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.

 

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The rail corridor at the halt at Tanglin

30 03 2016

Change is about to come to the Rail Corridor. Its southern half will be closed from the second quarter of 2016 to allow a water pipe to be laid under it, and I suppose that before it can recover from this intervention, we could see work being started on transforming parts of the corridor into a space that will have an appeal to the wider community.

The stretch of the corridor in the days of the railway at the former Tanglin Halt - a place that could transport you far from the madness that is Singapore.

The stretch of the corridor in the days of the railway (c. 2010) at the former Tanglin Halt – a place that could transport you far from the madness that is Singapore.

I wish to remember the corridor as it was in days when it attracted little interest. Ignored and left to the railway, the space grew into one that had a magical feel to it, a space one could quite easily lose oneself in. While the space still serves as an escape some four and a half years after the railway ceased operating through it, its magic has diminished. Stripped of most of its railway paraphernalia, turfed over, trampled on and worked on, there is now quite a different feel to the corridor.

The Rail Corridor in greener days.

The Rail Corridor, near the Clementi woodland, in greener days.

One stretch of the railway I would like to remember as it was is what, if the planners have their way, will become a “Cultural Valley”, “a vibrant activity space where workers and nearby residents can enjoy activities such as outdoor film screenings”. It is what I hope will not be, a transformation that threatens to have us forget the joy the space would once have given us.

What parts of the same stretch look like today.

Already in a state of flux – parts of the same stretch near the Clementi woodland have temporarily taken on the appearance of the concretised world that the railway has long kept away.

Already, we have all but forgotten it as a train stop, Tanglin Halt; even if this is remembered in the name of the adjacent public housing neighbourhood. Lines also branched off in the area, serving the British military at Wessex Estate and at Ayer Rajah. The stop, the branch lines, and its platform, had disappeared by the time I first set eye on the stretch. All that was left of the halt was a rather worn looking building, decorated as all abandoned buildings outside of Singapore might be (technically it stood on a piece of Malaysia). That vanished from sight almost immediately after the land was handed back; an aberration perhaps in the landscape that needed to be removed once it had become incorporated into the overly manicured Singaporean landscape.

A 1945 map showing the train halt.

A 1945 map showing the train halt.

The Tanglin Halt area today.

The Tanglin Halt area today.

The Cultural Valley being proposed at Buona Vista.

It is strange that similar renderings found on the missing structure, have, with official sanction, decorate the structures under a road bridge just a stone’s throw away. The Rail Corridor Art Space, thought up by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the National Arts Council (NAC), which was launched in December 2013, provided would be graffiti artists with an outlet to add colour to what would otherwise have been the grey of dull concrete.

The southward view.

The southward view.

And a northward view.

And a northward view.

Like the corridor, the space will soon lose its colour. Work to lay the pipe will require the corridor south of Holland Road, including this Buona Vista stretch, to be closed. While we can look forward to sections of it progressively reopened from the fourth quarter of 2017, this stretch of the corridor would probably bear no resemblance at all to the magical world I might once have found an escape in.

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Coloured concrete under the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct.





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

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A last stroll.

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A last hurrah.

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A last peek.

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A last song.

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The last photographs.

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A last hello.

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A last toss.

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A last pat.

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A last sit down.

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A last reflection.

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A last look (1).

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A last look (2).

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A last look (3).

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A last visit.

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The last hydrant.

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The last hydrant.

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The last tall tree.

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A last descent.

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A last show.

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A last walk.

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The last days.

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

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A last look at Block 75.

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A last sunset.

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The last smiles.

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A last glance.

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A last gathering.

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A last stop.

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A last laugh.

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The last goodbye.

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A last shot.

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The last game.





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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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.