Revisiting Tekong

13 01 2017

I revisited my first journey to Pulau Tekong last Friday. It is a journey that many a Singaporean son makes at the start of National Service, one that I made some three decades ago, when the island was already cleared of its previous inhabitants and made the home of Singapore’s largest Basic Military Training (BMT) complex. 31 years and three months since, it was time for my son to make his own journey. This first journey, is often accompanied by a a reluctance and a mix of emotions brought about by the fear of the relative unknown, the loss of two years of one’s prime and of life as one had known. While boys these days may be much better prepared for this and with family members now allowed to make part of the journey, it does not in anyway lessen the dread that comes with it.

My son’s journey began at noon, with a bus ride from Pasir Ris Bus Interchange. By contrast, my had begun in the militaristic setting of Dempsey Road where the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) was then based. That involved a trudge up the incline of the road that I was already very familiar with from the many occasions I needed to visit CMPB since I turned 12 to obtain an exit permit necessary to leave the country, and to have my passport extended. At the top, the induction into military life would be swift – civilian identification needed first to be surrendered and in no time I found myself lifting my right hand to take the Oath of Allegiance. Goodbyes – for those who family members had gathered – were quickly waved as enlistees were being rushed up a 3-tonner Bedford truck for what was to be a long and uncomfortable ride.

The first stop, Keat Hong Camp, was where enlistees was kitted up and given their first taste of the then infamously bad army food. We were then back on the 3-tonner  for the road trip across the island that ended on the beach at Changi. There we would wait for the Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) for the final part of the trip and it would only be late in the afternoon that we found ourselves being marched in the then still rustic settings to what would serve as home for much of the three months to come – the Infantry Training Depot’s (ITD) rather sinister looking Camp 1.

The island has much less of a rustic feel these days – at least at the landing point at which enlistees and their family members find themselves after a much more comfortable ride from Changi on a civilian operated catamaran ferry. From the new and sheltered jetty at Tekong, the immense Ladang Camp complex comes into sight. It is where the bulk of the enlistees will be based at during their stint in BMT- some would however find themselves based inland at a second camp complex at Rocky Hill. This transformation came as quite a surprise to me, even if I may have had glimpses of the island from the air and from the boat when I visited Beting Bronok and Pengerang in more recent times .

With there no longer being a need to make the long detour to the Keat Hong with kits now being issued on the island, the journey is also a lot more efficient. In a matter of four hours from boarding the bus at Pasir Ris, family members would have been briefed on what their sons, grandsons or brothers would go through, get a glimpse of how they would sleep, be told about when to expect them home, witness the taking of the Oath, have a taste of the much improved and now catered army food with the enlistees and also wave their goodbyes.


In photographs

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

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No longer does it involve a long and uncomfortable ride on a 3-tonner. Enlistees (and accompanying family members) are now transported in air-conditioned comfort directly to the SAF Ferry Terminal at Changi Beach.

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The wait to board the ferry is also sheltered. Back then, the wait (and ride across) would have involved standing exposed to the elements.

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The jetty. Tides are no longer a consideration. Previously boarding would have been up the ramp of a beached RPL that was only able to land at the higher tides. This consideration resulted in several shortened weekends – when unfavourable tide times could translate into having to head back to camp on a Sunday morning.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days where previously Ramp Powered Lighters - which could only beach at high tide - were used.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days.

Boarding the ferry,

Boarding the ferry,

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The first view of Tekong is no longer over the bulwark of the sun baked deck of the RPL but from the air-conditioned passenger cabin of the catamaran ferry.

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A first view through a ferry porthole.

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Arriving at Tekong.

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The well sheltered jetty at Tekong.

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The view of Ladang Camp from the jetty – almost paradise?

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The welcome at the end of the jetty.

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An briefing on Basic Military Training, aimed at providing assurance to family members.

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Family members are taken on a bus tour, whilst enlistees are being in-processed.

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A view of the Parade Square at Ladang Campfrom the bus.

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A tour of a show bunk. Bed frames are a lot sturdier and mattresses much thicker (we had 2 inch mattresses supported – if you can call it that – by soft bed springs, or the little that was left of the springs).

