Toa Payoh and a gunman called Hun Cher

5 07 2014

It probably is hard to imagine Toa Payoh holding a reputation for being a hotbed of criminal activity – so much so that it was labelled as the “Chicago of Singapore” – a reference to the US city’s long-held reputation as the crime capital of the world. While this reputation had its origins in the squatter settlements in pre-public housing estate Toa Payoh when the rural setting made it possible for gangsterism to thrive such that few from the outside dared to venture in; its reputation stuck with its name well into the first decade of its new life as the first Housing and Development Board (HDB) planned satellite town.

While much of Toa Payoh’s reputation did have its roots in the gangland activities that did go on, it wasn’t so much the incidents involving Toa Payoh’s gangsters that were perhaps most visible but those that did involve individuals or small groups of criminals in Toa Payoh. One of the Toa Payoh’s most famous crimes, the ritual murders committed in a Toa Payoh flat by Adrian Lim and his accomplices in 1983, did happen well after the satellite town had in fact shed its reputation.

It was well before that incident however that another that had the makings of a Hollywood style shootout, made the headlines in 1970, when Singapore’s second most wanted man, Tan Chiang Lai, found himself cornered in a flat in Lorong 5. Tan, who was also known by a nickname “Hun Cher”, was being hunted down by police after he had shot and killed a watch dealer and proprietor of Thim Lock Watchmakers, Mr Fong Tian Lock  in an attempt to rob Mr Fong’s North Bridge Road shop for which Tan and his five accomplices made away with just seven watches.

The robbery on 17 July 1970, was one of a series of armed robberies over a period of two months that Tan had been involved in, starting with a robbery of a shopkeeper of $4200 at Chulia Street on 6 June 1970. The list of robberies also involved a provision shop in Tanjong Pagar, gamblers in a house at 9th Mile Changi Road, the Golden Ringo Nightclub at Outram, and a gambling den in Lorong K Telok Kurau. Constantly on the move to avoid being caught, the Police finally caught up with him and an accomplice Sim Thiam Huat on 27 July, when in a desperate search for accommodation they fell for a trap that was laid by the police when they moved into a police detective’s flat in Block 64 Toa Payoh.

Having cleared the flats around the fourth storey unit of their occupants, the police had the flat surrounded late in the night and with the help of teargas grenades, they attempted to flush the two out just past midnight. Sim surrendered after being bundled out by Tan from the flat’s balcony at its rear. Tan himself chose not to surrender, shooting and killing himself, bringing to an end to his short but violent career in armed robbery. Sim, who was also Tan’s best friend, was sentenced to six years in jail and six strokes of the rotan in August 1970 for the role he played in the Outram Park robbery and a concurrent sentence of five years in jail for the Tanjong Pagar robbery.

There were to be several more incidents involving gunmen, including one the culminated in a showdown at a cemetery in Jalan Kubor in December 1972 and another involving the most wanted man, Lim Ban Lim, who was shot dead in a shootout at Margaret Drive in November 1972, having been on the run for nine years. The spate of violent robberies in the early 1970s led to the harsher penalties being introduced for gun offences. The new laws, introduced in 1973, stipulates a mandatory death penalty for anyone using or attempting to use a firearm to cause injury – this did seem to work and by the time Toa Payoh had shed its long time crime tainted image as the 1970s drew to a close, gun related offences did also appear to be on the wane.

One of these units at Block 64 was where Hun Cher took his life early one July morning in 1970.

One of these units at Block 64 in Toa Payoh was where Hun Cher took his life early one July morning in 1970.





Opening up a backdoor

6 01 2014

An partly wooded area on the edges of Toa Payoh that for long has been insulated from the concrete invasion next to it is the plot of land south of Toa Payoh Rise and the site on which the former Toa Payoh Hospital (ex Thomson Road General Hospital) once stood (see also a previous post: Toa Payoh on the Rise). That, is a world currently in the midst of a transformation, one that will probably see the face of it changed completely and one that will destroy much of the tranquil charm the area would once be remembered for.

A formerly quiet area on the fringes of Toa Payoh that is in the midst of a huge transformation.

A formerly quiet area on the fringes of Toa Payoh that is in the midst of a huge transformation.

The elevated area, is bounded in the north by Toa Payoh Rise, in the south by the expansive grounds of the former Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools, and to the west by Thomson Road, where the SLF Complex – a mid-1980s addition to the area and a wooded area that has been referred to a Grave Hill is found. Grave Hill was where the grave of the illustrious Teochew immigrant, successful merchant and community leader, Seah Eu Chin, was discovered in November 2012 (see Straits Times report dated 28 Nov 2012: Teochew pioneer’s grave found in Toa Payoh and also Seah Eu Chin – Found! on All Things Bukit Brown).

Grave Hill is located on the left of the photograph.

Grave Hill is located on the left of the photograph.

Much work has already been carried out in the vicinity of Toa Payoh Rise – the construction of the Circle Line’s Caldecott MRT Station has seen the area left vacant when the buildings of the former Toa Payoh Hospital were torn down, take on a new face. This, along with the expanded Toa Payoh Rise – previously a quiet road where the calls of tree lizards were heard over the noise of the traffic, is perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

What the future does hold for the area - from the URA Draft Master Plan 2013.

What the future does hold for the area – from the URA Draft Master Plan 2013.

Looking into the crystal ball that is the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) plans, the latest being the Draft Master Plan 2013 released in November 2013, we can see that a vast part of the area will be given to future residential development with transport infrastructure to support the developments probably kicking-off the complete transformation of the area. Besides surface roads that will be built and the already built Circle Line station, there will also be a Thomson MRT Line station that will expand Caldecott Station into an interchange station, and also the construction underground of the planned North-South Expressway.

The former Thomson Secondary School, now occupied by SJI International.

The grounds for the former Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools, now occupied by SJI International, is a area I was acquainted with in my Toa Payoh childhood.

One part of the area that is familiar to me from my Toa Payoh childhood, is the grounds of the former Thomson schools, now occupied by SJI International School – an area the construction of the North-South Highway will also be change to. The huge sports field down the slopes from where the school buildings are, was often where football teams formed by groups of boys from the Toa Payoh neighbourhood would meet to play a match in the early 1970s – taking a short cut to the grounds from Lorong 1 from the area close to where the Philips factory is.

A inter-schools match being played on the football pitch in 1972 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A inter-schools match being played on the football pitch in 1972 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A pavement where there once wasn't, along a well-trodden path that served as a shortcut to Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools from Toa Payoh.

A pavement where there once wasn’t, along a well-trodden path that served as a shortcut to Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools from Toa Payoh.

Besides providing the huge playing fields, I always thought that the grounds of the schools placed them in a such a beautiful setting, one that rose high above the main road, close to the forest of trees now being replaced by a forest of towering trunks of concrete. For students of the schools getting in from Thomson Road however, it must have been quite a chore to have to walk up the incline of the road everyday just to get to school – a sight that greeted me passing on the bus in the mornings was the stream of students making what appeared to be a very slow climb up the rising road.

The playing field seen today.

The playing field seen today.

Another view of the field and the expansive grounds.

Another view of the field and the expansive grounds.

The schools were relocated at the end of 2000, after occupying the grounds for over four decades. Thomson Secondary does trace its history by to 1956 as a Government Chinese Middle School when, based on information at the website of North Vista Secondary School (which it was renamed as after its relocation to Sengkang), it was formed. Through a merger of Thomson Government Chinese Middle School and co-located Thomson Vocational School, Thomson Secondary was formed in the second half of the 1960s. Thomson Primary on the other hand started its life as Toa Payoh Integrated Primary School.

Towering trunks of concrete seen rising behind the former Thomson Secondary School.

Towering trunks of concrete seen rising behind the former Thomson Secondary School.

Next to the grounds of the schools, the twin octagonal towers of the SLF Complex, has dominated the landscape since the mid-1980s. Built by the Singapore Labour Foundation, one tower, built originally with the intention that all unions affiliated to the National Trades Union Congres (NTUC) could be housed under one-roof, was sold to the Ministry of Community Development (currently the Ministry of Social and Family Development or MSF) in 1986. The People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence, also had its headquarters in the SLF Complex. It moved the headquarters there in 1986 from Napier Road, before moving out to its current premises in New Upper Changi Road in 1996.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The twin octagonal towers of the SLF Complex as is seen from the Singapore Polo Club across Thomson Road.

At the SLF Complex’s backdoor, which leads out to Toa Payoh West, the impending transformation that will come to the area is very much in evidence. Clearance work is already underway on both sides of the road that will permit construction works for the future MRT line as well as tunneling work for the future expressway to be carried out.

Clearance work is already being carried out at Toa Payoh West.

Clearance work is already being carried out at Toa Payoh West.

On the south side of the road, a complex of low-rise buildings from a more recent past is currently in its final days – demolition work on the complex, the former Elders’ Village is already underway. The village, completed in 1995, was put up by the Singapore Action Group of Elders’ (SAGE) on land it obtained on a 30-year lease which expired in 2012. SAGE originally had ambitious plans for the Elders’ Village, which would have included resort-type facilities and chalets, but was forced to scale back on plans due to a lack of funds.

The former SAGE Elders' Village as is seen from the SLF Complex, now being demolished.

The former SAGE Elders’ Village as is seen from the SLF Complex, now being demolished.

A view of the clearance works around Toa Payoh West.

A view of the clearance works around Toa Payoh West.

On the relentless march Singapore has embarked on towards achieving its vision for the future, there certainly will not be any lack of funds. Much activity seems now to focused on developing roads, transportation links and housing to support the huge growth in population that is anticipated (see also: Population White Paper and the supporting Land Use Plan). With this effort, many places such as the quiet and somewhat forgotten buffer between Toa Payoh and Thomson Road, will all too soon have to go. While the efforts will bring us new worlds some may wish to celebrate, with it will also come the inevitable crowd of concrete. And while it is nice to see that the Draft Master Plan 2013 does provide for many pockets of green spaces, there will however be but a few places left on the island that will be left to find an escape that for me will increasingly be needed.

Another view of the former Elders' Village.

Another view of the former Elders’ Village.


Changing Landscapes in the vicinity:






A gold crowned pagoda bathed in a golden glow

4 11 2013

7.05 am, 4 November 2013, the rising sun paints the sky behind a gilt-crowned pagoda. The seven-storey pagoda, the Dragon Light Pagoda (龙光宝塔), is a recent addition to the century old Siong Lim Temple off the Jalan Toa Payoh stretch of the Pan Island Expressway, having been completed in 2002. The Buddhist temple and monastery complex which is a well-recognised landmark in Toa Payoh, is better known these days as Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery (莲山双林寺) and has been gazetted as a National Monument. The complex, which contains several buildings of architectural significance, underwent a massive restoration effort which commenced in 1999 which was completed in 2001. The pagoda is a copy of the 800 year old Shanfeng temple pagoda in Fujian province, was also constructed during the period. The monastery itself is modelled after the Yi Shan Xi Chan Si Monastery (怡山西禅寺) in Fuzhou.

