Parting glances: Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive

2 10 2015

Change has become an inevitable aspect of life in Singapore. Places we cherish go in a flash and are quickly replaced by unfamiliar. For some, the passing of a neighbourhood in which they may have spent most of their lives in can be an traumatic experience. The loss is not just of the familiarity of a place one calls home, but also the break up of the communities in which ties may have been forged over several decades.

A window into the past. Inside an early HDB flat at Commonwealth Drive soon to be demolished.

A window into the past. Inside an early HDB flat at Commonwealth Drive soon to be demolished.

One old neigbourhood that has been emptied of life was the one at Commonwealth Drive , an area, at least from a public housing perspective, that goes back half a century. The area, also known as Tanglin Halt, is where some of the earliest planned Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats are to be found. The cluster of 10-storey blocks of flats also referred to as Chap Lau Chu (10-storey houses in Hokkien), while not aesthetically pleasing in the context of today’s public housing designs, served as the face of the HDB’s public housing efforts and were featured on the backs of the new nation’s very first one dollar currency note.

The back of Singapore's first one dollar note.

The back of Singapore’s first one dollar note.

Sadly, the neighbourhood will soon lose its note-worthy blocks. The now vacant blocks will soon be demolished and all that will be left of them will be dust and some of our memories. We do get to bid farewell to them before that happens though. A carnival to say goodbye is being organised by My Community and the Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Committee on Saturday (3 October 2015) to say our goodbyes to blocks 74 to 80.

Block 74 Commonwealth Drive, 1968 (Courtesy of Jasmine Cheng).

Block 74 Commonwealth Drive, 1968 (Courtesy of Jasmine Cheng).

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The carnival will not only allow access to an area soon to be hoarded up. One of the blocks (Block 74) will be opened up to the public as well as two of the block’s units on the second level. Visitors can also look forward to a photography exhibition “Forget Me Not” by Nicky Loh and Erwin Tan, which looks at the estate in its glory days, the past and the present. One of the photographers Nicky Loh, lived at block 79 and has fond memories of the Chin Hin Eating House, a kopitiam at Block 75 that closed its doors last year (see a previous post on it: Last Impressions).

The carnival will allow access to Block 74 and two of its units.

The carnival will allow access to Block 74 and two of its units.

Formerly occupied by Chin Hin Eating House.

Formerly occupied by Chin Hin Eating House.

Reminders of yesterday - retrofitted 2nd generation HDB letter boxes.

Reminders of yesterday – retrofitted 2nd generation HDB letter boxes.

The common corridor - the slot in the original door found on many of the vacated flats were for mail - a reminder of when the postman used to deliver mail door to door.

The common corridor – the slot in the original door found on many of the vacated flats were for mail – a reminder of when the postman used to deliver mail door to door.

Along with the exhibition there will also be performances by local favourites ShiGGa Shay, Tay Kexin and the Switch, as well as a public screening of the highly acclaimed “7 letters”. Three of the seven films, Royston Tan’s “Bunga Sayang,” Boo Jun Feng’s “Parting” and Eric Khoo’s “Cinema” were shot in the neighbourhood.

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It will perhaps be a fitting goodbye to an area that was also associated among other things with the railway (the rail corridor runs by it and the name Tanglin Halt came from a train halt or stop located in the area) and the industrial area to its immediate north that was crowned not only with the huge gas holder (the giant blue city gas cylindrical tank similar to the one that used to dominate the Kallang landscape), but was also where Singapore’s homegrown television brand, Setron – once a household name, had its first factory. The mix of light industries and a residential neighbourhood – there also were factories and artisans operating in the ground floor shop lots allowed residents to find work around where they lived in days when folks were less mobile and perhaps when we were less fussy about where we lived.

The gas holder (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The gas holder (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The site of the former gas holder.

The site of the former gas holder.

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The area is a popular shortcut during lunch ... the masks are not because of the long gone gas tank that used to also be remembered for the smell behind them but due to the current haze.

The area is a popular shortcut during lunch … the masks are not because of the long gone gas tank that used to also be remembered for the smell behind them but due to the current haze.

More on Saturday’s carnival can be found at the My Queenstown Facebook Page.

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Goodbye 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive Programme

Date: Saturday, 3 October 2015
Time: 1100 to 1900 hrs
Venue: Block 74 carpark (next to Tanglin Halt Wet Market)

What to expect:

  1. Access to Block 74 (1100-1900)
  2. Screening of “Singapore Dreaming” (1200) “Taxi Taxi” (1430) “7 letters” (1700)
  3. A photography exhibition by Nicky Loh Photography and Erwin Tan (1100-1900)
  4. Performances by White Ribbon Live Music (1200) ShiGGa Shay (1500), Tay Kexin (郑可欣) and the Switch (1600)
  5. Free flow of drinks and ice cream ! (1100-1700)

Note : Times are subject to weather conditions and outdoor events will be cancelled in the event the PSI exceeds 201


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Some may remember this bathroom door - a standard one-time HDB fitting.

Some may remember this bathroom door – a standard one-time HDB fitting.

A close up of the door with the manufacturer's name.

A close up of the door with the manufacturer’s name.

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Signs of the times.

Signs of times forgotten.

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Last impressions

4 03 2014

Time can be a cruel thing in Singapore. The passage of time brings with it the change that seems inevitable in Singapore denying us many places that we may have developed an attachment to.

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The last day of February this year, saw the passing of two well-loved places. One is a kopitiam (coffee-shop), set in an world older than itself for which time is being called on, and the other, a well used community space in the form of a public swimming pool complex we in Singapore seem to want to discard all to quickly.

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Just a stone’s throw away from each other, the two, are coincidentally from the same era. While this may be hard to see in the swimming complex, the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, the layout of the kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House at Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, does take us back to the period when it was set-up in 1976 – when it was still the fashion to lay food stalls at the coffee-shop’s front, with a seating area in the back. A popular place for that traditional breakfast of buttered bread, soft-boiled eggs and coffee, the coffee-shop was located on the ground floor of a block of flats that will be a group of seven – among the earliest put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, that will be demolished under the HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

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The swimming complex, which opened in September 1976 and the fourth to be designed by the Housing and Development Board (the others before it were Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Katong), is one that I do have a memory of. It was where on one evening in the complex’s first decade of operation, despite losing my glasses in any attempt to “rescue” a “swimmer in distress”, I managed to get my bronze medallion in life-saving that qualified me as a lifeguard. That was some 30 years ago in 1983, and probably some 30 kilogrammes ago in weight I have since seemed to have gained.

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While there is little I have in terms of sentimentality for the places concerned, they are still places for which I do feel a sense of loss, being reminders of unassuming times for which there is little place in the world we have been forced to love. There may be little time left for us to celebrate these remnants of the old world in which we find easy to feel at home in, before they become a remnant only in our memories.


A last waltz

a final dance at Chin Hin Eating House (1976 to 2014) –

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La última Vista

– a final look at Buona Vista Swimming Complex (4 Sep 1976 to 28 Feb 2014) –

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