The Ramblings of an Emigrant


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September 27th 2022
Published: September 28th 2022
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Ramblings in Abandoned QuarriesRamblings in Abandoned QuarriesRamblings in Abandoned Quarries

This abandoned quarry is a 20 minute hike from my parents' condo. It features
In general, I return to Singapore at least once every year. This time round, I scheduled a longer than usual stay anticipating that I may need to take care of certain family logistics, but it turned out we did not need to put these plans in place yet. But, this left me with a fair bit of time on my hands. Even after I cut short my stay by four days to make a trip up to Angkor Wat, I still needed to find ways to occupy myself. Because I grew up in Singapore, there isn't much that I haven't already seen and done. So, I assigned myself a small project: I would seek out sites from Atlas Obscura, and blog about them.

Singapore currently has 57 entries in the Atlas Obscura. Because the listings are user-created, some of them are actually pretty mainstream (Gardens by the Bay... really?), so they should be treated with a grain of salt. Prior to this trip, I had been to about a dozen of the sites. I resolved to add a couple more during this trip. I also resolved to use public transport as much as I could to visit these sites.

Ramblings in Abandoned Quarries


Ramblings in Abandoned QuarriesRamblings in Abandoned QuarriesRamblings in Abandoned Quarries

Macaques are a common sight in the nature reserve.


My parents' condo is located next to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. When I visit, I often walk over to conquer Singapore's highest summit - all 163 meters of it LOL. The nature reserve itself doesn't have any entries in Atlas Obscura. There are, however, at least five abandoned granite quarries in the vicinity, and one of them - Little Guilin - has an entry. Back in the day (I am guessing 1970s), some earnest but overenthusiastic person thought the abandoned quarry with its lake resembled a miniaturized version of the famous karst landscape of Guilin in China, and so the site was named as such. Of course, somebody should have told this person that granite looks very different from limestone. Nevertheless, the name stuck.

I have visited Little Guilin in the past. This trip, I drove past the site while running an errand for my parents, but I didn't stop there. I did, however, visit a couple of the other old quarries. Rainwater has filled in four of the five quarries, making scenic little lakes that are a haven for birdlife. Some misguided people have released ornamental fish and reptiles into the lakes, so it isn't unusual to see
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics

A sample of the bricks that make up the Prisoner of War Steps within the Singapore Botanic Garden. The arrows the the POWs etched into the steps are clearly visible here.
koi and little terrapins swimming around. I also have a bit of a running gag with Jeff when I visit the quarries - a few years back, there was a bad scifi movie called Snakehead Terror. The snakehead fish are actually from Southeast Asia. I will look out for the fish in the lake, snap a photo of them, and send them to Jeff with silly captions. While on one of my jaunts in the area, I saw evidence of a recent landslide, and I smiled inwardly thinking of my Geomorphology professor who was obsessed with landslides. One can also spot monkeys, monitor lizards, and red jungle fowl. I do enjoy my walks to these little known beauty spots.

Ramblings in Search of World War II Relics




One Atlas Obscura site that has intrigued me for some time is the Prisoner of War Steps. Nestled within the UNESCO-listed Singapore Botanic Gardens, this is a short and slightly uneven flight of steps made of bricks. For decades, people were largely unaware of the historical significance of the bricks until some former Australian prisoners of war visited the gardens and recognized the bricks as ones they made because they etched arrows in them
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics

This is Dendrobium Joe and Jill Biden, which was named for them when they visited in 2013.
as an act of defiance.

Once fine afternoon, I made my way to the Botanic Gardens after a heavy downpour. I took the opportunity to enjoy the beautifully curated gardens, and I especially enjoyed the National Orchid Garden. Singapore is a major exporter of orchids, and a lot of research and development is invested into developing new hybrids. One of the more unique pillars of Singaporean diplomacy is to name orchids after visiting dignitaries. I was stoked to find blooms dedicated to the Bidens and the Obamas, but then I found a plant named after the Pences. Ugh. Rather fittingly, it wasn't blooming. I was relieved to not see a Trump orchid; maybe they couldn't find a flower with enough gold. Regardless, I cannot imagine a thing of beauty representing someone as damaged as him. I searched in vain for the orchid named after Queen Elizabeth, but it was not on display.

The Prisoner of War Steps were at the far end of the gardens. I found them with little difficulty. True enough, there were arrows etched into some of the bricks. I took some photos, reflected on the human toll of war, and made my way out.
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics

This flight of stairs is located on the hill behind my parents' condo. One of the fiercest battles in the defense of Singapore in 1942 was fought here. At this site, the Japanese forced Australian POWs to build a shrine to house cremated remains of Japanese troops. They also allowed the Australians to build their own memorial here. All that is left is a plaque on the steps to commemorate this site.
This was my first time in the newly-expanded Botanic Gardens since I was a teenager, and I really enjoyed reconnecting with this landmark.

