1972, when the Concorde first flew over Singapore

28 02 2017

Singapore had a brief love affair with the Concorde. Arguably the only supersonic passenger aircraft to be successfully deployed, a London to Singapore was operated by its National airline, Singapore Airlines, in partnership with British Airways for a few years at the end of the 1970s. The aircraft’s first flight over Singapore however, goes back to 1972, a year that was especially memorable for several events.  I came across a wonderful photograph of that first flight some years back, one that in freezing the Concorde over a Singapore that in 1972 was at the cusp of its own reach for the skies, captured the lofty aspirations of the aircraft’s developers and of the city seen below it

An amazing view of Concorde 002 over the old city. The city 45 years ago, was seeing several of its first generation skyscrapers coming up. Some of the iconic buildings seen in this photograph include the former MSA (later SIA) Building, former Robina House, and a partially completed 3rd Ocean Building (now replaced by the Ocean Financial Centre) (photo souce: online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

The photo of Concorde 002 over the old city centre of Singapore during its month-long demonstration tour of the Far East in June 1972 (online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

1972 was the year I was in Primary 2. I was seven, going on eight, ten months older than the newly independent Singapore, and at an age when any machine that sped were about the coolest things on earth. I was also finding out that going to school in the afternoon was quite a chore. Unlike the morning session I was in the previous year, there was little time for distractions and TV. School days were just about tolerable only because of the football time it could provide before classes started each day and unlike the previous school year, great excitement seemed to come only away from school, and the highlight of the year would be one that I would have to skip, “ponteng” in the language used among my classmates, school for.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

Football was very much part of the culture at St. Michael’s School, the primary school I attended.

The buzz the Concorde created, even before it came to Singapore in June of the year, left a deep impression with the boys I kept company with and the paper planes we made featured folded-down noses that resembling the Concorde’s droop nose – even if it made they seemed less able to fly. I was fortunate to also see the real McCoy making a descent at Paya Lebar Airport, one that was much more graceful than any of the imitations I made. I have to thank an uncle who was keen enough to brave the crowds that had gathered at the airport’s waving gallery for that opportunity. The event was a significant one and took place in a year that was especially significant for civil aviation in Singapore with the split of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines or MSA, jointly operated by the two countries taking place in the background. The split would see the formation of Mercury Singapore Airlines on 24 January to fly Singapore’s flag. The intention had been to ride on the established MSA name, which was not too well received on the Malaysian side, prompting the renaming of the new MSA to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 30 June 1972, a point from which the airline has never looked back.

What might have been.

What might have been.

The building that housed MSA and later SIA is prominent in the 1972 photograph, the MSA Building. Completed in 1968, the rather iconic MSA and later SIA Building was one built at the dawn of the city’s age of the skyscraper. The building was a pioneer in many other ways and an early adopter of the pre-fab construction technique. A second building in the photograph that also contributed to frenzy was the third Ocean Building, then under construction. The Ocean was to be the home of another company that was very much a part of Singapore’s civil aviation journey: the Straits Steamship Company. It was during the time of the already demolished Ocean Building that preceded the third that the company set up Malayan Airways in 1937. The airlines, which would only take off in 1947, became Malaysian Airways in 1963, and then MSA in 1965. The company, a household name in shipping, is now longer connected with sea or air transport in its current incarnation as Keppel Land. Other buildings marking the dawn of the new age seen in the photograph include the uncompleted Robina House and Shing Kwang House, and also a DBS Building in the early stages of erection.

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The completed third Ocean Building (left), seen in July 1974 (photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

It was several months prior to the the Concorde’s flight and just four weeks into school, that I would find myself skipping classes for what was to be the highlight of the year and of my childhood: the visit of the Queen, Elizabeth II of England, Price Phillip, and Princess Anne, to the 3-room Toa Payoh flat I had called home. As its was in the case of several other visiting dignitaries, Her Majesty’s programme included a visit to the rooftop viewing gallery of the Housing and Development Board’s first purpose-built “VIP block”. The gallery was where a view of the incredible success Singapore had in housing the masses could be taken in and a visit to a flat often completed such a visit and living in one strategically placed on the top floor of the VIP block had its advantages. Besides the Royal family, who were also taken to a rental flat on the second floor of Block 54 just behind the VIP block, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last colonial Governor, Sir William Goode, also dropped by in 1972. The flat also saw the visits of two other dignitaries. One was John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia in 1968 and the other, Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Henry Sheares, and Mrs Sheares in 1971.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, in the kitchen of my flat on 18 February 1972.

