The last pelican

12 08 2016

I was going through my archives of photographs last weekend when I came across this photograph I took sometime in February 2012 of the last pelican playground; its backdrop a sea of greenery that left untamed brings a sense of calm that is missing in the manicured green spaces we in Singapore now seem to have too much of.

The last pelican, which went in June 2012.

Sadly, there seems little place in a Singapore that has little place for surroundings such as these. The pelican, which became a symbol of the loss many here feel for their well-loved places that no longer exist, is no more; demolished some four months after the photograph was captured. One of the more used themes adopted in the terrazzo and mosaic playgrounds introduced from the late 1970s, it served the children of Blocks 30 to 39 Dover Estate for some three decades before the death knell was sounded for it when the estate was taken back through a Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) exercise.

I had several encounters with a similar pelican themed playground in Ang Mo Kio where I had moved to in the second half of the 1970s. Small compared to the one in Toa Payoh where the better part of my childhood was spent in and with rather static implements, and for the fact that I had outgrown playgrounds by that time; I never found much fun in them. I found the all metal merry-go-round, with its chequered steel deck, especially hard to move as compared to the

The last pelican was among a handful that also includes a dove at the soon to go Dakota Crescent, that survived a cull of the locally designed playgrounds. Designed by a Housing and Development Board (HDB) team led by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, the series also included other animal based themes, the grandest of which was the mythical dragon. There were also elephantsfruits and vegetables, twakows and even fairy tale type clocks.

At least one of the playgrounds, which would have been most familiar to the children of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, will have its life extended. That, now sits abandoned by those whose lives it was a part of. Several of the blocks around it, including the twenty-storey tall Block 28, which was itself a landmark have since been demolished for redevelopment. In renewed surroundings that will include blocks of flats that will even be higher than Block 28, the orange dragon will at least stand tall, a reminder of the efforts of a dedicated team of designers who provided a generation of Singaporeans with something to remember that childhoods by.

See also:





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:





Critically endangered

29 08 2013

With the recent death of the neglected but beautiful dove in the island’s west, there is only one that’s left to remember one of several terrazzo and mosaic creations that many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would have had fond memories of playing in. The dove, is one of several playground designs – the work of the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, with a uniquely and very distinctly Singaporean flavour that decorated Singapore’s public housing estates in the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

The surviving dove at Dakota  Crescent.

The surviving dove at Dakota Crescent.

The dove at Dakota Crescent is one which although well worn and exhibiting obvious signs of age, is remarkably preserved – a testament perhaps to play structures put up in times when they were built to last. Still with its sand-pit, a feature of the playgrounds of  the era, it does also feature rubber tyre swings and a slide. There are several more of these structures left behind, including the well-loved dragon of Toa Payoh, which many hope will be preserved, not just to preserve the many memories there are of happy childhood moments, but also because they are structures which we can quite easily identify with Singapore, from a time when we did not yet forget to express who we are.

The dove's last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

The dove’s last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

What is also nice about the very last dove, is that it resides in a rather charming old neighbourhood, one Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built flats which came up in the late 1950s, well before the dove was put there. The estate it is in, Kallang Airport Estate, was developed in the area at the end of the extended Kallang Airport runway – land which was freed after 1955, when the airport was closed. Some 21 seven-storey and 20 four-storey blocks were built from 1956 to 1959. The estate was officially opened in July 1958 and the cluster of flats the dove finds itself in the midst of, are amongst the few that have survived.

JeromeLim-9441

JeromeLim-9440

JeromeLim-9438

JeromeLim-9436

JeromeLim-9435

JeromeLim-9433

JeromeLim-9424


A quick glance around the dove

JeromeLim-9452

JeromeLim-9454-2

JeromeLim-9455-4





Taming the elephant

19 08 2013

Photographs I took of another one of the surviving few mosaic and terrazzo playgrounds left in Singapore, one that is very well preserved and free of vandalism (probably because of its location at the Home Team NS Pasir Ris Chalets). The playground is another one of the series of playgrounds designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee that has a very uniquely Singaporean flavour.

