Parting glances: Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive

2 10 2015

Change has become an inevitable aspect of life in Singapore. Places we cherish go in a flash and are quickly replaced by unfamiliar. For some, the passing of a neighbourhood in which they may have spent most of their lives in can be an traumatic experience. The loss is not just of the familiarity of a place one calls home, but also the break up of the communities in which ties may have been forged over several decades.

A window into the past. Inside an early HDB flat at Commonwealth Drive soon to be demolished.

A window into the past. Inside an early HDB flat at Commonwealth Drive soon to be demolished.

One old neigbourhood that has been emptied of life was the one at Commonwealth Drive , an area, at least from a public housing perspective, that goes back half a century. The area, also known as Tanglin Halt, is where some of the earliest planned Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats are to be found. The cluster of 10-storey blocks of flats also referred to as Chap Lau Chu (10-storey houses in Hokkien), while not aesthetically pleasing in the context of today’s public housing designs, served as the face of the HDB’s public housing efforts and were featured on the backs of the new nation’s very first one dollar currency note.

The back of Singapore's first one dollar note.

The back of Singapore’s first one dollar note.

Sadly, the neighbourhood will soon lose its note-worthy blocks. The now vacant blocks will soon be demolished and all that will be left of them will be dust and some of our memories. We do get to bid farewell to them before that happens though. A carnival to say goodbye is being organised by My Community and the Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Committee on Saturday (3 October 2015) to say our goodbyes to blocks 74 to 80.

Block 74 Commonwealth Drive, 1968 (Courtesy of Jasmine Cheng).

Block 74 Commonwealth Drive, 1968 (Courtesy of Jasmine Cheng).

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The carnival will not only allow access to an area soon to be hoarded up. One of the blocks (Block 74) will be opened up to the public as well as two of the block’s units on the second level. Visitors can also look forward to a photography exhibition “Forget Me Not” by Nicky Loh and Erwin Tan, which looks at the estate in its glory days, the past and the present. One of the photographers Nicky Loh, lived at block 79 and has fond memories of the Chin Hin Eating House, a kopitiam at Block 75 that closed its doors last year (see a previous post on it: Last Impressions).

The carnival will allow access to Block 74 and two of its units.

The carnival will allow access to Block 74 and two of its units.

Formerly occupied by Chin Hin Eating House.

Formerly occupied by Chin Hin Eating House.

Reminders of yesterday - retrofitted 2nd generation HDB letter boxes.

Reminders of yesterday – retrofitted 2nd generation HDB letter boxes.

The common corridor - the slot in the original door found on many of the vacated flats were for mail - a reminder of when the postman used to deliver mail door to door.

The common corridor – the slot in the original door found on many of the vacated flats were for mail – a reminder of when the postman used to deliver mail door to door.

Along with the exhibition there will also be performances by local favourites ShiGGa Shay, Tay Kexin and the Switch, as well as a public screening of the highly acclaimed “7 letters”. Three of the seven films, Royston Tan’s “Bunga Sayang,” Boo Jun Feng’s “Parting” and Eric Khoo’s “Cinema” were shot in the neighbourhood.

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It will perhaps be a fitting goodbye to an area that was also associated among other things with the railway (the rail corridor runs by it and the name Tanglin Halt came from a train halt or stop located in the area) and the industrial area to its immediate north that was crowned not only with the huge gas holder (the giant blue city gas cylindrical tank similar to the one that used to dominate the Kallang landscape), but was also where Singapore’s homegrown television brand, Setron – once a household name, had its first factory. The mix of light industries and a residential neighbourhood – there also were factories and artisans operating in the ground floor shop lots allowed residents to find work around where they lived in days when folks were less mobile and perhaps when we were less fussy about where we lived.

The gas holder (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The gas holder (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The site of the former gas holder.

The site of the former gas holder.

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The area is a popular shortcut during lunch ... the masks are not because of the long gone gas tank that used to also be remembered for the smell behind them but due to the current haze.

The area is a popular shortcut during lunch … the masks are not because of the long gone gas tank that used to also be remembered for the smell behind them but due to the current haze.

More on Saturday’s carnival can be found at the My Queenstown Facebook Page.

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Goodbye 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive Programme

Date: Saturday, 3 October 2015
Time: 1100 to 1900 hrs
Venue: Block 74 carpark (next to Tanglin Halt Wet Market)

What to expect:

  1. Access to Block 74 (1100-1900)
  2. Screening of “Singapore Dreaming” (1200) “Taxi Taxi” (1430) “7 letters” (1700)
  3. A photography exhibition by Nicky Loh Photography and Erwin Tan (1100-1900)
  4. Performances by White Ribbon Live Music (1200) ShiGGa Shay (1500), Tay Kexin (郑可欣) and the Switch (1600)
  5. Free flow of drinks and ice cream ! (1100-1700)

Note : Times are subject to weather conditions and outdoor events will be cancelled in the event the PSI exceeds 201


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Some may remember this bathroom door - a standard one-time HDB fitting.

Some may remember this bathroom door – a standard one-time HDB fitting.

A close up of the door with the manufacturer's name.

A close up of the door with the manufacturer’s name.

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Signs of the times.

Signs of times forgotten.

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Last impressions

4 03 2014

Time can be a cruel thing in Singapore. The passage of time brings with it the change that seems inevitable in Singapore denying us many places that we may have developed an attachment to.

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The last day of February this year, saw the passing of two well-loved places. One is a kopitiam (coffee-shop), set in an world older than itself for which time is being called on, and the other, a well used community space in the form of a public swimming pool complex we in Singapore seem to want to discard all to quickly.