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Bunks are also a lot more airy.

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Enlistees rejoining family members for a meal after taking the oath.

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Queuing at the cookhouse.

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Falling in.

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Ke-kanan pusing – a first march and a last look.






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.





Back to a time I have forgotten

10 05 2012

My entry into the world came in the still of the morning, at a time when the world beyond the delivery room had been anything but still. Insulated from tumultuous events that accompanied the first year of Singapore’s merger with the Malayan Federation by the oblivion of early childhood, life as I would remember it seemed anything but calm in the world where I had spent the earliest years of my life.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

That world is one that I have of late tried to reconnect with. It is a world of which I remember very little of – most of what I remember is associated with the Commonwealth Crescent area where I lived and of the walks I took with my parents in the area. Beyond that, it is the physical structures of the places as I remember them that I sometimes see in my memory, and ones that I have sought as a reminder of my connection to the place. Of the physical structures that I have long identified with the wider area, there were two beside the residential blocks that remain etched in my memory, across Commonwealth Avenue in what is commonly referred to as the Tanglin Halt area. One, a blue cylindrical tank – the gas holding tank of what had been the Queenstown Gasholder Station at Tanglin Halt, has long since disappeared, falling victim to the switch from City Gas production in the 1990s to imported natural gas. The other, also dominated by the blue of a prominent part of its structure, is thankfully still there, unaltered by the passage of time. That structure is that of a building that which some say is “more roof than building” – the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church’s interior.

The church, with a very distinctive blue slate roof that dominates its structure, is one that I very much have an attachment to, being where I had been baptised all those years back. Standing out in an area that would have otherwise been dominated by the ramp of the road that has expanded beside it, the building was designed by James Gordon Dowsett of the architectural firm Iversen, Van Sitteren and Partners. Dowsett was the creator of two buildings that also become well recognised in their time – the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre. The design of the roof, said to resemble paper being folded in the art of origami, was inspired by the shape of a tent. This, based on information on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) page on the conservation of the church, was to symbolise  the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament. The page provides further information elaborating further that “the roof dips downwards to wrap the interior with portions touching the ground, reminiscent of anchoring pegs” which functionally also serve as drainage points for rainwater. More information on the church’s architecture and interior can be found at the URA Conservation of Build Heritage web page. The church which was blessed and officially opened on 8 May 1965 by the Roman Catholic Archibishop of Malacca and Singapore, Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, was gazetted for conservation on 25 November 2005.

Father Odo Tiggeloven, one of the church’s two founding priests, signing the baptism register in the Damien Hall.

Stepping inside the church, the warmness of the visual greeting provided by the soft light filtering through that casts a warm glow over the wood flavoured interior seems to also extend a spiritual welcome. I realised then that it had been a long while since I visited the church – not since I shifted away as a child of three and a half. As I looked around me, it was nice to see that the church is one that has stayed very much the same as it had been at its beginnings close to half a century ago. In that, it is also nice to know that in a world in which we have been quick to forget the past, there is a place that I can come to where the past hasn’t been forgotten.

Soft light filters through into the interior of the church.

One more view of the inside of the church.





A long forgotten place

24 02 2012

I have had a wonderful childhood that has filled me with many memories of a world of which very little still exists and I am always glad when I am able to rediscover a place from the past that I am able to feel a connection with. While much of my memories of growing-up are associated with that wonderful and eventful time I spent in Toa Payoh, it wasn’t Toa Payoh that I first called home, but what was Singapore’s very first satellite town, Queenstown.

The block of flats that I lived in from 1964 to 1967 along Commonwealth Crescent in Queenstown.

Commonwealth Crescent in 1967 - the blocks of flats including the one that I lived in are still around - except that upgrading has given them a new face.

