Toa Payoh’s fairy-tale-like castle

21 11 2010

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a wonderful castle rose up on a little hill bringing a world that seemed to only exist in fairy-tales to the many children who lived in the land. It was a castle that perhaps capped a transformation that took place in the land, once referred to as a big swamp which had contained pockets of zinc or attap topped wooden dwellings that had once been a place where even the brave had feared to thread, having been referred as the ‘Chicago of the East’ or ‘Chicago of Singapore’ for the many gangland activities that seemed to have thrived in the area. The castle had also brought to the children who lived in the newly transformed swamp to a land many had sought to see, a land that lay far across the vast ocean, Disneyland that had existed in the same world that contained the Chicago that many had associated the swamp with. It was indeed a castle where fairy-tales seemed to be made of – as it brought to the children around not just the sense of wonderment that a castle brings, but hope for that better tomorrow that seemed to have eluded many that had once lived around the swamp.

Toa Payoh underwent a transformation from becoming the Chicago of Singapore in the 1960s to a much sought after middle class area we know of today.

The land where the castle had been erected in was the newly transformed Toa Payoh, Singapore’s wonderful new satellite town, the first to be planned as a unit and the first to be built in the then newly independent Singapore. It was a Singapore that was trying to find its feet, as the uncertainty of being cast out from a world that it had long sought to be a part of and one on which it was very much dependent on, gave way to a hope and confidence that the rapid post-independence development had brought about. The castle had in Toa Payoh, become a beacon of hope, as banks, shops and factories moved into the newly developed satellite town, bringing with them the confidence that Singapore’s Chicago could be transformed from what had once had been a hotbed of gangland activity to a land that was safe to live in, bringing not just a commercial presence to the town, but also providing jobs to many who lived there.

Toa Payoh's 'castle' came up in 1969 on the side of Block 54 (source: The Straits Times, 6 Dec 1969).

As with the fairy-tale world from which the castle might have come from, the castle itself was a make-believe one. One that was for most part a two dimensional mural of sorts that decorated the side of Block 54 which stood on a small table of land that rose from the road, Lorong 4 that it faced. I guess to provide a third dimension to the ‘castle’, ramparts – mock-ups built on the open space between the road and the block of flats were added, amongst which children could live out part of the make-believe world the castle had sought to bring. The ‘castle’ had in fact been a stroke of genius – an advertisement for the branch of Chung Khiaw bank that had been opened at the foot of the block of flats, that certainly brought attention to it, recognising that children were a major market force long before McDonald’s arrived at our shores. The bank had then started a ‘coins bank’ scheme, offering attractive bronze coloured coin boxes in the shape of animals, to children which was indeed popular with the children of Toa Payoh, perhaps partly due to the attention that the castle had brought to the branch of the bank, which opened in December 1969. Sadly for the children of today, the wonderful ‘castle’ is now gone – it went sometime in the mid 1970s – not too long after Chung Khiaw bank was acquired by UOB in 1972 (disappearing in name with the merger with UOB in the 1980s).

The view to the end of Block 54 where the branch of Chung Khiaw Bank and the fairy-tale like castle had once stood.

Speaking of Chung Khiaw bank and UOB brings back memories of a run on Chung Khiaw bank that occurred in October of 1974, when over the course of two days, thousands had descended on the same branch (as with many other branches) in an attempt to withdraw their savings with rumours swirling over the bank’s financial stability. What I remember very vividly was the long queue of people that had formed outside the branch and my grandmother remarking that it she was lucky not to have any of her money in the bank. If I remember correctly, this went on for a few days before calm returned as the authorities intervened to restore faith in the bank.

The Fairchild Factory at its opening in December 1969 (source: The Straits Times, 4 Dec 1969)

The Fairchild Factory as seen in 1973.

Besides the advertisement which also had a red-green neon sign of the bank’s name at the top of the block of flats, there were some other prominent landmarks in the area, particularly the short stretch of road, Lorong 3 that the side of the block had overlooked. One was the Fairchild factory – Toa Payoh’s first factory which opened in 1969, operating for several months before being officially opened on 4 December of that year by Dr. Toh Chin Chye. The factory had been set up by the US based Fairchild group with the assistance of the Economic Development Board (EDB) for the assembly of integrated circuits, and was one of the few then that worked around the clock – with three shifts. Starting with 400 employees , which grew to 800 by the time Dr. Toh opened the factory, the factory also featured female only production workers for the delicate shop floor operations. The two storey building that the factory started in, is in fact still there – now used by McDermott, as is another of the landmarks along Lorong 3 – a dragon statue – one a dragon twisting around a red pillar, not as elaborate maybe as the one featured in Royston Tan’s documentary ‘Old Places’ at Whampoa, but one that many who grew up in the area would fondly remember.

The two storey building that housed the former Fairchild Factory along Lorong 3 today.

The other 'landmark' along Lorong 3, the Dragon Statue.