Apart from the Prisoner of War Steps, I also sought out two significant World War II sights situated near my parents' condo. One site is located on Bukit Batok Hill directly behind their condo. On that hill, the Japanese housed the cremated remains of their fallen soldiers; ironically, this memorial was built by Australian POWs. In what must have been a display of humanity, the Japanese allowed the Australians to erect a memorial of their own - a cross. Both these memorials are long gone, and a memorial plaque is all that is left to remind us of these two sites.

Also close to my parent's condo is the former Ford Factory. The Allied Forces surrendered to the Japanese at this site. It is now a very informative but under the radar museum with exhibits detailing the battle for Singapore, and information about life in Japanese occupied Singapore. I did not visit this museum during this trip, but I have spent some very worthwhile hours exploring the museum during prior visits. Karen Johnson - if
Ramblings in the Civic DistrictRamblings in the Civic DistrictRamblings in the Civic District

Boat Quay. I used to compete in dragonboat races here when I was in university. More recently, I have been coming here to visit the now-closed cat cafe.
you are reading this, I think this museum would be right up your alley.

For my other war-related explorations in Singapore, look up this blog entry.

Ramblings in the Civic District




I spent an afternoon tracking down a number of sites in the civic district downtown. My first stop was Fort Canning Hill, which I haven't been to since I was a teenager. The site I was specifically looking for was Keramat Iskandar Shah, believed to be the grave of a pre-colonial king from the 14th century. I also took the opportunity to explore the area, including some old fortifications and cannons. I was surprised to find an archaeological excavation site in the park, with information about pre-colonial Singapore. When I was in school, our history lessons glossed over what was in place before Sir Stamford Raffles "founded" Singapore. The traditional western-focused narrative was that Singapore was a sleepy fishing village, and that the British transformed it into a thriving port. It was only in recent years that a different narrative has come to light - that Singapore was already a flourishing trading post centuries before the British arrived, and that they built Singapore upon that foundation.

After exploring Fort
Ramblings in the Civic DistrictRamblings in the Civic DistrictRamblings in the Civic District

The elephant statue King Chulalongkorn gifted to Singapore in 1871.
Canning, I walked downhill into the heart of the civic district. The first site I hit was the former Singapore Philatelic Museum, which was in the process of being converted into a museum for children. I then visited the former Hill Street Police Station with its colorful shutters. From there, I walked along the Singapore River to the site where I used to compete in dragonboat races while in university. I also walked past the former site of Singapore's first cat cafe. On past trips, I spent many happy hours there hanging out with the cats. The owners of the cafe truly did love their cats and they did much to advocate for animal welfare. Earlier this year, they decided to close the shop as the cats were getting old.

I hit three sights in the quay area. The first was an elephant statue which King Chulalongkorn of Thailand gave to Singapore when he visited in 1871. The second was a sculpture of kids jumping into the Singapore River. My final stop was the Merlion, which is a pretty mainstream tourist attraction. As I walked around, I saw that the area had been closed off to traffic and infrastructure was being put in place for the upcoming F1 Grand Prix.



Ramblings in Coastal WetlandsRamblings in Coastal WetlandsRamblings in Coastal Wetlands

There were several monitor lizards nonchalantly hanging out on the path,


Ramblings in Coastal Wetlands



I spent one afternoon at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve located a short distance west of the northernmost tip of Singapore. Taking the bus north one Sunday, I noted with interest that the bus filled up with workers from the Indian Subcontinent. Singapore companies employ a large pool of foreign workers, and many of them are housed in dormitories in remote parts of the island. This being a Sunday, I assume they were returning from their activities during their day off. Indeed, as I got closer to my destination, I encountered more evidence that there were dorms nearby as I saw groups of men hanging out in public spaces, and I even witnessed a cricket match. But, I could not identify which buildings were dorms. The living conditions in these dorms attracted international attention in the early days of Covid when the virus swept through that population and they were confined to those dorms for weeks on end.

Sungei Buloh is a coastal wetland known for attracting migratory birds. Back in university, this was an overnight stop during our round island kayaking expeditions, which generally took three days. Back then, the coastal boardwalks did not exist;
Ramblings on Offshore IslandsRamblings on Offshore IslandsRamblings on Offshore Islands

These boats ply between Changi jetty and Pulau Ubin. They also go to Pangerang in Malaysia.
we simply dragged ourselves up from the shoreline, ate some food, and went to sleep on a concrete deck. We were always awakened well before dawn by a loud cacophony of bird sounds. This time round, I walked along the paths through the mangrove swamps. I had intended to explore this site in the morning when the birds are more active, but a heavy downpour spoiled my plans. In the afternoon, it was mostly egrets and herons that were visible. I also saw a crocodile, a squirrel, and several monitor lizards.