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

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh on 18 February 1972.

One thing being in the afternoon session developed was the taste I acquired for epok-epok, fried curry puffs that are usually potato filled. Sold by a man who came around on a bicycle at dismissal time, the pastries that he vended – out of a tin carried on the bicycle – were ones to die for. They were made especially tasty the vendor’s special chilli-sauce  “injected” in with a spout tipped bottle and well worth going hungry at recess time, to have the 10 cents the purchase required, for. Being in the afternoon session, also meant that the rides home from school on the minibus SCB 388, were often in the heavy traffic. The slow crawl, often accompanied by the deep vocals of Elvis Presley playing in the bus’ cartridge player, permitted an observation of the progress that was being made in building Toa Payoh up. Much was going on in 1972 with the SEAP games Singapore was to host in 1973 just around the corner. Toa Payoh’s town centre, also the games village, was fast taking shape.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over Toa Payoh around 1972.

Toa Payoh’s evolving landscape stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. To its south, across the Whampoa River, was Balestier – where suburbia might have ended before Toa Pyaoh’s rise. That still held its mix of old villas, shophouses, and a sprinkling of religious sites. The view north on the other hand was one of the grave scattered landscape of Peck San Teng, today’s Bishan, as would possibly have been the view west, if not for the green wall of sparsely developed elevations. On one of the hills, stood Toa Payoh Hospital, in surroundings quite conducive to rest and recovery. Potong Pasir to Toa Payoh’s east had still a feel of the country. Spread across what were the low lying plains that straddled one of Singapore’s main drainage channels, the Kallang River, the area was notorious for the huge floods that heavy rains would bring. When the area wasn’t submerged, it was one of green vegetable plots and the zinc topped structures of dwellings and livestock pens.

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh - with a view towards Toa Payoh (online at https://i1.wp.com/news.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/styles/w641/public/original_images/Nov2014/sgtowns_26.jpg)

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh – with a view towards Toa Payoh (SPH photo, online at http://news.asiaone.com/).

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978.

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978 (PUB photo).

Another main drainage channel, the Singapore River, was a point of focus for the tourism drive of 1972, during which two white statues came up. Representations perhaps of the past and the future, the first to come up was of a figure from its colonial past. The statue of Raffles, placed at a site near Empress Place at which Singapore’s founder was thought to have first came ashore, was unveiled in February. The second, was the rather peculiar looking Merlion and a symbol perhaps of new Singapore’s confused identity. This was unveiled at the river’s mouth in September. A strangest of would be National symbols and with little connection to Singapore except for its head of a lion, the animal Singapore or Singapura was named after, the creature was made up in a 1964 tourism board initiated effort. Despite its more recent origins, the statue has come to be one that tourists and locals alike celebrate and that perhaps has set the tone for how Singapore as a destination is being sold.

The View from the Esplanade towards the open sea at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1976. The Merlion in the background, is seen at its original location at the mouth of the river.

The Merlion at its original position at the mouth of the Singapore River (seen here in 1976).

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The Merlion at its position today, staring at the icons of the new Singapore.

1972 was a year that has also to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Externally, events such as the tragic massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich, brought much shock and horror as did the happenings closer to home in Indochina. There were also reasons for fear and caution in Singapore. Water, or the shortage of it was very much at the top of the concerns here with the extended dry spell having continued from the previous year. There were also many reasons to fear for one’s safety with the frequent reports of murders, kidnappings and shootouts, beginning with the shooting to death of an armed robber, Yeo Cheng Khoon, just a week into the year.

The darkest of the year’s headlines would however be of a tragedy that seemed unimaginable – especially coming just as the season of hope and joy was to descend. On 21 November, a huge fire swept through Robinson’s Department Store at Raffles Place in which nine lives were lost. The devastating fire also deprived the famous store of its landmark Raffles Place home and prompted its move to Orchard Road.  This perhaps also spelled the beginning of the end for Singapore’s most famous square. In a matter of one and a half decades, the charm and elegance that had long marked it, would completely be lost.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

Robinson’s at Raffles Place, 1966.

