The passing of an old neighbourhood

5 04 2018

Old HDB neighbourhoods are a joy. Their many reminders of a gentler age, some found in old shops and kopitiams in which time seems to have left well behind, extend a welcome clearly absent in the brave new that modern Singapore has become. Sadly, it won’t be long before modernity catches up on these places. Our national obsession with renewal does mean that it will only be a question of when that these spaces will forever be lost.

One old neighbourhood experiencing a slow death by renewal is Tanglin Halt. Built in the early 1960s, its old flats – among the first that the HDB built – have already begun to make way for the new. Even before this several of the neighbourhood’s landmarks were already lost. These included the rather iconic blue city gas holder and the factories that were home to several household names such as Setron. Many of the factories, which provided the neighbourhood’s folk with employment, went in the 1990s at the end of the sites’ respective leases.  A cluster of towering new flats now mark the neighbourhood. Used in part to house the first residents displaced by the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the neighbourhood, the cluster has also introduced a dash of modernity to the old neighbourhood with modern shops, an air-conditioned food court, and a supermarket.  The flats that were affected by SERS, referred to collectively as the “Chap Lau Chu“, were only very recently demolished with a new batch of flats soon to fill the space .

Renewal, even gradual, is taking its toll on the businesses housed in the neighbourhood centre. Many of the surviving businesses, with the displacement of their customer base, have been left with little motivation to continue operating. A recent casualty was a provision shop by the name of Thin Huat, which closed its doors for good over the weekend. Having been set up 1964 – 54 years ago – Thin Huat is one of the neighbourhood’s oldest businesses. That makes it especially sad to see it go.

Thin Huat – a few days before its closure.

Empty shelves and a photograph of its proprietor and his wife.



Revisiting Commonwealth and Holland Village

30 03 2016

Queenstown, where I spent the earliest days of my life, holds many wonderful memories for me. It is a place I enjoy going back to, which I regularly do in my attempts to rediscover memories the town holds of my childhood, discovering more often than not a fascinating side to Singapore’s first satellite town I had not known of before.

A window into a world in which one will discover the many layers of a rich and varied history.

A window into a world in which one will discover the many layers of a rich and varied history.

A chance to revisit Queenstown and learn more about it came recently when I participated in an introductory My Queenstown heritage tour of Holland Village and Commonwealth. The tour, which started at Chip Bee Gardens, took a path that ended in the unreal world of palatial homes that lies just across the town’s fringes at Ridout Road. Intended to provide participants with a glimpse into the area’s evolution from its gambier and rubber plantation days to the current mix of residential, commercial and industrial sites we see today, it also provided me an opportunity to revisit  the neighbourhood that I had spent my first three years in.

Jalan Merah Saga in Chip Bee Gardens.

Jalan Merah Saga in Chip Bee Gardens.

Adjacent to an ever-evolving Holland Village, Chip Bee Gardens – the starting point, is known today for its eclectic mix of food and beverage outlets and businesses, housed in a rather quaint looking row at Jalan Merah Saga. Many from my generation will remember it for a crêpe restaurant, Better Betters. In combining French inspired crêpes with helpings of local favourites such as rendang, the restaurant married east and west in a fashion that seemed very much in keeping with the way the neighbourhood was developing.

A view over Chip Bee Gardens.

A view over Chip Bee Gardens.

The shop lots, I was to learn, had rather different beginnings. Converted only in 1978, the lots had prior to the 1971 pull-out of British forces, served as messing facilities for the military personnel the estate had been built to accommodate in the 1950s. The growth of Holland Village into what it is today, is in fact tied to this development. Several businesses still found at Holland Village trace their roots back to this era.

Holland Road Shopping Centre, a familiar landmark in Holland Village.

Holland Road Shopping Centre, a familiar landmark in Holland Village.

The Thambi Magazine Store at Lorong Liput is one such business. Having its roots in the 1960s, when the grandfather of its current proprietor, delivered newspapers in the area, the so-called mama-shop, has grown to become a Holland Village institution. It would have been one of two such outlets found along Lorong Liput, previously occupying a space across from its current premises. Its well-stocked magazine racks once drew many from far and wide in search of a hard-to-find weekly and is now the sole survivor in an age where digital media dominates.

Sam, the current proprietor of the Thambi Magazine Store.

Sam, the current proprietor of the Thambi Magazine Store.