It was in a flat rented from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in Queenstown – 104E, Block 102 Commonwealth Crescent, in which I had spent my earliest days. It was a flat that served as home for 3 years or so, while my parents were in a queue for the flat that was to be my home in Toa Payoh. It was one that I have but vague memories of – remembering only how simply furnished the flat was and the linoleum sheet flooring that was used to cover the cement floor. There are also a few memories that I have always held with fondness – those of my interactions with my maternal grandfather with whom I had been very close to and who passed on not long after we moved to Toa Payoh. One involved my first memory of pressing the buttons in the lift from the safety of my grandfather’s arms as we made way home from the daily walks that I always enjoyed.

The part of the block of flats that I lived in for the three earliest years of my life.

The simply furnished flat with the linoleum flooring that was commonly found then.

Wandering around the area recently, I was hit with the realisation of the time that has passed since I had last interacted with it. There is very little left to remind me of the place I had once called home, even the blocks of flats in the neighbourhood – all of which are still there bear little resemblance to the ones that I have known, having been through a round of upgrading which has also seen a new market building built in place of the old.

The Commonwealth Crescent area today has changed from the one that I lived in.

The Commonwealth Crescent market has been rebuilt.

There is one unit in the rows of shops (which are still there) that surround the market that I have particular memories of – that of a General Practitioner’s clinic, probably due to the frequency with which I must have visited it – being prone to bouts of coughs on the basis of what my parents have told me. Sadly I was to discovered that the clinic – the Lim Clinic, is no longer there where it was Block 117 – the unit is now occupied by a bakery. On the basis of what two contributors to “On a little street in Singapore” mentioned, the clinic closed with Dr. Lim’s passing not too long ago. In spite of a distaste I had developed for any liquid that was held in those cork topped small glass bottles that Dr. Lim dispensed, I somehow looked forward to the visits to the clinic – the large glass jar filled with colourful sweets that stood on his table would probably have been responsible for that.

Lim Clinic I understand closed with the passing on of Dr. Lim - a bakery now occupies the unit.

There is this one memory that I have of my interactions with my neighbours – that of playing in the home of a boy of about my age a few doors away. I don’t remember anything of the boy except that he was my one and only friend from my brief stay in the neighbourhood and it was with him that I remember crawling under the dining table and a cot in his flat.

Commonwealth Crescent, 1967.

Beyond the neighbourhood, one of the places I visited was the town centre in the Margaret Drive area that was just across Queensway from where we lived. My parents took many evening strolls to the area with me in tow. What I do remember of the strolls is that they usually involved a visit to Tah Chung Emporium which must have been the place to go to in the area at that time. I probably recall the visits to the emporium more than anything else for the growth of my marble collection they were responsible for – marbles which my father would buy to line the bottom of his the tropical fish tank he maintained – a part of which would be given to me.

Much of the Margaret Drive area where the Queenstown Town Centre was has been flattened.

Speaking of Queensway, there is something unrelated to my stay in the area that comes to mind – ‘White Discs’ as my father would refer to them, or Vehicle Entry Permits. There was a time when Singapore registered vehicles crossing over the Causeway to Malaysia were required to have a valid permit – a white disc about the size of our road tax disc which a driver needed to display on the windscreen in the same way as a road tax disc. It was at the crest of the road at which a colonial bungalow had stood in what was Holland Park – one that would have belonged to the Malaysian High Commission and one in which a Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicles’ Office was located that saw queues of Singaporean motorists forming – particularly in and around the holiday season, waiting in line to apply for a permit. The need for the permit was scrapped by the Malaysian Authorities as of the 1st of May 1986.

Motorists waiting in line to apply for a Vehicle Entry Permit at the Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicle's office at Holland Park in the 1970s. The entrance to the bungalow in which the office was housed in was off Queensway (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Although time has erased or altered much of what I do remember in the area – there is still that bit of it that’s left to remind me of that different world in which I had spent my early years. It is nice to see that most of the buildings of the neighbourhood, although wearing different faces, are very much still there – something that cannot be said for the area around where Tah Chung was. In that area though, there is a cluster of buildings that’s left that bring back memories of encounters that perhaps I wish not to be reminded off – the cluster that was premises of the Queenstown Combined Clinics – buildings to which I would visit for only one reason – that dreaded inoculation. That would probably explain the reluctance I have long had for visiting the long forgotten area which I have sought to rediscover all too late.

