Monday, 21 April 2014

Punggol: 'Ulu' place now a leisure haven

Punggol has shaken off its past to become one cool town
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2014

HORSE riding, "farm stays" inside wagon-like chalets, beautifully landscaped parks set amid lush foliage and a silver ribbon of a river.

It sounds like a portrait of a northern holiday spot or even a scene out of a childhood Enid Blyton book, but the description is of Punggol, which has shaken off a past steeped in pigs and poultry to become one cool town.

Housewife Jubell Thong, 39, a Punggol resident of 12 years, loves to take her two children, aged four and six, on her pedalling adventures along the meandering trail in Punggol Waterway Park.

"I really like this area, it's family-friendly and gives us an option to stay outdoors," Madam Thong told The Straits Times as she stopped for a breather during a solo excursion to the park on Wednesday morning.

Just six or seven years ago, many residents complained that Punggol was like the Sembawang of the north-east: "ulu" (remote), unglamorous and quiet with few residents. These days, Punggol is shaping up to be a leisure destination and has seen its population double from about 42,000 in 2007 to at least 83,300 living in flats as of last year.

Not bad for a former farming area also known for fishing and fruit trees - Punggol was, after all, most likely named after a Malay word that means "hurling sticks at the branches of fruit trees to bring them down to the ground".

Its transformation had quickened after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the "Punggol 21-plus" masterplan to make it one of the first waterfront public housing projects in his 2007 National Day Rally speech.

Punggol would have features such as facilities for water sports, gardens and parks with jogging tracks, and eateries for al fresco dining, Mr Lee had said.

Many leisure amenities capitalising on Punggol's natural charms have since sprung up.

The cycling trail that Madam Thong loves, for example, is part of the Punggol Waterway Park - a green lung in north-east Singapore. Running through it is the 4.2km Punggol Waterway, which links rivers Sungei Serangoon and Sungei Punggol.

"The park is relaxing and you can enjoy nice views," said sales representative and Punggol resident Andrew Ng, 47.

Other new installations, such as Punggol Point Park, near Punggol jetty located at the end of old Punggol Road, have also added to the area's chic feel.

Instead of seafood restaurants under zinc roofs that used to line the area, Punggol Point Park now has lily ponds, a playground, and an elevated, ship-inspired viewing deck which offers visitors views of red and gold-drenched skies at sunset, Pulau Ubin and the Strait of Johor.

Al fresco dining on boardwalks by the sea, too, is now a reality.

What really underlines that Punggol has become posh is the arrival of Gallop Stable last year, to offer farm stays, pony rides and riding lessons that start at $65 for a private, 30 minute session.

Said Mrs Mani Shanker, the stable's director: "The development of Punggol has helped promote the place - people become more aware of the area and its facilities."

Mr Francis Ng, chief executive of the House of Seafood Group, sees Punggol becoming "an East Coast in north-eastern Singapore" where people go for a seafood meal by the beach.

That is why the 42-year-old picked Punggol for his sixth restaurant, which opens today.

"I also chose to open an outlet here because of the memory of the place too - 20 years ago, there used to be many kampung seafood restaurants here," he added.

While Punggol is shaping up to be a draw even for visiting dignitaries such as Ms Sun Chunlan, top leader of Tianjin Municipality which has a population of 14 million, some people view it as a less desirable place to live in, given its faraway location.

While Punggol residents are made up mostly of young couples who choose to start their families in non-mature estates, real estate agents say some of them are now moving out to mature neighbourhoods for amenities like malls and wet markets.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, said residents' common gripes include the lack of facilities such as shopping malls and childcare centres. But plans are in place to increase these, he added.

"The town is rapidly developing, and people have easy access to nature through the parks and reservoirs," he said. "Residents can see that (the facilities) are up and coming."

And as always, the development of an area has its downside. Said technician and avid angler Zulfazli Abdul Kadir, 28: "In the past we were free to fish anywhere, but now we can be fined if we fish in the wrong places."

Mr Derrick Ong, general manager at the Marina Country Club that has stood sentinel in Punggol for the past 20 years, said road accessibility is a challenge.

Crowds here have grown not just on weekends but also during the week.

Still, challenges aside, Punggol's appeal is as strong as ever, he added.

"Punggol is historical, with a World War II site located at Punggol End, has beautiful sunsets, and offers leisure activities with a seaview," said Mr Ong, referring to a beach area where many were killed by Japanese invaders.

"It's a unique place you cannot find anywhere else in the north-east."

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