277A9496

277A9476

277A9485

277A9490

277A9500

277A9502

277A9503

277A9505

277A9510

277A9521

277A9537





A world uncoloured

9 04 2013

It is in the colours of a world that has been uncoloured, where we find residues of the many memories there may have been of it. The memories are ones that soon will fade – the world waits the inevitable. It will soon face a destruction many similar worlds have faced, making way for a new world in which its memories of four decades past will forever be lost.

The stairwell of a world about to change (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The stairwell (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

What now dominates this world at Lorong 6 in Toa Payoh, a recent victim of the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in which residents and businesses are moved out to allow the neighbourhood to be redeveloped, is its tallest block of flats, Block 28. At 20 storeys high and occupying a prominent position on a low hill at one of the three original points of entry to what was an island-like Toa Payoh, it was hard not to miss the block which is one of a few blocks of flats built by the HDB laid out on a W-shaped plan, especially with the bright orange dragon found at the foot of the block.

A world where memories will soon fade.

A world where memories will soon fade.

A corridor (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

A corridor (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The dragon is one that has in recent times, come to prominence. It has perhaps come to symbolise a growing desire to hold on to what is familiar in a Singapore many find is changing too fast. It is one of several well-loved creations of the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee. Mr Khor can be attributed with probably a generation of growing Singaporeans many cherished memories of playing in sandpits and playing on, sliding down or swinging from the terrazzo structures which took the shapes of popular childhood creatures. Besides playgrounds he designed in the shape of the dragon, there were smaller ones which took the forms of the pelican, the elephant and the dove.

The dragon of Block 28 (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The dragon of Block 28.

The dragon at Block 28 is perhaps the best preserved of the few that have survived. It is one where its sandpit has survived where others may have lost them to the modern materials which provide a soft landing in the ultra sfae playgrounds our children now play in. The future the dragon has, with the intended renewal of the area, been a subject of much speculation. Many harbour a hope that it survives sandpit and all.

The sandpit (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The sandpit (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The world the dragon bids farewell to is one that had once been familiar to me. An uncle and his family had lived in top floor flat in Block 28. While my family lived in Toa Payoh up to 1976, we visited frequently, taking walks in the evenings down Lorong 4 or Lorong 5 from where we lived in Block 53.

The back of Block 28.

The back of Block 28.

The block is one known for the magnificent views it offers. We had discussed the possibility of watching the going-ons at the nearby Toa Payoh Stadium through a pair of binoculars but never attempted to do it – possibly because nothing interesting enough did take place at the stadium. It was however the view down the stairwell that would leave the largest impression on me.  The stairwell was unique in the sense that the staircase and its railings wound around the sides of what was a large trapezoidal space that occupied the angles of the W-shape plan. It wasn’t just that it was a much bigger space than one would normally see in HDB blocks of flats, but it offered a somewhat frightening view over the railings especially from 20 floors up.

Another look through the stairwell.

Another look through the stairwell.

Walking around the recently vacated block, its corridors and staircase landings scattered with the discards of former residents who moved to newer flats, there is this sense that I am walking amongst the ghosts that have been left behind.

A partly opened window.

A partly opened window.

A peek into a world occupied only by its ghosts.

A peek into a world occupied only by its ghosts.

In treading through the debris of the former world and pass by louvered windows some opened as if to provide ventilation to the ghosts of the vacated units, I also see colours of the real world left behind: familiar scribblings of loan sharks’ runners, along with familiar splatters of red on doors and windows – one memory that perhaps is best left to fade. It is one that will certainly be forgotten, along with the more than 40 years worth of memories that the now vacated units contain, all of which will all too quickly fade.

Scribblings of the real world along the staircase (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Scribblings of the real world along the staircase (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

A red paint splattered door that will definitely want to be forgotten.

A red paint splattered door that will definitely want to be forgotten.

A red paint splattered window.

A red paint splattered window.





The 1970s playground reinterpreted

27 03 2013

Stepping out from the MRT Station at Raffles Place, the sight of swing sets, see-saws and a merry-go-round, set on a bed of sand as playgrounds of the 1970s might have been, would probably seem odd. That, especially so considering what Raffles Place has become. What perhaps isn’t odd in the context of today’s world is how we have chosen to interact with it … not, if I may quote a friend “enjoyed with head in the wind”, but with the “face on the screen”.

