Magical road journeys: Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1

18 11 2014

On a bright and sunny morning, the light of the newly risen sun, in streaming through the glorious canopy of trees, transforms a stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 into an enchanted world. The stretch is one along which I have made many a journey, having opened in 1977, when I was living just off it. It is only in more recent times that I have seen it cast in this magical light, best observed in the half an hour or so after the sun has come up.

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A town with a curious sounding name

3 01 2014

It was in late 1976 that I found myself moving to the Ang Mo Kio New Town. Built as part of a huge wave of public housing developments that took place in the mid-1970s, Ang Mo Kio located just north of then canalised Kallang River, and the huge cemetery at Peck San Theng (now Bishan), took its name from the surrounding area.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio  from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

The rather curious sounding name did fuel much speculation and debate amongst the early residents of the new town as to what its origins were. Explanations ranged from the plausible to the seemingly improbably, a common factor was that it was a Hokkien term. Many argued that it meant evolved from a similar sounding Hokkien term that meant “red tomato”, with suggestions that it might be a reference to an “ang mo” bridge (kio), not far behind.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

“Ang mo” in Hokkien is of course a term that is commonly used in Singapore and in Malaysia to describe Caucasians. The term does have its origins in 16th or 17th century Fujian province, when references to the fair hair (ang mo translates to “red hair”) of hitherto unseen and unheard of new arrivals from distant shores, came to be used  in the absence of a non-existent proper word. The “ang mo”, it was though in the case of the “ang mo” bridge being a reference to an Englishman by the name of John Turnbull Thomson, the Government Surveyor who gave his name to Thomson Road (or Englishmen in general), who was credited with putting up a proper bridge (or bridges) across the Kallang River. Along with these, the National Heritage Board (NHB) in its heritage guide for Ang Mo Kio, does add another twist with regard to what the “ang mo” might have been a reference to:

A more plausible explanation was given by Douglas Hiorns, former General Manager of Bukit Sembawang Estates (1948-1995). According to Hiorns, there were two key tracks crossing Ang Mo Kio, an area with large expanses of swamps and tributaries of rivers running through it. Bridges carrying the tracks over the waterways gained a local importance as a result. In the north, a wooden bridge carried Jalan Hwi Yoh over Sungei Tongkang and was locally called pang kio, meaning “wooden bridge” in Hokkien. The bridge carrying Cheng San Road over the tributary of Kallang River was made of concrete, a material commonly referred to as ang mo he or “Western ash” in Hokkien. As such the area acquired the name “Ang Mo Kio”.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named 'Amokiah' or 'Amokia'.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named ‘Amokiah’ or ‘Amokia’ (click to enlarge).

To add to the confusion over the origins of the name, old maps and references to the area suggest that the name might after all have little to do with bridges, identifying an area close to where present day Ang Mo Kio is, as “Amokia” or “Amokiah”. While the British did have some difficultly in the Anglicisation of local place names, a suggestion that I did hear more recently was that the “kia” could indeed have been correctly Anglicised. The suggestion (attributed to a local cartographer) is that “kia” which can translate into “frightened” or “afraid” in Hokkien, refers to an incident in which J. T. Thomson on a survey in what would have been a wooded area, had taken fright at an unexpected appearance made by a tiger.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in 'Amo Kia' for sale.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in ‘Amo Kia’ for sale.

Except for a small pockets of trees and a cluster close to Mayflower Garden, it wasn’t a forest of trees but one of concrete structures that the new residents were to encounter in 1976 – and there certainly were no tigers and wild the new Ang Mo Kio certainly was not. Living in the new town in its early days, did however have one feeling very much like it was the wilderness one was living in, especially for my having gotten spoiled by the convenience that Toa Payoh, my previous home had offered.

An aerail view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker).

An aerial view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker) – click to enlarge.

Block 306 was where I had moved to, in an area as far east as lived-in Ang Mo Kio went at the end of 1976. Most of what had been completed centered around the partially completed roads in the area, which included parts of Avenue 1, Avenue 3 and Avenue 6. These were the roads that carried the new town’s traffic out via a stub of Avenue 1 to Upper Thomson Road.