The former Queenstown Combined Clinics.





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.





Going up 40 years back in time …

29 09 2010

It’s nice sometimes to discover that, what you have thought might have been consigned to memory, has somehow remained right where it had been. I made such a discoveryon a journey back in time, to the place where I had grown up in – Block 53 in Toa Payoh. It was during this visit to my “kampung” that I was pleasantly surprised, to see that the front door (and gate) through which I had spent many hours staring out at a world beyond the confines of the three room flat that I had lived in, is still right where it had been, albeit a little worse for wear induced by the passage of time.

The Front Door, 1968

The very last time I had seen the pair was way back in 1976, some 33 going on 34 years ago when I moved. I had, despite having for long intending to, not ventured to old place, one that holds a wonderful collection of some of my fondest memories, until I decided to have a look around on Sunday. I did this partly to help in the recollection of memories I have of Toa Payoh in preparation for a trail of Toa Payoh that I am working on with the National Library Board, and partly to satisfy a desire to go back in time, stirred by walks that I had been taking of late around what had once been my hometown.

The front door and gate today ... still there after all these years!

There had been many occasions during which I had strayed into the area where the block of flats is … walking past the empty void decks of Blocks 54 and 55 that once held the banks and shops that I had once frequented –  a huge gaping void where I had once bought the loaf of bread from a lady who opened a foldable table on which she would slice the fresh bread that arrived straight from the nearby bakery each evening; where the smell of rubber and grease emanated from the old bicycle shop where I had the tyres of my bicycle inflated; and the old provision shops from which I got my supply of ice lollies from. The huge open space which held the expansive playground where I had countless hours of enjoyment at around which there had been an elliptical red brick path on which I had fallen many times whilst learning to ride a bicycle is also gone, replaced with the clutter that somehow seems to accompany the upgrading of the older estates. The faces of the block of flats had also been altered, once again disfigured by seemingly useless additions that only seem to add to the clutter of the surroundings.

Bicycles lined up along a row where a bicycle shop and other shops had once been ...

Where there had once been shops and where a crowd had once gathered to greet the British Royal family ... now is an empty void ...

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne amongst the crowds in 1972 in front of Block 54 - the shops below the block of flats can be seen in the background.

A cluttered space where that had once been the open space of the expansive playground ...

With all the changes that seem to have altered the entire area, I did not expect to see much that would be familiar. I suppose that was partly due to the fact that I did not want to be disappointed by the foray to the corridors around which I had spent a very eventful childhood in. Making my way up what is now one of four lifts that serve the block of flats (back when I was living there, we only had two … one that went right up to the top, with an intermediate stop at a lower floor and another that only went up to the tenth or eleventh floor), I noticed that the lift cabins were provided a much more positive experience than the dark, slow and claustrophobic ones that I had once had a moment of horror in (I had been in one that stopped momentarily during which time it was pitch black – the lights having gone out) – although it had been only for a few minutes. Reaching the top floor where I had lived at, everything appeared a lot smaller than I had imagined it to be: the corridor around what was the circular core which held the lift shaft and a ventral stairwell around which I had kicked plastic balls with neighbours and where I had played games such as Police and Thief, and Cowboys and Indians looked a lot narrower, seemingly a little to small for us to have played our games on. There was also the central staircase, which again looked smaller in scale. I had used the landings of the flight that led up to the roof on which to build fortifications out of cardboard boxes. From the relative safety provided by the fortifications, I would fire paper bullets in a game of Cowboys and Indians – while that is still there, the locked iron gate that led to what had been the viewing gallery has since been replaced by a wooden door.

The four lifts serving the block are much improved from the two that had served the block I had once had a moment of horror in.

The cabins of the lifts are now a lot less claustrophobic than they were ...

Somehow, everything seems to be smaller in scale than I had imagined ... even the wide circular corridor around the central lift shafts and stairwell ...

The landing at the top of the flight of stairs leading up to the roof on which I often built a fortification of cardboard boxes behind which I would fire paper bullets whilst playing a game of Cowboys and Indians.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh.

