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.




9 responses

29 09 2010
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29 09 2010

I lived at blk 54 from 1970-77 before moving to AMK as well.I am one year your junior and thoroughly enjoyed your blog as I can identify with most of your ramblings.There used to be a tailor shop at the other end of blk 54 that sells toys such as jaws figurines ,coca cola yoyos and the Wynners posters etc. There were two provision shops near each end of the staircase landings. I still remember the one with the grumpy apek and has a wide variety of biscuit jars on display and the shop always has a sweetish aroma. I can still recall the royal visits in 1972 watching from the 11th floor of our flat. I could go on and on but thanks for sharing the memories.

29 09 2010
The wondering wanderer

Wow! Looks like we have a few things in common, Achmad! I don’t quite remember the tailor shop somehow … thanks for jogging the memories … I remember the two provision shops you mentioned and the grumps of an apek and the biscuit jars displayed very well – but not the aroma … will be doing a walk / talk at the Toa Payoh Library in early November … we can perhaps catch up talk about our memories … 🙂

2 10 2010

Blk 53 brings back a lot of my childhood & teenage memories and a lost past that remains eternally a mystery and memories.

I was wondering if you happen to know a Chew family living on the 18th floor with the room window next to the lift or stairway landings?

Well I got to know a good gentleman 14 years my senior then but our fate and destiny were shortened due to many doubts. I was young then and perhaps do not have the patience to find the answers to my questions.

4 years later when I stumble upon an obituary ad, did I realize he has passed away at age of 39. And the real truth when I called his home in Blk 53 Toa Payoh an old weary father picked the call and told me Steven has died of stomach cancer.

I was very sad then and till today blamed myself for being impulsive impatient for not finding out more about this kind man.

Having read about your sharing experiences of Toa Payoh especially Blk 53, I had the urge to want to dig back history and immerse myself again in this place to understand his life here and feel how he felt battling his illness quietly.

I am not sure why when we getting older in time, we tends to look back our past sad experiences or bitter sufferings as fond & sweet memories now? I questioned myself why would I want to experience the past? Isn’t the past a struggle? There is no answer each time but these memories kept inside me like part of a happiest in my life now.

5 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Jen, thanks for sharing your memories of Block 53. I remember you mentioned them somewhere … and they must mean a lot to you. I am not quite sure if I there was a Chew family on the 18th floor – perhaps my parents might remember – I will certainly ask them. I guess as time passes, we tend to look back at all our experiences in life, whether happy or sad, and some for which we might have some regrets over … Amongst these experiences – there would be those in which we find particular meaning – special moments that we would always treasure and whether bitter or sweet, these memories would somehow bring a smile to our face.

7 10 2010
A journey through time: a heritage trail through Toa Payoh « The Long and Winding Road

[…] Going up 40 years back in time … […]

28 10 2013

I shared your blog with my students as we were on the topic of housing in Singapore (Primary 3 English STELLAR topic and Social Studies). Thank you for the information. My students were amazed at your story about the Queen visiting you in Toa Payoh.

28 10 2013
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Thanks for sharing the story, Joanna 🙂 The Queen visiting was an amazing and certainly a memorable experience!

3 02 2017
Russell Lim

Hi Jerome, I lived in Blk 66 ever since I was borned in 1969. I have been living in Toa Payoh all my life till today, although different block now. Do you still giving talks at Toa Payoh library?

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