The Mystery of the Fresh Padlocks
Despite its name, there is no mansion at this massive plot of land at the top of Jalan Dermawan, just a sloping driveway that leads to absolutely nothing but greenery and an eerie tranquility. While there had been construction work to build a mansion, it was abruptly halted in the early 2000s. Then two landslides in 2006 and 2007 completely demolished and buried all remaining structural traces. The spot has become popular among thrill seekers and ghost hunters, enticed to it by fantastical stories of a couple that had been killed by lightning and a mistress who had fallen to her death from an unfinished balcony.
If you’ve been to Jalan Dermawan you’ll understand why it’s prime land. It is situated at the pricy Bukit Timah belt, close to good schools and only a short drive to the business district. On PropertyGuru, the houses in that area go in excess of $5 million. So the fact that the land on which the phantom Hillview Mansion sits has been empty for close to two decades is downright perplexing.
When we went there one weekend, there were fresh unscuffed padlocks on the main and side gates, and the concertina wire at the top of the fence looked new. It was impossible to get in. There were also stencilled characters on a bridging wall spelling out “Private Property”. Older pictures of Hillview Mansion revealed that those two words had not been there until recently. It was clear that whoever owned this plot of land was determined to keep out trespassers.
However, to the left of the main gate was a small building. A metal fence that kept visitors out was badly rusted and someone strong had ripped out a section of it. Inside was dark and damp and looked like a perfect place to dump a body. It appeared to be an outhouse for electric generators that were to power the mansion. Crushed cigarette butts littered the floor, perhaps by the paranormal activity chasers, who knows? As we turned to go, I could swear I saw a fleeting shadow in the corner. We headed back to the car, a sudden chill caressing our skin.
The Hidden Little Guilin Trail
Of Black Cobras and Overgrown Vegetation
It was a little eerie how a middle-aged woman in exercise gear, pumping her hands in the air in rhythm to music that only she could hear, appeared out of nowhere as we were squeezing past the broken green metal hoarding to get to the Little Guilin trail. But her ominous warning felt even stranger and more frightening. “Boy, don’t go inside. Got black cobras,” she muttered. But intrigue and curiosity trumped any thought of safety. We went in.
Located within Bukit Batok Town Park, more popularly known as Little Guilin, the nature trail became permanently sealed in 2007 after a series of landslides made the route too treacherous to tread. Without regular maintenance, wild vegetation eventually reclaimed the areas Man had stolen from Nature. Make your way along the barely discernible path though and you will see traces of civilisation – moss-covered stone benches, rickety signposts and at the top of the trail, a beautiful view of the town. In fact, at 133 metres tall, Bukit Gombak Hill is Singapore’s second highest after the one standing at Bukit Timah.
Although the trail is officially closed, as there is no telling if the ground is still susceptible to slide, there are two ways for intrepid adventurer seekers to get to it. One is directly beside the Bukit Gombak stadium. As you can see in the picture, it is going to take a bit of derring-do. You’ll have to get past the signs with their foreboding messages and contend with steep inclines and slippery soil. The second is at Chu Lin Road. The beginning of the path is located beside the Hillview Mansion, next to a hidden storm drain. Although it is much harder to find, the route at this end of the trail is easier to traverse.
If you’re planning to tackle the hidden Little Guilin trail, we recommend spraying mosquito repellent, and putting on hardy trekking shoes and long cargo pants. The plants can get nasty. Besides black cobras, there have also been sightings of wild boars and monkeys, although we didn’t come across any when we were there.
Holland Close Cemetery
Where The Dead and The Living Share a Space
In Singapore, cemeteries are normally located far, far away from housing estates for a couple of reasons, the most pertinent being that it’s considered bad luck to live near graveyards. So stumbling across this particular cemetery above with its 3000-plus tombstones – uniformly arranged with a precision that would make any military personnel proud – within the heavily-populated Holland Village area can be a bit jarring.
Located beside Block 32, the cemetery has a long history stretching back to 1887. That was when the Ying Fo Fui Kan association bought the plot of land to use as burial grounds for the Hakka people from the Jia Ying prefecture in China. It also built an ancestral temple beside the cemetery. The temple is still standing today. The government did attempt to acquire the land in the 1960s and move the dead to the Choa Chu Kang cemetery, away from sight and mind, but the Hakka people objected.
After negotiations, they finally came to a compromise. The clan could retain a small parcel of land for the temple and the tombstones but no fresh burials could take place. Over next few decades, housing apartments began popping up around the cemetery as part of the government’s master plan, giving rise to the unique living and dead arrangements you see today.
Getting to the cemetery is easy. If you’re driving, input Block 32 Holland Close into your GPS, park your vehicle and walk towards the tall shrubbery that borders the cemetery. As for public transport options the best will be to take the train to the Holland Village station. Block 32 is about 700 metres away. Do chat with the friendly caretakers. They have a lot of stories to share.
