pasir Riso” was in the 1839 Map of the Island of Singapore and Its Dependencies drawn by Wahid Khan of the Surveyor-General’s Office. A land survey done in 1844 for John Turnbull Thomson’s map features a “Passier Reis”.
While Pasir is the Malay word for sand, the full Pasir Ris has three possible etymologies, each hinging on a different interpretation of Ris. First, “shredded sand” (from Pasir Hiris). Second, bolt-rope beach aka “narrow beach” (if Ris means bolt-rope). Third, “white sand” (if Ris means white), from where our neighbourhood’s central mall gets its name.
In the 1800s, even as the British colonial administration started developing the rest of Singapore, it paid little attention—the odd tiger mauling aside—to Pasir Ris, which is on the opposite end of the island to our famed, deep-water port and central hub. (“To get as far from my parents as I can,” I sometimes joke, when friends ask why Li Ling and I chose Pasir Ris.)
The area’s swampy marshes, mangrove wetlands and sandy grounds were not conducive to agriculture. Some isolated gambier plantations supported a sparse village population. There were likely fewer than a hundred residents, predominantly Malay, in Kampong Pasir Ris in the 1840s, of a total Singapore population of almost sixty thousand.
As the gambier industry declined in the late 1800s, rubber, pineapple and other vegetable farms emerged, yet still mostly in the more fertile surrounding areas like Tampines (named for the valuable Tempinis tree). Pasir Ris remained a relative backwater, which is probably what drew tycoons in search of a getaway.
In the 1890s broker Ezra Nathan and real estate agent H. D. Chopard built the first bungalows in Pasir Ris, marking a significant turning point in the area’s land usage. Chopard rented out his house for two dollars a day while Nathan’s became a recreation venue for Singapore’s Jewish community.
While some other wealthy people followed suit, over the subsequent decades Pasir Ris’s relative inaccessibility meant it would remain less desirable than the East Coast strip, from Tanjong Katong to Changi. (A dynamic still true today.) Pasir Ris consisted of posh second homes by the beach alongside kampong life just inland.
“After lessons (in the morning), I went to the small streams to catch fish and prawns… and went to the swamp to pick up attap seeds. We might (also) catch small spiders or play with the sand. Every afternoon, it was (also) the duty of my younger brother and I to carry a big basket and pick the hard shells of rubber seeds (in the plantations) and also the dried branches of trees (for firewood). These shells are the best thing to cook rice with.” – Chua Liang (b.1934), describing life in Pasir Ris Village in the 1930s-40s
Following the war, renewed interest in the area prompted developer Ho Meng Quee to spend a quarter of a million dollars (worth about a million today) to convert Joseph Elias’s former two-storey beachfront bungalow to the Pasir Ris Hotel, which opened in 1952.
Of all the demolished structures of old Singapore that I wish I had known, the Pasir Ris Hotel stands out. An enormous colonial house surrounded by palm trees, with a long, covered jetty that leads into the strait, it is at once both an anachronism of empire and yet also, in keeping with British architecture in Malaya, so perfectly natural, so at home.
When I see that aerial shot my thoughts drift to Penang, or the West Indies, or the set of a James Bond flick. Aerial shots are passé in this age of drones, of course, but with the Pasir Ris Hotel the very act of photography is an indication of its magnificence, its value to our ancestors.
The Pasir Ris Hotel became known for its private beach, waterskiing, dining by the sea, and live music performances. After the horrors of war, with massacres by the Japanese occurring across the coastline from Punggol to Changi, it must have been gratifying for night-time revellers to reclaim the space for celebration, to lose themselves to dance.
From 1959 to 1966 the British Royal Air Force (RAF) occupied all the hotel’s rooms for its troops awaiting deployment; yet its restaurant remained open to the public, served by—whom else?—Hainanese chefs, in ”one of the best kitchens on the island for chili crab, kampung ayam, curry puffs, satays and nonya dishes”, according to Mark Walker.
Above images from singas.co.uk
“I stayed here in 1962 with my family before moving to RAF Seletar,” Bob Hadden told me. “I was seven years old. We arrived from England at night & the heat was unbelievable for someone from England. We stayed for two weeks before moving to Serangoon gardens & then to Seletar. My most vivid memory is of the swimming pagar we were told it was to keep sharks out!! The beach & coconut palms were also something I had never seen before.”
(There is no evidence of sharks in Pasir Ris, but recent visitors include estuarine crocodiles.)
