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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.