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

It was out to Upper Thomson Road – then the only link to the city centre, that the few bus services then serving the new town operated along. The services included numbers 168, which was the bus to take to Orchard Road, as well as a newly introduced 166 – an important link for me in the journeys to secondary school in Bras Basah Road that I would have to then make. A Blue Arrow semi-express bus service to Shenton Way, 308, did also help me save some time on the long journey home from its last stop in the city at Waterloo Street – saving up to 20 minutes in what would usually have been a journey that often exceed one hour.

Te stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s.

The stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s – probably late 1978.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal that was built in 1980.

Staying at Block 306 also made it convenient to catch the bus, as I could board it at the first temporary bus terminal , which operated in a car park just across Avenue 6 in  front of Block 217 (before it moved even closer, probably at the end of 1978, to Avenue 6). Close-by the temporary terminal at Block 215, a row of shops lined the ground floor with the corner shop lot closest to the car park occupied by a coffee shop that due to the proximity of the bus terminal, became a hang out for resting bus drivers and conductors. The coffee shop, never quite recovered when the terminal did move across Avenue 6, with the lot being taken over McDonald’s, who did for a while operate a rather quiet outlet there. NTUC Fairprice currently runs an outlet in the same lot.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet at Block 215 occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

It was also close by where the only completed neighbourhood centre (in Neighbourhood 2) was found, and where the only market that had then been opened, was. It was in one of the shops in the two storey blocks surrounding the market, that I was to visit for my first haircuts in Ang Mo Kio. That was at an Indian barber shop at Block 226E, my father and I would frequent, until the Pink Panther Malay barber shop in my neighbourhood opened.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as 'Kebun Baru Mall'.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as ‘Kebun Baru Mall’.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

Besides the shops at Block 215 and at the neighbourhood centre,  there were shops closer to where I lived. These were found at the bottom of Block 307 (since demolished) across the huge open car park. Besides a bicycle shop, a clinic, and a provision shop, the row also contained the coffee shop that I would have most patronised during my nine-year stay in the area in the new town.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over, that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over (left of the photograph), that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

In its early days, there coffee shop wasn’t much to talk about, much of the food on offer was rather forgettable – although the Fishball Noodle and the Chicken Rice was to see much improvement over time. Most of my early visits there were motivated by the large glass fronted stainless steel refrigerator (as was common in coffee shops and many provision shops in those days) – then placed right against the back wall of the coffee shop (the coffee shop was laid out as were coffee shops of old – with stalls lining the entrance and tables and chairs arranged inside). It was from the fridge that ice-cold relief was found. This took the form of bottled soft drinks that were to be poured into ice-filled plastic bags – much needed in the heat and dust that seemed to accompany the early days of the neighbourhood.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

With the relentless pace at which the town was being developed, it was not to be long before the feeling of being in the wilderness did somewhat subside.  The completion of new roads and addition of bus services did provide more links out, although one did have to spend more time on the road given the distance of the town from the city. One road that was useful in the early days was the extension of Avenue 1 out to Lorong Chuan, completed in March 1977, not too long after I moved in. That providing a link out to Serangoon Garden, where the only NTUC Fairprice (then NTUC Welcome) supermarket in the vicinity was to be found (until the branch in Ang Mo Kio Central was opened in 1979). The completion of the road also saw it being used by hell-riders , participants in the illegal motorcycle races that was a big problem in the late 1970s, the roar of their motorcycles were sometimes heard in the dead of the night.

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 - the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 – the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The completion of Marymount Road in August 1979 provided a faster and more direct route southwards towards the city. The construction of the road, which was to see Marymount Convent lose its original frontage along Thomson Road, took a route that cut through parts of the massive Peck San Theng cemetery – and one thing that I very vividly remember was seeing the exhumation work in progress on the part of the cemetery close to Sin Ming Estate that was just by Marymount Road – probably sometime in 1980.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

With the masses that the further development of Ang Mo Kio brought in, the town took on a more impersonal feel and what there certainly wasn’t, was the sense of the community that was present in Toa Payoh – the lack of common corridors and open front doors possibly a contributory factor. There were however, open and many grassy spaces to celebrate, spaces that allowed the freedom of play, to kick a ball, and to have a run around … spaces there seem to be a lot less of these days. It did come as a shock to see that many of the spaces I played in, have since been lost to the clutter of renewal that upgrading works seem to do to a place, on a recent visit to the area.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

Gone also, is that open space that provided breathing room between the block where I had lived in, the blocks it has since been made to face – a seemingly towering wall of concrete that has hidden that wonderful view I once did get from the bedroom window of the 16th storey flat I had lived in.

