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.