Riding on in a world that will soon change

26 11 2013

One of the few places in central Singapore left untouched by the spread of the concrete jungle, the area bounded by Thomson, Whitley Road (Pan Island Expressway) and Lornie Road, will in the not so distant future, see the change it has long resisted.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area, a large part of which Bukit Brown Cemetery and the cemeteries adjoining it occupies, is where a calm and peaceful world now exists, one not just of cemetery land reclaimed in part by nature, but of laid back open spaces, colonial era bungalows beautifully set in lush greenery, and where horses sometimes outnumber cars on a few of its roads.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

While it may be a while before the concrete invasion arrives – much of the area has been earmarked for housing developments in the longer term, the winds of change have begun to pick up speed. Alien structures related to the MRT Station have already landed and exhumation of graves affected by the new road through Bukit Brown will commence soon.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Close-by, across Thomson Road, which will soon see construction work beginning on the North-South Expressway, Toa Payoh Rise has been widened and looks nothing like the quiet and peaceful road it once was.

Toa Payoh Rise losing its gentle feel in 2010 as work started to widen the once laid-back road.

Marymount Convent, a long time occupant of the mound next to Toa Payoh Rise, already once affected by the construction of Marymount Road, held its last mass – the convent will have to vacate the land on which it has occupied for some 63 years. Not far away – at the corner where Mount Pleasant Road runs through, the houses and the Old Police Academy another with a long association with the area, will also not be spared. The expansive grounds of the academy was where many would have spent a Sunday afternoon in simpler days watching grown men kicking a ball on the field. Besides football matches close-up, one could sometimes get a treat of a glimpse at a parade or a Police Tattoo practice session as one passed on the bus.

Riding off into a sunset - the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

Riding off into a sunset – the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

With the many changes about to descend on the area, one probably constant along that stretch of Thomson Road – or at least the hope is there that it would be, is the Singapore Polo Club. A feature in the area for more than seven decades, the club first moved to the location, just as the dark days of the Occupation were upon us in 1941.

The Polo Club's grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

The Polo Club’s grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

Sitting across the huge monsoon drain in which many boys would once have been seen wading in to catch tiny fishes, the grounds of the Polo Club – with it huge green playing field, is one that I almost always kept a look out for, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a match underway.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

The grounds, the lease on which the club holds for another 20 years, wasn’t the club’s first. One of the oldest polo clubs in the region (as well as being one of the oldest sporting clubs in Singapore) dating back to 1886, it was established by officers of the King’s Own Regiment – not too long after the rules of modern polo was formalised. The first grounds on which the sport was played at was one shared with golfers of the Singapore Golf Club at the Race Course or what is Farrer Park today.

The Polo Club's Indoor Arena and Stables.

The Polo Club’s Indoor Arena and Stables.

It does seem that from a 1938 newspaper article contributed by René Onraet, the Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police from 1935 to 1939, who was a keen polo player and also a President of the club that the game was also played at the reclamation site across Beach Road in front of Raffles Hotel. This was where the NAAFI Britannia Club / SAF NCO Club and Beach Road Camp were to come up, a site currently being developed into the massive Foster + Partners designed South Beach residential and commercial complex.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The club sought new premises after being prevented from using the Race Course grounds in 1913 – moving to its first dedicated grounds at Balestier Road (Rumah Miskin) in June 1914 – grounds now occupied by the cluster of buildings which once were used by the Balestier Boys’s School, Balestier Mixed School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The grounds were unfortunately limited in size, and a search was initiated for a new ground at the end of the 1930s. It was the club’s President, René Onraet, who was instrumental in securing the current premises, which incidentally was right by what was the Police Training School – the Old Police Academy.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941. The grounds were said to have been used as vegetable plots during the Japanese Occupation.

Although the grounds were ready at the end of 1941, it wasn’t until 1946 that the first game of polo was played on the grounds which by the time required some effort to restore it. The war had seen the grounds turned, as a couple of newspaper reports would have it, into vegetable plots – complete with drainage ditches and water wells. The club’s website makes mention of the Japanese Imperial Army converting the grounds into a gun emplacement area, before turning it into a squatter’s camp.

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Over the years, the club has expanded it membership and now includes activities such as equestrian sports, as well as having facilities for other sports. Along with club, the area around the club, also plays host to the likes of the Riding for the Disabled Association and the National Equestrian Centre at Jalan Mashhor.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The National Equestrian Centre - with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The National Equestrian Centre – with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The area where a healthy cluster of horse related activity centres are located is one which based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 will be retained for sports and recreation use in the future.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released 2014 URA Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change (https://www.ura.gov.sg/maps/).

While it does look like this might remain a beautiful world for some time to come, time is being called on the gorgeous world which now surrounds it. It won’t be long before the wooded areas across Thomson Road are cleared for development. The greater loss will however be the places of escape to the west. That is the green and beautiful world of the cemetery grounds. Grounds where men and horses, and perhaps the good spirits of the world beyond us, have but a few precious moments in which they can continue to roam freely in.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

The road to nowhere ... at least for the time being.

The road to nowhere … at least for the time being (MRT related structures are clearly visible).


More on the game of Polo and how it is played in Singapore: A Royal Salute to the sport of kings.





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.