Uncle Harnsi, a South Asian uncle of mine, remembers regularly cycling with his teenage buddies in the 1960s from Serangoon Gardens to the Pasir Ris Hotel, braving punctures and broken chains, along a winding, narrow, lorry-filled road that went through Tampines. Once there, they would swim in the adjacent waters, trying to avoid the jellyfish, in an effort to catch a glimpse of that rare mammalian species: white girls in bathing suits.
“Where did you learn how to speak English?” the new arrivals from the UK would ask, presumably unaware that the empire had schooled its subjects. On longer breaks Uncle Harnsi and crew would set up makeshift tents on the nearby public beach and stay for a few days. “Those days we didn’t have money to go for holidays to Bali,” he says. “Pasir Ris beach or Punggol Beach was our holiday.”
The hotel itself was not known for being inclusive. “I have never been snubbed like this in all my life,” wailed a twenty-year-old Ting Lan, the so-called “Hokkien Marilyn Monroe”, in 1959 after hotel staff ignored her and other film crew who had gone there for post-shoot drinks.
That a young movie star’s sulky lament could make it to The Straits Times is perhaps reflective of the times: Singapore’s golden era of cinema coincided with the effervescence of self-determination, as we clawed our way to independence, gaining internal self-rule from the British in 1959; and later independence from Malaysia in 1965. Better serve our Hokkien starlets, not just our White officers.
Indeed, that period heralded another turning point for Pasir Ris, as its beachside glories would progressively be nationalised for the citizenry.
“One of the big changes in Singapore is that the weekend has become everybody’s right, and it is our duty to see that the worker as well as the employer has his opportunities for recreation,” said Lim Yew Hock, Singapore’s chief minister, at the opening ceremony of the Pasir Ris beach in 1958, ahead of which the government had installed public changing rooms, toilets and hawker stalls. The People’s Association (PA) Holiday Flats opened in 1973 to, in the words of a PA supervisor, “fulfil a long-felt need of the average man. Until now, he has had nowhere to stay if he wants to take his family to the seaside for a week.”
By the early 1980s the government had acquired the beachside land in Pasir Ris, including the disused hotel, which was demolished in 1984. This land, along with a further forty-four hectares (equivalent to over sixty football fields) reclaimed from the sea, would over the course of the next few years be made into what is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the nicest park in Singapore.
Pasir Ris Park first opened in 1986, when I was in Primary Three, which is why many in my generation have fond memories of playing in its stonkingly good playground. In 1983 the government also began developing Pasir Ris Town, some two decades after the first HDB public housing units in Singapore were built.
Over the course of a hundred and fifty years, Pasir Ris’s place in the Singapore imagination has evolved from quiet kampung to luxury colonial retreat and then finally new town for the masses.
In 2018 when Li Ling and I first moved here, I met a cabby who has lived in Pasir Ris since the 1980s.
“Oh, so you stay in one of those new condos,” he said, sardonically, well after a conversational atmosphere of irreverence had been established. “So why did you move out of Bukit Timah, what do you like about Pasir Ris?”
“It’s so green, it’s so open, there’s so much space!”
“Green? You should have seen it before you people moved here.”
I sometimes spend an afternoon reading my Kindle under a palm tree on the Pasir Ris beach. Occasionally keeping me company are otters. They are usually swimming in the water but once I saw one on the sand, flipping around, doing its thing, oblivious to the world. If weeks pass by without an otter observation, I start to wonder if the kelong owners have hired otter assassins to keep them away.
When I go jogging in the park, I routinely meet wild chickens and wild boars. Once a couple of South Asian workers, presumably at the end of a long workday, approached me near George’s, a beach bar on the park’s west side.
“Sir, this one can catch ah?” one asked, his eyes darting towards a lean free range chicken, his lips pursing to keep the saliva at bay. I thought momentarily about all the game, legal and illegal, that I’ve eaten in roasts and curries from Kerala to the Punjab. Is this karma, my chance to return some Indian hospitality? “No, better not, if somebody sees you, dangerous.”
I’m still unsure if my words saved him some trouble, or denied him a feast.
Pasir Ris is such a bird-watchers’ paradise that I hesitate to write about them, for fear of clichés. I have seen raptors nesting, herons arguing, eagles circling, kingfishers swooping. Hornbills fly back-and-forth between Ubin and the mainland, and routinely hang out on balconies for so long that their lovers spot them from afar and join them for a song. My favourite hornbill story involves me jogging near Ohana Beach House, a beach bar on the park’s east side, while a hornbill flies from palm tree to palm tree right next to me, four feet away, gliding down to my eye level and then up again, as if nonchalantly routing me at interval training.