More cluttered spaces where open fields once provided the freedom to run.

More cluttered spaces where green and open fields once provided the freedom to run.

Walking around once familiar places that I now find hard to connect with, I did at least stumble upon a consolation. That came in the form of a bowl of ice-kacang, done just the way I like it and as it might have been all those years ago – a simple pleasure from what once was a much less complicated place.

One thing that I hope never changes - finding a great bowl of ice-kacang in the nighbourhood.

One thing that I hope never changes – being able to stumble upon that great bowl of ice-kacang in the changing neighbourhoods.





The calm after the storm

26 12 2013

Pink and purple tinged clouds, coloured by the clearing storm, seen just after sunset at 7.15 pm on 14 December 2013, over Sembawang Hills Estate. The private residential estate of mainly terrace and semi-detached houses dates back to the mid 1950s, when a semi-detached house there (based on a 1956 advertisement), would have cost $11,500; with terrace houses going between $8,000 and $9,425. The face of the estate is one that is changing and besides the newer and taller houses erected in place of the original structures, many of the original businesses occupying the shop lots including an old provision shop (Soon Huat) and a traditional bakery, have made an exit, replaced by businesses that seem to be more relevant to today’s society.

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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.


Old playgrounds:





28 08 2012

The Birds and the Bees

A sunda woodpecker seen in the fading light in the Ang Mo Kio Avenue 2 area just behind St. Nicholas Girls’ School.

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A more recent past that soon will be forgotten

11 06 2012

Passing through a neighbourhood that I am familiar with, I was greeted not by the familiarity of its faces, but by an unfamiliar silence that now fills it. The neighbourhood is one that, having lived near it for some fifteen years, I have had many interactions with. It is one in which, compared to the neighbourhoods of my early childhood, doesn’t go back as far in time, and one where my memories are much more current. Despite its more recent past, such is the pace of the change that sweeps through the island we live in, that this neighbourhood is not spared from it. The neighbourhood is one that sees its heart and soul – the people and business that brought life to it, displaced by the cruel winds of change.

The colours of a now colourless world that will soon be forgotten

The world that has lost its soul is one that has also lost its colour – the only colours left seem to only be that of a playground that has outlived its usefulness. As I look beyond the empty playground which bears the marks of neglect and abandonment, it is the neglect and abandonment of the shuttered row of shops that stares at me. The eerie quiet seems to scream at me. It seemed like it was only yesterday, that the shutters had been raised to reveal businesses that in the relative isolation of the neighbourhood – were ones which had been insulated against the passage of time.

The wheels of time that have started to turn?

At the end of the row, as if in a show of defiance, characters sprayed on in black paint stand out against the pink of closed metal doors, remind us of what once had resided behind the doors – a electrical goods and repair shop. The three rows of characters painted on the doors are of two telephone numbers with the word ‘Service’ below.

The shuttered and abandoned units of shops where time did once seem to stand still.

A defiant reminder of a past that will soon be forgotten.

I look down a corridor that even when it was alive has always been one that seems to be haunted. It is not the ghosts of today that I now see, but the ghosts of yesterday. As my eyes move to the right towards the part that I am most familiar with – a General Practitioner that I often consulted had his practice at one of the units, it is the reflections from the glass of an un-shuttered unit that distracts me. Beyond the reflections of a world that is about to change, it is the secrets of the former world that existed beyond the glass panels that I see … one which belonged to a certain Annie Song. I also see a face – one that is perhaps the face of a ghost of the past. It is a face that will soon fade, as will the world that it now looks at. And when the face and all that is around does fade, the physical link that many will have to a world that had been a part of whom they were – will be forever lost. What will survive will be the memories, memories of lives, of growing-up, of children taking their first steps and perhaps of romances … memories that is time will be ones of a distant and what will certainly be an almost forgotten past.

Silent corridors where only the ghosts of the past now walk on.

Ghosts of the past staring at memories that will soon fade.

There is no more to reflect.





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.