Chasing the dragon, finding a bunny

25 07 2012

With a small group of new-found friends, I found myself chasing the dragon – the now iconic playground made famous by it being #3 on’s list of the world’s 15 most amazing playgrounds, and one that seems to come to mind whenever the topic of old playgrounds is brought up in Singapore. The playground, the orange dragon of Toa Payoh has recently also made an appearance in ‘Mosaic Memories‘ – an effort commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project on the subject of capturing memories of old playgrounds.

The dragon of Block 28 Toa Payoh.

The dragon of Toa Payoh, sitting proudly below Block 28 in Lorong 6, greets anyone arriving by road into the island that is Toa Payoh, through one of the town’s original three entry points – at what is today called Kim Keat Link. Wearing on its face a bright coat of orange coloured by the mosaic tiles that once commonly featured as wall finishes, it is hard not to notice it. Despite missing swings and ropes that used to dangle from it what would best be described as its steel spine, the playground is still one that is, after some three decades of wear, in immaculate condition. The steel spine, formed by bars of steel bent to form a curved rib-cage like structure that is held together by two continuous round steel bars, connects the dragon’s tail to its head. The head is one which has terrazzo slides built into it – one that seems a lot more durable than the plastic slides that are commonly found in the playgrounds of today.

One of two terrazzo slides on the dragon’s head.

Children playing on the dragon’s spine.

The playground which has achieved worldwide attention through its appearance on’s list of 15 most amazing playgrounds is one the most photographed old playgrounds in Singapore.

It does attract some older kids as well!

Playgrounds with sand always allow kids using them to explore another dimension of play.

The dragon is one of several dragons that were known to reside in Toa Payoh. Besides the dragons seen in the many Chinese temples around the estate, there was first the dragon statue at Lorong 3 that is still there and several dragon playgrounds, all of which were designed by the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, two of which are still with us. The first dragon playground was one that was once found in that amazing large play area right at the end of Toa Payoh Town Garden just beyond the look-our tower which is still there. It featured a painted steel face and a pretty long spine and is one that I spent many happy moments at. I especially loved climbing the bars arranged beneath its head – bars that connected to horizontal monkey bars arranged in a circular fashion which seemingly supported its head.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

These playgrounds – the orange dragon which sits below Block 28 where my cousins had lived, and the one at the garden which has since disappeared – a victim of the construction of the HDB Hub (the playground was demolished to accommodate a temporary bus interchange as the air-conditioned one was being put up where the original bus terminus had been), were not the ones that I have the fondest memories of. Those memories are ones of the smell of rust on my hands and clothes from the steel of chains and slides that sometimes very hot to touch in the sun, and splinters in my shorts from the wooden see-saw planks and seats of the swings – all of which represented a time when playgrounds were provided a luxury of space and permitted childhood expression in interacting with playground equipment to be exercised in much more creative ways.

The playground in Toa Payoh that I have the fondest memories of (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James – On a Little Street in Singapore).

One particular playground which many of those memories are associated with is the one that was below the block of flats that I lived in, Block 53. That along with the many others I had once had taken so much pleasure out of including one at Katong Park which I well remember for a wood and steel merry-go-round, has long since disappeared. It was one remnant of my childhood close to Block 53, for which my friends and I decided to head to the area following the quick look at what still apparently is an object of childhood worship. The route to the area around where I had lived was one that I had many times in the 1970s taken home from my cousins’ place, but it wasn’t to Block 53 that I headed to this time, but to the area across Lorong 4 to where the market is. The area, disfigured by upgrading works that relieved it of much the nice open spaces it once had – spaces in which itinerant Nepali vendors once displayed wares laid on mats and where men with undershirts rolled over their midriffs congregated, does take me back to the days when two food stalls seemed to communicate with each other. The two which faced each other  each had a sign displayed above the stall – one asked that we “Come Every Day” and the other in what always seemed like a reply had the words “I am Coming”.

A window into the past that sees more of the present.

