Voids that have filled our lives

12 04 2012

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.






Growing tall with Singapore for 100 years

26 02 2012

It probably won’t come as a surprise that the Nestlé logo is one that would be immediately recognisable to most of us in Singapore. Nestlé has over the years found its way into the homes of many, if not all Singaporeans, in one way or another. Many of the brands in Nestlé’s stable, both ones they have started with and ones that have since joined them, have become a natural choice for many, young and old, and names such as NESCAFE®, MILO®, MAGGI, NESPRAY, and KIT KAT® have become brand icons in Singapore.

Nestlé's brands have long been recognisable names in Singapore - an ad on the streets of Singapore in 1949 (image source: Nestlé Historical Archives, Vevey).

Nestlé for me has been very much a part of my life as a child. Growing up, there was always that mug of MILO® that accompanied my breakfast or supper, made usually with a teaspoon or two of MILKMAID Condensed Milk – plus, who did not look forward to that ice-cold cup of MILO® that the MILO Van dispensed on school sports days? There were also the wonderful advertisements we grew to love on the television – one, for MILKMAID Milk was accompanied by an unforgettable jingle that went “Grow tall little man, don’t fall little man, you’ve got a lot of growing to do.” – the tune of which still plays in my head. Other adverts that made big impressions included one of MAGGI Seasoning with a secret agent carrying its secret recipe – based on the then popular Mission Impossible series on television which ended with a line borrowed from the series “this tape (if I am not wrong) will self destruct in five seconds”; the Maggi Noodles’ advertisement that had the “Maggi Noodles, Fast to Cook, Good to Eat” chant; and the many print and television MILO® advertisements – one that I remember for some reason was an advertisement in Malay that had a jingle with the words “Minum MILO® anda jadi sehat dan kuat“.

A MILKMAID Milk ad from the 1950s when it was often referred to as "Red Text Milk" (红字). Many in my generation would remember the television ad accompanied by an unforgettable jingle with the words "Grow tall little man, don't fall little man, you've got a lot of growing to do" (image source: Nestlé Historical Archives, Vevey).

MILO® has long been a favourite of Singaporeans - a MILO® vehicle from 1948 - the predecessor perhaps of the MILO® van that I looked forward to seeing as a school boy during sports days (image source: Nestlé Historical Archives, Vevey).

The MILO® stand (seen at Great World in 1951 in the picture at the top) was as popular as the MILO® van is with Singaporeans today! (Top image source: Nestlé Historical Archives, Vevey).

Nestlé, which has had a presence in Singapore since 1912, it is nice to know, celebrates 100 years here this year. Since its humble beginning, Nestlé has grown and now employs more than 600 staff in their corporate office, manufacturing facilities and Research and Development Centre here, having invested heavily and with a commitment to continue to invest in Singapore. Nestlé Singapore’s presence over the years and vision for the future was recently shared by its Managing Director, Valerio Nannini at an event for several bloggers recently held at the delightful Children Little Museum in Bussorah Street. The event including a workshop during which some of the older ones like me were transported to a world we might at one time have been familiar with – during a time when many could not afford toys and when the little electronic boxes that are the playthings of the new world did not exist. It was a time when we had kept ourselves entertained (and out of trouble) through improvising and through the use of everyday objects and materials from our surroundings to make simple yet creative toys.

Valerio Nannini of Nestlé Singapore sharing the company's history in Singapore and its vision for the future.

Two of the toys that we had a hand at trying to make was a balancing pyramid and a kite. The balancing pyramid, which today we can quite easily constructed out of two pairs of disposable chopsticks, two marbles, rubber bands and two small plastic bags, I have to admit is something I’ve not attempted before. The result – securing together three pieces of chopsticks into a triangle with rubber bands at the meeting points, and with one more chopstick through a central axis of the triangle to serve as the point of balance and two weights using marbles in plastic bags secured to two corners of the triangle is ingenious and simple at the same time – and probably gives a practical lesson in Physics that our children seem to be deprived of these days.

The raw materials for a simple but ingenious balancing pyramid.

The first steps - securing three sticks into a triangle and a fourth through a central axis using rubber bands.

The result is a simple but ingenious toy that probably gives a practical lesson in Physics that our children lack these days.

Kite making wasn’t as simple it seemed back in the days when we made kites for fun during a time when it was common to see boys “kite-fighting” – attempting to cut each others kite strings which had been coated with a mixture of crushed glass and starch. Perhaps the convenience of cheap kites that became widely available spoiled me and perhaps I have increasingly found that I have less of an attention span in the days of the digital age – but I did find that it wasn’t that easy as I had remembered it.

Go fly a kite! Kite-making at the workshop - all that is needed is tracing paper, bamboo sticks, cello-tape and a pair of scissors.

Work in progress.

The kite making frenzy - not as simple as it somehow seemed - perhaps its a case of having less patience in the digital age.

Muiee with her finished kite - the one that got my vote.

Catherine Ling of Cememberu fame with Peter Breitkreutz (aka Aussie Pete) and Jamie posing proudly with their kites after the workshop.

