What’s cooking on the museum’s front lawn

29 05 2014

The front lawn of the National Museum of Singapore seems to be a staging ground for some rather unusual and un-museum like happenings of late.  It was just last year that Malaysian artist Sharon Chin had a group of people taking a bath  taking a bath in full view of the public on the lawn. That followed the drama that involved the “sexiest woman in magic”, Singapore’s very own Magic Babe Ning, who pulled off a couple of dramatic Houdiniesque escape stunts.

It's masak-masak time on the museum's front lawn.

It’s masak-masak time on the museum’s front lawn.

The latest happening sees a curious effort perhaps to recreate the playgrounds that have somehow become a symbol of a new-found Singaporean desire to cling on to the worn and tired emblems of less complicated times. And, in the inflatable imitations that now appear, we perhaps see an attempt to reintroduce to a connected yet disconnected generation with the simple ways fun would have been packaged in the past.

Worshiping  a temporary hero on the front lawn.

Worshiping a temporary hero on the front lawn.

While it may be sad that the imitations do seem to attract more love and interest than the real McCoys – the orange mosaic faced beast that is the somewhat iconic dragon of Toa Payoh and a lesser known elephant that is now only seen in Pasir Ris; the gimmicky adaptations, on the evidence of the droves of of bouncing children that turned up despite the unforgiving heat and humidity of the weekend, does seem to have worked to generate a buzz amongst the young at the museum that does go beyond the excitement I got as a child of hearing about the eerie happenings at the museum’s notorious spiral staircase.

The smaller imitation.

The smaller imitation.

The happenings on the front lawn, are all part of the Children’s Season at the national Museum that is titled Masak-Masak, launched to coincide with the June school holidays. Besides the air-filled version of the once ubiquitous playgrounds, Masak-Masak sees several interactive installations, a good number of which seem to revolve around the simplicity of play in less complicated times. One the kids would definitely have great fun participating in is Come and Play by Justin Lee at the Salon on Level 1. The activity allows children to use carton boxes to create a “dream-home”.

Come and Play at the Salon on Level 1.

Come and Play at the Salon on Level 1.

Besides what’s on the lawn and at Level 1 (there is also Larger-than-Life Games – literally larger-than-life versions of popular games of the past such as five-stones at the Concourse), there are also a host of interactive and immersive activites on Levels 2 and 3. Masa-Masak: My Childhood runs from 24 May to 3 Aug 2014 with the Playgrounds on the Lawn available only during the weekends (every Sat & Sun from 24 May to 3 Aug at 11am to 1pm & 3pm to 5pm). More information can be found on a downloadable exhibition brochure at the National Museum of Singapore’s website (click here).

Rouleaux by Anastassia Elias (France) on Level 2 features an eclectic collection of miniature dioramas.

Rouleaux by Anastassia Elias (France) on Level 2 features an eclectic collection of miniature dioramas.

An elated participant even as the bouncy versions of the playgrounds lie deflated.

An elated participant dancing on the lawn even as the bouncy versions of the playgrounds lie deflated.

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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.


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Critically endangered

29 08 2013

With the recent death of the neglected but beautiful dove in the island’s west, there is only one that’s left to remember one of several terrazzo and mosaic creations that many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would have had fond memories of playing in. The dove, is one of several playground designs – the work of the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, with a uniquely and very distinctly Singaporean flavour that decorated Singapore’s public housing estates in the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

The surviving dove at Dakota  Crescent.

The surviving dove at Dakota Crescent.

The dove at Dakota Crescent is one which although well worn and exhibiting obvious signs of age, is remarkably preserved – a testament perhaps to play structures put up in times when they were built to last. Still with its sand-pit, a feature of the playgrounds of  the era, it does also feature rubber tyre swings and a slide. There are several more of these structures left behind, including the well-loved dragon of Toa Payoh, which many hope will be preserved, not just to preserve the many memories there are of happy childhood moments, but also because they are structures which we can quite easily identify with Singapore, from a time when we did not yet forget to express who we are.

The dove's last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

The dove’s last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

What is also nice about the very last dove, is that it resides in a rather charming old neighbourhood, one Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built flats which came up in the late 1950s, well before the dove was put there. The estate it is in, Kallang Airport Estate, was developed in the area at the end of the extended Kallang Airport runway – land which was freed after 1955, when the airport was closed. Some 21 seven-storey and 20 four-storey blocks were built from 1956 to 1959. The estate was officially opened in July 1958 and the cluster of flats the dove finds itself in the midst of, are amongst the few that have survived.

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A quick glance around the dove

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Final days for the dove?

20 08 2013

It does look as if the dove, on which I put in an entry on just last week (see: A dove that’s dying), may be in its final days. Work is commencing on a Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP)in the area it has resided in for some three decades or so and hoardings have already come up around what is one of two remaining dove playgrounds designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee in Singapore. A notice relating to the work being carried out does not give any clues to the fate of the long neglected playground, other than stating “the upgrading works includes the construction of facilities such as Covered Linkways, Drop-off Points, Pavillion, Recreation Park, Playground, …”

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It would be a shame if the dove is indeed going as it does stand as a reminder of a significant point of time in the evolution of Singapore’s highly successful public housing programme. It also is one of the last of the much celebrated playgrounds built using Mr Khor’s uniquely Singaporean designs left for us to admire.

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Update on 21 August 2013

Work to demolish the playground commenced on 20 August 2013 …

s seen on the morning of 21 August 2013.

As seen on the morning of 21 August 2013.






Taming the elephant

19 08 2013

Photographs I took of another one of the surviving few mosaic and terrazzo playgrounds left in Singapore, one that is very well preserved and free of vandalism (probably because of its location at the Home Team NS Pasir Ris Chalets). The playground is another one of the series of playgrounds designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee that has a very uniquely Singaporean flavour.

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A dove that’s dying

13 08 2013

One of possibly two of a kind left in Singapore, the dove, is one in danger of extinction. Wearing the look of having been used, probably abused, and possibly neglected, it lies forgotten, unwanted by a Singapore obsessed with  the need to renew, even where renewal is not required or appreciated.  The dove I speak of, is a playground design – one of several with a distinctly Singapore flavour designed by the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee in the late 1970s, put up in public housing estates from 1979. Probably not as well known as its iconic cousin, the orange Dragon of Lorong 6, the dove does have some of the very distinctive features of Mr Khor’s designs – the dominant terrazzo and mosaic structures that give the playgrounds a unique flavour.

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What’s missing in this particular dove, is the sand pit which was another feature of the play areas, play areas which did seem rather sedate compared to the ones I never could get enough of in my childhood.  Those to me were the real playgrounds, ones in which having the wonderful scent of rust, and a few splinters in my shorts, was all part of the fun.

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What I miss most of the playgrounds of my early years is probably the slide, with its slideway of steel, polished smooth by the numerous times the slides did get used – the polished steel surface making for a much smoother and quicker (and very often steeper) ride down the slide as compared with the  ones on slides of terrazzo.

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It is probably that those in their thirties who would have grown up with these playgrounds – which were found throughout the island, that there has been a that wave of remembering playgrounds such as these we most of Singapore wants to forget, now that only a few are left.

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It will probably be a matter of time before the dove and several other of such playgrounds which are left are replaced as they probably are terribly out of fashion in the brave new world we now embrace, There is hope that the dragon is saved, and hopefully with it a few more, if not for anything else, at least to remember an important era in our public housing story, having coincided with a time when the monster estates such Clementi, Bedok and Ang Mo Kio were at the peak of their development.

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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.








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