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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.