Last Train From Tanjong Pagar by Hong Teng Koh (Based on tours and place histories by Chee Kien Lai), 2014
Published by Epigram Books
First line: “Johor Bahru, 5AM”
Book Rx: For a slice of old Singapore.
I pass by Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on the No. 97 bus on the way to work, or when I’m in the mood for hot, peppery bak kut teh at Outram Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha Restaurant across the road. The railroad tracks are now overgrown with grass, and the yellow ‘Nasi Lemak / Mee Rebus’ sign near the entrance looks incongruous against the green ‘STATE PROPERTY’ sign on the padlocked gates. I always wonder what the station must have looked like, back when it was still in use.
‘Last Train From Tanjong Pagar’ is a rare glimpse inside. The book interweaves the Singapore railway heritage tour conducted by Dr. CK Lai from the National University of Singapore with the story of Chye Huat / Gale, who as a young boy woke up ridiculously early to catch the train from Johor Bahru to Singapore to study…
Chye Huat: Ma… Um… Can’t I… Um…
His mom: What is it, Huat?
CH: Can’t I study here in JB? That way we don’t have to rush every morning.
His mom: Don’t be silly. There’s a reason why you need to study in Singapore. You may not know now, but you’ll find out when you grow up that all the sacrifice is worth it. (They approach the railway station.) Now hurry up, we’re almost there.
… and the story of a young woman named Chiari, who used to date Gale. There are allusions to a miscarriage (I thought the panels showing the miscarried baby as a young child with a string, playing around Chiari and Gale, were one of the most moving in the book). The couple’s love story plays out, and ends, at the station itself.
The railway heritage tour was a real tour. It started from the Bukit Timah Railway Station all the way to Tanjong Pagar and was previously conducted by the real-life Dr. CK Lai. Because the trains no longer run on that route, some events described in the book, like the exchange of tokens by the train drivers, can no longer be seen. The detailed descriptions of Tanjong Pagar station’s history and interiors were fascinating — the triptychs, the murals — even the white marble statues carved by Florentian Angelo Vannetti on the station facade; all had its own meaning.
While sometimes the dialogue felt slightly stilted (“If I remember correctly, the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee was responsible for this development, right?” “Indeed it was him.”), the panels are thoughtfully drawn with care and attention to detail. I like the quiet, unscripted moments best: Gale’s mom making him a mug of hot Milo before they leave the house, Gale daydreaming during his office meeting, Dr. Lai calling out to his tour participants by saying “Hello!* Please come back to the platform now!”
I thought the book also told a story of contrasts: the young and the old; the traditional dry padang surrounded by City Hall as well as the Supreme Court and the modern liquid padang of Marina Bay; Gale’s fancy condo unit and his longing for a simple life; love and loss.
Overall, a good read and a different perspective on the Little Red Dot.
* In Singapore, I find that “Hello” has multiple uses: as a greeting (“Hello, how are you?”) or to call your attention (Aunties at kopi stalls shouting “Hello next order!” or something to that effect).
P.S. On searching for photos of Tanjong Pagar Station’s facade, I came across this article saying that authorities are exploring the possibility of opening up the station for local food stalls in the interim. This is good news. My Private Chef was meant to host an event at the station a few months ago but it was cancelled due to a “lukewarm response.” Hopefully serving up local fare will tempt more of the public to come.