Life in Toa Payoh

27 05 2009

My family moved to the newly built housing estate of Toa Payoh in the late 1960s. Toa Payoh was built in an area which was supposedly a large swamp, “Toa” being the Hokkien word for “large”, and Payoh, the Malay word for “swamp”. Toa Payoh was laid out as an island, linked to the outside by three main exit points, two to Jalan Toa Payoh, now part of the Pan Island Expressway, on the south, and another to Bradell Road on the north. The roads around Toa Payoh were arranged such that traffic lights could be avoided, there being no traffic lights – at least for maybe the first five years or so.

The very distinct “Y” shaped 19 storey block of flats that I lived in stood out among the mainly 12 storey blocks of flats. The block of flats, Block 53 was built with a viewing gallery on the roof, to provide foreign dignitaries visiting Singapore with a vantage of Toa Payoh, giving the dignitaries an appreciation of Singapore’s successful public housing programme. Right on top of the block stood a cylindrical shaped structure housing a water storage tank. At a time when neon lighted advertisements were common, an advertisement for Setron, a local brand of television sets was mounted on the cylindrical structure. The entrance to the viewing gallery was closed by a heavy padlocked gate at the half landing of the flight of stairs leading up to it. Besides being opened for the purpose of the visits, twice a year, I would have the opportunity to go up to the gallery to assist a Sikh neighbour, whom I referred to as “Uncle Singh”, to help put up and take down flags and lights decorations during the National Day period.

A large children’s playground stood at the foot of the block, bound by a wide oval shaped pavement. The playground featured a very high steel slide, a large globe shaped climbing apparatus, and another one shaped like a wave, and the usual see-saws and swings. The oval shaped pavement provided an ideal place for me to pick up cycling and roller-skating.

Down a flight of stairs from the playground, across Lorong 4, was the market – housed in a 2 storey building with open sides. The market was laid out with stalls selling cooked food arranged around the outside, allowing tables and stools to be arranged in the open areas around the market. A wet section of the market on the inside of the ground floor was where the stalls selling fresh produce were arranged. Four poultry stalls occupied the central area of the wet section where there was an air-well. Live chickens and ducks were kept in cages and were weighed, slaughtered and de-feathered in-situ. One of my earliest memories of the market was a rather unpleasant one, when on a visit to the market with my mother, I was pushed into a basin of salted vegetables, by a vegetable seller’s daughter, who was about my age.

There was a large variety of cooked food in and around the market. I have many memories of my mother bringing home a variety of food from the stalls. In those days, there was little by the way of disposable food packing and containers, except maybe some kind of leaves used to pack fried noodles. Customers would normally carry metal containers and “Tiffin carriers” to take away food from the stalls. My mother would bring back Prawn Noodles or Fishball Noodles, with cut red chillies that went with it placed in the upturned cover of the Tiffin carrier, and also food such as Kway Chap and Fried Carrot Cake. It was common in those day to bring our own eggs to add to some of the food, such as the Fried Carrot Cake, Fried Kway Teow, or Roti Prata, saving some money on the cost at which the hawker would charge for supplying the eggs.

There were two stalls selling steam buns or “pau” that were facing each other, one in the market, and the other in a Coffee Shop across the open space. I can’t remember which was which, but it was quite amusing seeing them – one was named “Come Every Day” and the other named “I am Coming”.

If I remember correctly, the Soya Sauce Chicken Rice restaurant in the area named Lee Fun Nam Kee, started off operating from a stall in the market, next to the pau stall. I remember seeing the man who ran the stall pushing a tricycle every morning up Lorong 5 to the market. He moved into the corner shop lot which the restaurant occupies maybe a couple of years later and has been there since.

There were two slab blocks behind Block 53, Blocks 54 and 55, which housed provision shops, coffee shops, some clinics and two banks on the ground floor. One of the provision shops supplied my childhood cravings of Walls ice cream and ice lollies – my favourites were the Rocket – a multi coloured ice lolly shaped like a rocket and ice cream packed in a small plastic ball – the name of which escapes me. The two banks, OUB and Chung Khiaw, occupied the extreme ends of the two blocks. I remember there being a run on Chung Khiaw Bank in the 1970s – and there were large crowds of people trying to withdraw their savings from the bank. I had particularly a memory of Chung Khiaw bank – the façade of the block of flats above the bank was decorated with a fairy tale like castle.

I used to go down to one of the coffee shops to get my family’s daily supply of freshly baked bread, which would arrive in the early evening at 7 pm. The lady who sold the bread would stand behind a foldable table at the front of the coffee shop, slicing the crust off the large loafs of local bread, each sliced into two, and sliced further to be packed into plastic bags, as her customers shouted out their orders as they joined the crowd other customers gathered around the table..