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More information on the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, its history and the restoration effort can be found at the following links on the monastery’s website:





The ‘sunken temple’ of Toa Payoh

18 09 2013

A curious sight that greeted anyone travelling down Lorong 6 close to the Temple / Kim Keat Estate area of Toa Payoh in its early days and one I well remember was a temple that at road level, appeared to be have buried in the ground. The temple, Poh Tiong Keng 普忠宫 (Pu Zhong Gong), which I would refer to as the ‘sunken temple’, was one which went back to the village origins of the area, well before the towering public housing blocks of flats arrived.

The only photograph I have managed to find of the Poh Tien Keong with Block 33 seen behind it (online photograph at http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/aged-singapore-veneration-collides-20th-century).

The area where the 'Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The area where the ‘Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The Block 33 view of the area where the 'sunken temple' was.

The Block 33 view of the area where the ‘sunken temple’ was.

Set in what would have been an undulating area, the levelling of the surrounding ground to put up blocks of flats in the late 1960s, it found itself in a hole in the ground with the 11 storey block 33 towering above it, surrounded by retaining walls put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to protect the temple from being buried. The temple was one of three existing temples which were left untouched by the HDB in clearing the land in the area for the development of the new housing estate. The other two were the Siong Lim Temple and the  Seu Teck Sean Temple.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968.

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Sadly the sight is one we no longer see. The temple was demolished in late 1977, not long after I moved out of Toa Payoh. The area where the temple was will now also see a huge change – the block of flats behind where the temple was along with several others in the area – some of which were leased out temporarily to Resorts World Sentosa to house their workers after residents were moved out, are due to be demolished (one of the blocks which will be demolished is Block 28, in front of which the iconic dragon of  Toa Payoh can be found).

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/)

A last look around Block 33

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Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention that the Poh Tiong Beo (普忠庙) located diagonally across the road from this site was built to replace the ‘sunken temple’ as drainage was poor in the recess the original temple sat in and that would get flooded everytime it rained heavily.






Don’t miss the boat

11 09 2013

A bumboat sits high and dry, resting on a bed of sand in Pasir Ris, seemingly out of place in a sea not of water, but one of the concrete structures which now dominate much of Singapore’s suburban landscape. The boat is itself made of concrete, built not to carry the loads that the wooden vessels it is modelled after over water, but to provide a place where children of the neighbourhood it finds itself in can find amusement.

The bumboat of Pasir Ris.

The bumboat of Pasir Ris.

The boat, designed to resemble the bumboats or twakows – the workhorses of the once busy Singapore River, is one of several unique playground designs that hail from a time we seem to have forgotten. It was a time during which the Housing and Development Board (HDB) had a department within their Landscape Studios, dedicated to developing playground designs to complement the landscape of the public housing estates that were fast coming up, during which several notable playground designs were developed.

The starboard side.

The starboard side.

The efforts go back to the mid-1970s, when Mr Khor Ean Ghee designed the original dragon (playground) of Toa Payoh. That stood in a pit of sand at Toa Payoh Town Garden. This design was to serve as a basis for the sand-pit mosaic-faced dragons, pelicans, doves, elephants and spiders which would have been a familiar sight to the child of the late 1970s, the 1980s and perhaps the 1990s, with a vast number built together with the huge second public housing building wave which started in the mid-1970s which was to see the monster estates such as Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi being built. Several of these playgrounds were also installed in the older estates, of which a few are left. One is the orange dragon of Block 28 Toa Payoh and another, the last dove standing at Dakota Crescent.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

Moving into Ang Mo Kio in the late 1970s, it was the pelican that I encountered not far from where I lived in Block 306. These playgrounds also marked a shift in playground layout. Whereas the ones I played on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many with tubular steel structures on a hard concrete ground, were set expansively such that children playing seemed to have no boundaries, the new designs were a lot more compact sets of concrete with terrazzo and mosaic finishes placed in a a raised pit of sand, had well defined boundaries. Perhaps I had by the time outgrown playing at the playground, but having spent most of my childhood climbing on metal waves and globes, swinging from swings suspended by long lengths of chains, and sliding down high steel slides, the new playgrounds offered  a lot less enjoyment to me.

The playground with Lorong 4, the Lorong 4 market, and Lorong 3 in the background (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James - On a Little Street in Singapore).

The playground I derived the most pleasure from – the one in front of Block 53 Toa Payoh when I lived there (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James – On a Little Street in Singapore).

The last pelican which has been demolished.

The last pelican which has been demolished.

From the animals of the early 1980s, the designers explored fresher themes during a two year period from 1983 to 1985. These efforts yielded designs which revolved around well-known fables such as the tortoise and the hare and also familiar local objects such as kampung houses and trishaws. It was from the next creative wave from 1986 to 1990 that the bumboat was designed. One of 23 designs from the period, the bumboat was one of several which included a kelong designed to represent elements of our multi-racial heritage – the bumboat a representation of Chinese heritage (the twakows were wooden boats used by Chinese traders to carry goods from the ocean-going ships anchored in the inner harbour to warehouses up river).

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The period also yielded other rather interesting designs which included those which revolved around nursery rhymes such as Humpty Dumpty and the  Old Woman who lived in a Shoe; popular childhood games such as snakes and ladders; designs inspired by fruits and vegetables such as the watermelon, mangosteen, pineapple, mushroom and egg plant; and also insects such as ladybirds. A few of these can still be found including a watermelon and mangosteen in Tampines and a double clock in Bishan. Other interesting structures put up during the time included everyday objects, of which the clock is one example, a telephone, a lorry, and not so common (at the time) items such as a bullock cart.

The passing of time. A last clock stands in Bishan.

The passing of time. A last clock stands in Bishan.

During the same period, attempts were also made to provide the newer estates being built with their own identity. Playground designs were also selected for new towns on the basis of this identity. An example of this is the use of fruits and vegetable themed playgrounds in Choa Chu Kang – developed from what was a rural and farming area of Singapore. While the selection of playgrounds were very much left to the architects responsible for the designs of each neighbourhood, an attempt was made to allow for some variety across each estate in which playgrounds were distributed such that there was one for every 400 to 800 dwelling units by limiting the use of any design to maximum of five per estate.

The more complete face - with the hands intact.

The more complete face – with the hands intact.

The death knell for many of the homegrown playground designs was probably sounded with the advent of modular play equipment in the 1990s. This, coupled with safety concerns raised by a Canadian playground safety expert which followed an incident in 1993 in which a five-year old boy had his thumb severed whilst sliding down a poorly maintained metal slide in an older playgrounds (fortunately his thumb could be reattached) saw a change in direction on the part of the HDB. While there was probably a conflict of interest on the part of the expert who also represented a Canadian modular play equipment manufacturer, the safety concerns could not be ignored.

The watermelon.

The watermelon.

While some of the older playgrounds were upgraded to improve their safety including having sand pits which were thought to be too shallow replaced with rubber mats which provided a soft landing, a massive wave of upgrading efforts which swept through many of the older HDB estates in the 1990s and 2000s did see many of these playgrounds demolished in favour of modular equipment which were also a lot easier to maintain and the population of the distinctive mosaic faced structures dwindled over time to the handful we find today.  Although there is hope that at least one, the dragon of Toa Payoh (see news report dated 19 May 2013)  will be kept for some of us to remember a time which will soon be forgotten, there probably is not much time left for some of the others for children of the 1980s and 1990s to catch the boat to bring them back to their childhoods (a dove, one of two that did remain, was very recently demolished) before these structures along with much that is familiar is erased from our ever evolving suburban landscape.

Mangosteen.

The mangosteen.


Old playgrounds:





A new circus comes to Toa Payoh

20 06 2013

A once familiar world fast turning to one that is unfamiliar, is Toa Payoh, the urban kampong where I had spent a good part of my formative years living in. Back then, what was Singapore’s second satellite town – the first planned as a whole by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), was the pride of Singapore’s highly successful public housing programme. It was built in part to showcase the effort with a purpose built “VIP block”, Block 53, built with a viewing gallery on its roof so that the success story could be shown-off to visiting dignitaries to Singapore. That was some four decades ago, and while the face of Toa Payoh is still very much that of the public housing estate it had been built to be, its prime location close to the city does mean that the land on which it does stand, can be sold off at a premium and increasingly, larger chunks of the estate’s land, originally intended for public housing, is now being diverted towards private residential development. This does have the effect of slowly, but surely, changing how we see Toa Payoh.

Block 53 seen today.

Block 53 seen today with the Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple complex across from it.

Block 53 in June 1969.

Block 53 in June 1969.

One pieces of land which will see private residential developments coming up, is one which has somehow remained almost vacant all the years – since Toa Payoh’s life as a public housing estate began. Now cleared of an Esso Service Station which stood at a corner of it since the early 1970s, the plot, bounded by Lorong 6, Lorong 4, Lorong 5 and the huge Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple complex, is currently being sold with a tender having been called by the HDB for it. The plot, being right across Lorong 5 from where I lived at Block 53 from 1967 to 1976 , is one in which I do have some of the more memorable memories of my days in Toa Payoh in. It was where the circus once came to as well as serving as a location of several Trade Fairs held in the early days of Toa Payoh.

A sign foretells the fate of a plot of land which has stood empty since the beginning of Toa Payoh's days as a public housing estate.

A sign tells of the fate about to befall a plot of land which has stood empty since the beginning of Toa Payoh’s days as a public housing estate.

The highlight of my time in Toa Payoh – at least before the Queen visited, was the Great Royal Circus of India coming to town in 1970. Not only did it serve as a distraction that was very different from the travelling wayangs (Chinese operas as they are locally referred to) and the pasar malams (night markets) that they brought with them, it provided me with an opportunity not just to watch the circus for the first time, it also allowed me the chance to see the circus’ travelling caravan (which I often heard stories about) up close. The caravan was stationed adjacent to the big top that had been set up on the same plot of land closer to Lorong 6, just next to Lorong 5 and right across from where I lived in Block 53.

A lion seen in a Royal Circus of India caravan cage in 1968. The circus was based at the plot of land in Toa Payoh in 1970 and brought with it the opportunity to see the animals up close.