Magazine racks outside the store.

Magazine racks outside the store.

Lorong Liput would also have been where many of Holland Village’s landmarks of the past were once found. One was the Eng Wah open-air cinema, the site of which the very recently demolished Holland V Shopping Mall with its mock windmill – a more recent icon, had been built on. Lorong Liput was also where the demolished Kampong Holland Mosque once stood at the end of and where the old wet market, since rebuilt, served the area’s residents.

The windmill at Lorong Liput, which recently disappeared.

The windmill at Lorong Liput, which recently disappeared.

The rebuilt market.

The rebuilt market.

The site of the former Eng Wah open-air cinema and the Holland V Shopping Mall.

The site of the former Eng Wah open-air cinema and the since demolished Holland V Shopping Mall.

The Eng Wah open-air cinema (source: National Archives online).

From Lorong Liput, a short walk down Holland Avenue and and Holland Close, takes one to the next stop and back more than a century in time. The sight that greets the eye as one approaches the stop, which is just behind Block 32, is one that is rather strange of neatly ordered rows of uniformly sized grave stones of a 1887 Hakka Chinese cemetery, the Shuang Long Shan, set against a backdrop of blocks of HDB flats and industrial buildings. Visually untypical of an old Chinese cemetery – in which the scattering of burial mounds would seem almost random, the neat rows contain reburied remains from graves exhumed from an area twenty times the 4.5 acre plot that the cemetery once occupied.

A view across the grave stones to the roofs of the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu ancestral hall.

A view across the grave stones to the roofs of the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu ancestral hall.

Run by the Ying Fo Fui Kun clan association, Shuang Long Shan was acquired by the HDB in 1962. A concession made to the clan association permitted the current site to be retained on a lease. The site also contains the clan’s ancestral hall, the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu Ancestral Hall and a newer memorial hall. The ancestral hall, which also goes back to 1887, is now the oldest building in Queenstown.

Offerings placed for the Ching Ming festival.

Offerings placed for the Ching Ming festival.

Ancestral tablets inside the hall.

Ancestral tablets inside the hall.

A close-up of the ancestral hall.

A close-up of the ancestral hall.

My old neighbourhood nearby was up next. Here I discovered how easy it was to be led astray in finding myself popping into Sin Palace – one of the several old shops found in the neighbourhood centre in which time seems to have long stood still.  The shops offer a fascinating glimpse of the world four, maybe five decades past, days when I frequented the centre for my favourite bowl of fishball noodles and the frequent visits to the general practitioner the coughs I seemed to catch would have required. The neighbourhood is where a rarity from a perspective of church buildings can be found in the form of the Queenstown Lutheran Church. It is one of few churches from the era that retains much of its original look.

Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre and the Lutheran Church as it looked when I lived there (source: My Community).


Inside Sin Palace – an old fashioned barber shop.

Another area familiar to me is the chap lak lau chu (16 storey flats) at Commonwealth Close, which we also visited. A friend of my mother’s who we would visit on occasion, lived there at Block 81, a block from which one can look forward to an exhilarating view from its perch atop a hillock. The view was what gave Block 81 the unofficial status of a “VIP block” to which visiting dignitaries would be brought to – much like the block in Toa Payoh to which I moved to. Among the visitors to the block were the likes of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Also at Commonwealth Close, the space between Blocks 85 and 86 where the iconic photograph of Singapore's first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was taken.

Also at Commonwealth Close, the space between Blocks 85 and 86 where the iconic photograph of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was taken.

Before visiting Block 81, a stop was made at Commonwealth Drive, where the MOE Heritage Centre and Singapore’s first flatted factories are found. The flatted factory, an idea borrowed from Hong Kong, allowed space for small manufacturers to be quickly and inexpensively created  during the period of rapid industrialisation and the block at Commonwealth Drive (Block 115A) was the first to be constructed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) as part of a pilot programme launched in 1965 (more on the development of flatted factories in Singapore can be found on this post: The Anatomy of an Industrial Estate). Among the first tenants of the block were Roxy Electric Industries Ltd. The company took up 10,000 square metres on the ground floor for the assembly of Sharp television sets under licence.


Block 115 A (right) – the first flatted factory building that was erected by the EDB in 1965/66 as part of a pilot programme.


