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).

JeromeLim 277A9573

JeromeLim 277A9567

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:





A new circus comes to Toa Payoh

20 06 2013

A once familiar world fast turning to one that is unfamiliar, is Toa Payoh, the urban kampong where I had spent a good part of my formative years living in. Back then, what was Singapore’s second satellite town – the first planned as a whole by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), was the pride of Singapore’s highly successful public housing programme. It was built in part to showcase the effort with a purpose built “VIP block”, Block 53, built with a viewing gallery on its roof so that the success story could be shown-off to visiting dignitaries to Singapore. That was some four decades ago, and while the face of Toa Payoh is still very much that of the public housing estate it had been built to be, its prime location close to the city does mean that the land on which it does stand, can be sold off at a premium and increasingly, larger chunks of the estate’s land, originally intended for public housing, is now being diverted towards private residential development. This does have the effect of slowly, but surely, changing how we see Toa Payoh.

Block 53 seen today.

Block 53 seen today with the Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple complex across from it.

Block 53 in June 1969.

Block 53 in June 1969.

One pieces of land which will see private residential developments coming up, is one which has somehow remained almost vacant all the years – since Toa Payoh’s life as a public housing estate began. Now cleared of an Esso Service Station which stood at a corner of it since the early 1970s, the plot, bounded by Lorong 6, Lorong 4, Lorong 5 and the huge Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple complex, is currently being sold with a tender having been called by the HDB for it. The plot, being right across Lorong 5 from where I lived at Block 53 from 1967 to 1976 , is one in which I do have some of the more memorable memories of my days in Toa Payoh in. It was where the circus once came to as well as serving as a location of several Trade Fairs held in the early days of Toa Payoh.

A sign foretells the fate of a plot of land which has stood empty since the beginning of Toa Payoh's days as a public housing estate.

A sign tells of the fate about to befall a plot of land which has stood empty since the beginning of Toa Payoh’s days as a public housing estate.

The highlight of my time in Toa Payoh – at least before the Queen visited, was the Great Royal Circus of India coming to town in 1970. Not only did it serve as a distraction that was very different from the travelling wayangs (Chinese operas as they are locally referred to) and the pasar malams (night markets) that they brought with them, it provided me with an opportunity not just to watch the circus for the first time, it also allowed me the chance to see the circus’ travelling caravan (which I often heard stories about) up close. The caravan was stationed adjacent to the big top that had been set up on the same plot of land closer to Lorong 6, just next to Lorong 5 and right across from where I lived in Block 53.

A lion seen in a Royal Circus of India caravan cage in 1968. The circus was based at the plot of land in Toa Payoh in 1970 and brought with it the opportunity to see the animals up close.

A lion seen in a Royal Circus of India caravan cage in 1968. The circus was based at the plot of land in Toa Payoh in 1970 and brought with it the opportunity to see the animals up close (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

Those were indeed exciting times for me, the caravan which would have arrived by ship and moved around the Malayan Peninsula, included the cages of the circus’ animals and it was a huge treat to see the fierce looking Lions, Tigers and the curiously fascinating Ligers in their cages, not on the page of a magazine or book, but from a relatively safe position just an arm’s length away. Another huge treat was getting close the huge elephants – a few were chained to poles in the ground, and being washed and tended to by the keepers, although it is the rather unpleasant smell and sight associated of one of the elephants answering the call of nature in a big way that does seem to remain etched in my memory more than anything else.

The location plan on the HDB Land Sales web page (click to enlarge).

The unoccupied plot of land, along with the one across Lorong 4 on which the Toa Payoh Police Station (now Police Security Command) was to be built on, were ideal places to host the travelling Trade Fairs, popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fairs, entrance to which would have cost some 20 cents for adults back then, contained many stalls selling a range of goods and cooked food, as well as having a fun fair of sorts. The fun fair was where rides, similar to the ones set by by Uncle Ringo these days, were found along with many other game stalls set up. It was this part of the fairs I was often drawn to, and on one  rare occasion I was allowed to go with an older neighbour (those were days when there were many warnings of children disappearing, many from similar fairs across the island, presumably kidnapped and never again seen). That was a visit, for which my grandmother stored the few coins I was given to spend in a knotted handkerchief, I well remember. It was probably more for what did happen – in participating in a game in which darts were thrown at inflated balloons so as to burst them, one of the projectiles I launched missed the girl who was manning the stall very narrowly.