I’m sure there is some cosmic explanation for the fact that in the very year that Li Ling started working full-time in wildlife conservation, we moved to a neighbourhood so full of wild life.
“As the sun rises, this extraordinary park comes to life,” says Jayaprakash Bojan, a Singaporean who won the National Geographic Nature Photographer Of The Year in 2017, at the start of his breathtaking eleven-minute documentary on Pasir Ris Park.
The beauty of Pasir Ris Park today reflects a mix of ecological determinism and human endeavour. Every time I worry about habitat loss somewhere, I take some comfort in the fact that much of this park is less than thirty-five years old. We can regenerate.
I do not mean to defend the brazen clearing of forests or to assume that every plot of land can magically be resuscitated. To be sure, Pasir Ris Park has thrived because of inherent characteristics: the area’s terroir, including its numerous rivers and signature mangrove forests, from which the Orang Laut of yesteryear apparently harvested wood for boats, housing and charcoal; its closeness to the ocean and Ubin; and finally, perhaps most importantly, the quality that has kept Pasir Ris sparse and quiet, that has kept the humans away from the animals—its location within Singapore.
In a city state that has grown rich because of its location in the world, because of its accessibility, Pasir Ris is its internal antithesis, its least accessible place.
Maybe that’s why I like it.
“I had never planned to live on the Upper West Side, but after a few weeks I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and I began, in my manner, to make a religion out of my neighborhood. This was probably a consequence of my not having any other religion in my life, but never mind.” – Nora Ephron, “Moving on”, The New Yorker, 2006
I have always had a weird fascination with staying at the last stop on the line.
It is not the reason we moved to Pasir Ris. Ling and I were led here by a much more practical consideration: relatively cheap apartments.
But after almost three years of being here, there is something about being at one end of Singapore that still captivates me.
I like plugging in my earphones, closing my eyes and indulging in some digital love, knowing that I’ll never miss my stop. I like telling visitors “Get off at the last station.” I like the fact that everybody who comes here is coming here; nobody is in transit, just passing through.
There are a few exceptions, like army boys on the way to or from Pulau Tekong. And those morning train seat hoarders from Tampines, the ones who go east to Pasir Ris and remain onboard as the train empties and fills up again to go west, the ones whose journeys are so long that they are willing to stomach two extra stops at the start just so they can secure a seat. Nothing delights the stressed Singaporean commuter as much as a hallowed seat on a crowded train. Ho say liao, it’s going to be a good day.
To get downtown (Raffles Place) from Pasir Ris door-to-door by car it takes thirty minutes; and by train forty-five. Few around the world would consider this a crushing commute, but in Singapore it is about double the ideal. We laugh at Singaporeans—myself included—who think nothing of driving an hour to a friend’s home while living in California, but when back in Singapore find a thirty minute drive prohibitively wasteful.
Perhaps it is in keeping with our mai-tu-liao, go-getting, rat-race mentality—cramming the day with appointments and rushing around, never spending any time but only investing it, one of Lee Kuan Yew’s supposed mantras. Another possible reason is that Singaporeans have never had to develop a culture of learning or play on our (short) commutes.
As soon as I got into the habit of reading a book or listening to a podcast or playing a video game—as opposed to checking my damn phone—the Pasir Ris-Raffles Place commute became ritualistic, even meditative, in the same way an air flight alone offers escapism, some time to oneself. The only time I look up is if an older person who boards further down the line needs my seat, which is the birthright of all Pasir Risians.
One of my regular activities when first exploring a global city, as I seek to immerse myself in all its multicultural, around-the-world glory, is to choose a subway line that criss-crosses income and ethnic divides, and just travel its extent, observing the churn of fellow humans. I think of the District Line in London, which I’ve ridden from the Eastside through South Kensington, or Shanghai’s Line 2, which I took regularly from Hongqiao (where a buddy lived) to East Nanjing Road.
My favourite, though, is the 7 train in New York City, which starts in the Hudson Yards on the West Side, passes through Times Square as it cuts east across Manhattan, and ends on Main Street in Flushing, Queens. You enter in the funk of New York and exit in what seems like the Pearl River Delta. Xiao long bao, anyone?
For a variety of reasons, including the fact that Singapore’s approach to multiculturalism precludes the formation of “ethnic ghettos”, riding the Singaporean MRT will never yield such urban diversity. Nevertheless the journey from Raffles Place to Pasir Ris is transformative in its own way.
One enters in a place defined by its Starboys in suits under the midday sun, oversized watches on strangled wrists, and the latest iteration of Issey Miyake’s Bao Bao bags, always one triangle ahead of that Chinese New Year second cousin. When you exit, you will likely see school girls and male nurses in uniform, fishermen and yoga ladies in spandex, and walkers and joggers in what I think is Pasir Ris’s unofficial dress code: athleisure.
