Ghost-town roads

The Japanese cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue, which dates back to the late 19th century.

SINGAPORE - When I was a boy, if prata was on the dinner menu, there was only one place to go - Jalan Kayu.

The ramshackle lane in the north-east in Yio Chu Kang has long been a favourite with Singaporeans as the place to eat roti prata, after roadside eateries sprang up there when the British built the Seletar airbase in the 1920s.

But for me two decades ago, the lane existed in my imagination as a solitary place secreted away, found only in the deep of night.

Delirious with expectation, we would pile into the family car at night and head off. The road name would flash by as we exited the Tampines Expressway, conjuring up images of greasy delights in what felt like a "cowboy town" far away.

Even today, Jalan Kayu, and indeed Yio Chu Kang, retains this aura of remoteness. The area remains elusive to me and perhaps to many more Singaporeans.

Ask people to point out Yio Chu Kang on a map, and I wonder how many can. Its namesake road meanders from Upper Serangoon Road to Upper Thomson Road, sandwiched between Ang Mo Kio and Hougang.

At 9.4km, it is perhaps the country's longest road (if you consider Bukit Timah and Upper Bukit Timah roads as separate entities). But it has no eponymous mall. No "hub". Its MRT station delivers you into a maze of nondescript Ang Mo Kio avenues.

Chances are, you drive down Yio Chu Kang Road and chart your position by the new towns that cloister it. But trail off either side and at last the elusive suburb begins to emerge, the one that only its denizens tend to know. Even if, as I discover, they too struggle to articulate their geographical bearings.

Across the road from Serangoon Gardens, ringed by crammed suburbia, is a Japanese cemetery that has been there since the late 19th century.

It is the final resting place for early Japanese, including prostitutes, who made Singapore their home, as well as war dead from World War II.

A prayer hall takes pride of place, and bougainvillea trellis corridors and an old lychee tree have drawn residents seeking rest alongside the dearly departed. Students turn it into a study spot. Others simply nap under the hall's gently curved eaves.

I come across local resident Chester Tan as he walks home. The 20-year-old remembers running around the tombstones as a child with his cousins on the Mid-Autumn Festival night, lanterns and sparklers aglow.

Where does he tell people he lives, I ask. "Serangoon." He shrugs. "They wouldn't know if I said Yio Chu Kang. The road is just one whole stretch, it doesn't seem like a place."

Today, he is not headed to the cemetery but a nearby exercise area. "There's nothing to do there. Just look at things." His friends, he says, think likewise.

Other residents feel the same way about Yio Chu Kang as a whole, where the nearest mall can seem an endless bus ride away.

But others, with years behind them and memories of a gentler time, love precisely that dearth of "purpose" they find here.

When Madam Jamie Pang and her husband opened Seletar Hill Restaurant at Jalan Selaseh in 1991, she thought the area so ulu (Malay for remote) that she replaced its glass doors with wooden panels so she wouldn't have to stare out at its "ghost-town" roads all day.

More than two decades later, it is its very "ulu-ness" that keeps her here, especially as her family lives in hectic Ang Mo Kio Central.

"We spend more time here than at home," she says. Her favourite drive from home takes a detour down the Thomson end of Yio Chu Kang Road. "It's just trees all the way," she says.

I know what she's talking about. One mesmerising stretch of road, just beyond the right turn to Jalan Kayu, opens up into a majestic boulevard. Giant Khaya trees with trunks the width of small cars line the central divider.

In our greener-than-green "City in a Garden", we sometimes fail to see the trees for the forest. Here, you cannot but notice them, dwarfing all of modernity beneath them.

At Jalan Selaseh late on one rare chilly evening, a chatty grandma tells me how, back in the old days, British airmen from the nearby airbase would gather for drinks at the now long-gone Chusan bar. They would stock up at the provision store her late husband ran.

Today, while the Brits have gone, a provision store remains on the lane. Regulars down pints at The Lazy Lizard next door.

Little, it seems, has changed, even as it has. But as with elsewhere in Singapore, changes are evident and everywhere.

No one but the residents might remember, but where the spanking new Greenwich Village condo-mall hub now stands, there used to be a beloved wet market and food centre.

All the old-timers I speak to detest the new pretender, which smugly masquerades as the "village" store it unceremoniously replaced (across the road, an upcoming condo swankily touts itself as The Topiary).

But none question it, and all dutifully eat at its cookie-cutter, over-priced food court, and find newer, yet already familiar comforts in Gong Cha, Toast Box and Awfully Chocolate.

"It's possible that in 50 years, all this greenery and ulu-ness may be gone," says retiree Lee Boon Kee, who lives on a quiet cul-de-sac near Upper Thomson.

I can still see the old kampung road, now overgrown, skirting the adjacent forest. Rambutan and durian trees still stand where the kampung used to be. And residents, he says, still venture into the forest from time to time to harvest fruit.

A cement-mixer roars past, heading to a nearby construction site.

The nearby former clubhouse of the Singapore Teachers' Union is being re-developed into a condo, he says. His next-door neighbour is doing much the same, adding extra floors to tower over the modest terrace houses.

As storm clouds gather, I make haste to a cafe I frequent. It is one of my favourite places in the area, I realise as I walk, along with the Japanese cemetery park and the Seletar Hills estate with its wide boulevards. Except that the cafe probably technically lies in Thomson, while the cemetery, according to Chester, is in Serangoon. And Seletar Hills estate, well.

Where does all this leave Yio Chu Kang? For a district boasting a road so long, it remains a nebulous one but refreshingly so.

In order-obsessed Singapore, where most things have their exact place and purpose, it is telling when a place appears not to be that, and not to matter.

Jalan Kayu, when I think of it now, is located just where it is.

No one really needs to know exactly where Yio Chu Kang is. But go there and you'll discover it.

Just don't expect to find much to do, which is much the point of the place.

davidee@sph.com.sg


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