A view northwards across the plot of land from where the Esso Service Station was. The Toa Pyoah Police Station (now Police Security Command) can be seen across Lorong 4 on the left - both that piece of land and the empty plot played host to trade fairs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A view northwards across the plot of land from where the Esso Service Station was. The Toa Pyoah Police Station (now Police Security Command) can be seen across Lorong 4 on the left – both that piece of land and the empty plot played host to trade fairs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Another thing I do remember of the plot of land was a large grass fire in the early 1970s which happened during a dry spell. The sight of firemen smothering the still smoking grass with gunny sacks after the fire was put out, as well as the sight of the charred black field is that I still well remember. It is however, the (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Tong (修德善堂), a Buddhist temple perched on the hillock on the eastern side of the plot of land, and a landmark in Toa Payoh which was there well before the public housing estate came up – which would probably be what most would identify with the plot of land. The huge temple complex, most of which was rebuilt in the early 1990s, as I would have known it back in the 1960s and 1970s, was completed in 1959, and was where a previous wooden attap roofed structure was said to have been put up in 1942. The temple’s location also marks where the first block of flats in Toa Payoh proper did come up – the first block of flats completed is Block 52, which still stands next to the temple and overlooks the temple complex.

The (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Ton seen on a small hillock at the eastern edge of the empty plot of land. The first block of flats completed in Toa Payoh, Block 52, can be seen just beyond the temple complex.

The (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Ton seen on a small hillock at the eastern edge of the empty plot of land. The first block of flats completed in Toa Payoh, Block 52, can be seen just beyond the temple complex.

With the new development that will soon take place, the temple’s position as a landmark overlooking the northern gateway to Toa Payoh (via the flyover at Bradell Road), will probably diminish. The development will add to growing list of private residential property in Toa Payoh and will further tip the balance in the mix of public and private flats in the area and it may be a matter of time before Toa Payoh will shed an image it was built to have – that of the jewel in the crown of what did become a very successful effort to house Singapore’s once homeless masses.

The rising of the sun over a new Toa Payoh.

The rising of the sun over a new Toa Payoh.





A world uncoloured

9 04 2013

It is in the colours of a world that has been uncoloured, where we find residues of the many memories there may have been of it. The memories are ones that soon will fade – the world waits the inevitable. It will soon face a destruction many similar worlds have faced, making way for a new world in which its memories of four decades past will forever be lost.

The stairwell of a world about to change (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The stairwell (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

What now dominates this world at Lorong 6 in Toa Payoh, a recent victim of the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in which residents and businesses are moved out to allow the neighbourhood to be redeveloped, is its tallest block of flats, Block 28. At 20 storeys high and occupying a prominent position on a low hill at one of the three original points of entry to what was an island-like Toa Payoh, it was hard not to miss the block which is one of a few blocks of flats built by the HDB laid out on a W-shaped plan, especially with the bright orange dragon found at the foot of the block.

A world where memories will soon fade.

A world where memories will soon fade.

A corridor (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

A corridor (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The dragon is one that has in recent times, come to prominence. It has perhaps come to symbolise a growing desire to hold on to what is familiar in a Singapore many find is changing too fast. It is one of several well-loved creations of the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee. Mr Khor can be attributed with probably a generation of growing Singaporeans many cherished memories of playing in sandpits and playing on, sliding down or swinging from the terrazzo structures which took the shapes of popular childhood creatures. Besides playgrounds he designed in the shape of the dragon, there were smaller ones which took the forms of the pelican, the elephant and the dove.

The dragon of Block 28 (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The dragon of Block 28.

The dragon at Block 28 is perhaps the best preserved of the few that have survived. It is one where its sandpit has survived where others may have lost them to the modern materials which provide a soft landing in the ultra sfae playgrounds our children now play in. The future the dragon has, with the intended renewal of the area, been a subject of much speculation. Many harbour a hope that it survives sandpit and all.

The sandpit (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The sandpit (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The world the dragon bids farewell to is one that had once been familiar to me. An uncle and his family had lived in top floor flat in Block 28. While my family lived in Toa Payoh up to 1976, we visited frequently, taking walks in the evenings down Lorong 4 or Lorong 5 from where we lived in Block 53.

The back of Block 28.

The back of Block 28.

The block is one known for the magnificent views it offers. We had discussed the possibility of watching the going-ons at the nearby Toa Payoh Stadium through a pair of binoculars but never attempted to do it – possibly because nothing interesting enough did take place at the stadium. It was however the view down the stairwell that would leave the largest impression on me.  The stairwell was unique in the sense that the staircase and its railings wound around the sides of what was a large trapezoidal space that occupied the angles of the W-shape plan. It wasn’t just that it was a much bigger space than one would normally see in HDB blocks of flats, but it offered a somewhat frightening view over the railings especially from 20 floors up.

