Explore Changi on National Heritage Board’s newest heritage trail

Located at the eastern corner of Singapore is Changi. When you hear this name, you would usually immediately associate it with our world famous airport, the Changi International Airport. Beyond our famous Changi Airport, there is a part of Changi that probably doesn’t get enough limelight for its history, heritage, culture, and beautiful sceneries. Have you visited Changi Beach Park, Changi Village for its dining options? However, how much do you know about the history, heritage and culture of Changi, from the colonial days to World War II until today? You can now uncover and learn about the tales of historical sites, events and the communities of Changi as you explore National Heritage Boards’ newest heritage trail – Changi Heritage Trail.

Changi Heritage Trail

The Changi Heritage Trail by NHB features 23 heritage sites and six heritage trail markers, they will tell you the stories of Changi through the memories of its community, tracing its evolution across different eras, and shed light on Changi’s cultural, social, economic and military heritage over the centuries. Visitors on the Changi Heritage Trail will get to explore iconic landmarks and discover the diverse narratives of Changi, from the hardships endured by prisoners of war during the Japanese Occupation to the vibrant mix of cultures of the kampongs and communities in the Changi area. 

Mr Alvin Tan, Deputy Chief Executive (Policy & Community), NHB, said: “Through our heritage trails, NHB hopes not only to showcase the unique history of neighbourhoods, but to also leverage our trails to bring heritage closer to the community; facilitate community participation through the contribution of stories and photographs; enhance place identity; and in this case, encourage Singaporeans to explore Changi and rediscover its unique charms.”

Coastal lifestyle

Changi’s coastal area, fishing and other maritime activities shaped the economy, society and cultures of the kampongs in Changi. For the communities of Kampongs Ayer Germuroh, Mata Ikan and Beting Kusah, fishing was their livelihood, as were kerkarang (coastal foraging) and the making of kaput (lime-based whitewash). All these activities required deep knowledge of the seascape, weather patterns and monsoon winds, that were passed down through generations and they formed the foundations of many aspects of community life. The fishermen of Changi coast generally head out to sea after dusk, returning in the mornings, bringing the villages to life. 

Sun, sand and sea of Changi – Singapore’s Lido

During Singapore’s colonial era, the sun, sand and sea of Changi transformed into Singapore’s Lido. The Lido di Venezia in Italy is known for its fresh air and forested environment. Changi was a popular leisure destination for its quiet and clam beaches, cool sea breeze, and this was also the point for those who wished to sail to nearby islands or favoured fishing locations. 

Changi developed into a resort feel for the colonial society, this was highlighted by European visitors, as recorded in a diary entry from 1860 that detailed a visit to Changi: “Changhee is a sort of Singapore Brighton – a place where everyone goes for a picnic. It only consists of a few small fishermen’s huts, a government traveller’s bungalow, and another bungalow a little higher up belong to a Joint Hock Company.” 

A wooden bungalow known as Change Hut was constructed, this made Changi a popular location for the colonial society for their holidays due to its picturesque surroundings. With this popularity, more bungalows were constructed in the area, with private investors renting them out as resorts, further cementing Changi’s reputation as a leisure spot as Singapore’s Lido.

Changi’s military history and heritage 

After the 1920s, Changi went through significant transformation to become a strategic military and penal hub. Sembawang, located in the northern part of Singapore was confirmed as the location for United Kingdom’s (UK) new naval base back then, they needed another site for a cantonment (military quarters) and artillery emplacements to house troops and guns that would protect the naval base. 

Given the strategic location of Changi overlooking and commanding the eastern approach to the Johor Strait, as well as its distance from the city and major residential areas. Changi was chosen and a natural choice to play her role in the defence of Singapore. 

The Gillman Commission was established in 1927 to plan and develop the Changi Cantonment. Thereafter, the UK War Office began acquiring land in Changi and transforming the landscape to make way for concrete gun emplacements, airfields, hangars, barracks blocks and other facilities. 

Changi Prison came after the development of Changi Cantonment. They were built in response to overcrowded conditions at Pearl’s Hill Prison and Outram Prison in the early 1930s. Changi Prison would eventually house Western civilians and prisoners of war during the Japanese Occupation.

Hearing heartfelt stories of Changi’s history, heritage, culture and living

During the media tour of Changi Heritage Trail, we met people that were associated with Changi’s history, heritage, culture and living, hearing the heartfelt and wonderful stories of Changi.