A resident of Queenstown, Mdm Noorsia Binte Abdul Gani, found work assembling hairdryers at an electrical goods factory, Wing Heng, between 1994 and 2003. Wing Heng was located at Block 115A Commonwealth Drive.

Housed in a school building typical of schools built in the 1960s used previously by Permaisura Primary School, the MOE Heritage Centre was established in 2011. With a total of 15 experiential galleries and heritage and connection zones arranged on the building’s three floors, the centre provides visitors with an appreciation of the development of education and schools in Singapore, from the first vernacular and mission schools to where we are today.

The MOE Heritage Centre.

The MOE Heritage Centre.

A blast from the past - a schoolbag from days when I started attending school at the MOE Heritage Centre.

A blast from the past – a schoolbag from days when I started attending school at the MOE Heritage Centre.

Of particular interest to me were the evolution of school architecture over the years and the post-war period in the early 1950s when many new schools and the Teachers’ Training College were established. The centre is opened to the public on Fridays during term time and on weekdays during school holidays. More information can be found at

Inside the MOE Heritage Centre.

Inside the MOE Heritage Centre’s New Nation, New Towns & New Schools gallery.

The Ridout Tea Garden lies across Queensway from the Commonwealth Close area. The garden rose out of the ashes of what many would remember as a Japanese styled garden, the Queenstown Japanese Garden. Opened in 1970, a few years before the Seiwaen in Jurong, the garden would have been the first post-independence Japanese styled public garden (the Alkaff Lake Gardens, which opened in 1930 would have been the first). A fire destroyed the garden in 1978 and the HDB redeveloped it as a garden with a teahouse (hence Tea Garden) tow years later. Well visited today for its McDonalds outlet, it was actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet that first operated at the tea house.

A brick wall, which once belonged to the Japanese Garden.

A brick wall, which once belonged to the Japanese Garden.

The Queenstown Japanese Garden (source: My Community).

The tea garden forms part of the boundary between Queenstown and a world that literally is apart at the Ridout Road/Holland Park conservation area. Home to palatial good class bungalows, 27 of which are conserved, many of the area’s houses have features that place them in the 1920s and the 1930s. This was the period which coincided with the expansion of the British military presence on the island, and it was during this time that the nearby Tanglin Barracks was built. Several, especially those in the mock Tudor or “Black and White” style – commonly employed by the Public Works Department, would have served to house senior military officers .

A mock Tudor bungalow at 31 Ridout Road.

A mock Tudor bungalow at 31 Ridout Road.

Besides the “Black and White” style, another style that is in evidence in the area is that of the Arts and Crafts movement. Several fine examples of such designs exist on the island, two of which are National Monuments. One is the very grand Command House at Kheam Hock Road, designed by Frank W. Brewer. Brewer was also responsible for the lovely house found at 23 Ridout Road. Distinctly a Brewer design, the house had prior to the war, been the residence of L. W. Geddes. A board member of Wearnes Brothers and a Municipal Commissioner, Mr Geddes left Singapore upon his retirement in late 1941. After the war, the house was used as the Dutch Consul-General’s and later Ambassador’s residence.

Distinctively Frank W. Brewer - an Arts and Crafts design that was once the home of L.W. Geddes at 23 Ridout Road. The house now serves as the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.

Distinctively Frank W. Brewer – an Arts and Crafts design that was once the home of L.W. Geddes at 23 Ridout Road. The house now serves as the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.

A recent addition to the area is the mansion at 2 Peirce Drive. Owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, the house is thought to have been modelled after the Soonstead Mansion in Penang. Other notable bungalows in the area include 35 Ridout Road, which sold recently for S$91.69 million and also India House at 2 Peirce Road, thought to have been commissioned by Ong Sam Leong in 1911. Mr Ong, who made his fortune from being the sole supplier of labour to the phosphate mines on Christmas Island, passed away in 1918 and is buried with his wife in the largest grave in Bukit Brown cemetery.

A more recent addition to the area, a mansion owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, which is modelled after another one in Penang.

A more recent addition to the area, a mansion owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, which is modelled after another one in Penang.

Soonstead Mansion in Penang.

Soonstead Mansion in Penang.

The good-class bungalow at 35 Ridout Road that was sold very recently for S$91.69 million.

The good-class bungalow at 35 Ridout Road that was sold very recently for S$91.69 million.

Ridout Road.

A very green Ridout Road.