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Just a stone’s throw away from each other, the two, are coincidentally from the same era. While this may be hard to see in the swimming complex, the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, the layout of the kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House at Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, does take us back to the period when it was set-up in 1976 – when it was still the fashion to lay food stalls at the coffee-shop’s front, with a seating area in the back. A popular place for that traditional breakfast of buttered bread, soft-boiled eggs and coffee, the coffee-shop was located on the ground floor of a block of flats that will be a group of seven – among the earliest put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, that will be demolished under the HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

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The swimming complex, which opened in September 1976 and the fourth to be designed by the Housing and Development Board (the others before it were Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Katong), is one that I do have a memory of. It was where on one evening in the complex’s first decade of operation, despite losing my glasses in any attempt to “rescue” a “swimmer in distress”, I managed to get my bronze medallion in life-saving that qualified me as a lifeguard. That was some 30 years ago in 1983, and probably some 30 kilogrammes ago in weight I have since seemed to have gained.

JeromeLim 277A9733The area where I sought to lose my glasses.

While there is little I have in terms of sentimentality for the places concerned, they are still places for which I do feel a sense of loss, being reminders of unassuming times for which there is little place in the world we have been forced to love. There may be little time left for us to celebrate these remnants of the old world in which we find easy to feel at home in, before they become a remnant only in our memories.


A last waltz

a final dance at Chin Hin Eating House (1976 to 2014) –

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La última Vista

– a final look at Buona Vista Swimming Complex (4 Sep 1976 to 28 Feb 2014) –

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The ‘sunken temple’ of Toa Payoh

18 09 2013

A curious sight that greeted anyone travelling down Lorong 6 close to the Temple / Kim Keat Estate area of Toa Payoh in its early days and one I well remember was a temple that at road level, appeared to be have buried in the ground. The temple, Poh Tiong Keng 普忠宫 (Pu Zhong Gong), which I would refer to as the ‘sunken temple’, was one which went back to the village origins of the area, well before the towering public housing blocks of flats arrived.

The only photograph I have managed to find of the Poh Tien Keong with Block 33 seen behind it (online photograph at http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/aged-singapore-veneration-collides-20th-century).

The area where the 'Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The area where the ‘Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The Block 33 view of the area where the 'sunken temple' was.

The Block 33 view of the area where the ‘sunken temple’ was.

Set in what would have been an undulating area, the levelling of the surrounding ground to put up blocks of flats in the late 1960s, it found itself in a hole in the ground with the 11 storey block 33 towering above it, surrounded by retaining walls put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to protect the temple from being buried. The temple was one of three existing temples which were left untouched by the HDB in clearing the land in the area for the development of the new housing estate. The other two were the Siong Lim Temple and the  Seu Teck Sean Temple.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968.

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Sadly the sight is one we no longer see. The temple was demolished in late 1977, not long after I moved out of Toa Payoh. The area where the temple was will now also see a huge change – the block of flats behind where the temple was along with several others in the area – some of which were leased out temporarily to Resorts World Sentosa to house their workers after residents were moved out, are due to be demolished (one of the blocks which will be demolished is Block 28, in front of which the iconic dragon of  Toa Payoh can be found).

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/)

A last look around Block 33

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Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention that the Poh Tiong Beo (普忠庙) located diagonally across the road from this site was built to replace the ‘sunken temple’ as drainage was poor in the recess the original temple sat in and that would get flooded everytime it rained heavily.






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.





A more recent past that soon will be forgotten

11 06 2012

Passing through a neighbourhood that I am familiar with, I was greeted not by the familiarity of its faces, but by an unfamiliar silence that now fills it. The neighbourhood is one that, having lived near it for some fifteen years, I have had many interactions with. It is one in which, compared to the neighbourhoods of my early childhood, doesn’t go back as far in time, and one where my memories are much more current. Despite its more recent past, such is the pace of the change that sweeps through the island we live in, that this neighbourhood is not spared from it. The neighbourhood is one that sees its heart and soul – the people and business that brought life to it, displaced by the cruel winds of change.

The colours of a now colourless world that will soon be forgotten

The world that has lost its soul is one that has also lost its colour – the only colours left seem to only be that of a playground that has outlived its usefulness. As I look beyond the empty playground which bears the marks of neglect and abandonment, it is the neglect and abandonment of the shuttered row of shops that stares at me. The eerie quiet seems to scream at me. It seemed like it was only yesterday, that the shutters had been raised to reveal businesses that in the relative isolation of the neighbourhood – were ones which had been insulated against the passage of time.

The wheels of time that have started to turn?

At the end of the row, as if in a show of defiance, characters sprayed on in black paint stand out against the pink of closed metal doors, remind us of what once had resided behind the doors – a electrical goods and repair shop. The three rows of characters painted on the doors are of two telephone numbers with the word ‘Service’ below.

The shuttered and abandoned units of shops where time did once seem to stand still.

A defiant reminder of a past that will soon be forgotten.

I look down a corridor that even when it was alive has always been one that seems to be haunted. It is not the ghosts of today that I now see, but the ghosts of yesterday. As my eyes move to the right towards the part that I am most familiar with – a General Practitioner that I often consulted had his practice at one of the units, it is the reflections from the glass of an un-shuttered unit that distracts me. Beyond the reflections of a world that is about to change, it is the secrets of the former world that existed beyond the glass panels that I see … one which belonged to a certain Annie Song. I also see a face – one that is perhaps the face of a ghost of the past. It is a face that will soon fade, as will the world that it now looks at. And when the face and all that is around does fade, the physical link that many will have to a world that had been a part of whom they were – will be forever lost. What will survive will be the memories, memories of lives, of growing-up, of children taking their first steps and perhaps of romances … memories that is time will be ones of a distant and what will certainly be an almost forgotten past.

Silent corridors where only the ghosts of the past now walk on.

Ghosts of the past staring at memories that will soon fade.

There is no more to reflect.