A lion seen in a Royal Circus of India caravan cage in 1968. The circus was based at the plot of land in Toa Payoh in 1970 and brought with it the opportunity to see the animals up close (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

Those were indeed exciting times for me, the caravan which would have arrived by ship and moved around the Malayan Peninsula, included the cages of the circus’ animals and it was a huge treat to see the fierce looking Lions, Tigers and the curiously fascinating Ligers in their cages, not on the page of a magazine or book, but from a relatively safe position just an arm’s length away. Another huge treat was getting close the huge elephants – a few were chained to poles in the ground, and being washed and tended to by the keepers, although it is the rather unpleasant smell and sight associated of one of the elephants answering the call of nature in a big way that does seem to remain etched in my memory more than anything else.

The location plan on the HDB Land Sales web page (click to enlarge).

The unoccupied plot of land, along with the one across Lorong 4 on which the Toa Payoh Police Station (now Police Security Command) was to be built on, were ideal places to host the travelling Trade Fairs, popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fairs, entrance to which would have cost some 20 cents for adults back then, contained many stalls selling a range of goods and cooked food, as well as having a fun fair of sorts. The fun fair was where rides, similar to the ones set by by Uncle Ringo these days, were found along with many other game stalls set up. It was this part of the fairs I was often drawn to, and on one  rare occasion I was allowed to go with an older neighbour (those were days when there were many warnings of children disappearing, many from similar fairs across the island, presumably kidnapped and never again seen). That was a visit, for which my grandmother stored the few coins I was given to spend in a knotted handkerchief, I well remember. It was probably more for what did happen – in participating in a game in which darts were thrown at inflated balloons so as to burst them, one of the projectiles I launched missed the girl who was manning the stall very narrowly.

A view northwards across the plot of land from where the Esso Service Station was. The Toa Pyoah Police Station (now Police Security Command) can be seen across Lorong 4 on the left - both that piece of land and the empty plot played host to trade fairs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A view northwards across the plot of land from where the Esso Service Station was. The Toa Pyoah Police Station (now Police Security Command) can be seen across Lorong 4 on the left – both that piece of land and the empty plot played host to trade fairs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Another thing I do remember of the plot of land was a large grass fire in the early 1970s which happened during a dry spell. The sight of firemen smothering the still smoking grass with gunny sacks after the fire was put out, as well as the sight of the charred black field is that I still well remember. It is however, the (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Tong (修德善堂), a Buddhist temple perched on the hillock on the eastern side of the plot of land, and a landmark in Toa Payoh which was there well before the public housing estate came up – which would probably be what most would identify with the plot of land. The huge temple complex, most of which was rebuilt in the early 1990s, as I would have known it back in the 1960s and 1970s, was completed in 1959, and was where a previous wooden attap roofed structure was said to have been put up in 1942. The temple’s location also marks where the first block of flats in Toa Payoh proper did come up – the first block of flats completed is Block 52, which still stands next to the temple and overlooks the temple complex.

The (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Ton seen on a small hillock at the eastern edge of the empty plot of land. The first block of flats completed in Toa Payoh, Block 52, can be seen just beyond the temple complex.

The (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Ton seen on a small hillock at the eastern edge of the empty plot of land. The first block of flats completed in Toa Payoh, Block 52, can be seen just beyond the temple complex.

With the new development that will soon take place, the temple’s position as a landmark overlooking the northern gateway to Toa Payoh (via the flyover at Bradell Road), will probably diminish. The development will add to growing list of private residential property in Toa Payoh and will further tip the balance in the mix of public and private flats in the area and it may be a matter of time before Toa Payoh will shed an image it was built to have – that of the jewel in the crown of what did become a very successful effort to house Singapore’s once homeless masses.

The rising of the sun over a new Toa Payoh.

The rising of the sun over a new Toa Payoh.





A world uncoloured

9 04 2013

It is in the colours of a world that has been uncoloured, where we find residues of the many memories there may have been of it. The memories are ones that soon will fade – the world waits the inevitable. It will soon face a destruction many similar worlds have faced, making way for a new world in which its memories of four decades past will forever be lost.

The stairwell of a world about to change (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The stairwell (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

What now dominates this world at Lorong 6 in Toa Payoh, a recent victim of the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in which residents and businesses are moved out to allow the neighbourhood to be redeveloped, is its tallest block of flats, Block 28. At 20 storeys high and occupying a prominent position on a low hill at one of the three original points of entry to what was an island-like Toa Payoh, it was hard not to miss the block which is one of a few blocks of flats built by the HDB laid out on a W-shaped plan, especially with the bright orange dragon found at the foot of the block.

A world where memories will soon fade.

A world where memories will soon fade.

A corridor (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

A corridor (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The dragon is one that has in recent times, come to prominence. It has perhaps come to symbolise a growing desire to hold on to what is familiar in a Singapore many find is changing too fast. It is one of several well-loved creations of the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee. Mr Khor can be attributed with probably a generation of growing Singaporeans many cherished memories of playing in sandpits and playing on, sliding down or swinging from the terrazzo structures which took the shapes of popular childhood creatures. Besides playgrounds he designed in the shape of the dragon, there were smaller ones which took the forms of the pelican, the elephant and the dove.

The dragon of Block 28 (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The dragon of Block 28.

The dragon at Block 28 is perhaps the best preserved of the few that have survived. It is one where its sandpit has survived where others may have lost them to the modern materials which provide a soft landing in the ultra sfae playgrounds our children now play in. The future the dragon has, with the intended renewal of the area, been a subject of much speculation. Many harbour a hope that it survives sandpit and all.

The sandpit (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The sandpit (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The world the dragon bids farewell to is one that had once been familiar to me. An uncle and his family had lived in top floor flat in Block 28. While my family lived in Toa Payoh up to 1976, we visited frequently, taking walks in the evenings down Lorong 4 or Lorong 5 from where we lived in Block 53.

The back of Block 28.

The back of Block 28.

The block is one known for the magnificent views it offers. We had discussed the possibility of watching the going-ons at the nearby Toa Payoh Stadium through a pair of binoculars but never attempted to do it – possibly because nothing interesting enough did take place at the stadium. It was however the view down the stairwell that would leave the largest impression on me.  The stairwell was unique in the sense that the staircase and its railings wound around the sides of what was a large trapezoidal space that occupied the angles of the W-shape plan. It wasn’t just that it was a much bigger space than one would normally see in HDB blocks of flats, but it offered a somewhat frightening view over the railings especially from 20 floors up.

Another look through the stairwell.

Another look through the stairwell.

Walking around the recently vacated block, its corridors and staircase landings scattered with the discards of former residents who moved to newer flats, there is this sense that I am walking amongst the ghosts that have been left behind.

A partly opened window.

A partly opened window.

A peek into a world occupied only by its ghosts.

A peek into a world occupied only by its ghosts.

In treading through the debris of the former world and pass by louvered windows some opened as if to provide ventilation to the ghosts of the vacated units, I also see colours of the real world left behind: familiar scribblings of loan sharks’ runners, along with familiar splatters of red on doors and windows – one memory that perhaps is best left to fade. It is one that will certainly be forgotten, along with the more than 40 years worth of memories that the now vacated units contain, all of which will all too quickly fade.

Scribblings of the real world along the staircase (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Scribblings of the real world along the staircase (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

A red paint splattered door that will definitely want to be forgotten.

A red paint splattered door that will definitely want to be forgotten.

A red paint splattered window.

A red paint splattered window.





Chasing the dragon, finding a bunny

25 07 2012

With a small group of new-found friends, I found myself chasing the dragon – the now iconic playground made famous by it being #3 on Flavorwire.com’s list of the world’s 15 most amazing playgrounds, and one that seems to come to mind whenever the topic of old playgrounds is brought up in Singapore. The playground, the orange dragon of Toa Payoh has recently also made an appearance in ‘Mosaic Memories‘ – an effort commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project on the subject of capturing memories of old playgrounds.

The dragon of Block 28 Toa Payoh.

The dragon of Toa Payoh, sitting proudly below Block 28 in Lorong 6, greets anyone arriving by road into the island that is Toa Payoh, through one of the town’s original three entry points – at what is today called Kim Keat Link. Wearing on its face a bright coat of orange coloured by the mosaic tiles that once commonly featured as wall finishes, it is hard not to notice it. Despite missing swings and ropes that used to dangle from it what would best be described as its steel spine, the playground is still one that is, after some three decades of wear, in immaculate condition. The steel spine, formed by bars of steel bent to form a curved rib-cage like structure that is held together by two continuous round steel bars, connects the dragon’s tail to its head. The head is one which has terrazzo slides built into it – one that seems a lot more durable than the plastic slides that are commonly found in the playgrounds of today.

One of two terrazzo slides on the dragon’s head.

Children playing on the dragon’s spine.

The playground which has achieved worldwide attention through its appearance on Flavorwire.com’s list of 15 most amazing playgrounds is one the most photographed old playgrounds in Singapore.

It does attract some older kids as well!

Playgrounds with sand always allow kids using them to explore another dimension of play.

The dragon is one of several dragons that were known to reside in Toa Payoh. Besides the dragons seen in the many Chinese temples around the estate, there was first the dragon statue at Lorong 3 that is still there and several dragon playgrounds, all of which were designed by the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, two of which are still with us. The first dragon playground was one that was once found in that amazing large play area right at the end of Toa Payoh Town Garden just beyond the look-our tower which is still there. It featured a painted steel face and a pretty long spine and is one that I spent many happy moments at. I especially loved climbing the bars arranged beneath its head – bars that connected to horizontal monkey bars arranged in a circular fashion which seemingly supported its head.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

These playgrounds – the orange dragon which sits below Block 28 where my cousins had lived, and the one at the garden which has since disappeared – a victim of the construction of the HDB Hub (the playground was demolished to accommodate a temporary bus interchange as the air-conditioned one was being put up where the original bus terminus had been), were not the ones that I have the fondest memories of. Those memories are ones of the smell of rust on my hands and clothes from the steel of chains and slides that sometimes very hot to touch in the sun, and splinters in my shorts from the wooden see-saw planks and seats of the swings – all of which represented a time when playgrounds were provided a luxury of space and permitted childhood expression in interacting with playground equipment to be exercised in much more creative ways.

The playground in Toa Payoh that I have the fondest memories of (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James – On a Little Street in Singapore).

One particular playground which many of those memories are associated with is the one that was below the block of flats that I lived in, Block 53. That along with the many others I had once had taken so much pleasure out of including one at Katong Park which I well remember for a wood and steel merry-go-round, has long since disappeared. It was one remnant of my childhood close to Block 53, for which my friends and I decided to head to the area following the quick look at what still apparently is an object of childhood worship. The route to the area around where I had lived was one that I had many times in the 1970s taken home from my cousins’ place, but it wasn’t to Block 53 that I headed to this time, but to the area across Lorong 4 to where the market is. The area, disfigured by upgrading works that relieved it of much the nice open spaces it once had – spaces in which itinerant Nepali vendors once displayed wares laid on mats and where men with undershirts rolled over their midriffs congregated, does take me back to the days when two food stalls seemed to communicate with each other. The two which faced each other  each had a sign displayed above the stall – one asked that we “Come Every Day” and the other in what always seemed like a reply had the words “I am Coming”.