At Sree Ramar Temple, Mr Thalapathi K.V, a temple volunteer, he shared quite a lot of interesting stories about his memories of Changi. The points that he shared with us that enlightened me were Sree Ramar Temple was facing East, there were two water elements in front of the temple down the road, Sungai Changi, followed by the sea/coastal area (Changi Beach Park) after the river. He also spoke about the connections and significance of the statues of Buddha and Guan Yin in the temple, about the communities in Changi, his childhood days playing around the neighbourhood, the multi-cultural communities and the kampong spirit. 

At Changi Sailing Club/Changi Boardwalk, overlooking the coast and sea, Mdm Isiah Majid, a former resident of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh also shared a lot about her childhood memories of Changi, “[The atmosphere at the beach was] just like a fish market, with people [gathering around each] boat to buy their fish. It’s a joyful moment, with children swimming and [playing] in the sea… while the adults are bargaining for their fish.”

If you are travelling to Changi Airport by car or bus on the road or your plane is landing at or departing from Changi Airport, you can’t miss the iconic Changi Airport Control Tower. At Changi Airport Terminal 1, we heard Mr Joshua Woo sharing priceless photos and memories of his late father, a former contractor that was involved in the building of the Changi Airport Control Tower.

Beyond the history, heritage, culture and tangible aspects of cultural heritage, these are great examples of our intangible cultural heritage, the life experiences, oral history and memories of Singapore.

My personal nostalgia memories of Changi 

When NHB launched its newest heritage trail, the Changi Heritage Trail, I was excited to retrace back my nostalgia memories, starting from my teenage days of visiting Changi Village, starting off with a long bus ride on bus service no.2 from Chinatown to Changi Village, followed by taking a bumboat across to Pulau Ubin for camping and hiking when I was a Boy Scout. I remembered going for hikes with our map and compass (no smartphones and maps app in our era) and one of the hikes led us to Changi. 

Thereafter, serving my full-time National Service, starting off at as a recruit at Pulau Tekong and we recruits during my time had to board a slow boat (if you know, you know) from a jetty in Changi to Pulau Tekong (not like today when they can take a ferry), I can’t forget watching the night sky from the slow boat and thinking when can I get back to mainland Singapore again. 

Continuing on into my adult years, even though going to Changi can be a quite a bit of travel for me staying at the western part of Singapore, I do enjoy heading to Changi once a while, on a road trip along the former Changi Coast Road, watching the planes landing at Changi Beach (and doing aviation photography), taking sunset photographs (a great spot for taking beautiful sunsets in Singapore) at Changi Boardwalk or Changi Beach Park. Not to forget wildlife and travel photography around the Changi Village area. 

You don’t have to worry about food and drinks at Changi Village, from the hawker centre, cafes and restaurants, there are different food and beverage options for you to choose from, to relax and enjoy and have a good time there. Before the days of cafes and restaurants coming to Changi Village, it’s the hawker centre for us, the nasi lemak is one of my favourite!

That part of Changi has a rustic and slower pace of life packed with rich history, heritage, culture and food, that you might not envision in a hectic and fast paced modern cosmopolitan Singapore. The growth, development and transformation of Changi, from coastal living and fishing, into a leisure destination, later into a strategic military district, and today a world famous international airport sits in the Changi district. 

Why not experience Changi for yourself, learning and experiencing its early days, coastal life transforming into the modern Changi international air hub of today. See and experience how Changi still retains its rustic charm, history, heritage, culture and natural surroundings. Come explore Changi on National Heritage Board’s newest heritage trail – Changi Heritage Trail.

How can I embark on the Changi Heritage Trail and explore Changi?

Changi Heritage Trail features three thematic routes:

Bungalows and Beaches in Changi (1 hour with public transport) – 4km

This route will bring you to explore the bungalows, sailing and beach clubs, and chalets in Changi. 

War and Peace in Changi (1.5 hours with public transport) – 7.6km

For those into history and heritage, this route brings you to explore the history of different military buildings in Changi with this route, including Changi Prison, Changi Chapel and Museum, and the former Changi Cantonment.

Gateways and Communities in Changi (2 hours with public transport) – 12km

On this route, you can find more about the communities of Changi and the places in which they lived, worked and played.

For more information on Changi Heritage Trail

For more information on Changi Heritage Trail, please visit https://go.gov.sg/roots-changi-heritage-trail, you can download the Changi Heritage Trail’s companion guide and map, time to start exploring! This map will also be made available in all four languages from June 2024. Limited copies of the companion guide will also be available at Siglap Community Club, Changi Chapel and Museum, and Asian Civilisations Museum. 

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