Ramblings on Offshore Islands



When I told some of my Junior College (equivalent to high school or college prep school) classmates about my plans to explore obscure sights, one site that they immediately latched on to was the German Girl Shrine. I have long been fascinated by this site, but because it is located on Pulau Ubin, an island off the northeastern tip of Singapore, I never could garner the motivation to make the trek there. Now, with my three classmates in tow, I got the kick I needed to make this pilgrimage. Of my three classmates who accompanied me, I have been in continuous contact with one, sporadic contact with another, and the third I have not seen since we were teenagers. It is a testament to our bond of friendship that we simply picked up where we left off.

The German girl in question lived before World War I on a plantation on Pulau Ubin belonging to her parents. As war was about to break out, the British started rounding up Germans. The girl fell to her death escaping the British, and the plantation workers buried her at the site of the shrine. Rather inexplicably, local gamblers started coming to the shrine to pray for good luck. They would leave feminine offerings, such as nail polish or dolls, at the shrine.

One overcast morning, the four of us met at the Tampines East MRT station and we made our way towards the ferry terminal at Changi Point. When I was a teenager, we simply walked onto the jetty and onto a waiting boat. Now, there is a fancy terminal and waiting areas for the next boat. On our return, we were surprised to be directed to a metal detector and x-ray machine for our bags.

The boat ride to Pulau Ubin took about ten minutes.
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The shrine at the German Girl Shrine. Note the European-looking statue with a tiara, flanked by two cherubs. On the foreground are offerings of nail polish. Photo credit: J. Lim
Once on the island, we set off west for our 2.5km walk in search of the German Girl Shrine. En route, we stopped at several other temples and shrines, and also at a number of scenic spots. The most interesting of our diversions was to a shrine that appeared to be Chinese on the outside, but when we stepped in we saw statues that looked Malay, along with Malay paraphernalia. A google search revealed that the deity at this shrine is Datuk Gong, an earth deity that takes different forms and has devotees of different ethnicities and faiths.

After about an hour of walking, we reached the German Girl Shrine. Two of my classmates brought nail polish and left them there. I noted that the signage at the shrine was in English, Chinese, Malay, and German. At the shrine itself, I saw a couple of statues, a Christmas wreath, some beverage bottles that I could not identify, and dolls. Sadly, there was a lot of trash next to the shrine, and there were monkeys and a wild pig foraging in the trash. One of my friends had a pink handbag that was the same color as some of the
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A friendly drinks stand where we took a welcome break.
plastic bags in the trash. One monkey made a beeline for her bag and tried to snatch it. I had to stand between her and the monkey.

After visiting the shrine, we made our way back to the main village. A friendly dog followed us for a while. Along the way, we stopped for fresh coconuts at a very friendly drink stand located next to a mangrove swamp. Interestingly, at the stand, we saw a photo of another classmate among a bunch of photos displayed on a wall. As we neared the main village, we encountered a strange sight - there were several dozen people from Mainland China dressed in all white. They would take three steps, clasp their hands together, and get onto their knees, and bow. We couldn't figure out what they were doing. The islanders we asked said they hadn't encountered this before.

At the main village, we ate a good seafood meal at a very friendly restaurant. Two friendly village dogs came by to hang out with us. I was struck by the kampung (village) spirit of everyone in the area. The main island of Singapore is far less friendly and laid back.
Ramblings on Offshore IslandsRamblings on Offshore IslandsRamblings on Offshore Islands

The Chinese pilgrims as they entered the main village. They took three steps, clasped their hands, got down on their knees, bowed, and repeated the process over and over. Judging from their accents, the devotees were from Mainland China. Part of me wondered if this was something similar to Falungong, and if they were banned from partaking of this practice in China. None of the local villagers we asked could tell us who they were or what they were doing.

After lunch, we hired a van to take us to another site - the Chek Jawa wetlands on the southeastern end of the island. Back in school when I was on the kayaking team, I noted that the water in this area was full of sea grass, and I wondered what lay beneath. It was only in the early 2000s that the biodiversity of the area became more widely known, and efforts began in earnest to preserve the area. We started out exploring the visitor center, which is housed in a restored Tudor-style house that once belonged to a British family. When I was a teenager, I encountered this house in its dilapidated state. After that, we walked out onto the coastal boardwalk. We saw a family of pigs foraging along the shore, and some monitor lizards. After the coastal boardwalk, we joined a second boardwalk through mangrove. The highlight of this area was a viewing tower that gave us a panoramic view of the wetlands, and Pulau Tekong and the Malaysian state of Johor in the distance. During my military service, I did my basic training in Pulau Tekong and I gave an involuntary little shudder when I saw
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My classmates and I. Our A-level subject combination was English Literature, Geography, and Economics. There was a gender imbalance for subject combinations like ours. Two of the women have spent a substantial amount of time overseas, and they are both on career breaks similar to the one I took in 2017. It is a testament to the strength of our bond that we can simply pick up where we left off after all these years. Photo credit: HY Kok.
the island.