Another look through the stairwell.

Another look through the stairwell.

Walking around the recently vacated block, its corridors and staircase landings scattered with the discards of former residents who moved to newer flats, there is this sense that I am walking amongst the ghosts that have been left behind.

A partly opened window.

A partly opened window.

A peek into a world occupied only by its ghosts.

A peek into a world occupied only by its ghosts.

In treading through the debris of the former world and pass by louvered windows some opened as if to provide ventilation to the ghosts of the vacated units, I also see colours of the real world left behind: familiar scribblings of loan sharks’ runners, along with familiar splatters of red on doors and windows – one memory that perhaps is best left to fade. It is one that will certainly be forgotten, along with the more than 40 years worth of memories that the now vacated units contain, all of which will all too quickly fade.

Scribblings of the real world along the staircase (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Scribblings of the real world along the staircase (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

A red paint splattered door that will definitely want to be forgotten.

A red paint splattered door that will definitely want to be forgotten.

A red paint splattered window.

A red paint splattered window.





Chasing the dragon, finding a bunny

25 07 2012

With a small group of new-found friends, I found myself chasing the dragon – the now iconic playground made famous by it being #3 on Flavorwire.com’s list of the world’s 15 most amazing playgrounds, and one that seems to come to mind whenever the topic of old playgrounds is brought up in Singapore. The playground, the orange dragon of Toa Payoh has recently also made an appearance in ‘Mosaic Memories‘ – an effort commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project on the subject of capturing memories of old playgrounds.

The dragon of Block 28 Toa Payoh.

The dragon of Toa Payoh, sitting proudly below Block 28 in Lorong 6, greets anyone arriving by road into the island that is Toa Payoh, through one of the town’s original three entry points – at what is today called Kim Keat Link. Wearing on its face a bright coat of orange coloured by the mosaic tiles that once commonly featured as wall finishes, it is hard not to notice it. Despite missing swings and ropes that used to dangle from it what would best be described as its steel spine, the playground is still one that is, after some three decades of wear, in immaculate condition. The steel spine, formed by bars of steel bent to form a curved rib-cage like structure that is held together by two continuous round steel bars, connects the dragon’s tail to its head. The head is one which has terrazzo slides built into it – one that seems a lot more durable than the plastic slides that are commonly found in the playgrounds of today.

One of two terrazzo slides on the dragon’s head.

Children playing on the dragon’s spine.

The playground which has achieved worldwide attention through its appearance on Flavorwire.com’s list of 15 most amazing playgrounds is one the most photographed old playgrounds in Singapore.

It does attract some older kids as well!

Playgrounds with sand always allow kids using them to explore another dimension of play.

The dragon is one of several dragons that were known to reside in Toa Payoh. Besides the dragons seen in the many Chinese temples around the estate, there was first the dragon statue at Lorong 3 that is still there and several dragon playgrounds, all of which were designed by the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, two of which are still with us. The first dragon playground was one that was once found in that amazing large play area right at the end of Toa Payoh Town Garden just beyond the look-our tower which is still there. It featured a painted steel face and a pretty long spine and is one that I spent many happy moments at. I especially loved climbing the bars arranged beneath its head – bars that connected to horizontal monkey bars arranged in a circular fashion which seemingly supported its head.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

These playgrounds – the orange dragon which sits below Block 28 where my cousins had lived, and the one at the garden which has since disappeared – a victim of the construction of the HDB Hub (the playground was demolished to accommodate a temporary bus interchange as the air-conditioned one was being put up where the original bus terminus had been), were not the ones that I have the fondest memories of. Those memories are ones of the smell of rust on my hands and clothes from the steel of chains and slides that sometimes very hot to touch in the sun, and splinters in my shorts from the wooden see-saw planks and seats of the swings – all of which represented a time when playgrounds were provided a luxury of space and permitted childhood expression in interacting with playground equipment to be exercised in much more creative ways.

The playground in Toa Payoh that I have the fondest memories of (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James – On a Little Street in Singapore).