A window into the past that sees more of the present.

Around the market are three four-storey blocks with ground floor units populated by shops of all kinds including several which date back to the days of my childhood – all found in the L-shaped Block 94. One is the end next to Lorong 4 where the well-known Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Restaurant Lee Fun Nam Kee can be found. It wasn’t this that attracted my friends and me back, but the unit at the other end where an unmistakable shop front of a barbershop with its barber’s pole, is one that hasn’t been changed since the shop first started just a little over four decades ago. The barbershop, the Bugs Bunny barbershop, started there in 1971, moving into the corner unit which had been previously occupied by an ice-cream parlour, Yum-Yum – the original occupants which had operated for about two years. I was sad to see the parlour close – it had a long American diner style counter with stools, but the Malay barbershop was definitely a welcome addition – I hated my visits to the Indian barbershop which shared a unit with a ladies hairdressing salon (as was very common then) at Block 54 for the crew cuts I inevitably had ended up with, and I very soon became a regular customer of Bug Bunny which is a Malay barbershop.

The front of the Bugs Bunny barbershop is one that hasn’t changed since it first started in 1971.

Where Indian barbers have had a long and established tradition in Singapore (and across the Causeway in Malaysia), Malay barbers only really started establishing themselves in the late 1960s and 1970s. The arrival of Bugs Bunny came at a time when the Malay barbers began to set the standard for male hairstyles in Singapore and when there was a rapid expansion in the number of Malay barber shops – the origin Malay barbers were the few who operated independently. They started to set the trend with their ability to improvise and give their customers styles that went beyond the closely cropped cuts that seemed to once have been a standard, becoming very popular also with school boys. Bugs Bunny might also have started a small wave in naming Malay barber shops after popular cartoon characters – another that I later frequented in Ang Mo Kio was named Pink Panther.

Some of the inside (which was recently renovated) still looks the same … the barber chairs are the same ones the shop started with in 1971.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that a few of the barbers at Bugs Bunny are ones that were there since it earliest days – while business had tapered off over recent years, especially with the preference for more upmarket salons and also with the arrival of the Japanese style barber chains, there was still a steady enough stream of customers during the Sunday. At the urging of some of my friends, I decided to have a haircut and I soon found myself stepping into a world that I had not seen since 1976 – when I had moved out of Toa Payoh. As I sat on the barber’s chair once again … chairs which I was told were the same ones from the shop’s early days, I became quickly immersed in a world I had once familiar with, the smell of talcum powder bringing back not just memories of a shop which even with its recent makeover, still seems very much the same, but also of the other barber shops of my childhood. Talcum powder is generously applied especially so in Indian barber shops, thinking about which brought back memories of staring into the wall to wall mirrors both in front an at the back, reflecting reflections that seem to be reflected an infinite number of times … and in those reflections is a world that for much too long, had been one that was lost to me.

A world that for too long has been lost to me.





A mosaic from my childhood

19 07 2012

I very recently set foot in a flat that had once been my childhood home, one that holds not just the memories of my formative years, but also of the wonderful moments of what had been a very eventful childhood. The flat in Toa Payoh, is one that I have not been in since I moved out to another in Ang Mo Kio some three and a half decades ago and although I have visited the block of flats several times in more recent years, I never did summon the courage to knock on its door – a door, just like the gate that protects it and the common corridor facing windows next to it, is the same one that I had left behind. Plus, it did look as if it wasn’t occupied.

The bedrooms’ mosaic flooring – unchanged since the time my parents put it in when we first moved in some 45 years ago … a mosaic which holds many memories of my childhood.

The opportunity to revisit the flat came by way of a message on my mobile. A Mediacorp Channel 8 team producing a variety show that is currently being aired on local television, United Neighbours Society, with whom I had been in touch with over the use of old photographs, asked if I could be interviewed at the flat. The flat was one of two which HM Queen Elizabeth II took a look at during a visit to Singapore in 1972 – a visit the team were keen to include in the Toa Payoh episode of the show, each episode of which is set in a different residential estate in Singapore and includes snippets of the particular estate’s past. An opportunity that I never thought would come to see my childhood home again had presented itself and I had to agree, which I did without much hesitation. With the current owner of the flat kindly agreeing to have his flat filmed, I soon found myself stepping through a doorway I had last stepped through in 1976.

Shaking hands with the Queen. The visit of the Queen to the flat in 1972 was one of the highlights of a wonderful childhood.

It’s hard to describe how I felt stepping into the flat … a surge of varying emotions went through me. Although furnished very differently from when I had lived in it, there was more that was familiar than that wasn’t familiar. One of the first things that struck me was how much hadn’t changed. One was the green terrazzo flooring that my parents had put in – in anticipation of the Queen’s visit, complete with the radiused light green skirting which I at that instance remembered I used to push my model die-cast cars along and against.

The front door and gate in 1968.

The ceiling was still the old familiar ceiling – just a little worn with age, as were the front grilles and the kitchen cabinets with the same Formica lining … Right at the back of the kitchen area is probably where most of the changes to the flat had be made. I could see the obvious signs of the upgrading work that the block of flats has since undergone – upgrading work which regretfully altered the clean façade of the block, and took away the rooftop viewing gallery and the wonderful open spaces below the block. The windows and grilles had been replaced and the bathroom and WC (in two separate rooms as it common to see in those days) had been modernised. I looked up – I had forgotten how high the ceiling at the back was – the space right at the back of the kitchen had when the flat was in its original condition been a service balcony – separated by a wall with a door and louvered windows. My parents had the wall removed and windows installed at the balcony which then became an extension to the kitchen.

Setting foot into a flat that once had been my childhood home brought with it a flood not just of the memories it contains, but also a surge of emotions in me.

The kitchen is one that holds many special memories. Memories that came flooding back to me as I surveyed the kitchen included the many occasions when I helped my mother with her baking –making pineapple tarts which she always made for Christmas and Chinese New Year. This was something I always looked forward to – I was particularly fond of using the pastry cutter which included a wooden block that fit into the metal shell that acted as the cutter to mould the little recess in which the filling went into. The filling would then already have been prepared – a tedious task that involved grating pineapples and cooking and then draining the filling before it was ready to be used. Another thing I enjoyed was cutting the little strips of left over pastry, forming then into shapes and letters and placing them on top of the filling before the tarts were baked in the oven.

The kitchen seen during the Queen’s visit.

Another memory that came back to me of the kitchen is one of the days that preceded the dumpling festival. It was in the space by the entrance from the hall – a spot where for a while my father had placed his fish tank, where a bamboo pole would be laid across two chairs from which lengths of bamboo twine was suspended. It was where we sat on low stools to pack the dumplings – glutinous rice with a filling of pork spiced in the Peranakan style with a peeled chestnut added wrapped in a bamboo leaf in the shape of a tree sided pyramid, which could then be secured using the bamboo twine before we put them in the steamer.

The Queen admiring my father’s fish tank. The area of the kitchen was where we prepared dumplings.

Stepping into the bedroom, the one that was separated from the common corridor by a wall with the same two panels of louvered windows still there which we normally kept closed, brought back many memories as well – many bittersweet. The bedroom, still with the same blue and white mosaic flooring that was put in when we first moved in, was one which I shared with my late maternal grandmother, one in which I have my happiest memories of my interactions with her. She had a high metal framed bed fitted with four posts and an upper frame on which she fitted a mosquito net or kelambu as she had referred to it, on the side of the room away from the doorway. It was from her bed that she related the many stories I heard of her life and from her. It was also on her bed where she would apply when seemed then like her cure-all – Minyak Kayu Putih as she called it – Eucalyptus oil to my stomach area whenever I had experienced a stomach ache.

Windows and grilles which had been unchanged for 45 years – on the windows of the hall and the bedroom which I had used.

The room with its original door and windows also intact, somehow looked a lot smaller than it appeared to me as a child. Standing there, it was hard to imagine how we had fitted a metal framed double-decker bed, the lower bunk of which I had used, on the other side, as well as my grandmother’s old style cabinet cum dresser and another cupboard at the doorway end and an altar (which once caught fire) in the top corner above my grandmother’s cupboard. Staring at the flooring – there seemed to be a lot more memories – many which are personal, which seemed to be held in the repeated patterns that the blue and white tiles form, that came back … some bringing a tear to my eye.

Playing in the hall … the mosaic flooring that my parents had originally fitted can be seen – the same one which still exists in the bedrooms.

The very pleasant gentleman that now owns the unit, is the same one who had bought the flat over from the HDB after we had moved (rules then did not allow HDB flats to be traded on the open market). I did have a photograph of him taken with me after filming was completed, as I did take a few photographs of the flat with his kind permission – out of respect for the owner’s privacy I will not post the photographs except the ones which do not reveal too much. I took the opportunity to also have a chat with him and one of the things that I did learn from him was that the lady who went door-to-door selling bubur pulut hitam (a dessert of black glutinous rice served with a topping coconut milk) – a fond memory I have of my days in Toa Payoh (I would always look forward to her coming), still does it. He says that she must now be at least in her 80s …

The kitchen and the cabinets which are still there seen during Sir William Goode’s visit in September 1972.

The time soon came when I had to say goodbye to my childhood home once again. Although it was with some reluctance, I did leave also with a sense of contentment. It wasn’t just one that comes with the comfort of seeing a place that I was emotionally attached to as a child and one that has retained many physical reminders of the world I was familiar with, but also one that comes with the many hidden memories that my visit to the flat has awakened in me.





Voids that have filled our lives

12 04 2012

It was in the first generation of the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) flats in Queenstown and in Toa Payoh in the 1960s and 1970s that I grew up in. Then, many of the new residents were moving into HDB flats for the first time and were just coming to terms with the new reality of high-rise living. Ground floor units – a common feature of blocks of HDB flats built up to the early 1970s, as well as lower floor units were much sought-after – many felt an unease living high-up. For those that had moved in from the kampongs, the confines of the new dwellings needed a fair amount of adjustment to. Where their previous dwellings might have offered them access to a free space beyond the walls, the new dwellings opened to what must have seemed like a cold cemented common space. It was no surprise that ground floor units were particularly popular as they allowed a semblance of life as it might once have been – little plots of vegetables and the chickens running around at the back of these units were then quite a common sight.