The Commonwealth and Holland Village heritage tour runs every third Sunday of the month. Those interested can register for the free guided tour at or via My Community, which runs the tours is also carrying out a volunteer recruitment exercise to run their tours. Workshops are being held on 24 and 30 April 2016 for this and would be volunteers can email to register.

Last(ing) impressions

6 10 2015

Sunday, 4 October 2015, was the day we said our farewells to an old neighbourhood at Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive, which will soon be demolished. The farewell to neighbourhood built at a time of great need during the transition from statehood to nationhood and known affectionately as the ‘Chap Lau Chu’, Hokkien for ‘Ten Storey House’ for its 10 storey flats, would have left a last and perhaps lasting impression on the large numbers of people who turned up for Sunday’s farewell party


A last stroll.


A last hurrah.


A last peek.


A last song.


The last photographs.


A last hello.


A last toss.


A last pat.


A last sit down.


A last reflection.


A last look (1).


A last look (2).


A last look (3).


A last visit.


The last hydrant.


The last hydrant.


The last tall tree.


A last descent.


A last show.


A last walk.


The last days.


A last boundary (the boundary wall between the former Malayan Railway land and Singapore).


A last look at Block 75.


A last sunset.


The last smiles.


A last glance.


A last gathering.


A last stop.


A last laugh.


The last goodbye.


A last shot.


The last game.

The oldest public library building, conservation, and a hornbill

27 04 2015

One of the few reminders of the old Queenstown town centre still left standing, the Queenstown Public Library commemorated a milestone on Saturday when it celebrated it 45th birthday.  The library, Singapore’s oldest branch library, is also housed in a conserved public building that, unusually for Singapore, is still being used for the purpose it was built for. The opening of the library in 1970, was a major step in making books available to the masses through the decentralisation of library services.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library's 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library’s 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the library on 30 April 1970.

Opened officially on 30th April 1970 by the then Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the library, as described by Mr Lee in his opening address, was meant not just to bring books to the masses, but was also intended to be a sanctuary of peace and quiet.

The library at its opening in 1970.

The library has indeed been a sanctuary to many, based on what was shared during the “Cakap Heritage” session that preceded the main celebrations. The session saw members of the community, librarians and members of the Friends of the Library speak of their personal experiences and connections to the library, how outreach to children was done and what the library meant to them. One of the things that did come out was how the library crowd at Queenstown was quieter and better behaved as compared to the National Library in Stamford Road.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library at the Cakap Heritage session.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

The celebrations also saw the introduction of two publications by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). The first is a wonderful poster of conserved buildings in the Queenstown area. Besides the library, the conserved buildings include the nearby former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market and Food Centre and the Church of  the Blessed Sacrament. An “e-version” of the poster can be downloaded at the URA’s website.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church's interior.

The church’s interior.

The second publication that was launched is a picture book on heritage buildings, Looking at Heritage Buildings, aimed at the young. Produced by John Koh and supported by the URA, the book features the 75 buildings gazetted for conservation as part of the URA Master Plan 2014, taking a look the the buildings through the eyes of Billie the hornbill.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

The idea for the book came as a result of John’s interactions with the URA in finding a home for a dragon, a sculpture the author acquired in producing another children’s picture book, Marco Goes East. One of the challenges the author spoke of, during a brief chat I had with him, was in defining the age group of its target audience. I thought that the book, in which the buildings are organised into five groups according to their location, with strong visuals that is accompanied by very concise information on the histories and unique architectural features, does make the book, even if it is intended for the young, a useful walking trail resource even for the less youthful.

The cover of the book.

The cover of the book.

The buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The 75 conservation buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The book is available both in print and in e-book format. The 26 page print version is available at the Singapore City Gallery and at public libraries and the e-book can be downloaded from the URA website.

A peek inside the book.

A peek inside the book.

In passing: the former driving test centre

11 11 2014

Built more to be functional than for any aesthetic appeal, the plain looking building along Commonwealth Avenue just across from where the Queenstown MRT Station is, is one that a generation or two of Singaporeans, would have a connection with. The building, wearing what probably is its brightest appearance since it came up, the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre, was built in 1968 as Singapore’s second driving test centre to compliment the one then at Maxwell Road. It was where I took my Highway Code test sometime in the early 1980s.