One particular playground which many of those memories are associated with is the one that was below the block of flats that I lived in, Block 53. That along with the many others I had once had taken so much pleasure out of including one at Katong Park which I well remember for a wood and steel merry-go-round, has long since disappeared. It was one remnant of my childhood close to Block 53, for which my friends and I decided to head to the area following the quick look at what still apparently is an object of childhood worship. The route to the area around where I had lived was one that I had many times in the 1970s taken home from my cousins’ place, but it wasn’t to Block 53 that I headed to this time, but to the area across Lorong 4 to where the market is. The area, disfigured by upgrading works that relieved it of much the nice open spaces it once had – spaces in which itinerant Nepali vendors once displayed wares laid on mats and where men with undershirts rolled over their midriffs congregated, does take me back to the days when two food stalls seemed to communicate with each other. The two which faced each other  each had a sign displayed above the stall – one asked that we “Come Every Day” and the other in what always seemed like a reply had the words “I am Coming”.

A window into the past that sees more of the present.

Around the market are three four-storey blocks with ground floor units populated by shops of all kinds including several which date back to the days of my childhood – all found in the L-shaped Block 94. One is the end next to Lorong 4 where the well-known Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Restaurant Lee Fun Nam Kee can be found. It wasn’t this that attracted my friends and me back, but the unit at the other end where an unmistakable shop front of a barbershop with its barber’s pole, is one that hasn’t been changed since the shop first started just a little over four decades ago. The barbershop, the Bugs Bunny barbershop, started there in 1971, moving into the corner unit which had been previously occupied by an ice-cream parlour, Yum-Yum – the original occupants which had operated for about two years. I was sad to see the parlour close – it had a long American diner style counter with stools, but the Malay barbershop was definitely a welcome addition – I hated my visits to the Indian barbershop which shared a unit with a ladies hairdressing salon (as was very common then) at Block 54 for the crew cuts I inevitably had ended up with, and I very soon became a regular customer of Bug Bunny which is a Malay barbershop.

The front of the Bugs Bunny barbershop is one that hasn’t changed since it first started in 1971.

Where Indian barbers have had a long and established tradition in Singapore (and across the Causeway in Malaysia), Malay barbers only really started establishing themselves in the late 1960s and 1970s. The arrival of Bugs Bunny came at a time when the Malay barbers began to set the standard for male hairstyles in Singapore and when there was a rapid expansion in the number of Malay barber shops – the origin Malay barbers were the few who operated independently. They started to set the trend with their ability to improvise and give their customers styles that went beyond the closely cropped cuts that seemed to once have been a standard, becoming very popular also with school boys. Bugs Bunny might also have started a small wave in naming Malay barber shops after popular cartoon characters – another that I later frequented in Ang Mo Kio was named Pink Panther.

Some of the inside (which was recently renovated) still looks the same … the barber chairs are the same ones the shop started with in 1971.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that a few of the barbers at Bugs Bunny are ones that were there since it earliest days – while business had tapered off over recent years, especially with the preference for more upmarket salons and also with the arrival of the Japanese style barber chains, there was still a steady enough stream of customers during the Sunday. At the urging of some of my friends, I decided to have a haircut and I soon found myself stepping into a world that I had not seen since 1976 – when I had moved out of Toa Payoh. As I sat on the barber’s chair once again … chairs which I was told were the same ones from the shop’s early days, I became quickly immersed in a world I had once familiar with, the smell of talcum powder bringing back not just memories of a shop which even with its recent makeover, still seems very much the same, but also of the other barber shops of my childhood. Talcum powder is generously applied especially so in Indian barber shops, thinking about which brought back memories of staring into the wall to wall mirrors both in front an at the back, reflecting reflections that seem to be reflected an infinite number of times … and in those reflections is a world that for much too long, had been one that was lost to me.

A world that for too long has been lost to me.





A mosaic from my childhood

19 07 2012

I very recently set foot in a flat that had once been my childhood home, one that holds not just the memories of my formative years, but also of the wonderful moments of what had been a very eventful childhood. The flat in Toa Payoh, is one that I have not been in since I moved out to another in Ang Mo Kio some three and a half decades ago and although I have visited the block of flats several times in more recent years, I never did summon the courage to knock on its door – a door, just like the gate that protects it and the common corridor facing windows next to it, is the same one that I had left behind. Plus, it did look as if it wasn’t occupied.

The bedrooms’ mosaic flooring – unchanged since the time my parents put it in when we first moved in some 45 years ago … a mosaic which holds many memories of my childhood.

