Toa Payoh’s fairy-tale-like castle

21 11 2010

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a wonderful castle rose up on a little hill bringing a world that seemed to only exist in fairy-tales to the many children who lived in the land. It was a castle that perhaps capped a transformation that took place in the land, once referred to as a big swamp which had contained pockets of zinc or attap topped wooden dwellings that had once been a place where even the brave had feared to thread, having been referred as the ‘Chicago of the East’ or ‘Chicago of Singapore’ for the many gangland activities that seemed to have thrived in the area. The castle had also brought to the children who lived in the newly transformed swamp to a land many had sought to see, a land that lay far across the vast ocean, Disneyland that had existed in the same world that contained the Chicago that many had associated the swamp with. It was indeed a castle where fairy-tales seemed to be made of – as it brought to the children around not just the sense of wonderment that a castle brings, but hope for that better tomorrow that seemed to have eluded many that had once lived around the swamp.

Toa Payoh underwent a transformation from becoming the Chicago of Singapore in the 1960s to a much sought after middle class area we know of today.

The land where the castle had been erected in was the newly transformed Toa Payoh, Singapore’s wonderful new satellite town, the first to be planned as a unit and the first to be built in the then newly independent Singapore. It was a Singapore that was trying to find its feet, as the uncertainty of being cast out from a world that it had long sought to be a part of and one on which it was very much dependent on, gave way to a hope and confidence that the rapid post-independence development had brought about. The castle had in Toa Payoh, become a beacon of hope, as banks, shops and factories moved into the newly developed satellite town, bringing with them the confidence that Singapore’s Chicago could be transformed from what had once had been a hotbed of gangland activity to a land that was safe to live in, bringing not just a commercial presence to the town, but also providing jobs to many who lived there.

Toa Payoh's 'castle' came up in 1969 on the side of Block 54 (source: The Straits Times, 6 Dec 1969).

As with the fairy-tale world from which the castle might have come from, the castle itself was a make-believe one. One that was for most part a two dimensional mural of sorts that decorated the side of Block 54 which stood on a small table of land that rose from the road, Lorong 4 that it faced. I guess to provide a third dimension to the ‘castle’, ramparts – mock-ups built on the open space between the road and the block of flats were added, amongst which children could live out part of the make-believe world the castle had sought to bring. The ‘castle’ had in fact been a stroke of genius – an advertisement for the branch of Chung Khiaw bank that had been opened at the foot of the block of flats, that certainly brought attention to it, recognising that children were a major market force long before McDonald’s arrived at our shores. The bank had then started a ‘coins bank’ scheme, offering attractive bronze coloured coin boxes in the shape of animals, to children which was indeed popular with the children of Toa Payoh, perhaps partly due to the attention that the castle had brought to the branch of the bank, which opened in December 1969. Sadly for the children of today, the wonderful ‘castle’ is now gone – it went sometime in the mid 1970s – not too long after Chung Khiaw bank was acquired by UOB in 1972 (disappearing in name with the merger with UOB in the 1980s).

The view to the end of Block 54 where the branch of Chung Khiaw Bank and the fairy-tale like castle had once stood.

Speaking of Chung Khiaw bank and UOB brings back memories of a run on Chung Khiaw bank that occurred in October of 1974, when over the course of two days, thousands had descended on the same branch (as with many other branches) in an attempt to withdraw their savings with rumours swirling over the bank’s financial stability. What I remember very vividly was the long queue of people that had formed outside the branch and my grandmother remarking that it she was lucky not to have any of her money in the bank. If I remember correctly, this went on for a few days before calm returned as the authorities intervened to restore faith in the bank.

The Fairchild Factory at its opening in December 1969 (source: The Straits Times, 4 Dec 1969)

The Fairchild Factory as seen in 1973.