In passing - the soon to be demolished former Queenstown Driving Test Centre as seen through the platform doors of the Queenstown MRT Station.

In passing – the soon to be demolished former Queenstown Driving Test Centre as seen through the platform doors of the Queenstown MRT Station.

The introduction of the driving test circuit, the first test of which was conducted in Kampong Ubi in December 1985, spelled the beginning of the end for the test centre. Before it was eventually shut down ten years later, the test centre continued to operate as a location for theory tests. The building was put to use for a while as a police centre and saw other uses before being left vacant to await what will be its eventual demolition.


For those who are sad to see the centre go, there will be an opportunity to say a last goodbye to it – the former test centre will be opened on 13 December 2014 from 10 am to 2 pm. More information can be found on the My Queenstown Facebook Page.

Back to a time I have forgotten

10 05 2012

My entry into the world came in the still of the morning, at a time when the world beyond the delivery room had been anything but still. Insulated from tumultuous events that accompanied the first year of Singapore’s merger with the Malayan Federation by the oblivion of early childhood, life as I would remember it seemed anything but calm in the world where I had spent the earliest years of my life.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

That world is one that I have of late tried to reconnect with. It is a world of which I remember very little of – most of what I remember is associated with the Commonwealth Crescent area where I lived and of the walks I took with my parents in the area. Beyond that, it is the physical structures of the places as I remember them that I sometimes see in my memory, and ones that I have sought as a reminder of my connection to the place. Of the physical structures that I have long identified with the wider area, there were two beside the residential blocks that remain etched in my memory, across Commonwealth Avenue in what is commonly referred to as the Tanglin Halt area. One, a blue cylindrical tank – the gas holding tank of what had been the Queenstown Gasholder Station at Tanglin Halt, has long since disappeared, falling victim to the switch from City Gas production in the 1990s to imported natural gas. The other, also dominated by the blue of a prominent part of its structure, is thankfully still there, unaltered by the passage of time. That structure is that of a building that which some say is “more roof than building” – the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church’s interior.

The church, with a very distinctive blue slate roof that dominates its structure, is one that I very much have an attachment to, being where I had been baptised all those years back. Standing out in an area that would have otherwise been dominated by the ramp of the road that has expanded beside it, the building was designed by James Gordon Dowsett of the architectural firm Iversen, Van Sitteren and Partners. Dowsett was the creator of two buildings that also become well recognised in their time – the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre. The design of the roof, said to resemble paper being folded in the art of origami, was inspired by the shape of a tent. This, based on information on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) page on the conservation of the church, was to symbolise  the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament. The page provides further information elaborating further that “the roof dips downwards to wrap the interior with portions touching the ground, reminiscent of anchoring pegs” which functionally also serve as drainage points for rainwater. More information on the church’s architecture and interior can be found at the URA Conservation of Build Heritage web page. The church which was blessed and officially opened on 8 May 1965 by the Roman Catholic Archibishop of Malacca and Singapore, Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, was gazetted for conservation on 25 November 2005.

Father Odo Tiggeloven, one of the church’s two founding priests, signing the baptism register in the Damien Hall.

Stepping inside the church, the warmness of the visual greeting provided by the soft light filtering through that casts a warm glow over the wood flavoured interior seems to also extend a spiritual welcome. I realised then that it had been a long while since I visited the church – not since I shifted away as a child of three and a half. As I looked around me, it was nice to see that the church is one that has stayed very much the same as it had been at its beginnings close to half a century ago. In that, it is also nice to know that in a world in which we have been quick to forget the past, there is a place that I can come to where the past hasn’t been forgotten.

Soft light filters through into the interior of the church.

One more view of the inside of the church.

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.

A long forgotten place

24 02 2012

I have had a wonderful childhood that has filled me with many memories of a world of which very little still exists and I am always glad when I am able to rediscover a place from the past that I am able to feel a connection with. While much of my memories of growing-up are associated with that wonderful and eventful time I spent in Toa Payoh, it wasn’t Toa Payoh that I first called home, but what was Singapore’s very first satellite town, Queenstown.

The block of flats that I lived in from 1964 to 1967 along Commonwealth Crescent in Queenstown.

Commonwealth Crescent in 1967 - the blocks of flats including the one that I lived in are still around - except that upgrading has given them a new face.