The opportunity to revisit the flat came by way of a message on my mobile. A Mediacorp Channel 8 team producing a variety show that is currently being aired on local television, United Neighbours Society, with whom I had been in touch with over the use of old photographs, asked if I could be interviewed at the flat. The flat was one of two which HM Queen Elizabeth II took a look at during a visit to Singapore in 1972 – a visit the team were keen to include in the Toa Payoh episode of the show, each episode of which is set in a different residential estate in Singapore and includes snippets of the particular estate’s past. An opportunity that I never thought would come to see my childhood home again had presented itself and I had to agree, which I did without much hesitation. With the current owner of the flat kindly agreeing to have his flat filmed, I soon found myself stepping through a doorway I had last stepped through in 1976.

Shaking hands with the Queen. The visit of the Queen to the flat in 1972 was one of the highlights of a wonderful childhood.

It’s hard to describe how I felt stepping into the flat … a surge of varying emotions went through me. Although furnished very differently from when I had lived in it, there was more that was familiar than that wasn’t familiar. One of the first things that struck me was how much hadn’t changed. One was the green terrazzo flooring that my parents had put in – in anticipation of the Queen’s visit, complete with the radiused light green skirting which I at that instance remembered I used to push my model die-cast cars along and against.

The front door and gate in 1968.

The ceiling was still the old familiar ceiling – just a little worn with age, as were the front grilles and the kitchen cabinets with the same Formica lining … Right at the back of the kitchen area is probably where most of the changes to the flat had be made. I could see the obvious signs of the upgrading work that the block of flats has since undergone – upgrading work which regretfully altered the clean façade of the block, and took away the rooftop viewing gallery and the wonderful open spaces below the block. The windows and grilles had been replaced and the bathroom and WC (in two separate rooms as it common to see in those days) had been modernised. I looked up – I had forgotten how high the ceiling at the back was – the space right at the back of the kitchen had when the flat was in its original condition been a service balcony – separated by a wall with a door and louvered windows. My parents had the wall removed and windows installed at the balcony which then became an extension to the kitchen.

Setting foot into a flat that once had been my childhood home brought with it a flood not just of the memories it contains, but also a surge of emotions in me.

The kitchen is one that holds many special memories. Memories that came flooding back to me as I surveyed the kitchen included the many occasions when I helped my mother with her baking –making pineapple tarts which she always made for Christmas and Chinese New Year. This was something I always looked forward to – I was particularly fond of using the pastry cutter which included a wooden block that fit into the metal shell that acted as the cutter to mould the little recess in which the filling went into. The filling would then already have been prepared – a tedious task that involved grating pineapples and cooking and then draining the filling before it was ready to be used. Another thing I enjoyed was cutting the little strips of left over pastry, forming then into shapes and letters and placing them on top of the filling before the tarts were baked in the oven.

The kitchen seen during the Queen’s visit.

Another memory that came back to me of the kitchen is one of the days that preceded the dumpling festival. It was in the space by the entrance from the hall – a spot where for a while my father had placed his fish tank, where a bamboo pole would be laid across two chairs from which lengths of bamboo twine was suspended. It was where we sat on low stools to pack the dumplings – glutinous rice with a filling of pork spiced in the Peranakan style with a peeled chestnut added wrapped in a bamboo leaf in the shape of a tree sided pyramid, which could then be secured using the bamboo twine before we put them in the steamer.

The Queen admiring my father’s fish tank. The area of the kitchen was where we prepared dumplings.

Stepping into the bedroom, the one that was separated from the common corridor by a wall with the same two panels of louvered windows still there which we normally kept closed, brought back many memories as well – many bittersweet. The bedroom, still with the same blue and white mosaic flooring that was put in when we first moved in, was one which I shared with my late maternal grandmother, one in which I have my happiest memories of my interactions with her. She had a high metal framed bed fitted with four posts and an upper frame on which she fitted a mosquito net or kelambu as she had referred to it, on the side of the room away from the doorway. It was from her bed that she related the many stories I heard of her life and from her. It was also on her bed where she would apply when seemed then like her cure-all – Minyak Kayu Putih as she called it – Eucalyptus oil to my stomach area whenever I had experienced a stomach ache.

Windows and grilles which had been unchanged for 45 years – on the windows of the hall and the bedroom which I had used.

The room with its original door and windows also intact, somehow looked a lot smaller than it appeared to me as a child. Standing there, it was hard to imagine how we had fitted a metal framed double-decker bed, the lower bunk of which I had used, on the other side, as well as my grandmother’s old style cabinet cum dresser and another cupboard at the doorway end and an altar (which once caught fire) in the top corner above my grandmother’s cupboard. Staring at the flooring – there seemed to be a lot more memories – many which are personal, which seemed to be held in the repeated patterns that the blue and white tiles form, that came back … some bringing a tear to my eye.