Besides the advertisement which also had a red-green neon sign of the bank’s name at the top of the block of flats, there were some other prominent landmarks in the area, particularly the short stretch of road, Lorong 3 that the side of the block had overlooked. One was the Fairchild factory – Toa Payoh’s first factory which opened in 1969, operating for several months before being officially opened on 4 December of that year by Dr. Toh Chin Chye. The factory had been set up by the US based Fairchild group with the assistance of the Economic Development Board (EDB) for the assembly of integrated circuits, and was one of the few then that worked around the clock – with three shifts. Starting with 400 employees , which grew to 800 by the time Dr. Toh opened the factory, the factory also featured female only production workers for the delicate shop floor operations. The two storey building that the factory started in, is in fact still there – now used by McDermott, as is another of the landmarks along Lorong 3 – a dragon statue – one a dragon twisting around a red pillar, not as elaborate maybe as the one featured in Royston Tan’s documentary ‘Old Places’ at Whampoa, but one that many who grew up in the area would fondly remember.

The two storey building that housed the former Fairchild Factory along Lorong 3 today.

The other 'landmark' along Lorong 3, the Dragon Statue.


The smells of the Toa Payoh that I grew up in

7 07 2010

For some reason I seem to be dwelling on the subject of the smells I was familiar with in my childhood. Having revisited the smells of the seaside and that of fermented shrimp, I am now revisiting some of the aromas that I grew up smelling in Toa Payoh. There was the smell of curry puffs that greeted me through the front door of course, as well as the “fowl” smell of poultry and the wonderful aroma of spices that I encountered in the market. There were also the two glorious aromas that I distinctly remembered. The first being the rich robust aroma that came wafted up from the market area each morning which always was accompanied by the sight of a man turning a cylindrical object fashioned out of a steel drum over a charcoal fire burning in half of another steel drum placed below it. That was the aroma of coffee being roasted at the end of Block 94 by what I assume would have been the proprietor of the coffee shop before Lee Nam Kee took over the premises and made a fortune over Soya Sauce Chicken Rice. It is probably hard to imagine it today, and I am not sure if it was indeed my imagination, but I very distinctly remember the rich aroma reaching my nose from 19 floors down and across Lorong 4. That would sometimes draw me out to the common corridor facing Lorong 4, from which I would be able to watch the man in the white tee-shirt turning the drum very slowly.

There is nothing like the rich robust aroma of coffee beans being roasted.

Another aroma that I would grow accustomed to inhaling in Toa Payoh was the smell of freshly baked bread. That would come from the bakery at the corner of Block 47 off Lorong 6. I loved the aroma so much that I often made it a point to ask my grandmother to take me past the bakery on her evening walks, where we would be greeted not just by the aroma of freshly baked bread being taken out from the old style ovens, but also by the sight of loafs of bread being left to cool on racks and a busy baker slicing off the crust of loaves of bread on the large work table, slicing the spongy soft white bread and packing them into plastic bags ready for sale. Wandering around Toa Payoh, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bakery is still there, going about its business in very much the same way. And in passing by, I was brought back to the smells of my childhood once again.

There's nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread.

The Singapore Bakery in Toa Payoh.

To market, to market

25 05 2010

There are these things that you may not expect young boys to enjoy like going to the dentist, or perhaps having a haircut, or accompanying Mum to the market. I for one detested the visit to the dentist and the barber. For some strange reason though, I did, for a while at least, enjoy following my mother on her regular visits to the Lorong 4 market, which was located across the road from where we lived in Toa Payoh.

Street markets such as this one seen in Penang were a common sight in Singapore once upon a time.

Colourful street marketshad all but disappeared by the time I started accompanying my mother to the market.

Cha-kiak display at the museum.

By the time I got to do that, street markets had started to vanish from Singapore, and living in a spanking new HDB estate, we had the relative luxury of going to a covered market where market vendors were allocated a cubicle like space, complete with electricity and running water, from which they could sell their goods. Still though, going to the market could really be a rather unpleasant and sometimes traumatic experience for a four year old boy, having to tread over the wet slippery and rather messy looking floor tiles, at the risk of not just slipping and falling, but also of having ones toes being stomped on by a cha-kiak clad foot, as well as being forced to inhale the seemingly foul mix of smells that came from the live chickens and ducks, and displays of fish and fresh pork, that permeated the air. (Cha-kiaks are red painted wooden clogs that were popular as a choice of footwear for the common folk in the 1960s).

The now upgraded market at Lorong 4, Toa Payoh was a source of adventure for me some forty years ago.

