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.

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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.