The burnt shell of Robinson's(SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

The burnt shell of Robinson’s (SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

Another tragic incident was the 17 September shooting of the 22-year-old Miss Chan Chee Chan at Queensway. While the shooting took place around midday, it was only late in the day that medical staff attending to  Miss Chan realised that she had been shot. A .22 calibre rifle bullet, lodged in her heart, was only discovered after an x-ray and by that time it was too late to save her.

Just as the year had started, shootouts would be bring 1972 to a close in which four of Singapore’s most wanted men were killed. At the top of the list was Lim Ban Lim. Armed and dangerous and wanted in connection with the killing of a policeman, a series of armed robberies on both sides of the Causeway, Lim was ambushed by the police at Margaret Drive on 24 November and shot dead. Over a nine-year period, Lim and his accomplices got away with a total of S$2.5 million. An accomplice, Chua Ah Kau escaped the ambush. He would however take his own life following a shootout just three weeks later on 17 December. Having taken two police bullets in the confrontation near the National Theatre, Chua turned the gun on himself.

The case that had Singapore on tenterhooks due to the one and a half month trail of violence and terror left by the pair of gunmen involved, would play itself out just the evening before the gunfight involving Chua. It was one that I remember quite well from the manner in which the episode was brought to a close in the dark and seemingly sinister grounds of the old Aljunied al-Islamiah cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The trigger-happy pair, Abdul Wahab Hassan and his brother Mustapha, crime spree included gun running, armed robbery, gunfights with the police, hostage taking and daring escapes from custody (Abdul Wahab’s from Changi Prison and Mustapha’s from Outram Hospital). Cornered at the cemetery on 16 December and with the police closing in, Abdul Wahab shot and killed his already injured brother and then turned the gun on himself.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

The Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street, where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

Besides the deaths of the four, quite a few more armed and dangerous men were also shot and injured as a result of confrontations with the police. A 23 December 1972 report in the New Nation put the apparent rise in shootouts to the training the police had received to “shoot from the hip, FBI style”. The spate of crimes involving the use of firearms would prompt the enactment of the Arms Offences Act in 1973, which stipulates a mandatory death penalty for crimes that see the use of or the attempt to use a firearm to cause injury.

The tough measures may possibly have had their impact. The use firearms in crimes is now much less common. This has also brought about an increased the sense of safety in Singapore, as compared to 1972. Many who grew up in that age will remember being warned repeatedly of the dangers on the streets, particularly of being kidnapped. The same warnings are of course just as relevant today, but the threat was one that could be felt. Many stories of children disappearing off the streets were in circulation and that heightened the sense of fear. While many could be put down to rumour, there was at least one case of a child being abducted from a fairground, that I knew to be true. There were also many reports of actual kidnappings in the news, including one very high profile case in 1972 that saw the abduction of a wealthy Indonesian businessman. The businessman was released only after a ransom was paid.


Singapore in 1972:


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A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






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.





A journey through time: a heritage trail through Toa Payoh

7 10 2010

A journey through time

A heritage trail through Toa Payoh organised with the National Library Board

Take a walk back in time to the Toa Payoh that I grew up in, a Toa Payoh that was taking its first steps as the first planned satellite town. The route will pass through a mix of residential and commercial properties that had existed in its early days as well as the public and communal facilities which included a hospital and a girls’ home. The journey would also go back to the Toa Payoh that was the village that hosted athletes for the very first international mass sporting event held in independent Singapore in 1973 and the block of flats that hosted HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. More information on the walk can be found at the end of this post


The Toa Payoh that I grew up in …

The Toa Payoh that I grew up in at the back end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s was perhaps one that was looked at very differently from the way it is looked at now. Over the 40 years since its start as a new satellite town that rose from what was a swampy area – the first planned town and the first that was built following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, it has evolved from being one that was a public housing exercise to house the burgeoning population of the new nation whose population consisted of young families as well as the many that were resettled from the kampongs that were being clear to make way for the Singapore we see today, to a much sought after residential district with a mix of private and public housing, due to its proximity to the city.