It was in a flat rented from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in Queenstown – 104E, Block 102 Commonwealth Crescent, in which I had spent my earliest days. It was a flat that served as home for 3 years or so, while my parents were in a queue for the flat that was to be my home in Toa Payoh. It was one that I have but vague memories of – remembering only how simply furnished the flat was and the linoleum sheet flooring that was used to cover the cement floor. There are also a few memories that I have always held with fondness – those of my interactions with my maternal grandfather with whom I had been very close to and who passed on not long after we moved to Toa Payoh. One involved my first memory of pressing the buttons in the lift from the safety of my grandfather’s arms as we made way home from the daily walks that I always enjoyed.

The part of the block of flats that I lived in for the three earliest years of my life.

The simply furnished flat with the linoleum flooring that was commonly found then.

Wandering around the area recently, I was hit with the realisation of the time that has passed since I had last interacted with it. There is very little left to remind me of the place I had once called home, even the blocks of flats in the neighbourhood – all of which are still there bear little resemblance to the ones that I have known, having been through a round of upgrading which has also seen a new market building built in place of the old.

The Commonwealth Crescent area today has changed from the one that I lived in.

The Commonwealth Crescent market has been rebuilt.

There is one unit in the rows of shops (which are still there) that surround the market that I have particular memories of – that of a General Practitioner’s clinic, probably due to the frequency with which I must have visited it – being prone to bouts of coughs on the basis of what my parents have told me. Sadly I was to discovered that the clinic – the Lim Clinic, is no longer there where it was Block 117 – the unit is now occupied by a bakery. On the basis of what two contributors to “On a little street in Singapore” mentioned, the clinic closed with Dr. Lim’s passing not too long ago. In spite of a distaste I had developed for any liquid that was held in those cork topped small glass bottles that Dr. Lim dispensed, I somehow looked forward to the visits to the clinic – the large glass jar filled with colourful sweets that stood on his table would probably have been responsible for that.

Lim Clinic I understand closed with the passing on of Dr. Lim - a bakery now occupies the unit.

There is this one memory that I have of my interactions with my neighbours – that of playing in the home of a boy of about my age a few doors away. I don’t remember anything of the boy except that he was my one and only friend from my brief stay in the neighbourhood and it was with him that I remember crawling under the dining table and a cot in his flat.

Commonwealth Crescent, 1967.

Beyond the neighbourhood, one of the places I visited was the town centre in the Margaret Drive area that was just across Queensway from where we lived. My parents took many evening strolls to the area with me in tow. What I do remember of the strolls is that they usually involved a visit to Tah Chung Emporium which must have been the place to go to in the area at that time. I probably recall the visits to the emporium more than anything else for the growth of my marble collection they were responsible for – marbles which my father would buy to line the bottom of his the tropical fish tank he maintained – a part of which would be given to me.

Much of the Margaret Drive area where the Queenstown Town Centre was has been flattened.

Speaking of Queensway, there is something unrelated to my stay in the area that comes to mind – ‘White Discs’ as my father would refer to them, or Vehicle Entry Permits. There was a time when Singapore registered vehicles crossing over the Causeway to Malaysia were required to have a valid permit – a white disc about the size of our road tax disc which a driver needed to display on the windscreen in the same way as a road tax disc. It was at the crest of the road at which a colonial bungalow had stood in what was Holland Park – one that would have belonged to the Malaysian High Commission and one in which a Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicles’ Office was located that saw queues of Singaporean motorists forming – particularly in and around the holiday season, waiting in line to apply for a permit. The need for the permit was scrapped by the Malaysian Authorities as of the 1st of May 1986.

Motorists waiting in line to apply for a Vehicle Entry Permit at the Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicle's office at Holland Park in the 1970s. The entrance to the bungalow in which the office was housed in was off Queensway (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Although time has erased or altered much of what I do remember in the area – there is still that bit of it that’s left to remind me of that different world in which I had spent my early years. It is nice to see that most of the buildings of the neighbourhood, although wearing different faces, are very much still there – something that cannot be said for the area around where Tah Chung was. In that area though, there is a cluster of buildings that’s left that bring back memories of encounters that perhaps I wish not to be reminded off – the cluster that was premises of the Queenstown Combined Clinics – buildings to which I would visit for only one reason – that dreaded inoculation. That would probably explain the reluctance I have long had for visiting the long forgotten area which I have sought to rediscover all too late.

The former Queenstown Combined Clinics.