In the middle of a Pasir Ris workday I have seen adults playing beach volleyball while teenagers walk a tightrope across palm trees; young lovers balanced precariously on tiny e-scooters, the “motors” of this generation, while a lao pek slaloms around pedestrians on his e-unicycle; and birders in fatigues poised with cameras the size of bazookas while sexagenarians in sneakers trot alongside, trying hard not to scare off the avian targets.
The desperate urgency, the instant crush of Raffles Place gives way to a lackadaisical seaside chill in Pasir Ris, as if the train ride has just been one long exhale.
Life. Slows. Down.
“Where are you from?”
There was a time when this question reflected a genuine attempt to understand ancestry and culture. In this nativist zeitgeist it is no longer clear.
Over the past decade, it has been increasingly asked of me by a range of random Chinese Singaporeans, from less-educated cabbies to more-educated cocks.
When asked by a chauvinist, somebody seeking one more data point for their too-many-Indians-in-Singapore narrative, I sometimes get so annoyed that I proceed to give them a lecture. I tell them about my great-grandfather who migrated from Kerala to Malaya in 1921, about my Indian family that today numbers in the hundreds across Malaysia and Singapore.
And then I question the chauvinist’s own roots, interrogating them, not letting up, often exposing their own wispy connections to motherlands and mothers, their relative lack of belonging. You don’t even keep in touch with your own rellies in SG?
It is as if the genealogical privilege of the birth lottery has given me the right to yaya papaya in the faces of those for whom place, people, provenance is less defined.
The whole exchange makes me feel like shit.
When asked by a non-chauvinist, I sometimes tell the same story, this time eyes wide open, brow unfurrowed, lips breaking in and out of smile.
But recently I’ve started doing something new, saying some version of “Grew up in Balestier, twenties/thirties in Bukit Timah, and now in Pasir Ris.”
My new favourite answer to that age-old question, “Where are you from?”, is Pasir Ris.
Even as we recognise the larger entity, the imagined Singaporean community, we should celebrate the local. I dream of the day when Singaporeans speak about their hoods the way New Yorkers might about Brooklyn or the Bronx. Maybe Malaysia will be our “Upstate” and Yishun—dare I say it?—our “Jersey”.
“It is simply a mountain. I use this mountain as a map for my thoughts. I look at it and look at it, and I begin to imagine my life, my life in my home, my life in this house, my life away from this house. The mountain will persist long after I and my home, the house itself, are no longer here.” – Jamaica Kincaid, “Homemaking”, The New Yorker, 2008
Ling and I got lucky.
We bought our HDB Executive Condo unit off a plan, without realising how nice a view of Pulau Ubin we’d have.
But we are not alone. Many others in Pasir Ris, including the fishermen on the beach and those moving in to the new HDB units now being built near the MRT station, will every day see Pulau Ubin.
One of the inescapable characteristics of being Singaporean is the expectation of change in the surrounding landscape. No garden, no forest, no highway, no beach, no church, no national theatre, no national library, no individual’s house—not even Lee Kuan Yew’s—is sacrosanct. There today, gone tomorrow.
Sometimes this sparks joy and wonder in us, for it reminds us of our city-state’s irrepressible dynamism, our capacity for reinventing ourselves.
But just as often it leads to a sort of melancholy, a realisation that the places of our childhood and the souls that inhabit them will, at the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, be erased forever. Take photos—while you can.
I grew up in the Balestier-Moulmein area in the 1980s-90s. I remember visiting the wet market and the pirated video game dens; playing footie on the field near Tan Tock Seng Hospital and playing footsie in the back stalls of the President Cinema; walking down the strip of KTV bars, neon lights flashing, and walking up Irrawaddy Road, as winding as the river, amid disused, dark old colonial quarters.
All gone. Or changed beyond recognition—the Irrawaddy, for instance, has been straightened.
I feel no longing, no nostomania, when I think of the Balestier-Moulmein area, for it is not the place I once knew.
And perhaps that is what makes me feel most settled here in Pasir Ris, one reason Ling and I will probably never move within Singapore. It is not just the tranquility of the park and the beach and Pulau Ubin across the Johor Strait.
It is that, although the Pasir Ris neighbourhood will evolve, the aesthetics and vibe of those green spaces will likely remain in twenty-five years’ time, when we’re done paying our mortgage; and probably still in ninety-five years’ time, when we’re long dead and the lease for this plot is up. That knowledge feeds a sense of rootedness, of belonging, of home.