Toa Payoh back then was a very interesting place for a young child to grow up in … it was where new HDB residents were still coming to terms with living in high density and high rise blocks of flats and where the transformation of the heartlands was taking place to what we see today. Back then, it was common to see vegetables being planted on plots behind ground floor units as well as chickens running around, hawkers on push-carts as well as those who went door-to-door balancing their wares at the two ends of a wooden stick or on the top of their heads, much as it might have been in the old kampongs many of the residents came from.

Life for many revolved around the amenities that the new town provided, there were the markets, shops, banks, clinics and food stalls that catered to the day-to-day needs, new schools built to cope with the large population of children of school-going age, new factories that provided work for many who lived there, as well as the many places of worship that were constructed that catered to the spiritual needs of the residents. The areas around the markets were particularly lively – especially in the mornings when residents shopped for their market produce on a daily basis – a practice that was prevalent in the pre-refrigerator age of the kampongs. Around the markets there would not just be the shops and food stalls that would be opened early to catch the market crowd, but also many itinerant vendors – many of whom were Nepali – displaying their wares: leather belts and wallets; trinkets; cigarette lighters; and many other little items on mats that they laid on the ground. The whole area would be bustling with people, some seated on the tables and chairs laid around the periphery of the markets feasting on a breakfast of fishball noodles, kway chap, chee cheong fun, or chai tow kway. The benches laid around the open spaces would be filled with elderly men, dressed as they would have back then in unbuttoned shirts exposing their undershirts or singlets they wore under the shirts. Some would have their undershirts rolled up as they sipped black coffee poured into the saucer to accelerate cooling of the steaming hot beverage.

In those days, the black and white television set might have been on of the few things that occupied our evenings, the pasar malam, the arrival of a travelling Chinese Opera (Wayang) troupe, along with the entourage of hawkers and vendors that accompanied it, or the trade fairs and their games stalls that were a common thing back then, was always seen as a treat. It was when we had a chance to troll the streets and plots of land which came to live each evening, coloured by the incandescent glow of lights, the smell of corn or peanuts steaming and the sounds of generators in the background that rose above the din of hawkers promoting their fare and the shrill cries that came from the wayang stage. Once in a while, we would have a bonus in a travelling circus coming to town – the Royal Circus of India being a regular visitor – and the tents and caravans would occupy the open piece of land part of which the Esso Station at the corner of Lorong 4 and 5 sits on now, or the one which the Police Station now occupies.

Take a journey back in time to the Toa Payoh of the late 1960s and early 1970s ...

Toa Payoh besides being the first planned satellite town, was a place where there were many other firsts as well. It was where the first purpose built VIP block – used to showcase the very successful public housing experiment that Toa Payoh was, was erected by the HDB, complete with a viewing gallery on the roof. The block played host to the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 as well as a host of both local and foreign dignitaries including Sir William Goode, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara who also served as a Governor General of the colony of Singapore, and President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President. Other firsts include it hosting the games village for the first major international mass sporting event that Singapore hosted in 1973, as well as having the very first NTUC supermarket – started as a cooperative named “NTUC Welcome” in 1973, and the first fully air-conditioned POSB Bank in Singapore. Toa Payoh also has the distinction of being the first (and probably only) town in Singapore that was built without traffic lights – large traffic roundabouts were used to regulate traffic instead – certainly something that would be feasible in the Singapore that we know today. That was the Toa Payoh that I spent a significant part of my childhood in, one that I had many wonderful experiences growing up in, and one that also hid some lesser explored places such as the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home and the Toa Payoh Hospital, and one that I can certainly journey back in time to.



A Journey Through Time

Saturday, 20 Nov, 10.30am – 12.30pm

Toa Payoh Library

To register (registration has already closed), log on to http://golibrary.nlb.gov.sg and surf on to Heritage. This session is limited to 30 participants only. Participants are advised to wear comfortable attire and walking shoes for this trail. Do also remember to bring umbrella and some drinks. Feel free to bring your cameras and start clicking!






Psst … guess who dropped in today?

