Sunday, October 06, 2013

Memories of Upper Changi Road and Changi Grammar School

Wittering Airbase, UK
In June this year, I brought my family to the UK for a holiday. I took the opportunity to visit my friends Brian Mitchell in Cambridge and John Harper in York. Enroute from Cambridge to York, we drove past the RAF airbase at Wittering. The sight of a fighter jet – I think it was a Harrier Jump Jet – at the entrance brought back some memories of the Changi that I used to know as a boy; especially the RAF Airbase at old Upper Changi Road.

Memory No. 1 – No Highway

Wittering Rd in Changi
When I was in Secondary 4, we had to study the book No Highway by Nevil Shute for our Senior Cambridge (equivalent of today’s O-Level) English Literature paper. The year was 1968. The name Farnborough was frequently mentioned in the book and I was rather curious as to why we had a road in Changi with the same name. I only found out years later that the roads in the Changi Airbase vicinity were all named after famous RAF airbases in the UK. Naturally, there was also a Wittering Road in Changi.

Memory No. 2 – Old Upper Changi Road

My memories of this part of Singapore are documented in my book Good Morning Yesterday. Here’s an excerpt from pages 147 and 148.

“The occasional trip to Changi Beach was always a great delight for us. From our home in Lorong Chuan, we used to travel to Changi via Upper Serangoon Road and Tampines Road. The sight of the solemn grey walls of the Changi Prison which greeted us as we came to the end of Tampines Road meant that we were nearing our destination. After that it was a straight stretch of road along Tanah Merah Besar which ran along the perimeter of the prison followed by a left turn into the coastal road called Nicoll Drive before arriving at Changi Point. My own favourite activity at Changi Beach was rowing the rented wooden sampans for an hour or two.

An alternative route that we took to get to Changi Beach was via Upper Changi Road. Until just a few years ago, this road led right up to Changi Village. We liked this route because we could see the combat aircrafts sitting at what I now know was called the Dispersal Area of the British Royal Air Force.”

Unfortunately, in recent years that stretch of the road had been closed to the public. Hence, it was a great disappointment that I could not bring John Harper and other UK friends to this part of Singapore which they so fondly remember.
Final stretch of Upp Changi Rd closed to the public

Visit to Changi Airbase (West)

A few weeks ago, I received a pleasant surprise in my inbox. It was an invitation from the MINDEF NS Policy Department to visit old SAF military camps; one of them being the Changi Airbase. Thus it was that on Saturday, 14th of September, a group of bloggers boarded a coach at Spore Expo MRT Station which brought us to, first, Selarang Camp, home to SAF’s 9th Division, and then to Changi Airbase (West). I learnt that this visit was mainly extended to bloggers who had ‘done time’ at these camps and could share their memories of these places with future generations of NSmen. I am not sure why they included me in this privileged group because my NS days were spent in Safti, Gillman and Mandai and not these two places. Could it be that it was because I was such a famous blogger and that many people have read my posts about my ‘army daze’?

 Anyway, the highlight of the visit for me was the visit to the stretch of Upper Changi Road I mentioned above. Our guide, RSM Yip, told us that this stretch of road used to be a popular lover’s haunt after Changi Airport was built.

 By the way, would you like to know what this piece of land on which the Changi Airport was built looked like in 1978? If you do, then please check out my post about the SAF Day 1978 here.

SAF Display 1978 on reclaimed land for Changi Airport

 Former Changi Grammar School

Another highlight of my visit to Changi Airbase was to the blocks that once housed the Changi Grammar School. This was because my friend Brian Mitchell used to study here. Like John Harper, he too was disappointed during his visit to Singapore in 2009. When I brought him here, we could only view the buildings from outside the camp along Loyang Way. And we did not even dare to take any photos because of the warning signs on the fence prohibiting photo-taking. Anyway, I shared some of the photos with Brian and this is what he commented:

The area is obviously a bit smarter than in the 60s and the old attap huts are removed; but it’s all very recognisable. These blocks obviously go back to the 1950s and must rate as very old buildings in Singapore! I was surprised in a way to see that they survive in much their original form with the open corridors around the outside. I assume the rooms within are now closed in and air-conditioned, but of course, when they were used as barracks or then as a school building, our classrooms had large open doorways into the classrooms - this was after all the only source of light. There were very few air conditioned places in our lives in the 1960s.

