Go with a smile!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

East Coast Park

There is something special about a beach.

I probably wouldn't be kidding if I were to say that East Coast Park during the 80s was one of the most special beaches of all. Of course everybody thinks their beach is special. But it was what I associated with a real beach when I was growing up. It was basically an Eden back then, because before the 80s, it didn't exist. It was reclaimed from the sea. The whole strip from East Coast Road all the way to the shoreline did not exist for most of Singapore's history. And it was finished when I was a kid, just in time for me to have a glimpse of what it was like.

Perhaps that place held a little mystery for me because I only went there a relative handful of times. Only during the June holidays. I still remember there was a huge mall by the sea, Parkway Parade. Maybe it was the first suburban mall, we didn't have malls in public housing estates during that time. We had some of those old quasi-shophouses like Bras Basah Complex and Peoples' Park. There was something mysterious about the idea that you had to travel a long way (I was living in Toa Payoh at that time) just to get to another place. Actually Toa Payoh to East Coast is not terribly far, but it seemed far, especially when it was more than 10 stops before the Circle Line opened.

Somehow It was just supposed to be really fun playing in the sand, I don't know why. But people just thought that having a barbeque and playing in the sand and riding the bike up and down that long path was supposed to be the summit of your existence. What was really special about that beach was that it faced one of the most crowded sea-lanes in the world. It was basically like the great armada you see in the movie Troy, EVERY SINGLE DAY. You don't ever expect the waves to stop crashing on the shore. And at the same time, you don't ever expect to look south from East Coast Park and not see a ship on the horizon. That hasn't happened since 1819 and when it does happen, you know it's the end of the world, most probably it's also going to be snowing at that point in time.

Another thing special about that place is the presence of public housing estates next to the beach. It's a little unusual to have HDB blocks just a street away from the beach, but it's happened. But maybe all of these things will be en-bloced so that rich spoilt brats can take their rightful place there.

There is something – and I hope that nobody's really going to accuse me of racism here – there is something very Malay about that part of Singapore. This is the Malay part of Singapore, or in Joo Chiat and Siglap – it's a very Peranakan part of Singapore. There's something very Malay about a coastal village, about a tropical breeze by the sea, not to mention the scent of Satay and sambal stingray in the air.

My first long distance accomplishment also took place there. I rented a bicycle with my father, and when I was 8, I was interested in all the milestones. We probably cycled all the way to Tanjong Rhu and back. To cycle 8 kilometers was pretty unreal for an 8 year old. Maybe that's when we realised that I was built for long distance travel.

I found an old picture of me riding the small bike, and it was an extremely eerie picture, because in the background, there was a company of soldiers doing their route march. Perhaps my parents took it because they were aware of its significance. One day, I would be in the boots of those soldiers. It was an eerie specter of the future.

Late that year, I went to Perth, and my father met up with a friend, and we had a picnic at a beach there. It was a very different kind of beach, and very quiet, the air was dry. It seemed like some sort of paradise to me.

One of my favourite years was sec 3. I still remember the last time I ever lost my wallet was during that year, but I only lost a schoolboy's pocket money, so no big deal there. I was taking a bus to East Coast. Maybe my uniformed group had one or two activities there around that time. There was a 10km hike – complete with a full pack, from RGS, which was in River Valley at that time, to East Coast Park. I don't know why, but there was something romantic about the night for me. Maybe that was when I fell in love with the night. I still remember reaching a site in the wee hours of the morning, setting up camp there, and sleeping until noon the next day. I had just started listening to Bowie, and for some reason, the Ronson guitar solo at the end of “Life on Mars” would always remind me of East Coast Park at dawn.

There were a few other trips to Parkway Parade during that year, I can't remember what for. Maybe I just got sick and tired of wandering around Toa Payoh and Orchard Road. There were two McDonald's in that region. There was the Kallang McDonald's, right opposite the KFC, and for some reason I always knew about those places but never went in. There was an air of mystery about those places. They were just about the closest things to American style diners. Maybe I was a deprived kid in those days, and maybe I was secretly envious of the McDonald's kids who just wore fancy clothes and hung around McD's all day long. Or maybe I was peeved that I would go to my grandmother's place and my elder cousins would never bring me out anywhere – ever. I'm sure that if I went to that place often enough, I would get bored. But back then there was just this magical aura about a lot of places that I never got to go to.

Maybe there was something quiet and peaceful about the beach that I really enjoyed. Maybe that was my first taste of freedom. But then again, I had just gone through two of the worst years in my life, and I was just enjoying my first taste of fresh air. There was Parkway Parade too. I know that suburban malls are supposed to be a pretty hellish experience, but there's something really appealing about people hanging out there after a day on the beach. It's a place that seems to have a permanent holiday atmosphere.

There was a trip to New Zealand, where I passed by the 90 mile beach. But I think that's rather less fun, because there's something hellish about something so desolate. Then again, I saw a half buried car there and it was pretty amazing to watch. A few years into my working life, there was one year where for some reason I went to the beach quite a few times. One time, I was staying at a friend's place in Siglap. He was thinking about quitting his job to do a startup. It was nice catching up with him, but for whatever reason I felt I had to go back to the office to go check out some data. I don't really know why I didn't have a fuller more complete conversation with him.

Later that year, my boss asked me to organise a gathering with my colleagues. I think I did a pretty good job. A difficult spell at work was finally over, life seemed like it was getting back to normal. It seemed as though everybody had a pretty good time hanging out. And it was just a lot of people hanging out and talking to each other, rather than some crazy enforced activity with people you can't really stand. For whatever reason, that was a watershed moment, the dividing line between the fairly traumatic first half of my life in the Factory, and the more placid, calmer, happier second half.

East Coast Road, a few blocks inland, would always be famous for laksa. Sometimes I would just take long lunch breaks and take the bus out there for some random place to makan. So even though I was no longer the last guy in the pecking order, maybe I still wasn't fully with it. But those were fun times. The most vivid memories for me in the eastern part of the island, though, are recounted in this old article.

Then there was the first and most probably last marathon I'll ever do. I remember the route led me up and down the beach. This time, though, the zero milestone at Tanjong Rhu would have less happy memories for me. It was where I started cramping up, and then there were 3 excruciating hours limping around in circles near Kallang before being put out of my misery in front of the Padang, which, suitably, was where the Japanese signed the surrender documents.

I won't always have reasons to go back to that beach. It's probably having a midlife crisis of its own, just like me. It used to be really empty at times, but I don't think it is any longer. It will always be too crowded to do anything. The hawker center there is still fabulous. But there are homeless people there, and a cluster of tents. I've never lived in the chalets there but I heard they're disintegrating.

Perhaps I should pay that place a visit on my next trip back to Singapore.


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