5km²: Of Ruins and Roadway Detectors

By Ng Jing Ting (20A13A) and Sarah Lok (20A03A) 

5km² aims to discover the unexplored places and untold stories of the Bishan community, spoken through words and photographs. Raffles Institution has been rooted here for 29 years, yet most of us don’t really explore the places around us past Junction 8, or maybe even S11. This begs the question: as residents, how much do we actually know about Bishan? What hidden gems does the unassuming 5km² area around us hold?

Tucked away in the recesses of Upper Thomson Road, Thomson Nature Park is Singapore’s newest buffer park—it is a physical enhancement and extension of the nearby Central Catchment Reserve that not only provides the public with an alternative space to connect with nature, but also protects the nature reserves against abutting developments. 

This is a place where the past meets the present: a new secondary forest and other flora have overgrown the erstwhile Hainan Village, whilst the latest fauna protection methods are nestled in popular animal haunts. 

If you’ve ever played Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Jungle Ruins (as we have), chances are that you’ll find this park bringing their rustic settings to life—as we made our way into the park, the ruins of antique tiles and long-collapsed pillars could be glimpsed among the shaded greenery. These tiles and pillars had once graced the demolished houses of their Hainanese inhabitants; now, they stand in the former glory of those abodes, testaments to a time long past. It was a rather intriguing sight to behold: us teenagers who grew up in a rather sheltered urban setting have never come across the remains of a former village—let alone in a park. 

Trees and creepers manoeuvre through the gaps and crevices of the architectural remnants of the Hainan Village. 

These architectural remnants are more than just old, mossy brick and mortar: they offer us insight into the ways of life of the former residents of the Hainan village, many of whom would be our grandparents’ age by now. A particular villager of note would be Mr Looi Im Heok, a champion motorcycle racer who founded Looi’s Motor in 1961. Moreover, we found it interesting that the first Formula One race was held here, and the track—albeit less winding than our current Marina Bay Street Circuit—now serves as the park’s footpath outline. 

The genesis of Han’s Café—a childhood staple for many of us, perhaps—can be found in this very park as well, for Mr Han Choon Fook, the chain’s founder, used to reside here with his family. After saving sufficient money, he managed to set up a small bakery along Upper Thomson Road, which was eventually expanded island-wide to become today’s Han’s Café. 

Jalan Belang: a stretch that contained many former houses in the village. 

Unfortunately, the village’s last residents left in the 1980s, causing the abandoned agricultural land to be reclaimed by forest, and subsequently allowing for the regeneration of the secondary forest that we see today. The slightly overgrown feel of the vegetation adds to the rustic yet slightly mysterious mood in the park—a major plus point for photographers who are in favour of such an aura in their work. 

A staircase peeks through the dense vegetation. 

However, we found that the remnants of the Hainan Village are not just on the forest floor: bricks from the former village were occasionally amalgamated with the asphalt below our feet throughout the entirety of the trail. As part of a conservation plan to integrate features of the old village with the present-day park, the old roads have been preserved in their original state whilst the bricks have been used to fill up potholes along them. Bearing the names of their brickwork company, the vibrant red hues of the bricks stands in stark contrast to the soot-coloured gravel that surrounds them (this makes for pretty aesthetic photographs, if you ask us). 

Although the village now stands devoid of inhabitants, illustrations made by a Mr Jon Foo, who had once been its resident, allow those who came after to visualise what the village may have looked like in its heyday. Our inner geographers took a great interest in his drawings as they delineated the land use profile of the village, clearly depicting how the villagers had ingeniously maximised the limited land they had by farming on terraced slopes. 

The wide variety of biodiversity found in Thomson Nature Park, as well as the frequent movements of wildlife between the Central Catchment Reserve and itself, means that efforts in nature conservation and biodiversity management have been manifold. 

As part of an ongoing pilot trial of the Roadway Animal Detection System (RADS) by NParks and the Land Transport Authority, CCTV cameras equipped with analytics technology have been installed along Old Upper Thomson Road to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions. At regular intervals along the canopied road, three cameras stand in their spike-studded glory, the silver protrusions serving to deter vandalism from wildlife. Whilst target animals include the Sambar Deer and the Sunda Pangolin, they also expand to include others such as the endangered Raffles’ banded langur. Consider yourself lucky if you happen to catch this technology in action, though—close to no cars (and animals) were spotted on the road when we visited.

One of the cameras installed as part of the Roadway Animal Detection System (RADS). 

Furthermore, to increase connectivity between the Central Catchment Reserve and Thomson Park for the animal population, two rope bridges have been built in between the two parks to facilitate the movement of monkeys and other arboreal animals. Whilst much emphasis has been put on planting trees with spreading canopies, these rope bridges act as structural reinforcements for canopy linkages, especially in the case of younger trees with weaker branches. Although the efficacy of this solution has yet to be ascertained, we think that they’ve been well-received by the local monkeys—many of them were spotted on the railings near these bridges. 

One of the two rope bridges built. 
Two of the many monkeys spotted along the road separating the Central Catchment Reserve and Thomson Nature Park. 

Overall, this park has it all. Regardless of whether you’re a budding photographer, an enthusiastic ecologist, or even an avid historian, you’re bound to find something in this park that piques your interest—the nostalgia of bygone days and the beauty of the outdoors just effortlessly coalesces within this space. However, before you head over to Thomson Nature Park to appreciate its preservation of the past, or its adoption of new technology, it is most important to wear strong mosquito repellent—the mosquito population runs somewhat rife here, given the park’s relative newness. (Case in point: the writers received a joint total of 30 mosquito bites.) 

Ultimately, besides the local langur population, that’s another breed you shouldn’t be feeding. 

Rays of sunlight make their way through the forest canopy.

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