Besides the familiar front door and the gate of the flat that I had once lived in (the door still has the letter slots through which the post man who went door-to-door would deliver letters in the days before letter boxes were installed on the ground floor), there were a few others that were familiar. There were the grills against the parapet which many, not used to looking down from heights, dared not go near to in the early days (those were days when we were still getting accustomed to living high above the ground); and school shoes drying in the sun below one of the grills – a very common sight back when I was growing up …

Grills in the parapet that some dared not get close to in the early days ...

School shoes drying in the sun were a common sight back when I lived in the block of flats ...

Looking beyond the grills and over the parapet … I realised how much the face of Toa Payoh has changed … what had started as a mix of one, two and three room HDB flats, shops and market areas and some light industrial properties interspersed amongst the blocks of flats in what had been Singapore’s first planned satellite town is now a mix of first generation blocks of HDB flats (mostly three room flats that still stand), with the newer and taller blocks of HDB flats as well as blocks of private flats: condominiums that have come up in place of the blocks that have since been torn down. It is amazing how in the space of half a lifetime, Toa Payoh has been transformed from a public housing experiment built over what had once been an unusable swamp to house the burgeoning population of a newly independent Singapore, into a neighbourhood that is much sought after by an upwardly mobile middle class population. For me however, it is still somehow that Toa Payoh that I knew, one that from time to time, whenever I am feeling a little nostalgic, I am still able to take a walk down memory lane to … and to be fascinated with in the same way I had been as a child growing up in the Toa Payoh of the early days.

What had started as a public housing project to house a burgeoning population of the newly independent Singapore, Toa Payoh is now a mix of public and private housing that is much sought after by middle class Singaporeans.

A once uncluttered view that extended all the way to Kallang basin is now cluttered with the newer and taller housing units that have replaced some of the older units in the housing estates that now dominate the landscape of Singapore's Heartlands.





The cicak sandwich that I almost had

8 06 2010

Reading Derek Tait’s post on the subject of “Chit-chats”, I was reminded of my own childhood experiences with the gecko or cicak, as I was used to calling them. Amazed by their ability to remain stuck high on the walls and ceilings, cicaks captured my imagination as a child. I could lie, sometimes on my bed, sometimes on the sofa, or mostly on the floor, and spend a lot of time watching them darting across the walls and ceilings of my home. I had often wished that I had the ability to do what cicaks were capable of doing so that I could avoid taking the dreaded ride in the less than reliable lift that served the block of flats that I lived in. It was something that I was keen to avoid, having once been stuck in it, albeit only for that brief moment before the lift decided on its own to move again. The half a minute of total darkness, was one that I would not forget, it was a moment when in the darkness that had engulfed the lift car I felt a sense of total helplessness, one that I had not experienced before. Subsequent lift journeys were always accompanied by a sense of trepidation at the possibility of the experience repeating itself. Living next to the lift landing not help matters as hearing the all too frequent sound of the lift alarm only heightened the dread that I had for taking the lift. If only, I had thought, I could be like a cicak, I could be spared that journey to get up to my flat on the nineteenth floor that I so dreaded.

Geckos provided my with quite a fair bit of fun in my childhood.

Another thing  that fascinated me about cicaks was their ability to leave a wriggling tail behind at the merest hint of trouble. Despite my mother’s efforts to remind me not to chase the resident geckos around and risk them moving to a safer place (they did help in keeping the population of insects in check), I never failed later in my childhood to be able to resist the  fun I derived from running around with a wad of newspapers or a stick, which I did to persuade the poor cicaks to part with their tails that the ants would later carry away.

For all the encounters I had with cicaks in my early childhood, it was one that I had later in life that I would remember the most. I had, by the time I was in upper primary school, developed a habit of eating a slice of bread straight out of its wrapper, folding it in half before taking a bite out of it. On one occasion when in doing just that, I had a shock of my life – a cicak wriggled free from in between the folded slice of bread that I held in my hand, landing on my arm, just as I had bit into the slice of bread. I must have been millimetres away from taking a bite out of the terrified cicak and having a cicak sandwich for my breakfast!