Playing in the hall … the mosaic flooring that my parents had originally fitted can be seen – the same one which still exists in the bedrooms.

The very pleasant gentleman that now owns the unit, is the same one who had bought the flat over from the HDB after we had moved (rules then did not allow HDB flats to be traded on the open market). I did have a photograph of him taken with me after filming was completed, as I did take a few photographs of the flat with his kind permission – out of respect for the owner’s privacy I will not post the photographs except the ones which do not reveal too much. I took the opportunity to also have a chat with him and one of the things that I did learn from him was that the lady who went door-to-door selling bubur pulut hitam (a dessert of black glutinous rice served with a topping coconut milk) – a fond memory I have of my days in Toa Payoh (I would always look forward to her coming), still does it. He says that she must now be at least in her 80s …

The kitchen and the cabinets which are still there seen during Sir William Goode’s visit in September 1972.

The time soon came when I had to say goodbye to my childhood home once again. Although it was with some reluctance, I did leave also with a sense of contentment. It wasn’t just one that comes with the comfort of seeing a place that I was emotionally attached to as a child and one that has retained many physical reminders of the world I was familiar with, but also one that comes with the many hidden memories that my visit to the flat has awakened in me.





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.






A door through to the corridors of time

16 03 2011

It was nice to take a walk with a few of my friends, former Toa Payoh residents as well, down memory lane, visiting parts that they were familiar with in their childhoods, much as I did to the block of flats I lived in some time back. In doing so, we were transported back some forty years in time, to a place that maybe was very different in many ways to the upgraded Toa Payoh that we see today. It was nice however, to find that beyond that unnecessary clutter that somehow upgrading gives to the opened and airy neighbourhoods of our HDB childhoods, there are still some reminders of a forgotten time that is left for us to discover.

Much of Toa Payoh is very much new intertwined with the old, with the clutter of upgrading mixed with some reminders of a forgotten time (even upgraded laundry poles seem to have clutter added to them).

We did rediscover our lost childhood in some ways taking the walk, which took us to the outside of the units that two of my companions lived in, a second storey corner unit that has lost much of its original decor, and another on the fourth floor which the previous occupant was pleased to discover, still had the original mosaic flooring that was put in all those years back. On the ground floor of that block of flats, we stumbled upon a unit with a renovation notice stuck to its front, one which, we were surprised to see, would have looked exactly how it would have all those years back, with its original window louvres and pink wooden door that somehow doesn’t look much worse for wear. I guess what the renovation notice means is that the window and door would soon be retired, and we were glad to have had to chance to see them before they go along with those that came with the other units before they were renovated.

A flat that has retained the original door and window louvres which would have been used for more than 40 years.

The original lower louvres of the windows.

The letter slot that doors on HDB flats were fitted with up to the early 1970s - the post man delivered mail door-to-door in those days.

A keyhole cover that doors on HDB flats were fitted with then, I had forgotten about these until I saw it on the old door.

The keyhole cover in a semi-closed position.

A ground floor corridor ... somehow it looked a lot narrower and the ceiling seemed a lot lower than when we were children.

New age pegs on a nylon laundry line strung outside a fourth storey flat.

"Flags" of a HDB estate fluttering over upgraded windows of a n old block of flats.

A new covered walkway added during upgrading - one of the more useful bits of clutter added to the neighbourhood.

Colours of the new neighbourhood that has come up around the old.

Besides the door and the corridors through which we could take that step back in time, there was another little place at the row of shops that still looks as it did 40 years ago, that is a clinic, Chaim’s Clinic at Block 111 Toa Payoh. I have not actually visited that clinic before this, but on the evidence of what my companions told me, the shop front, floor tiles, frosted glass panel and even some of the furniture, are very much what they were all those years back. The doctor, Dr. Chaim, I am told, is well into his 70s and is still practicing!

A reflection of the new on the old ... one of the survivors of these 40 years, a clinic that has retained much of its decor, including the frosted glass panel at the front, the collapsible gate and the mosaic tiled walls.

A close-up of the mosaic tiled wall at the clinic's front.

The waiting area of the clinic.

A set of old weighing scales.

The mosaic floor.

One of the shops in the upgraded block that hasn't been hit by the inflation that usually accompanies updgrading.

Balls for sale ... used to be quite commonly seen hung outside shops in HDB estates.