After the wetlands, we made our way back to the jetty and back to Singapore Island. As our boat pulled into the terminal, we spotted another Atlas Obscura site - a large hand shaped sculpture called The Inscription of the Island. Incidentally, one of our Geography fields trips when we were teenagers brought us to that same site, but that was long before the sculpture was installed.

Rambling… Just Rambling



Like most emigrants, my relationship with my country of birth is best described as complicated. The pace at which the physical landscape changes makes it challenging to stay connected with Singapore. The one constant has been family and friends.

On past visits, I have been bored because I ran out of new things to see and do. I wish I had thought of seeking out random Atlas Obscura sites years ago. This has been a positive exercise in helping me reconnect with Singapore at a deeper level, and I intend to keep doing this for my future trips.


Additional photos below
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Ramblings in Abandoned QuarriesRamblings in Abandoned Quarries
Ramblings in Abandoned Quarries

Another shot of the quarry, looking up to Singapore's tallest summit - a mere pimple at 163 meters.
Ramblings in Abandoned QuarriesRamblings in Abandoned Quarries
Ramblings in Abandoned Quarries

It looks like a chicken, it crows like a chicken, but is it a chicken? No, this is a Red Jungle Fowl.
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics
Ramblings in Search of World War II Relics

This is Dendrobium Barack and Michelle Obama, which was named for them during a state visit in 2016. Rather fittingly, one of the parent orchids used for this hybrid is a Hawaiian orchid.
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics
Ramblings in Search of World War II Relics

Random photos from my wanderings within the Singapore Botanic Gardens as I sought out the Prisoner of War Steps.
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics
Ramblings in Search of World War II Relics

Random photos from my wanderings within the Singapore Botanic Gardens as I sought out the Prisoner of War Steps.
Ramblings in Search of World War II RelicsRamblings in Search of World War II Relics
Ramblings in Search of World War II Relics

Random photos from my wanderings within the Singapore Botanic Gardens as I sought out the Prisoner of War Steps.


28th September 2022

Back in Singapore
Happy to see you are writing again; travel has been curtailed for far too long. I will visit the Ford Factory, for some reason I thought it was on Sentosa Island, and I haven't gone to Sentosa since it was taken over by a theme park.
28th September 2022

Sentosa
I’m with you on the Disneyfication of Sentosa. It was once a pleasant little island to explore, even if it has a dark history. “Sentosa” itself is a marketing ploy; the original name of the island was Palau Blakang Mati, or the Island With Death Behind It. It also once housed a longtime political prisoner who was held without trial for decades and confined to the island. I do plan to visit the island on my next trip, though, as it has an entry in Atlas Obscura.
29th September 2022

Back home
I love blogs written by people returning to a location they know well and all the interesting things that find. Thanks for taking us along.
29th September 2022

Navigating Different Worlds
Thanks for your kind words. As an immigrant, it has certainly been a learning experience trying to manage multiple identities - it is in equal part exhilarating, confusing, and alienating. I think I am finally getting the hang of it!
8th October 2022

With new eyes...
I love that you found a new way to experience a place so well known to you. I remember reading a friend writing about the German Girl Shrine, and I think he wrote that there were bottles of perfume… I just googled it and the suggestion is that they are bottles of Florida Water (which I’ve never heard of – apparently a close cousin of eau de cologne popular back then). The last time we were at the Botanical Gardens (in 2012), people were lining up to take a photo with the Princess Diana orchid! :)
8th October 2022

New Perspectives
Thanks Ren! Atlas Obscura has been a godsend. I really wish I’d thought about this years ago. I love that you, too, have somehow heard of the German Girl Shrine. Thanks for helping me figure out it was Florida Water.
30th October 2022

Singapore
What a lovely read, Siewch. I enjoyed reading about your reconnections to your childhood home, and also being able to explore on a deeper level. I shall look into the Atlas Obscura, it sounds very interesting. I imagine that with its fast pace of change, Singapore is continually different each time you return. I hope to also return some day. I remember visiting Pulau Ubin, and although we saw many signs for the German Girl Shrine, I don't recall that we actually found it! You've given me a few ideas for what to visit should I return to Singapore at some point, thank you for this 😊
30th October 2022

Reconnecting
Wow, you’re the second commenter who knows about the German Girl Shrine - it certainly encapsulates the best of Singapore: multiracial identities converging over time. Atlas Obscura was a godsend. I will likely use Atlas Obscura for my future layovers in Tokyo. After three visits and nine long layovers, I’m running out of sights to explore there!

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