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:





Launch of NHB’s Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces

13 04 2012

Void decks became a common feature of blocks of flats in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates back in the 1970s. Offering shade and shelter, they quite naturally found use as common spaces for social interaction as well as for community events. Over time, the use of void decks have evolved beyond this and uses of the common spaces have extended to children’s toy libraries, bird singing corners, civil defence shelters, retail spaces, playgrounds and community art galleries.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim opening 'Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces' exhibition at Blk 2, Saint George's Road on 12 April 2012. Looking on is James Seah.

To discover more of the history and evolution of void decks and their use, do visit National Heritage Board’s (NHB) exhibition “Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces”, which was opened by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, and Advisor for Kolam Ayer, on 12 April 2012. The exhibition is the third in a series of travelling exhibitions focusing on community heritage and highlights the history and development of void decks in the Housing Development Board (HDB) heartlands, their common features and uses, and their role in providing shelter, building community, and promoting racial integration. The exhibition will also feature learning games related to the exhibition for which NHB has partnered Handson Learning, an educational consultancy specialising in museum and heritage programmes. The games will be conducted by students from schools in the proximity of the exhibition and for the preview during the opening, involved National Education Captains from Bendemeer Secondary School.

Handons Learning with which NHB has partnered is training students from neighbourhood schools to conduct learning games related to the exhibition to help raise awareness of the vital role that void decks play .

Representatives from Handons Learning together with National Education Captains from Bendemeer Secondary School were on hand to demonstrate the Snakes and Ladder game.

Besides the exhibition which is currently at Blk 2 Saint George’s Road Singapore 320002 until the end of April, there are also a group of bloggers (including myself) who have written personal stories and experiences and shared photographs to the exhibition.
The exhibition moves to Marine Parade in May 2012 and after to other void decks around Singapore.

Children from the neighbourhood having a go at the game.

Supporting blog entries for Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces are:





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.