5 April 2011

Sembawang Hot Spring

" A hot spring has been discovered on some property at the 12th mile at Chan Chu Kang belonging to Mr. Seah Eng Keong. The spring is in a piece of swampy ground, and the water is said to be boiling hot and to smell strongly of sulphur.

When seen at the Opium Farm yesterday, Mr. Seah Eng Keong was amazed that the 'Free Press' had heard of the hot spring. "How did you hear about it?" was the first thing he said. He admitted that the spring was in existence, and stated he had sent a sample of the water to the Government Analyst for examination. Until the result of the analysis had been received, he did not think it was any use in making public the discovery.

The spring in Singapore was discovered by Mr. W.A.B Goodall, a Municipal Ranger. "

The headlines screamed - A HOT SPRING. Phenomenon at Chan Chu Kang. And the above is an excerpt from the press article we found in the newspaper archives (Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser), dated 9th December, 1908.

Today, we all know that Singapore's only hot spring is located in Sembawang, the other known hot spring is on Pulau Tekong - here's a fantastic article written by our friend Xinli from theMOOSE about the Pulau Tekong Hot Spring. Check out the photos from friends, John's photos and blog entry by Uncle Yip too!

Back in 1908, the sprawling pineapple plantations on the land were owned by Seah Eng Keong. He was one of the grandsons of Seah Eu Chin, a very prominent Teochew merchant in the mid-1800s (Eu Chin Street and Seah Street were named after him).

And Seah Eng Keong's father was Seah Liang Seah, one of Singapore's illustrious pioneers (Liang Seah Street was named after him). Liang Seah had his pineapple preserving business handed over to his son Seah Eng Keong in 1901. Their brands of canned pineapple, 'Tiger' and 'Defiance'; were much sought after in Europe and the Far East. Their pineapple business, helped create jobs for many Chinese migrants as well.

Seah Eng Keong's Pineapple canning factory in Bendemeer, 1900 (NHB)

Workers carrying pineapples at the canning factory, 1900 (NHB)

The exact number of groundwater pockets hasn't been confirmed, but it was said that Seah Eng Keong had three of these were covered so that water output would be concentrated through one particular spring. With a well built near the singled out spring, it became popular with the villagers who frequently sought the natural water for its 'healing powers'.

In the Straits Times, a small news article (dated 17th August 1909, source: NLB) mentions a year after the discovery of the springs, Seah Eng Keong had enlisted Framroz & Company to bottle the spring water for sale.

"In bottled form the water was styled Zombun. It is said to resemble the water from the mineral springs of Kissingen, Germany, and to have valuable medical properties. Samples have been analysed by the Government Analyst."

In short time, the bottling works were taken over and done by Seah Eng Keong's company called Singapore Natural Mineral Hot Springs Company. By 1914, Chin Huat Hin Oil Trading Company acquired the above mentioned company from the Seah Eng Keong and his father (Notices in papers, NLB)

News article explaining the analysis results of the spring water, 23rd November 1912 (NLB)

By 1922, Fraser & Neave (F&N) acquired the land on which the hot springs are. The spring water was bottled and sold under a variety of drink names like “Zom”, “Salitaris”, “Singa Water” and “Vichy Water” till the onset of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. The hot springs were called Salitar Hot Spring (Seletar Hot Spring).

F&N bottling plant in 1933 for the above mentioned drinks (NLB)

Advertising for Vichy, Zom and Singa Water during 1920s-1930s (NLB)

After capturing Singapore, the Japanese wasted no time in building luxurious thermal baths over the hot spring and these were only meant for their high ranking officers. It was no surprise when an Allied conducted an air raid in 1944, probably hoping to score kills of key enemy personnel. Incidentally, the bombing interrupted the flow of the spring water to the surface which was only had it's full flow restored naturally in the 1960s.

Very likely during or after the war, one particular village near the hot springs, Kampong Mata Ayer at Jalan Mata Ayer gained fame through it's proximity to the hot spring well and was known as Kampong Air Panas (Kampong Ayer Panas), translated as "Hot Water Village". It's villagers and many others from other parts of the country were there to boil eggs, do their laundry and even de-feather their poultry. For those habitual gamblers, some believers tried washing themselves and their vehicles with the spring water, in a bid to win at the lotteries.

Malay family in Kampong Mata Ayer a.k.a Kampong Ayer Panas, 1980s (NHB)

Students viewing the hot spring well during a school excursion.(NHB)

Photo shows the hot spring well sealed. (Photo contributed by Khoo Twon Yong to NLB Singapore)

In 1967, F&N set up Semangat Ayer, and the new Seletaris bottling plant built. There were plans to build baths, restuarants, golf courses and even a nature reserve, but the ideas never took off. The spring water was bottled and sold under the label of Seletaris till the late 1980s.

At the Seletaris bottling plant (NHB)

The land was acquired by the Government to build Sembawang Air Base in the late 80s. With the Seletaris Bottling plant closing down, Seletaris, a condominium project took it's place on the same site.

Plans were made to expand the Sembawang Air Base, which meant taking over the land where the hot spring is. The Government relented after constant feedback from the public to retain the country's only public accessible hot spring, since the other existing one on Pulau Tekong was no longer accessible to the general public.