The large tarmac area was where all the gharries or schools buses delivered us in the fairly early morning - so if I was on a bus that arrived early I would be looking up at the block and wondering if anyone had got to the coke machine on the ground floor - the cokes were often frozen first thing in the morning and were for some reason particularly prized. At the end of the school day, the gharries would draw up in lines in the tarmac area (actually a playground) and we would all board them. The end of the school day was for most days at lunchtime - the heat and humidity led to a different pattern of schooling from the UK.

When I was there, this area held the Grammar School (using two of the blocks - I think there was a third that was still a barrack block for airmen) and then around the tarmac area the Secondary Modern School and the Primary School - I think this is right although we hardly noticed the presence of these other schools. Then shortly after I left in August 1962, the Grammar School moved to the site on Upper Changi Road. This is the site remembered by many of the UK and then Australian and NZ kids from the 60s.


I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to these two old military establishments and seeing places that I knew about from decades ago; and which I thought I would never have the chance to see again. I thank Ms Stephanie Chia and her colleagues at the MINDEF NS Policy Dept for arranging the visits. Thanks also to the staff at these two places for their warm hospitality and presentations; and also staff from MINDEF Centre of Heritage Services. I look forward to future visits. The one place that I would really love to visit is the former Mandai Camp where I spent the last ten last months of active National Service.

Related posts

1) ArmyHeritage Tour by James Tann


Brian and Tess said...

I love that old photo of the grammar school with the attap huts just visible to the left of the photo. My first classroom when I arrived in early 1960 was in those attap huts. I had come from a very large and very modern secondary school in south London to an attap hut with chicken wire for windows - what a culture shock!

TheSounDOne said...

Had enjoyed reading this post. Missed the stretch of Changi Road that is now closed to public. That's where I would bring my then young son to view aeroplanes taking off and landing.

More importantly, is knowing that SAF is making an effort in preserving their very own & their British ancestry heritage.

peter said...

Further to what CS has mentioned about the naming of roads in RAF Changi, I have looked up a 1933 map signed off (dated May 5, 1933) by a certain Dobson Chief Engineer of Malaya showing the old names before the RAF names took effect.

For example;

Quarry Road = Cranwell Road
Barrack Hill Road = Hendon Road
New Road = Netheravon Road
Fairy Point Road = Cranwell Road towards Andover Road
Battery Hill = Biggin Hill

Judith Johnson said...

It's so great to communicate with people who actually understand and remember things like attap huts with chicken wire windows! My memory of Changi Grammar school pupils was that we were a pretty undisciplined lot at times. I distinctly remember making paper 'water bombs' and filling them with the chocolate or strawberry milk that we had at breaktime and lobbing them over the top floor balcony onto unsuspecting targets below! And who else recalls the favourite playtime pastime of monsoon drain running - as fast as you could from side to side along the one which separated the main block from the playground/garri park? (At the bottom of the green bank running across the centre of the photo with the two large trees. The sports field was off to the left - hockey in the midday sun was quite a challenge to a newly arrived girl from England!) The extra jutting out portion without windows on the two classroom blocks I believe were the toilet/showers. As the classrooms were open to the corridors and the toilets gave off from the corridors opposite the classes, our lessons had the constant background sound of the regular, automatic flush of the mens' urinals! Oh and the frozen Coke bottles from which the first inch of ice slowly oozed upwards as the metal cap was prized off - I think that experience was why they were prized and the fact that they stayed cold for so much longer, even though they didn't taste so good.
So sorry, like John and Brian to have been unable to see the old school at first hand, but very grateful to know the buildings are still almost unchanged and that the memories I have held in mind for over 50 years are so accurate in their detail.

Mary Taylor (was Arrowsmith) said...

Thank you, I'm so pleased to find this picture of the old Changi grammar school. I started there in 1962, just before the move to the new, luxury building with air conditioning. I was just 12 then so very junior and my memories are hazy but I remember the water bombs too, and the powdery flavoured milk. Also we used to go to a cafe in the village for lunch, beans on toast and a coke float.

And who can forget the 6 monthly cholera vaccinations and trying not to get hit on the sore arm. And hockey in that heat.

I was trying to describe the building to my grandchildren, they struggled with the concept of a school with no doors or windows!

Regards to all who passed through the doors, or rather the openings.