The view from our condo’s public balcony is unlikely to change. Every day I will still see the same Pulau Ubin.
With thanks: Ho Li Ling, Yeo Boon Ping, Anon 005
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Companion video to this essay
Pasir Ris is bound by geography. Because we are near two airports, we can’t really go up much more (hence the low-rise buildings). And because we are near Malaysia, on the banks of a vital shipping artery, we can’t really go across much more (limited reclamation). Singapore’s urban planners, with PhDs in 22nd Century geo-engineering, and at whose feet nature regularly bows, have limited scope for play.
Three sunrises, looking towards the South China Sea; two midday shots, looking towards Pulau Ubin; and three sunsets, looking toward Punggol and Pasir Gudang. And below, some shots of Pasir Gudang, including of the occasional double inferno.
But there’s no good food!
Aside from its relative isolation, which bothers some people, the only real downside to Pasir Ris, I think, is that there aren’t many food options. The wet markets are great—with incredible seafood from the nearby kelongs—but, in sharp contrast to most of Singapore, this is not a neighbourhood for dining out. The hipster hawker centre, for instance, is decent, but really a far cry from the nearby Bedok Marketplace.
There is one notable exception whose praises I’ve been singing for the past year: the nasi campur (padang) at Makan Sini, Block 446, Pasir Ris Drive 6, Singapore 510446.
Beef rendang, ayam masak merah (red curry chicken), ayam sambal ijo (green curry chicken), jackfruit curry, stingray curry, sambal goreng, sambal sea hum (cockles) and paru (beef lungs), oh my, one of the loveliest parus I’ve had. Please go there. Even if nothing else I’ve said above makes you feel like making a trek to Pasir Ris, just go for the nasi campur at Makan Sini. Your stomach will thank me.
Note: sweet spot is 9-10am, I’ve found. Go too early, not all the dishes are ready; too late, some are gone.
“Why did you leave your parents’ home? Why didn’t you ask your parents for help to buy a nicer place?”
Many Singaporeans cannot understand why Ling and I would willingly leave my parents’ house in Bukit Timah for an apartment in Pasir Ris, akin to moving from the Upper East Side to the Bronx, plunging from one end of the property ladder to the other, even as so many of our buddies are on an inexorable rise.
In some ways they are uniquely Singaporean questions. My buddies overseas tease me about the fact that it was only at age forty that I really moved into a place of my own.
So with moving out, this is not the only motivation, but it certainly is one: to prove, if only to myself, that it’s possible to forge a career as a freelance writer in Singapore.
I could have forever stayed with my parents, who charged Ling and me a reasonable thousand dollars in monthly rent. Or I could have taken a lump sum from them for a downpayment to help me speculate on property—they offered, bless their souls—as many upper-middle-income kids in Singapore do.
But then many would have seen me as just another privileged kid dabbling in the arts off the largesse of the family estate. As it is, being financially independent since my first job gives me a teeny weeny bit of street cred when I push back on those ignorant parents who tell their kids to stay away from the arts.
That is not to sound like a moralising sadhu. Of course there’s nothing necessarily wrong with relying on rich benefactors to create art; throughout history many have. And on whether home ownership in Singapore is wise—who knows? Maybe it’s better to rent, invest your money elsewhere.
All I’m saying is that for me, at this point of my career, living in this country, moving out has, in ways I might never fully understand, boosted my self-confidence in terms of my craft, whether it’s in my interactions with others—especially students thinking about a career in writing—or my willingness to experiment, be it on paper or on video. Pasir Ris is not only affordable enough but also, in its greenery and calm, so very conducive to thinking and writing.
No doubt, it certainly took some adjustment. After thirteen years of living back at home with mummy and papa and their wonderful helpers, I had gotten used to many comforts. In some ways then, living in Pasir Ris has taken me back to my university days in the US: washing my own clothes, mopping the floor, cutting onions and doing all the other food prep. One more time.
The first piece that I conceptualised and wrote in Pasir Ris was my obituary to Anthony Bourdain. It has proved a weirdly poetic choice.
When buddies Tanya, Mela and I met “Tony” in 2017 as part of a conversation for his show Parts Unknown: Singapore, he had really taken the piss out of us three spoiled Singaporeans for the fact that, among other things, we didn’t wash our own clothes (since our helpers did).
Well, if Tony is watching from somewhere, once he gets over the “Sudhir who?”, I think he might smile to know that I wrote his tribute in Pasir Ris, the place that has given me back some independence.
More photos of, and about, the Pasir Ris Hotel