The grounds before the improvements (Photo by T.H.洪)

In 2002, the spring was temporarily closed to have fencing set up around a new square concrete base, having the brick structure which housed the well of the hot spring right in the middle. New improvements like a cemented path and new drainage pipes for ease of use were installed. It was reopened in mid 2002, much to the delight of the public who had been lobbying for the hot spring to remain publicly accessible.

The following are photos from my various visits over the years, in 2002 when it was first reopened, 2006 and 2011.

Large number of people flocked to the hot springs in 2002 on weekends.

People were happy to wash and soak their feet in the hot spring water.

The hot spring was generally very much popular among the housewives who stayed in nearby housing estates.

Newly installed standpipes

Popular with the young and old alike

Pails of water were left to cool down before use.

The gate to the hot spring opens daily at 7am and close at 7pm sharp, by air base personnel.

I made another visit in 2006 with my wife, things hasn't changed much. Water was still as hot, less people bar the faithful. There was a rumour, or more of an urban legend that a kid had fallen into the well in the past and that his spirit haunts the hot spring area. Similar to another very similar urban legend of a soldier falling into the Pulau Tekong hot spring and was boiled alive.

If this rumour of a child drowning in Sembawang hot springs was true, it probably happened before 1960s. Before the well was sealed up, before it's current brick shelter was built or even before the F&N Seletaris bottling works started. No news report of a child falling into the hot spring well was found by us, perhaps the story made its rounds via hearsay. It could even be a fabricated tale by disgruntled folks, perhaps in a bid to make people stay away from the hot spring.

The hot spring was a much peaceful place in 2006.

Perhaps only a handful of faithfuls visit every weekend.

There was an uncle there, doing some 'hot spring therapeutical massage' for others?

Containers contributed by visitors, came in many shape, sizes and colors.

A photo of me, in our old Singapore Urban Explorers t-shirt; which has become a grim reminder of why we were forced to change our group's name in 2010.

Preparing the water for some feet soaking.

"Freshly prepared, too hot, must wait cool down", said the uncle.

Gushing hot, really hot, spring water.

Grill covered well, behind strong locked double gates. Perhaps to stop blackhearted people who might harm or poison the well.

Another recent visit this year 2011, apart from the same signboards and rules. I noticed new improvements, newly paved walkway, caretaker's shed has switched spots on the grounds and new pipes.

Same rules apply, for everyone who come here to enjoy the hot spring.

The path to the hot spring well.

A new low ramp, my guess that it indicates a new drain/canal or piping running under. Was it because of the increased volume of water and they need to drain away the excess? Or maybe the air base is tapping the limitless supply of spring water as well? Which would be a good thing, putting the excess water to good use (Eg. washing their vehicles).

New plumbing, to cope with increased volume of water? It's not a surprise, as less people are visiting in recent years. And instead of gushing taps, trickles from the taps are encouraged. I suspect it might just do more harm with a 'save water' campaign here, as it's a possibility that the groundwater has no efficient 'pressure-relieving' outlets. One can guess the outcome then.

Caretaker shed, looks new. Shifted from the other corner of the location.

Mirror for the vain.

Remainders of burnt incense, for the kid who died in the well?

There was a dire warning for would be blackhearted folks. Translation below:

Anyone who intends to damage or vandalize the hot spring, will be cursed.
Loved ones (whom are still alive) of the cursed would meet with great mishap.
Loved ones (deceased) of the cursed will never be reincarnated.

Perhaps the strong message goes out to the person who scribbled his sweet nothings on the brick wall.

Recent addition, i applaud the effort to educate visitors of the importance and heritage of this venue. Kudos! I would love to bring my kids here sometime in future as well.

The hot spring opens daily at 7.00AM sharp, and closes at 7.00PM sharp. Do go down and enjoy the hot spring! (YES IT'S FREE, no admission charges whatsoever). Do not attempt to soak if the water's too hot, there were news of health complications previously due to scalding. Do seek doctor's advise if you are not sure. We are not to be held liable for mishaps! Do take your time, as you need much patience to wait for the water to cool. Bring a book to read, chill out and relax, appreciate the peaceful surroundings.

It is recommended to walk from Chong Pang Village, a ten minute stroll. Gate is along Gambas Avenue (directly opposite of Seletaris Condominium estate), just around the corner at junction of Gambas Ave and Sembawang Road.

Nearest bus stops
Bus stop (57129) - 167, 800, 811, 856, 858, 859, 969, 980
Bus stop (57121) - 167, 856, 858, 859, 969, 980
[This bus stop is next to a bridge]

Online bus guides
SBS Transit

If you are driving, park at HDB carpark of Blk 114 near Yishun Ave 7 (nearby blocks if there are no non-season parking lots available), carpark is accessible via Yishun Ring Road. And take a five minutes walk across the traffic light junction, to reach the gates.
There is no MRT train station within walking distance, you need to take a bus from Yishun MRT Station to Chong Pang Market (www.gothere.sg).

More to say? Drop us a comment! :)

More photos can be viewed here.

NHB denotes National Heritage Board
NLB denotes National Library Board Singapore

Other links of interest/reference:
Sembawang hot spring on Infopedia
Sembawang hot spring on Wikipedia
Research study done on Sembawang hot spring
Heritage Trails Singapore
Jerome Lim's entry on Sembawang
YG's blog articles here and here.
The Sunday Times article on 27th March 2011 - Hot spring losing steam

Article & Photos copyright of Andrew Him
[unless otherwise indicated]

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1 comment:

  1. Is the sembawang hot spring water safe for drinking ?