In 1973, Toa Payoh was transformed into a “Games Village” for what was known in those days as the SEAP Games – the South East Asian Peninsula Games, which Singapore hosted for the first time. The athletes were housed in the new HDB flats built in Toa Payoh Central, including in the four “point” blocks of four room flats. A new swimming complex was also built in the southern part of Toa Payoh, which served as the venue for the swimming and diving competitions during the Games. The swimming complex was where I learnt to swim.

The playground below the 'Y' Shaped Block




19 responses

9 06 2009

Nice write-up. The ‘Y’ shape building is supposed to be a rocket whose head is buried in the ground leaving only the back visible. Down the stairs from the bank’s castle (disney land theme) is blk 56 where there used to be 2 huge rocks (just behind the bus-stop and near the phone booth). Until today, i still don’t know what were they for.:)

25 07 2009
The wondering wanderer

That the ‘Y’ shaped block is supposed to be a rocket whose head is buried has somehow escaped me all these years.

11 09 2009
ordinary guy

Hi wanderer,

Will be planning to make a visit to my old estate of Toa Payoh. Hopefully the photos will bring back wonderful memories. Your classmate in SMS.

11 09 2009
The wondering wanderer

Ordinary guy, yes it would be nice to wander around the places and capture how the places from the days of old look today. Look forward to seeing your photos!

18 05 2010
Macaroni under the flyover « The Long and Winding Road

[…] One such food centre that my parents were fond of going to, being close to where we lived in Toa Payoh, was the one that my parents referred to as “Under the Flyover” along Whitley Road. […]

19 05 2010
Adventures with numbers « The Long and Winding Road

[…] route that took me from the foot of Block 53 Toa Payoh where I lived, to St. Michael’s School each school day, brought me and my fellow passengers […]

25 05 2010
To market, to market « The Long and Winding Road

[…] her regular visits to the Lorong 4 market, which was located across the road from where we lived in Toa Payoh. Street markets such as this one seen in Penang were a common sight in Singapore once upon a time. […]

26 05 2010

I used to live in block 85A Lorong 4 & cross the road to block 55 where I was baby-sat, I remember Toa Payoh as having green drains (algae) & big, fat rats! Good food in those days too …I also remember live chicken slaughter in Lorong 4 market

26 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Yes, now that you mention it, Snailwoh, I do remember the big, fat rats that used to dart in and out of the drains. I don’t remember the green drains though. And you are right – lots of good food everywhere! I had my first pair of tailored pants made at a tailor in Blk 85 (B I think) in the early 1970s – with bell bottoms! The areas around have changed quite a fair bit and what all the upgrading work seems to have done is to make the area seem more cluttered with unnecessary structures in the public spaces. The shops at block 54 and 55 have gone … used to buy bread from the bread lady who operated in a coffee shop at the corner of block 55. There was a OUB bank branch at the other end. 🙂

1 06 2010

hey Wanderer, we might have glanced at each other as I used to drink cold triangular Laxi (the dog) milk from corner end of provision shop in 55! I was baby sat at the Chung Khiaw end of blk 55, just 1 floor above i.e. on top of bank … blk 85C or the last block of 85, there’s a man who sells oily and salty chui kway that attracted long queues … his wife sells the same stuff at blk 54 but amazingly, no such queue! I also remember we used to bring our own eggs for the char kway teow man …

2 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

I guess which would probably have, Snailwoh. The Chung Khiaw bank was something wasn’t it? Don’t quite remember the Chui Kway … but it was like BYE (bring you egg) for everything! The crowd that gathered around the Char Kway Teow men would all have an egg or two in hand. Remember that we could get small portions of Chai Tow Kway which was served on a small piece of leaf? When I first moved in to Toa Payoh, it was 20 cents for that! Thinking about all that wonderful food makes me hungry!

7 06 2010
My swinging sixties « The Long and Winding Road

[…] 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 […]

12 08 2010

Dear Sir

We would like to organise some heritage progs & hope that you can be a part of them.

Appreciate it if you can email me so that we can establish contact and work from there.

Thank you.


29 09 2010
Going up 40 years back in time … « The Long and Winding Road

[…] 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 […]

7 10 2010
23 11 2010
The area around Toa Payoh Library 37 years ago « The Long and Winding Road

[…] 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 […]

5 06 2014
max tan

used to stay in blk 53 in the 70s stil remember the hainanese chicken rice at blk 54 or 55 they gt v gd fried chicken wings n luncheon meat really miss the food at the old coffeeshop gt one wanton mee stall also cook traditionally n prata also gd cn bring own eggs to the stall owner those were such memories for me n those people during this the noon one motorbike will come n sell rojak put on banana leaf the kangkong r v yummy.

12 06 2014
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

We would have been neighbours Max! Thanks for sharing the wonderful makan memories that you have! 🙂

31 01 2018
Jane L

The fat pale uncle in his singlet selling chicken rice in the Block 55 coffee shop. Almost everyday after school, for lunch, I would have his chicken rice, char siew and siu yoke rice, and if pocket money was running low, rice with cabbage and tofu+celery. Wonder if he’s still selling. Good food memory!!

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