The lease for the land is for 99 years so the tombstones and the temple will eventually have to move but as of right now, the Holland Close cemetery is probably the only place in Singapore where the living and the dead are in such close proximity.
The Haphazardly Arranged, Forgotten Tombstone
A couple of metres away from busy Bugis Junction lie this quiet Malay cemetery grounds, split into two by a road aptly named Jalan Kubor, which means Cemetery Road in Malay. While the open-air burial grounds with its prominent cement enclosure that houses the graves of a few members of the royal family is relatively well-known and easily accessed from the main road, there is another plot directly opposite the royal mound that’s been forgotten by many people.
Entering this area is not easy. The entire perimeter is bordered by a cement wall that’s broken in places, imposing tall trees and dense foliage that shield the interior from prying human eyes. However, walk along Rochor Canal Road until you reach the madrasah, then follow the fence and eventually, you’ll reach a small opening that gives you access into a whole other world.
My watch read 4pm, the rays of the sun baking the people walking along the pavements. Yet when my photographer and I stepped into the neglected cemetery grounds, the surroundings darkened by tens of lumens, as though even nature was afraid to tread into this foreboding area. Hundreds of tombstones littered the ground in an indecipherable manner. If you were to outline and map the place out to determine each individual grave, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to think that the dead were buried one of top of another. There was nothing etched on the tombstones, neither names nor identifying marks present to indicate who the people were or what they had done to deserve such an ignominious ending.
Public records indicate that this cemetery had been earmarked for residential development since 1998 and at the start of 2014, the National Heritage Board announced a plan to document the history of this cemetery and the people buried within. But until now, neither plans nor progress have been made on both fronts. The souls there, whoever they might be, seem determined to stay hidden.
The Thread That Ties Japanese Soldiers and Mas Selamat Together
It was deathly silent, save for the quiet discussion three men from the National Parks Board were having over the fate of a tree. The occasional vehicle would drive past, belching exhaust and breaking the monotony. But none of these managed to stir the lone man underneath the concrete hut from his slumber. Besides the three park inspectors, the photographer and myself, the sleeping man was the only person around for miles.
Kranji Beach was the location from where Mas Selamat Kastari purportedly made his crossing to Malaysia four days after he escaped from incarceration in February 2008. And indeed, when you look across the water and see the coastline and skyline of our neighbouring country (above), you realise that the story might have a grain of truth. During low tide and with the right flotation device, you too could possibly make the crossing.
More significantly, this patch of sand was also where a fierce battle took place between the invaders and the Australian 27th Brigade on 9 February 1942. The Japanese force suffered its heaviest loss of the Battle of Singapore here. The waters lapping onto Kranji Beach were beset with oil slicks from the Woodlands oil depot nearby, and Japanese soldiers were burned alive when those slicks became ablaze during the fire fights. It must have been a horrific sight.
Today Kranji Beach has earned an unsavoury reputation on account of a nearby carpark that has become the site of clandestine trysts. It’s a shame, considering the beautiful views you can enjoy from the shore. Getting to the spot is as simple as climbing over the rope that borders the beach and gingerly making your way down the rocky incline.
We spent close to an hour admiring the view and enjoying the tranquility before returning to civilisation a couple of steps away. We made it a point to pay our respects at the worn-out monument commemorating the battle. The sleeping man was still snoring.
Keppel Hill Reservoir
The Curious Case of The Working Water Pump
Rediscovered in 2014 by the National Heritage Board after disappearing from the maps of Singapore for more than 60 years, Keppel Hill Reservoir is notoriously difficult to get to. It’s quite amazing how such a body of water, about two-thirds the size of an Olympic swimming pool, could remain hidden despite being so close to the busy Telok Blangah Road and Mount Faber.
Locating the spot is easy enough. Google Maps indicate where Keppel Hill Reservoir is and you can try to make your way there accordingly. However, unlike the other locations in this story, there isn’t a demarcated route that leads you to the reservoir. You’ll need to navigate through the overgrowth at the end of a cement path. Look for telltale signs of trampled grass and soil made by previous explorers. Follow this and you’ll soon hear the sound of a running stream.
There are two concrete blocks placed in stream by unknown persons to serve as stepping stones. Cross it and just a few steps and corners later, you’ll reach the spot we’ve captured in the picture above.
The reservoir did feature in old newspaper reports after two soldiers and a 17-year-old boy named Chew Teik Pin drowned there in 1936 and 1948 respectively. The three of them had attempted to swim in it and faced difficulties. Apparently, their bodies were never found.
The first thing you’ll notice are the remnants of a concrete diving board and a bathing area. Interestingly there is also a working diesel pump that seemed to be drawing water away from the reservoir. The equipment is from an Australian-based company named Pentair Water but our emails to the firm regarding the mystery pump and who it might belong to went unanswered. To the right of the reservoir, there are concrete steps heading upwards that will lead you to a lone tombstone, where a Japanese civilian engineer named Komoto Ekasa rests after passing away in 1942. However, no one knows why he was buried so near to Keppel Hill Reservoir.