The open space that used to be a huge playground when I moved to Toa Payoh at the end of the 1960s. Open spaces and other common spaces became extensions of dwellings as residents moving from kampongs sought to adapt to a new life in a very different environment.

The same open space at the end of the 1960s (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James as posted in Facebook Group 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

It was perhaps natural in the context of this, that common spaces became spaces for social interaction – opened doors, much as they had been a feature in the kampongs, made common corridors one such place. Beyond the common corridors – there were also the generous open spaces that brought neighbours seeking an escape out of the confines of their new flats together. For the younger ones, the common spaces naturally became an extended playground during a time when the boisterous screams of children in such common spaces would have been tolerated a lot more than it would be today.

The Front Door of the Toa Payoh flat I lived in, 1968. Front doors were usually opened then and much interaction took place with neighbours and itinerant vendors on the common corridors through the front door.

Common corridors had once served as an extension of dwelling spaces as residents adapted to high-rise living.

As a child – the world beyond the doorway besides being that extended play area, was a fascinating place. There was lots to observe – the comings and goings of itinerant vendors, salesmen, swill collectors, rag and bone men and the opportunity to meet people who often looked and dressed differently. It was in interactions that took place in these spaces that many new friendships were forged and where much of my extra-curricular education was received. The generously sized corridor – one that wrapped around the cylinder that was the central lift well of the block of flats in Toa Payoh that I lived in, was one such space. It was wide and (circumferentially) long enough for me to join the neighbours’ children not only in games such as “Catching”, “Police and Thief” or “Cowboys and Indians”, but also in a game of football.

Before the appearance of Void Decks as a feature in public housing apartment blocks in Singapore, common corridors and generous open spaces served as common spaces where people came together, and as a child, spaces in which I played.

Common spaces such as staircases also became play areas.

When my family next moved, it was to a larger flat in the then new estate of Ang Mo Kio at the end of 1976. By that time, the common spaces had included one that was a design feature introduced to blocks of HDB flats in the early 1970s – the void deck. This introduction had been motivated in part by falling demand for ground floor units – those living in them quickly realised that there were several inconveniences they had to bear with such as a lack of privacy, litter thrown from higher floors that would accumulate outside ground floor units and that ever-present stench that came from the rubbish collected in the rubbish chutes. With the space on the ground floor that was freed up, there was now a sheltered space where residents could interact and play in, as well as where communal events could be held – and the void deck took over from the common corridor, just as common corridors also started becoming less common and residents began to take greater value in privacy, shutting their front doors up.

Void decks became a feature of the ground floors of blocks of HDB flats from the early 1970s. Features and amenities were added as residents found new uses of the freed up space.

The early void decks were quite literally voids – not much decorated them other than signs that prohibited just about everything that as children we might have found the spaces useful for – and the bicycle racks and letter boxes that naturally found their way there. Terrazzo tables were added as an afterthought – most were marked with a chess board and had stools arranged around them, as did green topped table-tennis tables. The odd convenience store also made an appearance and over the years, many other amenities did too including police posts, kindergartens and crèches, Residents’ Committees rooms, and old folks corners.

Tables and stools soon made an appearance in the void decks which provide a comfortable environment for neighbours to interact in outside of their private spaces.

Tables tops were also marked with chess / chequer boards.

As with the common spaces around my previous home, I was a regular user of the void deck when I moved to Ang Mo Kio. I had, by that time, outgrown many of the childhood games I would have played in the common corridors in Toa Payoh and the new common space was a place to catch up with friends and schoolmates from the neighbourhood, have a game of table-tennis tables and chat or catch up over the latest music we played on a portable cassette player.

Table-tennis tables also were common finds in the void decks.

What used to be a field we played football in - many open spaces also now feature amenities and have become extensions of the void deck.

Over the years, the usefulness of void decks has grown as the community finds new uses for the space. No longer is the void deck confined to hosting the odd wedding reception or funeral wake, or the small gathering of friends and old folks, but also where other social and communal gatherings and activities are held. These include book fairs, exhibitions, bazaars and cultural activities. The void deck does also hold an occasional surprise – one such surprise is the sound of the dizzying strains – gamelan like, that point to the performance of a rare cultural dance, one that would have been more commonly seen in the days before the void deck – Kuda Kepang. The dance sees performers mount two-dimensional horse-shaped cut-outs and is believed to have originated from pre-Islamic Java – its roots being in the retelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. While most of the performance of this does take place beyond the void deck, it is in the void deck, that the dizzying accompaniment does originate from – instruments that produce these strains would usually be set up in the void deck. The use of the void deck is certainly one that is evolving, some now include features such as old folks corners, privately run child-care centres and kindergartens, and also study areas. Common spaces and the successor to some of the original common spaces, the void deck, have certainly come a long way over the years – besides being called a void for the absence of housing units, there is no doubt that it is hardly a void – but a common space that has evolved to one that fills the lives of the many residents who do use it.

A rare sight that makes an appearance at the void deck - Kuda Kepang, a cultural dance that is thought to have originated from pre-Islamic Java.

Performers on two-dimensional horse shaped cut-outs dance to dizzying strains of Javanese instruments that are set up in the void deck.


This blog entry is written in support of NHB’s third community heritage exhibition on void decks entitled “Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces.” The exhibition highlights the history and development of void decks in the HDB heartlands, their common features and uses, and their role in providing shelter, building community and promoting racial integration. The exhibition is currently on display at the void deck of Blk 2, Saint George’s Road for the month of April before travelling to Marine Parade and over void decks around Singapore.






A door through to the corridors of time

16 03 2011

It was nice to take a walk with a few of my friends, former Toa Payoh residents as well, down memory lane, visiting parts that they were familiar with in their childhoods, much as I did to the block of flats I lived in some time back. In doing so, we were transported back some forty years in time, to a place that maybe was very different in many ways to the upgraded Toa Payoh that we see today. It was nice however, to find that beyond that unnecessary clutter that somehow upgrading gives to the opened and airy neighbourhoods of our HDB childhoods, there are still some reminders of a forgotten time that is left for us to discover.

Much of Toa Payoh is very much new intertwined with the old, with the clutter of upgrading mixed with some reminders of a forgotten time (even upgraded laundry poles seem to have clutter added to them).

We did rediscover our lost childhood in some ways taking the walk, which took us to the outside of the units that two of my companions lived in, a second storey corner unit that has lost much of its original decor, and another on the fourth floor which the previous occupant was pleased to discover, still had the original mosaic flooring that was put in all those years back. On the ground floor of that block of flats, we stumbled upon a unit with a renovation notice stuck to its front, one which, we were surprised to see, would have looked exactly how it would have all those years back, with its original window louvres and pink wooden door that somehow doesn’t look much worse for wear. I guess what the renovation notice means is that the window and door would soon be retired, and we were glad to have had to chance to see them before they go along with those that came with the other units before they were renovated.

A flat that has retained the original door and window louvres which would have been used for more than 40 years.

The original lower louvres of the windows.

The letter slot that doors on HDB flats were fitted with up to the early 1970s - the post man delivered mail door-to-door in those days.

A keyhole cover that doors on HDB flats were fitted with then, I had forgotten about these until I saw it on the old door.

The keyhole cover in a semi-closed position.

A ground floor corridor ... somehow it looked a lot narrower and the ceiling seemed a lot lower than when we were children.

New age pegs on a nylon laundry line strung outside a fourth storey flat.

"Flags" of a HDB estate fluttering over upgraded windows of a n old block of flats.

A new covered walkway added during upgrading - one of the more useful bits of clutter added to the neighbourhood.

Colours of the new neighbourhood that has come up around the old.

Besides the door and the corridors through which we could take that step back in time, there was another little place at the row of shops that still looks as it did 40 years ago, that is a clinic, Chaim’s Clinic at Block 111 Toa Payoh. I have not actually visited that clinic before this, but on the evidence of what my companions told me, the shop front, floor tiles, frosted glass panel and even some of the furniture, are very much what they were all those years back. The doctor, Dr. Chaim, I am told, is well into his 70s and is still practicing!

A reflection of the new on the old ... one of the survivors of these 40 years, a clinic that has retained much of its decor, including the frosted glass panel at the front, the collapsible gate and the mosaic tiled walls.

A close-up of the mosaic tiled wall at the clinic's front.

The waiting area of the clinic.

A set of old weighing scales.

The mosaic floor.

One of the shops in the upgraded block that hasn't been hit by the inflation that usually accompanies updgrading.

Balls for sale ... used to be quite commonly seen hung outside shops in HDB estates.





The area around Toa Payoh Library 37 years ago

23 11 2010

Taking a walk back with the Toa Payoh Library to the beginnings of Toa Payoh as a planned satellite town, I was able to explore some of the “newer” additions in the early days of Toa Payoh as a HDB estate. Of these additions, we have of course the Library building itself, and the open space in front of the Library which had incidentally a significant part to play in the history of Toa Payoh as well as having some buildings of significance around it.

The Toa Payoh Library and the open area in front of it as seen today.

The library itself – although it wasn’t opened yet (it opened in early 1974), was the location of a momentous event in Singapore’s sporting history – it was where the Games Village built to house athletes from seven participating countries for the very first mass sporting event that Singapore held, the 7th South East Asian Peninsula Games (SEAP Games), was officially opened by the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee in a ceremony held on 30 August 1973. Looking at the picture of the library in the early days, one is able to count eight flag poles – one to fly each of the participating nations’ flags as well as the Games flag. To house the athletes, four 24 storey point blocks with 346 four room units were built in Toa Payoh Central, each unit housing six athletes in three bedrooms. These units were later sold to members of the public through a balloting exercise, fully renovated and furnished – the first ever HDB flats to be sold that way, at a cost of S$19,000 for the flat and another S$1,700 for the furnishings. One of the point blocks, Block 179, is just next to the library and was in fact also the second VIP block in Toa Payoh, taking over from Block 53 where I had lived in.

The library building soon after completion with the 8 flag poles in front of it. It was where the opening ceremony of the 7th SEAP Games Village was held on 30 Aug 1973 (photo courtesy of the NLB).

Dr. Goh Keng Swee cutting a cake during the opening ceremony for the Games Village (source: The Straits Times, 31 Aug 1973).

Block 179, one of the four 24 storey four room point blocks built to house athletes during the 7th SEAP Games in 1973 and was also the second VIP block in Toa Payoh.

Toa Payoh besides hosting the 7th SEAP Games Village, was also a town of many firsts, as I had mentioned in a previous post. Among the ‘firsts’ was also the first ever fully air-conditioned POSB Bank branch – located at the corner of Block 178 – again just by where the library is (a Bata shoe store now occupies the units which the bank occupied).

