In the 1970s, eastern Singapore still had a rural feel, its ribbons of middle-class suburbs interspersed with Malay kampongs (villages). Inevitably, the area hasn’t escaped the mushrooming of high-rise new towns, and much of the southeast coast has been radically altered by land reclamation to create the East Coast Park, a long strip of leisure and watersports facilities. For visitors, the points of interest mainly lie along or close to where the coast once was. Closest to downtown is the suburb of Geylang, which has retained some of its old Malay identity; neighbouring Katong likewise has traces of its historical Peranakan character. At the eastern end of the island, Changi is where the Japanese interned Allied troops and civilians during World War II, commemorated at the thought-provoking Changi Museum. The rustic Singapore of old clings on at Pulau Ubin, an island visitable by boat from Changi.
In Singaporean popular consciousness, the Changi district has long embodied a beachside idyll, and indeed the beach at Changi Point remains popular today, though it’s no great shakes. Most tourists who head this far east come to see the wartime Changi Museum, which is a little way before Changi Point.
The infamous Changi Prison was the site of a World War II POW camp in which Japanese jailers subjected Allied prisoners, both military and civilian, to the harshest of treatment. Those brutalities are movingly remembered in theChangi Museum. Formerly housed within the prison itself, which is still in use – drug offenders are periodically executed here – the museum was moved wholesale just up the road when the prison was extended a few years ago.
Beyond the Kallang River, marking the eastern edge of downtown, Malay culture has held sway in and around the adjoining suburbs of Geylang and Katong since the mid-nineteenth century, when Malays and Indonesians arrived to work first in the local copra (dried coconut kernel) processing factory and later on its serai (lemon grass) farms. Parts of Geylang retain quite a strong Malay feel today, and although Singaporeans now regard the district as rather seedy, at its best its shophouses exude something of the street life of the Chinatown of old. As for Katong, the wealthy, including many of Peranakan descent, built their villas here in prewar times, when it was a still beachfront district. Thankfully, the area’s Peranakan heritage lives on to some degree in what is now a middle-class neighbourhood, and provides the main lure for visitors.
Few of Singapore’s offshore islands are of any significant size, and those that exist tend to be confined to industrial or military use (Sentosa being the extravagant exception). Not so
. Covering an area of ten square kilometres, it’s a pleasant anachronism offering a taste of what rural Singapore was like half a century ago, and is managed as a national park. The island warrants a half-day visit for its wetland site,
, and for its scattering of quaint wooden bungalows – though the scenery may underwhelm if you’ve been to kampongs in Malaysia or Indonesia.
One of the more unusual things you can do on Pulau Ubin is a cooking class in one of the island’s old houses. Run by self-styled “food sorceress”, the friendly and articulate Ruqxana Vasanwala ($130 for a half-day), they focus on a wide range of local dishes, some quite unusual. If your visit doesn’t coincide with one of her Ubin sessions (currently on the last Saturday of the month; book places at least a couple of weeks in advance), you can take advantage of regular classes at her home in Siglap, east of Katong. For schedules, a list of dishes covered in each session and to book, go to wcookerymagic.com.