Perhaps what first motivated me to follow my mother out when we had first moved to Toa Payoh, was the opportunity to put my gleaming new blue rubber wellingtons which I had acquired at a shop near the Lorong 7 market on the walk of discovery around the estate that we did upon moving in. That I insisted would have been the only way that I could keep the splatter of smelly water that would have come from trudging through the wet slippery floor. The market at Lorong 4, Toa Payoh, I was to discover, was a whole new world to explore, the sights and sounds of which are still very much etched in my memory. There would be fishmongers chopping, scaling and gutting, chickens being slaughtered by having their necks slit and drained of blood before being put in some cylindrical metal contraption that de-feathered the chickens, and fishballs being made by hand on the spot.

Live poultry in cages were once a common scene at the wet markets in Singapore.

The fishball vendors would sell a variety of foodstuff with displays of cubes of tofu soaking in water, and soft ones displayed on a platter, salted vegetables being soaked in an earthen pot of brine, and there would also be fishballs soaking in a basin of water which would be scooped up, water and all to be packed into a plastic bag. Fishballs were made in a trough on the floor outside the stalls, and I usually enjoy watching fish being scraped into the trough by a person sitting on a wooden stool, before being mixed with flour. Another thing that I was usually fascinated with was the spice vendor who could be seen mixing his colourful rempah (dry powder or wet paste of mixed spices) from which was always accompanied by the whiff of the wonderful aroma that came from the spices. What I never enjoyed being close to, was a quadrangle at centre of the market which was under a skylight which I suppose also served as an air well. The quadrangle was divided into four stall lots, with each occupied by chicken sellers and bounded by chicken cages filled with live chickens and ducks, which could be picked out, weighed and slaughtered. There was always the overpowering smell of chicken waste that filled the air (despite the ventilation offered by the air well) that I never liked taking in.

Chickens were slaughtered in the quadrangle of space at the centre of the market building below the skylight, now occupied by dining tables and chairs.

The skylight over the centre of the market building today.

The highlight of the trip to the market was always at the end of it, once my mother had finished her shopping. She would always sit me down for my favourite bowl of piping hot fishball kwayteow mee (noodles) for breakfast, which went for 50 cents a bowl then. That was a time when you could get a small portion of fried carrot cake for 20 cents, which was served on a leave. It would be 30 cents if you wanted egg fried with it or you could have a choice of saving on the price of the egg by bringing one of your own. Back then the market was laid out in such a way that the cooked food stalls were placed along the periphery facing the outside, such that tables and chairs could be arranged in the open spaces around the market building, so having breakfast there was always alfresco.

The periphery of the market building was were the stalls selling cooked food were, with tables and chairs laid out in the open spaces around the market.

One thing I noticed outside the market was the daily get together of elderly men who wore their shirts unbuttoned, exposing the white undershirts or singlets that they would wear underneath, as they sat sipping their coffee from the saucer. It was common back then to drink out of the saucer, as it allowed the hot beverage to cool more rapidly. On the warmer and muggier mornings, many of these elderly men would sit in their undershirts which would be rolled up exposing their bellies. Something else that was commonly seen was the numerous Nepali vendors who displayed their wares on a piece of cloth that was laid on the floor outside the market. You could see a variety of goods being laid out, including leather belts, belt buckles, trinkets, amulets, gemstones, cigarette lighters and a myriad of other small items.

The open spaces around the market used to be filled with tables and chairs and was where elderly men gathered sipping coffee from saucers, sometimes with their undershirts rolled up over their bellies.

The area where you might have once be greeted by diners having breakfast sitting and Nepali men laying sheets on which wares they were selling were displayed.

I did stop accompanying my mother eventually, perhaps when I was about five, not because I got bored with the market, but because she found me to be quite a handful as I would stop to look at whatever caught my attention. There was one occasion, when watching a fishball seller scraping fish, which his daughter who was about my age, somehow didn’t take kindly to. She gave me a hard push and I landed backside first, into a basin of brine and salted vegetables. So it was, that my adventures at the market ended, as abruptly as it had started, and all I could do then was to wait patiently in the relative safety of my home for the tiffin carrier of fishball kwayteow mee, with its lid overturned so as to hold the cut chilli that was usually served with it, that my mother would take back with her from the market.

The market aisle where I had my baptism of brine, where there used to be a row of fishball sellers on one side and vegetable vendors on the other.