Where Have All Our Playgrounds Gone?

Where Have All Our Playgrounds Gone? 1

Two of our family’s favourite recreational destinations were the Istana Garden and Lido Beach day-long picnics and casual evening outings.

The Istana Garden was a public park with strict closing hours but the beach was literally open 24-hours!

Where Have All Our Playgrounds Gone?
At the Lily Pond at Istana Garden; Our family picnics that started from Lido Beach usually ended at the Istana Garden, 1960s

Matured trees that shaded footpaths on undulating terrain in Istana Garden’s well-manicured park provided a natural environment for exercise buffs. With a deep sense of camaraderie among regulars who enjoyed outdoor exercise and maintaining a healthier lifestyle, they came in throngs at dawn and in the evening, walking and jogging along the network of footpaths.

An English-style gazebo designed in wrought iron on the summit of the slopes was the site for many school picnics and group outings. During sudden downpours, it provided shelter for everyone in the nearby playground.

I treasure happy memories of this park, having fun on the swings and see-saw, and learning how to share the space with others. If we arrived to see the playground occupied, we would head to the grassy fields and devise our own games to play.

If we were having so much fun in the park that we forgot the time at dusk, the sight of uniformed guards on bicycles, would remind us that it was time to leave.

I also looked forward to feeding the fish in the Lily Pond and made every effort to save our bread crusts to feed them. I was always thrilled to watch the hungry fish rush forward with lips opening and closing rapidly and I would scatter dried bread that crumbled easily in my palm while the fish jostled to snap up the bread crumbs with loud plop, plop sounds.

Where Have All Our Playgrounds Gone? 2
Peggy [Right] with her siblings, cousins and Aunty Polly [2nd from Right] and Aunty Sylvia [Left], playing our own games on the grounds of Istana Garden, 1960s
Our family often enjoyed picnics at Lido Beach, usually with the extended family, joined by cousins, uncles and aunts and even our great-grandmother. These were outings where food was coordinated and the fun which started at the beach would culminate with more activities at the nearby Istana Garden.

Outings to Lido Beach often included takeaway snacks like rojak bought from mobile hawkers parked there. Clutching the rojak wrapped in opeh leaves, we would find a spot to sit and share the snack, using toothpicks to pick up slices of fruit and vegetables!

A row of permanent stalls was set up here by the Town Council and became a popular destination for local snacks like rojak, tahu bakar, ikan bakar, cendol and ice-kacang. It was a unique treat to dine alfresco, bathed by balmy sea breezes in tropical ambiance complete with the sound of swishing coconut palm fronds.

This food centre, Tepian Tebrau, was relocated to Jalan Straits View, a site that ironically, does not enjoy a view of the straits.

The nation’s independence on 31st August 1957 was marked by the opening of Merdeka Park at the coast off Tanjung Puteri in JB. This recreational park comprised a clubhouse with Bar & Restaurant as well as a swimming pool with diving board that was built into the sea.

Where Have All Our Playgrounds Gone? 3
Peggy [2nd from Right] with her siblings and Aunty Annie [2nd from Left] at Lido Beach, 1960’s
Dad, a keen swimmer and diver, frequented this public swimming pool which offered the unique opportunity to swim laps and dive. I still remember the special experience of feeling more buoyant in the sea-water swimming pool.

In 1972 the park was demolished to make way for Customs complex for heavy vehicles built on this site.

After the Istana Garden was closed to the public, present-day Merdeka Park, designed around a former reservoir at Jalan Kolam Air, became the alternative destination for exercise buffs and outdoor events.

Before this was developed into a park, locals would remember a nearby natural sanctuary known as Happy Valley, where a fresh water stream with amazingly clear water flowed over clean sand.

Over at Jalan Tasek Utara, Hutan Bandar recreational park remains the only natural retreat for city slickers to enjoy a nature walk around its seven lakes and pockets of children’s playground with fun challenges for kids of different ages.

Designed with various attractions including a food court and a paddle pool for children, it also has an Orchid Garden for orchid lovers to admire beautiful hybrids, classic and wild orchids. An adjacent building complex was slated for use as a Youth Hub but it remains sadly under-utilised.

Where Have All Our Playgrounds Gone? 1
Façade of the Merdeka Park clubhouse at Tanjung Puteri, opened in 1957 and demolished in 1972 to build the Customs checkpoint for heavy vehicles; Photo courtesy of the Johor Bahru Chinese Association

In the 1980’s, come rain or shine, there would be youngsters playing football on a field at the corner of Jalan Kebun Teh and Jalan Dato Jaafar in the evenings. But this is a thing of the past because this site, adjacent to a traffic intersection, is now occupied by a condominium and commercial centre.

Children of the 80s would also remember having fun at a playground distinguished by a slide created on an elephant’s trunk at a Town Council recreational park in Bukit Cagar.

They probably wanted to make this beast look friendly so the grey elephant was covered with polka-dots in orange and beige colours. This playground no longer exists as its site is part of the Customs Immigration and Quarantine complex.

During the early development of Danga Bay, the public could enjoy the sea view from a promenade and park. There was even a skateboard park but due to poor maintenance, this site lost its appeal.

With massive land reclamation projects on the coast, sandy coves for the public at Lido Beach and Tanjung Puteri no longer exists. Only a short seaside path, parallel to Jalan Ibrahim Sultan, remains.

As the city has ambitious plans to transform itself into a modern metropolis, more recreational sites for public activities from picnics, playgrounds and sand-castle building to extreme sports like rock-climbing, abseiling and skateboarding, are urgently needed.

Public parks should be designed with separate tracks for jogging, roller-skating and cycling and open fields for people to run around, kick a ball or throw a frisbee safely.

The focus must shift to creating spaces where people can pursue a healthier lifestyle and youths can make memories at their favourite playgrounds and recreational parks.

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