IMG_9578

The playground at Raffles Place is part of a National Parks Board (NParks) roving exhibition, “Playsets of Yesteryears” held to commemorate five decades of greening Singapore. The exhibition which also provides visitors with a look at the history of 12 parks including Toa Payoh Town Park and the Singapore Botanic Gardens will remain at Raffles Place until mid May before moving to East Coast Park in June and July, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park from mid August to mid October, and the Singapore Botanic Gardens in November to December.

IMG_9574





Chasing the dragon, finding a bunny

25 07 2012

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 Block 28 Toa Payoh.

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.

One of two terrazzo slides on the dragon’s head.

Children playing on the dragon’s spine.

The playground which has achieved worldwide attention through its appearance on Flavorwire.com’s list of 15 most amazing playgrounds is one the most photographed old playgrounds in Singapore.

It does attract some older kids as well!

Playgrounds with sand always allow kids using them to explore another dimension of play.

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.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

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.

The playground in Toa Payoh that I have the fondest memories of (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James – On a Little Street in Singapore).

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”.

A window into the past that sees more of the present.

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.

The front of the Bugs Bunny barbershop is one that hasn’t changed since it first started in 1971.

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.

Some of the inside (which was recently renovated) still looks the same … the barber chairs are the same ones the shop started with in 1971.

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.

A world that for too long has been lost to me.





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.






My swinging sixties

7 06 2010

As with all children, one of my favourite places as a child was the playground. It was nice that I had access to a very large and interesting one that was right at my doorstep – so to speak Right at the foot of the block of flats in Toa Payoh that I lived in, there was a playground like no other in Singapore. It was large (in terms of the space it occupied) for a playground, especially one that was in a HDB estate. Set in a large oval shaped area that was bounded by a wide red brick path that for me later doubled up as the cycling track on which I made my first shaky attempts at riding a bicycle, the playground had all a child of those days could have wished for in a playground. There were the set of swings which had very long chains that allowed me to swing up to a height that many fear to go to, a very tall slide (and a shorter one for the faint hearted), three see-saws, two wonderful climbers made of steel, a merry-go-round, and a set of monkey bars, all of which seemed to be able to keep a five year old occupied for hours.

The climbers and slides were lots of fun!

The playground was were I could escape the confines of the small three-room flat that I lived in, at a time when we as chlldren, did not have access to the distractions that occupy the children of today. Television only came on in the late afternoons and evenings and there was only so much fun that one could have with the toys we had in those days. So, the playground was wonderland for me, as it was for the children of my day, where I could expand my energy and pass the otherwise long boring hours away.

The wide red brick path around the playground and the merry-go-round.

The swings for me were particularly enjoyable. High and fast I could go, especially standing on the wooden seat of the swing, or maybe induce a dizzying spell of nausea by twisting the chains for that rush of adrenaline that came from sitting on the seat as the chains untwisted really fast. I had many hours of fun that I always ranked the swing as my favourite item in any playground. The climbers that were there were a whole lot of fun too. I had not seen anything like them before I moved into Toa Payoh – there was a really high one in the shape of a globe, the summit of which many dared not venture to, and there was another shaped like a wave. It was perched at the top of them where I could imagine that I had scaled Mount Everest, as one of the heroes I had in my boyhood, Sir Edmund Hilary had done. It was where I could sometimes sit and dream the hours away.

Then and now. The photo on the left shows part of the playground in 1969. The one on the right is how the area looks today.

The playgrounds were certainly a very different experience from the ones we see today. Plastic and synthetic materials have replaced the wood and concrete we had back then. Our children hit the safer and softer flooring where we landed hard on concrete or a pit of sand sliding down a metal or wooden slide that always gave a familiar smell of rust on our clothes and the occasional splinter in our shorts. Who could forget the rust stained hands we got holding on to the chains of the swings, standing on the wooden see-saws that thought us much about the principle of levers and balances. The playground at Block 53 that holds so many memories for me is now gone, along with the many things I identified with growing up, replaced by the modular plastic ones that are so common today. The wonderful space at which I found some much to do in, has also gone, only a small part of that large play area that I looked forward to visiting everyday in my pre-school days used to house that modular playground. The rest is sadly occupied by structures that seem to be of little value or use that have somehow risen in the wonderful open spaces that no longer seem to be of value to the modern country that we live in.

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).