The workshop was in all a wonderful trip back in time and for most part down memory lane – especially in the setting of the museum which contained many reminders of days that I have long left behind – carefree days when life was simple and when we could manufacture fun with almost anything we found around us – a time that I wish I could go back to. While that part of Singapore is perhaps long left behind – there are probably many places, particularly in the less developed parts of the world and it is a wish of mine that I can rediscover this lost world in such places and perhaps bring joy not to myself, but to some of the communities that perhaps need a little joy. Speaking of wishes, as part of what Nestlé has in store to celebrate its 100 years here, is its desire to make wishes come true. As part of its celebrations, Nestlé’s 100 Wishes will aim to fulfill the wishes of 100 lucky people this year! Wishes should reflect the “Good Food, Good Life” theme – something meaningful and beneficial for deserving or loved ones. Examples include getting a celebrity chef to cook for your family so your mum can be surprised on her birthday, or wishing for that shiny new wheelchair for a handicapped neighbour. To find out more and also tell Nestlé your wishes, do visit www.nestle100years.com.sg.

The workshop also introduced old playtime favourites such as five-stones (seen here which some of the younger bloggers seemed very natural at) and chapteh.

The Children Little Museum at 42 Bussorah Street took the older bloggers like me on a trip down memory lane.

Another view of the Children Toy Museum.

Also to celebrate its 100 years, Nestlé will hold its 100 Years Exhibition at various locations to bring to Singaporeans who grew up with Nestlé brands and have fond and unforgettable experiences and memorable moments, artifacts and photos from the past as well as innovations for the future. Do look out for the exhibitions at Marina Square Shopping Centre (Main Atrium, Level 1) on the 24th and 25th of March this year (11am – 9pm) and also at Ang Mo Kio Hub (Exhibition Area, Basement 1) on the 7th and 8th April (11am – 9pm).

Nestlé nostalgia: historical ads in Singapore (image source: Nestlé Historical Archives, Vevey). From top MILKMAID Happy Memories, 1952; a MILO® ad from 1949; a NESCAFE® ad from 1951; and a MAGGI Seasoning ad from 1950.

This year’s celebrations would also include several promotions and discounts on Nestlé products which would include the opportunity to win Cash Prizes. For updates on the promotions, do visit www.nestle100years.com.sg.





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.





Adventures with numbers

19 05 2010

No, I don’t mean math! But I did have a lot of adventures associated with numbers back in the days of my childhood. It was back when we had the likes of Stanley Kramer’s madcap It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the lovable Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie that Disney gave us in the Love Bug (numbered 53), which perhaps laid the ground for my own adventures on wheels, or so I imagined. It was cretainly with the numbers on wheels that seemed to be the source of many an adventure then, from the ones I got with the long drives my father took us for in his Austin 1100 numbered 793 (that being the number on the car registration plate, SM 793) to the far flung corners of Singapore and to the hills and beaches that lay across the Causeway, to the adventures of my own on the minibus that carried me to school, numbered 388 (being CB 388). While sitting on the backseat (and roof) of the 793 did provide a fair bit of adventure, it was on the 388 that perhaps made life for a boy of school-going age a lot more fun, and looking back, school days at St. Michael’s School would certainly not have been complete and made all the more exciting if it wasn’t for the 388. It was on the 388 where we, the closet mischievous school boys that many of us were, could express this inclination, free from the watchful and critical eyes of our parents and teachers. There was a big adventure each day for us to look forward to; adventures through which bonds were built that have survived to this day.

On the roof of my father's SM 793, Changi Beach, early 1970s ... adventures weren't just confined to sitting on the backseat, but also on the roof. However, it was on the school bus CB 388 that I had most fun on.

For five out of the six years I spent in primary school, with the exception of Primary 4 during which my parents allowed me to venture on the public bus for the journey to school, the 388 was what carried me to and from school. There were a few occasions when I did skip taking the 388, as I did when my parents did decide to drop me off or pick me up, and that one occasion in Primary 3 when I made my way home on foot, having missed the bus (for reasons that have escaped me).

The staircase at the foot of Block 53 where the 388 would pick me up from.

The 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 around much of Toa Payoh, with the last stop being the curved block (Block 157) at the corner of Lorong 1 and 2. Following this, the journey that would take us over the flyover to Jalan Toa Payoh, and out to the slip road that connected with Thomson Road non-stop to school. We would usually have to spend some time at the corner, having to wait in the traffic that often crawled into Thomson Road, during which I remember being fascinated by the comings and goings of the compound on which a zinc building stood (I can’t remember if it was built completely in zinc sheets, but it at least has a zinc roof), which gave me an impression of being used as a sawmill (or at least where wooden planks were stored), which I got from the numerous wooden planks that lay in stacks in the yard. This building occupied the little strip of land wedged between the slip road and the canalised Sungei Whampoa, on which perhaps the apartment block that occupies the space at the same corner has been built. It was from this point where our adventures would usually end, our mischievousness returning to the closets they came out from.

The area by the slip road from Jalan Toa Payoh to Thomson Road by Sungei Whampoa where the zince building stood.

