The area of northeastern Singapore known as Tampines — now a major Regional Centre (read: giant suburb) — was once little more than a twine of mangroves, mudflats, and swamp forests. This eventually gave way to timber projects, and the mangroves came down along with the valuable tempinis trees, prized for their tough and water-resistant wood. The remaining swamp proved hard to cultivate, but enterprising farmers tried their hands at coconuts, rubber, and even dairy farms; other businessmen found the land useful for sand quarries, sewage disposal, and landfills. Then, in the 1980s, the Singapore government designated Tampines as a new town. This meant out with the kampongs (traditional neighborhoods), out with the farms, and out with the landfills — and in with a steady march of HDB (Housing and Development Board) flats.
Today Tampines is a mini-city in its own right, home to hundreds of thousands of people living in endless twists and turns of HDBs. These buildings stretch out as far as the eye can see, all rectangles and hard edges. Road have names like “Tampines Ave 2″ and Tampines Ave 7.” It’s not exactly abuzz in creativity.
Yet despite the somewhat rigid monotony in Tampines, it purports to have enough to offer that Singapore’s National Heritage Board has created a “Tampines Heritage Trail,” accompanied with an extensively researched guidebook and fold-out map. I followed this trail, in fits and starts, on Saturday morning.
I have been spending a lot of time with Merriam-Webster (if you read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s fabulous but dense Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, you have to), and if you scroll all the way down to the third noun definition of “trail” in their dictionary — “a course to follow or to be followed” — then I suppose the Tampines Heritage Trail fits the bill. But I would say that this is stretching the point — really, “trail” here appears to mean, “a series of far-flung buildings and landmarks that you can reach by walking many kilometers of suburban streets or taking a bus.”
So why did I embark on this journey? In my own defense, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just knew that I wanted to see the watermelon playground in Tampines Central Park!
There’s really no accounting for what piques my interest around here, but I was pretty enthusiastic about the chance to visit this playground. The smaller watermelon slice was a bit of a disappointment, because aside from two small benches, I saw no other opportunities for amusement (which makes me wonder what it’s doing as a piece of playground equipment). The giant piece of watermelon, on the other hand, includes a slide!
Each piece of watermelon is made out of thousands of squares of mosaic tile. It’s not the most comfortable playground substance, but it seems to have be de rigueur in Singapore in the 1970s and 80s, when architects started integrating playgrounds and green spaces into their town planning. And they liked fruit, too — if you walk just a few meters down the way from the watermelon slices, you’ll find the mangosteen playground:
These are pretty rudimentary as playground pieces go — they’re really just big spheres that serve as kiddie caves. And I thought the purple one looked a lot like a plum or a grape. But no matter — they made me smile.
Because the Masjid Darul Ghufran mosque is closed for repairs, the next stop on my trail was a twenty minute walk away. It wasn’t the prettiest walk, though it did take me past several areas with vendors …
…selling everything from mops and brooms and buckets to vegetables and fruits …
… and roots:
I loved coming up on a corner in front of an HDB (clearly a private gardening endeavor) that was vibrant with hundreds of orchids.
And at the center of the garden sat a tiger!
My thanks go out to whatever gardener so lovingly put this place together.
The Heritage Trail guidebook next led me to the Tampines Chinese Temple.
I’ve seen a lot of Chinese temples in Singapore, but I’ve never seen one like this: it’s actually twelve Taoist temples all housed under one roof. In the 1980s, when the government decided to build Tampines Town, each of these smaller temples was slated for destruction or mandatory relocation (the Singapore government has extra-strong powers of eminent domain). So all twelve of the small temples moved under one roof in 1992. There are now nine altars lined up in a row in in a single cavernous room (my promotional booklet fails to explain how they moved from twelve to nine).
These three deities sit in at the largest altar, center stage, which makes them look to be the most important:
But the altar below, originally from the Soon Hin Ancient Temple, is the oldest — dating from the early 1800s, it used to be housed in an attap hut. The god at its center is Hong Xian Da Di, a man who could communicate with tigers (a skill that would’ve come in handy when Tampines was still filled with swampy woodlands and dangerous beasties).
I was most fascinated by this altar, because near the top sits a row of tiny heads on sticks:
A non-definitive Google search suggests that these miniature heads represent the Five Directional Generals, who stand at the head of each of the five directions (north, south, east, west, and center) to ward off plagues and other evils. I’m not sure what to make of the orbs at the bottom of the altar– they look part weapon, part toy — but this temple did not come with anything in the way of English translations.
I was grateful for the random devotee who stopped by to suggest that I look at the hand-painted tiles on the wall. She noted that one long series of paintings would have been used to teach Confucian precepts in days gone by. I recognized some, like this demonstration of filial piety (an odd gesture, perhaps, but this is a woman breastfeeding her thirsty mother-in-law while her child asks for milk) …
… and I figured that this one had to do with young people helping their elders …
… but I have no idea what Confucian ideal we’re supposed to learn from a half-clothed layabout talking to fish in a pond.
This is yet another reminder that I would fare better in Singapore if I (1) spoke and read Mandarin and (2) traveled regularly with some sort of a cultural translator.
Other story-telling tiles at the temple include a painting of the eight immortals (some of whom are quite elegant, and some of whom are decidedly not) crossing the sea…
… and dragons chasing a flaming pearl:
Overall, the artwork in this temple ranged from the beautiful …
… to the awful …
… to the cheerfully absurd (why does this one-horned blue cow have antlers growing out of its shoulder joints?):
Other notable features at this temple include a vibrant 270-meter dragon that runs along the outside wall, which you can follow from tip …
… to tail …
…three small tigers in a miniature cave shrine (seen here through the fog of an incense haze)…
… and an actual tempinis tree!
My Tampines Heritage Trail guidebook next suggested that I head over to the Tampines Round Market & Food Centre for lunch, which I dutifully did (though I’ll admit that I cheated here and took a cab, which I’m sure violates the “trail” expectations).
This is a great hawker stall and wet market that, judging from the crowds, remains very popular. It is also entirely, authentically local — I saw exactly zero other white people there (this is the same number I saw during the rest of my journey through Tampines).
For my final stop — venturing over to any other sites on the trail would have required me to travel many kilometers in one direction or another — I visited the fish-shaped Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity.
Their main sanctuary was closed, which was a shame, but I took a few minutes in their smaller chapel to admire their stained glass windows …
… frown at this rendition of Jesus (which reminded me of a velvet Elvis) …
… and puzzle over this glowing cross:
Would I recommend the Tampines Heritage Trail? I don’t think so — while I enjoyed each of the stops along the way, the distances between them were usually too great and too monotonous for me to recommend the trip as a whole. And if you’re thinking (as I was): “wait — I need to go see a watermelon playground,” then by all means — but maybe combine it with something else, like a bike ride or a visit to the water park nearby.