The Bata store now at the corner of Block 178 occupies the units which housed the first ever POSB Bank branch to be fully air-conditioned.

In the same area across the open space from Block 179 is another building which is significant in Toa Payoh’s history – the building that housed Kong Chian Cinema – Toa Payoh’s first ever cinema, which opened on 11 May 1972 with the screening of a Charity Premier ‘The Loner’ for the nearby Chung Hwa Free Hospital. Now called 600@Toa Payoh, the building housed a single screen cinema with two classes of seating, which was very typical of the day – where tickets were printed on coloured pieces of paper on which seat numbers were scribbled onto by a box office clerk with Chinagraph. The cinema screened mainly Chinese films for close to fifteen years until it screened its last movie, ‘The Legend of Wisely’ on 31 January 1987 after which the building was sold to McDonalds.

Now 600@Toa Payoh, the building was where Toa Payoh's first cinema, Kong Chian, was housed from 1972 to 1987.





Toa Payoh’s fairy-tale-like castle

21 11 2010

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a wonderful castle rose up on a little hill bringing a world that seemed to only exist in fairy-tales to the many children who lived in the land. It was a castle that perhaps capped a transformation that took place in the land, once referred to as a big swamp which had contained pockets of zinc or attap topped wooden dwellings that had once been a place where even the brave had feared to thread, having been referred as the ‘Chicago of the East’ or ‘Chicago of Singapore’ for the many gangland activities that seemed to have thrived in the area. The castle had also brought to the children who lived in the newly transformed swamp to a land many had sought to see, a land that lay far across the vast ocean, Disneyland that had existed in the same world that contained the Chicago that many had associated the swamp with. It was indeed a castle where fairy-tales seemed to be made of – as it brought to the children around not just the sense of wonderment that a castle brings, but hope for that better tomorrow that seemed to have eluded many that had once lived around the swamp.

Toa Payoh underwent a transformation from becoming the Chicago of Singapore in the 1960s to a much sought after middle class area we know of today.

The land where the castle had been erected in was the newly transformed Toa Payoh, Singapore’s wonderful new satellite town, the first to be planned as a unit and the first to be built in the then newly independent Singapore. It was a Singapore that was trying to find its feet, as the uncertainty of being cast out from a world that it had long sought to be a part of and one on which it was very much dependent on, gave way to a hope and confidence that the rapid post-independence development had brought about. The castle had in Toa Payoh, become a beacon of hope, as banks, shops and factories moved into the newly developed satellite town, bringing with them the confidence that Singapore’s Chicago could be transformed from what had once had been a hotbed of gangland activity to a land that was safe to live in, bringing not just a commercial presence to the town, but also providing jobs to many who lived there.

Toa Payoh's 'castle' came up in 1969 on the side of Block 54 (source: The Straits Times, 6 Dec 1969).

As with the fairy-tale world from which the castle might have come from, the castle itself was a make-believe one. One that was for most part a two dimensional mural of sorts that decorated the side of Block 54 which stood on a small table of land that rose from the road, Lorong 4 that it faced. I guess to provide a third dimension to the ‘castle’, ramparts – mock-ups built on the open space between the road and the block of flats were added, amongst which children could live out part of the make-believe world the castle had sought to bring. The ‘castle’ had in fact been a stroke of genius – an advertisement for the branch of Chung Khiaw bank that had been opened at the foot of the block of flats, that certainly brought attention to it, recognising that children were a major market force long before McDonald’s arrived at our shores. The bank had then started a ‘coins bank’ scheme, offering attractive bronze coloured coin boxes in the shape of animals, to children which was indeed popular with the children of Toa Payoh, perhaps partly due to the attention that the castle had brought to the branch of the bank, which opened in December 1969. Sadly for the children of today, the wonderful ‘castle’ is now gone – it went sometime in the mid 1970s – not too long after Chung Khiaw bank was acquired by UOB in 1972 (disappearing in name with the merger with UOB in the 1980s).

The view to the end of Block 54 where the branch of Chung Khiaw Bank and the fairy-tale like castle had once stood.

Speaking of Chung Khiaw bank and UOB brings back memories of a run on Chung Khiaw bank that occurred in October of 1974, when over the course of two days, thousands had descended on the same branch (as with many other branches) in an attempt to withdraw their savings with rumours swirling over the bank’s financial stability. What I remember very vividly was the long queue of people that had formed outside the branch and my grandmother remarking that it she was lucky not to have any of her money in the bank. If I remember correctly, this went on for a few days before calm returned as the authorities intervened to restore faith in the bank.

The Fairchild Factory at its opening in December 1969 (source: The Straits Times, 4 Dec 1969)

The Fairchild Factory as seen in 1973.

Besides the advertisement which also had a red-green neon sign of the bank’s name at the top of the block of flats, there were some other prominent landmarks in the area, particularly the short stretch of road, Lorong 3 that the side of the block had overlooked. One was the Fairchild factory – Toa Payoh’s first factory which opened in 1969, operating for several months before being officially opened on 4 December of that year by Dr. Toh Chin Chye. The factory had been set up by the US based Fairchild group with the assistance of the Economic Development Board (EDB) for the assembly of integrated circuits, and was one of the few then that worked around the clock – with three shifts. Starting with 400 employees , which grew to 800 by the time Dr. Toh opened the factory, the factory also featured female only production workers for the delicate shop floor operations. The two storey building that the factory started in, is in fact still there – now used by McDermott, as is another of the landmarks along Lorong 3 – a dragon statue – one a dragon twisting around a red pillar, not as elaborate maybe as the one featured in Royston Tan’s documentary ‘Old Places’ at Whampoa, but one that many who grew up in the area would fondly remember.

The two storey building that housed the former Fairchild Factory along Lorong 3 today.

The other 'landmark' along Lorong 3, the Dragon Statue.





A journey through time: a heritage trail through Toa Payoh

7 10 2010

A journey through time

A heritage trail through Toa Payoh organised with the National Library Board

Take a walk back in time to the Toa Payoh that I grew up in, a Toa Payoh that was taking its first steps as the first planned satellite town. The route will pass through a mix of residential and commercial properties that had existed in its early days as well as the public and communal facilities which included a hospital and a girls’ home. The journey would also go back to the Toa Payoh that was the village that hosted athletes for the very first international mass sporting event held in independent Singapore in 1973 and the block of flats that hosted HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. More information on the walk can be found at the end of this post


The Toa Payoh that I grew up in …

The Toa Payoh that I grew up in at the back end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s was perhaps one that was looked at very differently from the way it is looked at now. Over the 40 years since its start as a new satellite town that rose from what was a swampy area – the first planned town and the first that was built following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, it has evolved from being one that was a public housing exercise to house the burgeoning population of the new nation whose population consisted of young families as well as the many that were resettled from the kampongs that were being clear to make way for the Singapore we see today, to a much sought after residential district with a mix of private and public housing, due to its proximity to the city.

Toa Payoh back then was a very interesting place for a young child to grow up in … it was where new HDB residents were still coming to terms with living in high density and high rise blocks of flats and where the transformation of the heartlands was taking place to what we see today. Back then, it was common to see vegetables being planted on plots behind ground floor units as well as chickens running around, hawkers on push-carts as well as those who went door-to-door balancing their wares at the two ends of a wooden stick or on the top of their heads, much as it might have been in the old kampongs many of the residents came from.

Life for many revolved around the amenities that the new town provided, there were the markets, shops, banks, clinics and food stalls that catered to the day-to-day needs, new schools built to cope with the large population of children of school-going age, new factories that provided work for many who lived there, as well as the many places of worship that were constructed that catered to the spiritual needs of the residents. The areas around the markets were particularly lively – especially in the mornings when residents shopped for their market produce on a daily basis – a practice that was prevalent in the pre-refrigerator age of the kampongs. Around the markets there would not just be the shops and food stalls that would be opened early to catch the market crowd, but also many itinerant vendors – many of whom were Nepali – displaying their wares: leather belts and wallets; trinkets; cigarette lighters; and many other little items on mats that they laid on the ground. The whole area would be bustling with people, some seated on the tables and chairs laid around the periphery of the markets feasting on a breakfast of fishball noodles, kway chap, chee cheong fun, or chai tow kway. The benches laid around the open spaces would be filled with elderly men, dressed as they would have back then in unbuttoned shirts exposing their undershirts or singlets they wore under the shirts. Some would have their undershirts rolled up as they sipped black coffee poured into the saucer to accelerate cooling of the steaming hot beverage.

In those days, the black and white television set might have been on of the few things that occupied our evenings, the pasar malam, the arrival of a travelling Chinese Opera (Wayang) troupe, along with the entourage of hawkers and vendors that accompanied it, or the trade fairs and their games stalls that were a common thing back then, was always seen as a treat. It was when we had a chance to troll the streets and plots of land which came to live each evening, coloured by the incandescent glow of lights, the smell of corn or peanuts steaming and the sounds of generators in the background that rose above the din of hawkers promoting their fare and the shrill cries that came from the wayang stage. Once in a while, we would have a bonus in a travelling circus coming to town – the Royal Circus of India being a regular visitor – and the tents and caravans would occupy the open piece of land part of which the Esso Station at the corner of Lorong 4 and 5 sits on now, or the one which the Police Station now occupies.

Take a journey back in time to the Toa Payoh of the late 1960s and early 1970s ...

Toa Payoh besides being the first planned satellite town, was a place where there were many other firsts as well. It was where the first purpose built VIP block – used to showcase the very successful public housing experiment that Toa Payoh was, was erected by the HDB, complete with a viewing gallery on the roof. The block played host to the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 as well as a host of both local and foreign dignitaries including Sir William Goode, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara who also served as a Governor General of the colony of Singapore, and President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President. Other firsts include it hosting the games village for the first major international mass sporting event that Singapore hosted in 1973, as well as having the very first NTUC supermarket – started as a cooperative named “NTUC Welcome” in 1973, and the first fully air-conditioned POSB Bank in Singapore. Toa Payoh also has the distinction of being the first (and probably only) town in Singapore that was built without traffic lights – large traffic roundabouts were used to regulate traffic instead – certainly something that would be feasible in the Singapore that we know today. That was the Toa Payoh that I spent a significant part of my childhood in, one that I had many wonderful experiences growing up in, and one that also hid some lesser explored places such as the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home and the Toa Payoh Hospital, and one that I can certainly journey back in time to.



A Journey Through Time

Saturday, 20 Nov, 10.30am – 12.30pm

Toa Payoh Library

To register (registration has already closed), log on to http://golibrary.nlb.gov.sg and surf on to Heritage. This session is limited to 30 participants only. Participants are advised to wear comfortable attire and walking shoes for this trail. Do also remember to bring umbrella and some drinks. Feel free to bring your cameras and start clicking!