28 01 2010

When I was growing up in Toa Payoh, my family had the privilege of receiving some rather important visitors to our humble 3-room flat. We were living on the top floor of a block of flats that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) built intentionally with a viewing gallery on the roof to provide visiting dignitaries with a vantage point from which the latest public housing project, Toa Payoh New Town, the pride of the HDB’s resoundingly successful public housing programme, could be better appreciated. This, together with the advantage that both my parents had, that given the general view that being teachers, they would have a better command of English than our neighbours on the same floor would have, and living in the flat that closest to the lift landing, had its benefits: the HDB would usually have our flat in mind when there was a need to provide the dignitaries with a view of how the typical dwelling looked like.

So it was with that, that we received out first VIP visitors not long after moving in, in June 1968 – John Gorton, the then Prime Minister of Australia and his family. I guess I was too young to really understand what the fuss was all about and all I can really remember is that towering hulk of a man from Australia who had come by and had given me with a gold-coloured tie-pin which had a figure of a kangaroo on it. I also remember that following the visit, I had somehow developed the fascination that I had with kangaroos as a child.

Photograph and newspaper cutting of John Gorton's Visit, June 1968

The most notable visitor we had was none other than HM Queen Elizabeth II, who dropped in on the afternoon of 18 February 1972. It was an occasion that deserved quite a fair bit of preparation, and there were several interviews and briefings before on areas such as security and protocol. It was for us an occasion that called for a makeover to be given to the flat. My parents had the flat renovated and terrazzo tiles tinged with green, white and black replaced our original black and white mosaic flooring. Outside, the area below the block of flats had been spruced up by the HDB for the occasion – pots of flowering plants lined the area where the Queen’s car would be driven up to, as well as the corridor leading up to the lift and the lift landing on the top floor. The block of flats had also had in the meantime, been given a fresh coat of paint. The lift cabin was done up very nicely as well, which was a welcome change from the rather tired and dirty looking interior it wore after five years of service.

It was an occasion that I had kept from my classmates in school – not that I would be missed. The schoolboys in the afternoon session, which I was in, were to be distracted, having been tasked to line the sides of Thomson Road to wave flags, where the motorcade that was to carry the Queen was to pass that afternoon. I was certainly happy for the opportunity to skip school, but maybe a little disappointed that I would not get my hands on the miniature Union Jacks my classmate were to be given – a favourite flag of mine back then.

When the Queen finally arrived at our flat that afternoon, I was caught somewhat unawares. I had decided to sit down before she arrived and while daydreaming – which I was fond of doing, Her Majesty had appeared at the doorway, and I was seen on the evening’s news scrambling to my feet!

Scrambling to my feet at the arrival of the Queen.

Shaking hands with the Queen.

HRH Princess Anne during the visit.

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

One thing I avoided doing immediately after the visit was to wash my hands. A neighbour had told me that I shouldn’t wash my hands that day, as I would wash my luck away, having shaken hands with the Queen. The Queen also made her way to the block of flats behind, where she had visited the flat of another family. A neighbour from the 17th floor, Ranu, related how there were crowds of people who gathered in the car park separating the two blocks of flats, hoping for a glance at the Queen, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne. Ranu also related how she had shouted “Long Live the Queen” at the top of her voice, along with the crowds.

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne among the crowds

Going to school the following day, the driver of the minibus I took to school, was quick to shake my hand having witnessed the events on TV the previous evening – he had wanted to shake the hand of someone who had shaken hands with the Queen. I remember him saying to me: “no wonder you ponteng school lah”, ponteng being a colloquial word used to describe playing truant, from the Malay word meaning the same.

Somehow, from the evidence of the photographs I have, the kitchen seemed to be the focal point of the visitors, perhaps because it was probably the most spacious part of the flat – unlike the kitchens of HDB flats that were built later, or perhaps it was because of the excellent view we had looking south towards the Kallang area, being on what was the tallest block of flats around.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The kitchen during Sir William Goode's visit - the man on the extreme left is the late Teh Cheang Wan, the then Chairman of the HDB, who later served as the Minister of National Development.

Over the few years until 1973, when a new and taller “VIP block” was built in Toa Payoh Central, part of housing built to initially house athletes participating in the 7th South-East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games (which Singapore hosted for the first time that year) before being sold to the public, we saw a few other notable visitors. The visitors included President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President, as well as Sir Willaim Goode, a former Governor General of the colony of Singapore who served as the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore when Singapore was granted self-government in 1959.

President Sheares saying hello to my sister, June 1971








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