Through the stops and starts of most of the journey through Toa Payoh, with the driver usually distracted by having to focus on negotiating through the busy road, and the slower speeds that the bus could travel at, we had the perfect opportunity to get away with almost anything. And got away we very often did with our weapons of mass irritation: water pistols, rubber bands and paper bullets, self-fashioned “pea-shooters” from straws with which a mouthful of green beans could be discharged through, with which we could take aim, and rain a barrage of beans, paper bullets and streams of water at unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians, from the relative security offered by the narrow windows of the minibus. There were a few occasions when, out of ammunition, some of the boys would aim a short shout of “chicken shit” or the like at a pedestrian, catching them off-guard and drawing nothing more serious than a bewildered stare. When the exercise of mischievousness did catch the eye of the driver, he did usually try to discipline us with his thin whip of rattan when traffic conditions permitted. This sometimes ended up going through the window or being broken in two. He would sometimes have to deal in the same way with the fights that often broke out between some of the boys, cheered on by the rest of the juvenile occupants of the minibus, with the cane often losing out in the same way.

Rubber Bands and Paper Bullets

Once out of Toa Payoh and onto Thomson Road, things usually settled down. For one, there was less pedestrian traffic along the short stretch of Thomson Road to school. This would also mean a relatively short journey which remained, putting us greater risk of incurring the wrath of the driver once we got to our destination. Back to our best behaviour, all we could do then was stare silently out the window, as we impatiently looked forward to getting to school where a different set of adventures would await us.

The rest of the journey down Thomson Road, which looked very different then, would be accompanied by a calm after the storm.





The holes in the walls

2 03 2010

One of the things you always found around were the convenience stores of old: the hole-in-the-wall shops nestled in the corner of the five-foot way at the side of a building or in some alleyway. Many referred to these shops as “Mama shops”, “Mama” being the Tamil noun for elder or uncle, as the majority of these were run by shopkeepers of Indian origin. You could get most of your cravings for snacks fulfilled, rummaging through the compartments of the wooden racks laid against the wall, or in the plastic bags that lined the walls and racks, or maybe pulling it off a cardboard backing on which it was stapled on. This was where the newspaper and your favourite magazine, the daily supply of cigarettes and other necessities such as medicated oils could be picked up from.

Kuti-kuti.

This was one of the things about the streets of the Singapore that I grew up in that I just so loved … where my weekly dose of the Dandy and the Beano comics and Shoot! magazine were obtained from, as well as my favourite snacks: preserved Chinese olives, which we called “kana“, packed in threes and twisted in a roll of paper and clear cellophane; and ball-shaped fish keropok. The hole-in-the-wall, was where many of my fellow schoolboys in their attempt to style their hair as John Travolta did in the movie Grease, got their means to do so: a bottle of Vitalis hairstyling liquid (Vitalis was in the late 1970s and early 1980s what Tancho Pomade was in the 1960s and early 1970s) and a plastic comb. The shops also provided some necessary objects without which we may not have had much to do with our spare time: small rubber balls for our games of “hantam bola“, the objective of which was to hit another player (hard!) with the ball; and the air filled plastic balls which we kicked around the corridors and basketball courts; as well as “kuti-kuti“: little colourful plastic pieces in the shape of animals and sometimes everyday objects, which we tried to “kuti” or flick over one another using our forefinger.

A typical hole in the wall shop in Little India.

Magazine display - clothes pegs are used to attach them to a vertical piece of string which is suspended from a horizontal line or bar.

My favourite comics were Dandy and Beano which I purchased off the clothes peg from the hole-in-the-wall shops

Items which were also popular were the Hacks or Hudson’s cough drops, sold at five cents for two pieces, or as the shopkeeper would have said: “five cents two”. These sweets were (and still are) very popular with the local population. This brings to mind an advertisement for Hack’s on TV in perhaps the late 1970s or early 1980s, which seemed to have caught the attention of many back then. The advertisement had someone resembling Tarzan, losing his voice and with it, his distinctive yell. Saved by a Hacks cough-drop, an exuberant Tarzan finished the advertisement off with the yell “Or-ee-or, Hacks, Hacks” followed by a catchy jingle that went “one for you, one for me, and one for the family”, which perhaps a few would remember.

A hole-in-the-wall shop along a five-foot way in the 1960s with its display of magazines and interestingly, bananas on a stem for sale (which I mentioned in my post on Selegie Road). Photo courtesy of Mr Derek Tait.

These days the convenience stores are bigger holes in the wall, many of the traditional Indian run ones have appeared in dedicated units found in the void decks of HDB flats. There are of course the more modern air-conditioned ones like 7-11 and Cheers, requiring customers to have bigger pockets with the relatively high operating costs. It is nice to know that there are still a few of the traditional ones around, in some of the parts of Singapore where time has left behind. These have somehow become less popular with supermarkets and the new convenience stores sprouting up everywhere. The few that are left may soon, as with many of the things I loved about the Singapore of old, be just a distant memory.

The modern day hole-in-the-wall shop: a much bigger and air-conditioned hole with items sold at bigger prices.