Going up 40 years back in time …

29 09 2010

It’s nice sometimes to discover that, what you have thought might have been consigned to memory, has somehow remained right where it had been. I made such a discoveryon a journey back in time, to the place where I had grown up in – Block 53 in Toa Payoh. It was during this visit to my “kampung” that I was pleasantly surprised, to see that the front door (and gate) through which I had spent many hours staring out at a world beyond the confines of the three room flat that I had lived in, is still right where it had been, albeit a little worse for wear induced by the passage of time.

The Front Door, 1968

The very last time I had seen the pair was way back in 1976, some 33 going on 34 years ago when I moved. I had, despite having for long intending to, not ventured to old place, one that holds a wonderful collection of some of my fondest memories, until I decided to have a look around on Sunday. I did this partly to help in the recollection of memories I have of Toa Payoh in preparation for a trail of Toa Payoh that I am working on with the National Library Board, and partly to satisfy a desire to go back in time, stirred by walks that I had been taking of late around what had once been my hometown.

The front door and gate today ... still there after all these years!

There had been many occasions during which I had strayed into the area where the block of flats is … walking past the empty void decks of Blocks 54 and 55 that once held the banks and shops that I had once frequented –  a huge gaping void where I had once bought the loaf of bread from a lady who opened a foldable table on which she would slice the fresh bread that arrived straight from the nearby bakery each evening; where the smell of rubber and grease emanated from the old bicycle shop where I had the tyres of my bicycle inflated; and the old provision shops from which I got my supply of ice lollies from. The huge open space which held the expansive playground where I had countless hours of enjoyment at around which there had been an elliptical red brick path on which I had fallen many times whilst learning to ride a bicycle is also gone, replaced with the clutter that somehow seems to accompany the upgrading of the older estates. The faces of the block of flats had also been altered, once again disfigured by seemingly useless additions that only seem to add to the clutter of the surroundings.

Bicycles lined up along a row where a bicycle shop and other shops had once been ...

Where there had once been shops and where a crowd had once gathered to greet the British Royal family ... now is an empty void ...

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne amongst the crowds in 1972 in front of Block 54 - the shops below the block of flats can be seen in the background.

A cluttered space where that had once been the open space of the expansive playground ...

With all the changes that seem to have altered the entire area, I did not expect to see much that would be familiar. I suppose that was partly due to the fact that I did not want to be disappointed by the foray to the corridors around which I had spent a very eventful childhood in. Making my way up what is now one of four lifts that serve the block of flats (back when I was living there, we only had two … one that went right up to the top, with an intermediate stop at a lower floor and another that only went up to the tenth or eleventh floor), I noticed that the lift cabins were provided a much more positive experience than the dark, slow and claustrophobic ones that I had once had a moment of horror in (I had been in one that stopped momentarily during which time it was pitch black – the lights having gone out) – although it had been only for a few minutes. Reaching the top floor where I had lived at, everything appeared a lot smaller than I had imagined it to be: the corridor around what was the circular core which held the lift shaft and a ventral stairwell around which I had kicked plastic balls with neighbours and where I had played games such as Police and Thief, and Cowboys and Indians looked a lot narrower, seemingly a little to small for us to have played our games on. There was also the central staircase, which again looked smaller in scale. I had used the landings of the flight that led up to the roof on which to build fortifications out of cardboard boxes. From the relative safety provided by the fortifications, I would fire paper bullets in a game of Cowboys and Indians – while that is still there, the locked iron gate that led to what had been the viewing gallery has since been replaced by a wooden door.

The four lifts serving the block are much improved from the two that had served the block I had once had a moment of horror in.

The cabins of the lifts are now a lot less claustrophobic than they were ...

Somehow, everything seems to be smaller in scale than I had imagined ... even the wide circular corridor around the central lift shafts and stairwell ...

The landing at the top of the flight of stairs leading up to the roof on which I often built a fortification of cardboard boxes behind which I would fire paper bullets whilst playing a game of Cowboys and Indians.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh.

Besides the familiar front door and the gate of the flat that I had once lived in (the door still has the letter slots through which the post man who went door-to-door would deliver letters in the days before letter boxes were installed on the ground floor), there were a few others that were familiar. There were the grills against the parapet which many, not used to looking down from heights, dared not go near to in the early days (those were days when we were still getting accustomed to living high above the ground); and school shoes drying in the sun below one of the grills – a very common sight back when I was growing up …

Grills in the parapet that some dared not get close to in the early days ...

School shoes drying in the sun were a common sight back when I lived in the block of flats ...

Looking beyond the grills and over the parapet … I realised how much the face of Toa Payoh has changed … what had started as a mix of one, two and three room HDB flats, shops and market areas and some light industrial properties interspersed amongst the blocks of flats in what had been Singapore’s first planned satellite town is now a mix of first generation blocks of HDB flats (mostly three room flats that still stand), with the newer and taller blocks of HDB flats as well as blocks of private flats: condominiums that have come up in place of the blocks that have since been torn down. It is amazing how in the space of half a lifetime, Toa Payoh has been transformed from a public housing experiment built over what had once been an unusable swamp to house the burgeoning population of a newly independent Singapore, into a neighbourhood that is much sought after by an upwardly mobile middle class population. For me however, it is still somehow that Toa Payoh that I knew, one that from time to time, whenever I am feeling a little nostalgic, I am still able to take a walk down memory lane to … and to be fascinated with in the same way I had been as a child growing up in the Toa Payoh of the early days.

What had started as a public housing project to house a burgeoning population of the newly independent Singapore, Toa Payoh is now a mix of public and private housing that is much sought after by middle class Singaporeans.

A once uncluttered view that extended all the way to Kallang basin is now cluttered with the newer and taller housing units that have replaced some of the older units in the housing estates that now dominate the landscape of Singapore's Heartlands.





Toa Payoh on the Rise

15 09 2010

Rising gradually and somewhat obscurely off Lorong 1 in Toa Payoh, a somewhat lonely and forgotten little road that starts between an old school building and an empty plot of land leads to the crest of a little hill on top of which once stood one of the major public hospitals in Singapore. Part of the road – the section that leads from the former hospital down to Thomson Road, had probably been the first named after the area that was to be one of the first planned satellite towns in Singapore, Toa Payoh. It had been named Toa Payoh Road prior to 1961 and was subsequently renamed Toa Payoh Rise, to avoid confusing it with what was to become a main thoroughfare, Jalan Toa Payoh, now part of the Pan Island Expressway.

Toa Payoh Rise today.

I had first been acquainted with the area in the late 1960s, as a somewhat reluctant companion to my mother who taught at the school on Lorong 1, aptly named First Toa Payoh Primary School being the first school to be built for the new satellite town (the word back then was that the subsequent schools being planned would be named in the order of build). I would accompany my mother on Saturday mornings, when I was home as kindergarten was on only five days a week. Back then, Alternate Saturdays were school days and the other Saturdays working days, so what it meant was that school teachers would be in school for at least half a day. I suppose it was common then for teachers to bring their children along on Saturdays, as I remember having many companions – fellow children of school teachers with me in the school’s staff room.

First Toa Payoh Primary School in 1968 soon after it opened. On the left of the photograph, a 10 storey block of flats, Block 167, typical of the early Toa Payoh, can be seen - that stand on what is now an empty plot of land.

The main school building had been one that was typical of those that were built post-independence – a U-shaped four storey high building – the three sections surrounded a little quadrangle that with its two flag poles right smack in the front of the centre section, formed an assembly area. The paved area extended further back to the fence and served as a car park. Behind the main building, the school canteen with its long rows of tables and benches, doubled up as a school hall and with badminton courts marked on the floor and a stage at one end, the food stalls being at the other. The pathway to this building also led down to the expansive school field behind the school – that was down a steep slope via a long flight of stairs to a field that not only served the student population, but what had seemed a resident population of pythons and cobras that were frequently sighted in the drains that surrounded the school field. The buildings and the field are still there today, now the temporary premises of St. Nicholas Girls’ School.

The former First Toa Payoh Primary School building is today the temporary premises of St. Nicholas Girls' School.

Across the road from the school, there was a cluster of flats that have since disappeared – blocks 164, 165, 166 and 167. The blocks had stood on a raised table of land and accessible from Lorong 1 by several flights of stairs. The flats had hidden a cluster of low rise buildings further up the road, one that was well protected by a fence around it that told perhaps of its use. That was the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home, which was opened 1968 to replace the York Hill Home, and was meant to serve as a refuge for destitute girls as well as for the rehabilitation of young offenders and delinquents. The home was in operation up to 2006 when it moved to new premises and was renamed the Singapore Girls’ Home. These days, the cluster of buildings sits silently behind the fence, awaiting perhaps redevelopment in what must be a prime piece of land.

Up the slope from Lorong 1, where Blocks 164, 165, 166 and 167 had once towered over much of Toa Payoh, an empty landscape now greets the observer.

The former Toa Payoh Girls' Home, seen through the locked gate.

The cluster of buildings of the former girls' home now sits silently behind a fence and locked gate which now keeps people out rather than keeping girls in.

Beyond the home, lies the crest of the small hill which Toa Payoh Rise rises up to – a clearing there these days with quite a fair bit of construction activity going on for a Circle Line MRT station, erasing any evidence of its past as the site of one of Singapore’s public hospitals – the Toa Payoh Hospital, and before it was renamed on 1 April 1975, the Thomson General Hospital or Thomson Road Hospital. The hospital had been set up in 1959, opening in May of that year, as a hospital for the chronic sick and included a nursing school as part of its complex. Set in a quiet and somewhat secluded area, the only means of access to it in the early days was via Toa Payoh Rise from Thomson Road. It had been a hospital that I visited on many occasions … my maternal grandmother in her later years had frequent stays there and I myself had been a patient, having been warded whilst I was in Secondary 2 with an illness that deprived me of 8 months of playing football. I had on two occasions visited the A&E Department as well, once when I had a nasty spill taking a corner on a racing bicycle in 1980 that had half my tee-shirt covered in blood and required several stitches to be put in my head … and another time when I had an extremely high fever after returning home from an overseas trip in 1991. The hospital closed its doors in 1997 and moved, lock, stock and barrel to Simei as the New Changi Hospital which is now known as the Changi General Hospital (CGH). More information on the history of Toa Payoh Hospital can be found at CGH’s website.

The former Thomson Road Hospital and its nursing school in its early days.

Another view of the former Toa Payoh Hospital (source: http://www.healthcare50.sg).

The top of Toa Payoh Rise, once a quiet spot - ideal for the former Toa Payoh / Thomson General Hospital which had once stood there.

Where a main public hospital once stood, an empty plot of land now stands. The construction activity going on for the Circle Line MRT station will erase all traces of what might still be left as a reminder.

The view from the grounds of the former hospital towards the fence of the former girls' home and beyond to Toa Payoh.

At the crest of the hill where the road that led to the hospital is, there is another building that still serves its intended function – the School for the Visually Handicapped, and a little beyond that, the Association for the Visually Handicapped. Beyond the crest and the area where the hospital had stood, the road rolls downward towards its junction with Thomson Road. That had been a nice shady and wooded area – one through which I enjoyed my frequent walks through – not just for the peace and calm it provided me, but as a “short-cut” when I was older, to Thomson Road where I could hop on the many buses which could take me down Thomson Road and to the city. That would take me past a cluster of flats beyond the line of trees which are still there today, marked by a sign on the road. Further down at the junction, there used to be a Mobil Service Station – one that stood as a landmark for many years – which has quite recently disappeared. Much has changed in the area around the junction over the years and it is hard to imagine now what it might have been like … something I guess might soon be said as well about Toa Payoh Rise.

A road sign at the crest of the hill seeks silence for the School for the Visually Handicapped and also previously for the hospital that had stood nearby.

What had once been a quiet wooded area now sees much construction activity which involves the construction of an MRT station and the widening of the road that will completely disfigure what had once been an escape from the concrete jungle.

A sign off Toa Payoh Rise pointing towards the cluster of low-rise flats that are still there today.

The junction of Toa Payoh Rise and Thomson Road ... looking to where the Mobil Service Station had once stood.





When the post man came a calling

10 07 2010

When I had first moved to Toa Payoh as a boy of 3, I was a little too young to get out of the confines of the three room flat that we moved into on my own. And in between playing with my toy soldiers and building blocks, or peering out through the usually opened front door at life beyond the flat, I would look forward to the arrival of the post man. That always was able to break the monotony of the day, as the usually smiling post man, his bag of mail to be delivered slung over his shoulders, would always announce his arrival with a greeting and a loud “boy, here’s the mail”. Those were the days when the post man would come a calling, six days a week, bringing mail right to the doorstep of every home, whether landed or not. We didn’t have to look for a post box to have our letters posted as well, being able to have mail to be posted collected with the coming of the post man. If the  door was closed, the doors of all flats then had been fitted with a slot for letters and the newspaper to be delivered through. Those were the days before a bill, the Post Office (Amendment) Rules, passed in 1971 made it easier for the post man, faced with the prospect of delivering mail to the doors of the numerous flats that were being moved into with the rapid increase in high rise apartment blocks that were being built, by having all high rise residential and commercial buildings install post boxes on the ground floors by 1973. Existing buildings were to be retrofitted with post boxes and initially, this encountered a fair bit of resistance, by many who were used to the convenience of having mail delivered to the doorstep.

Second generation letter boxes. Prior to legislation in 1971, the post man went door-to-door. Letter boxes were installed on the ground floors of HDB flats after 1971 and existing blocks of flats were retrofitted with letter boxes similar to these.

The first letter boxes that were installed weren’t perfect to start with. While they were provided with locks, the slots were not fitted with one way swinging shutter that now we see commonly, and the absence of this allowed mail to be stolen, mostly by young children for the stamps. These were improved by the time most of the existing HDB flats were retrofitted in the mid 1970s and the type seen in the photograph were then the most common, which were a lot more secure. Still, acts of mischief were quite common, and HDB flat dwellers often found insects, toads and bits of rubbish mixed with the mail that came each afternoon. These days when I guess it would be hard to imagine not picking up mail from the letter boxes on the ground floor, we do get a lot of rubbish too, not of the kind described here, but the many flyers that are put in which ends up littering the void decks and lifts.





The smells of the Toa Payoh that I grew up in

7 07 2010

For some reason I seem to be dwelling on the subject of the smells I was familiar with in my childhood. Having revisited the smells of the seaside and that of fermented shrimp, I am now revisiting some of the aromas that I grew up smelling in Toa Payoh. There was the smell of curry puffs that greeted me through the front door of course, as well as the “fowl” smell of poultry and the wonderful aroma of spices that I encountered in the market. There were also the two glorious aromas that I distinctly remembered. The first being the rich robust aroma that came wafted up from the market area each morning which always was accompanied by the sight of a man turning a cylindrical object fashioned out of a steel drum over a charcoal fire burning in half of another steel drum placed below it. That was the aroma of coffee being roasted at the end of Block 94 by what I assume would have been the proprietor of the coffee shop before Lee Nam Kee took over the premises and made a fortune over Soya Sauce Chicken Rice. It is probably hard to imagine it today, and I am not sure if it was indeed my imagination, but I very distinctly remember the rich aroma reaching my nose from 19 floors down and across Lorong 4. That would sometimes draw me out to the common corridor facing Lorong 4, from which I would be able to watch the man in the white tee-shirt turning the drum very slowly.

There is nothing like the rich robust aroma of coffee beans being roasted.

Another aroma that I would grow accustomed to inhaling in Toa Payoh was the smell of freshly baked bread. That would come from the bakery at the corner of Block 47 off Lorong 6. I loved the aroma so much that I often made it a point to ask my grandmother to take me past the bakery on her evening walks, where we would be greeted not just by the aroma of freshly baked bread being taken out from the old style ovens, but also by the sight of loafs of bread being left to cool on racks and a busy baker slicing off the crust of loaves of bread on the large work table, slicing the spongy soft white bread and packing them into plastic bags ready for sale. Wandering around Toa Payoh, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bakery is still there, going about its business in very much the same way. And in passing by, I was brought back to the smells of my childhood once again.

There's nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread.

The Singapore Bakery in Toa Payoh.





When parts of Singapore were under 2 metres of water

17 06 2010

The flooding that occurred yesterday morning brings to mind some massive floods that hit Singapore previously which had resulted in much devastation and damage. Looking back in time, yesterday’s flooding pales in comparison to the monster flood that affected much of the island some 40 years ago on 10 December 1969. Some 12 inches or 300 millimetres of rain fell in a 24 hour period leaving many parts of Singapore submerged up to chest levels, with waters in the worst hit areas rising over 2 metres, in the worst flooding in some 35 years. Some 3000 people were left homeless as a result and five people were killed. Potong Pasir would usually be one of the worst hit areas and I remember being able to see only the attap and zinc roofs of houses from the vantage of the block of flats I lived in in Toa Payoh, which overlooked the area. Vegetable farms were destroyed and much of the livestock kept in the pig and poultry farms would have drowned – another thing I remember seeing is the clean pink carcasses of pigs floating in the flood waters.

Flooding at Newton Circus 10 December 1969. 300 mm of rain fell over a 24 hour period causing massive flooding all over Singapore. Water rose to chest levels in many parts of Singapore, and over 2 metres in some of the worst hit areas.

Another big  flood I recall was the one that hit on 2 December 1978, when six people died. Most of the deaths associated with that flood and the many others before it, were due to people falling into monsoon drains and being swept away by the fast moving water. This led to the installation of guard rails along monsoon drains, as it was often hard to tell where the monsoon drains were during a flood. I recall an incident when going to school in Essex Road off Thomson Road, one of the areas prone to flooding. During one flood, waters rose to knee deep levels and a schoolmate lost his footing, falling into the drain near the school gate – fortunately for him, he was able to hold on to something and pull himself out of the drain. It is comforting to know that much has been done to improve drainage on the island. If not for that, the 100 millimetres of rain that we saw yesterday might have resulted in something that could have matched the monster floods of 1969 and 1978.





My swinging sixties

7 06 2010

As with all children, one of my favourite places as a child was the playground. It was nice that I had access to a very large and interesting one that was right at my doorstep – so to speak Right at the foot of the block of flats in Toa Payoh that I lived in, there was a playground like no other in Singapore. It was large (in terms of the space it occupied) for a playground, especially one that was in a HDB estate. Set in a large oval shaped area that was bounded by a wide red brick path that for me later doubled up as the cycling track on which I made my first shaky attempts at riding a bicycle, the playground had all a child of those days could have wished for in a playground. There were the set of swings which had very long chains that allowed me to swing up to a height that many fear to go to, a very tall slide (and a shorter one for the faint hearted), three see-saws, two wonderful climbers made of steel, a merry-go-round, and a set of monkey bars, all of which seemed to be able to keep a five year old occupied for hours.

The climbers and slides were lots of fun!

The playground was were I could escape the confines of the small three-room flat that I lived in, at a time when we as chlldren, did not have access to the distractions that occupy the children of today. Television only came on in the late afternoons and evenings and there was only so much fun that one could have with the toys we had in those days. So, the playground was wonderland for me, as it was for the children of my day, where I could expand my energy and pass the otherwise long boring hours away.

The wide red brick path around the playground and the merry-go-round.

The swings for me were particularly enjoyable. High and fast I could go, especially standing on the wooden seat of the swing, or maybe induce a dizzying spell of nausea by twisting the chains for that rush of adrenaline that came from sitting on the seat as the chains untwisted really fast. I had many hours of fun that I always ranked the swing as my favourite item in any playground. The climbers that were there were a whole lot of fun too. I had not seen anything like them before I moved into Toa Payoh – there was a really high one in the shape of a globe, the summit of which many dared not venture to, and there was another shaped like a wave. It was perched at the top of them where I could imagine that I had scaled Mount Everest, as one of the heroes I had in my boyhood, Sir Edmund Hilary had done. It was where I could sometimes sit and dream the hours away.

Then and now. The photo on the left shows part of the playground in 1969. The one on the right is how the area looks today.

The playgrounds were certainly a very different experience from the ones we see today. Plastic and synthetic materials have replaced the wood and concrete we had back then. Our children hit the safer and softer flooring where we landed hard on concrete or a pit of sand sliding down a metal or wooden slide that always gave a familiar smell of rust on our clothes and the occasional splinter in our shorts. Who could forget the rust stained hands we got holding on to the chains of the swings, standing on the wooden see-saws that thought us much about the principle of levers and balances. The playground at Block 53 that holds so many memories for me is now gone, along with the many things I identified with growing up, replaced by the modular plastic ones that are so common today. The wonderful space at which I found some much to do in, has also gone, only a small part of that large play area that I looked forward to visiting everyday in my pre-school days used to house that modular playground. The rest is sadly occupied by structures that seem to be of little value or use that have somehow risen in the wonderful open spaces that no longer seem to be of value to the modern country that we live in.

The playground with Lorong 4, the Lorong 4 market, and Lorong 3 in the background (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James - On a Little Street in Singapore).








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