Around the market are three four-storey blocks with ground floor units populated by shops of all kinds including several which date back to the days of my childhood – all found in the L-shaped Block 94. One is the end next to Lorong 4 where the well-known Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Restaurant Lee Fun Nam Kee can be found. It wasn’t this that attracted my friends and me back, but the unit at the other end where an unmistakable shop front of a barbershop with its barber’s pole, is one that hasn’t been changed since the shop first started just a little over four decades ago. The barbershop, the Bugs Bunny barbershop, started there in 1971, moving into the corner unit which had been previously occupied by an ice-cream parlour, Yum-Yum – the original occupants which had operated for about two years. I was sad to see the parlour close – it had a long American diner style counter with stools, but the Malay barbershop was definitely a welcome addition – I hated my visits to the Indian barbershop which shared a unit with a ladies hairdressing salon (as was very common then) at Block 54 for the crew cuts I inevitably had ended up with, and I very soon became a regular customer of Bug Bunny which is a Malay barbershop.

The front of the Bugs Bunny barbershop is one that hasn’t changed since it first started in 1971.

Where Indian barbers have had a long and established tradition in Singapore (and across the Causeway in Malaysia), Malay barbers only really started establishing themselves in the late 1960s and 1970s. The arrival of Bugs Bunny came at a time when the Malay barbers began to set the standard for male hairstyles in Singapore and when there was a rapid expansion in the number of Malay barber shops – the origin Malay barbers were the few who operated independently. They started to set the trend with their ability to improvise and give their customers styles that went beyond the closely cropped cuts that seemed to once have been a standard, becoming very popular also with school boys. Bugs Bunny might also have started a small wave in naming Malay barber shops after popular cartoon characters – another that I later frequented in Ang Mo Kio was named Pink Panther.

Some of the inside (which was recently renovated) still looks the same … the barber chairs are the same ones the shop started with in 1971.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that a few of the barbers at Bugs Bunny are ones that were there since it earliest days – while business had tapered off over recent years, especially with the preference for more upmarket salons and also with the arrival of the Japanese style barber chains, there was still a steady enough stream of customers during the Sunday. At the urging of some of my friends, I decided to have a haircut and I soon found myself stepping into a world that I had not seen since 1976 – when I had moved out of Toa Payoh. As I sat on the barber’s chair once again … chairs which I was told were the same ones from the shop’s early days, I became quickly immersed in a world I had once familiar with, the smell of talcum powder bringing back not just memories of a shop which even with its recent makeover, still seems very much the same, but also of the other barber shops of my childhood. Talcum powder is generously applied especially so in Indian barber shops, thinking about which brought back memories of staring into the wall to wall mirrors both in front an at the back, reflecting reflections that seem to be reflected an infinite number of times … and in those reflections is a world that for much too long, had been one that was lost to me.

A world that for too long has been lost to me.


The area around Toa Payoh Library 37 years ago

23 11 2010

Taking a walk back with the Toa Payoh Library to the beginnings of Toa Payoh as a planned satellite town, I was able to explore some of the “newer” additions in the early days of Toa Payoh as a HDB estate. Of these additions, we have of course the Library building itself, and the open space in front of the Library which had incidentally a significant part to play in the history of Toa Payoh as well as having some buildings of significance around it.

The Toa Payoh Library and the open area in front of it as seen today.

The library itself – although it wasn’t opened yet (it opened in early 1974), was the location of a momentous event in Singapore’s sporting history – it was where the Games Village built to house athletes from seven participating countries for the very first mass sporting event that Singapore held, the 7th South East Asian Peninsula Games (SEAP Games), was officially opened by the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee in a ceremony held on 30 August 1973. Looking at the picture of the library in the early days, one is able to count eight flag poles – one to fly each of the participating nations’ flags as well as the Games flag. To house the athletes, four 24 storey point blocks with 346 four room units were built in Toa Payoh Central, each unit housing six athletes in three bedrooms. These units were later sold to members of the public through a balloting exercise, fully renovated and furnished – the first ever HDB flats to be sold that way, at a cost of S$19,000 for the flat and another S$1,700 for the furnishings. One of the point blocks, Block 179, is just next to the library and was in fact also the second VIP block in Toa Payoh, taking over from Block 53 where I had lived in.

The library building soon after completion with the 8 flag poles in front of it. It was where the opening ceremony of the 7th SEAP Games Village was held on 30 Aug 1973 (photo courtesy of the NLB).

Dr. Goh Keng Swee cutting a cake during the opening ceremony for the Games Village (source: The Straits Times, 31 Aug 1973).

Block 179, one of the four 24 storey four room point blocks built to house athletes during the 7th SEAP Games in 1973 and was also the second VIP block in Toa Payoh.

Toa Payoh besides hosting the 7th SEAP Games Village, was also a town of many firsts, as I had mentioned in a previous post. Among the ‘firsts’ was also the first ever fully air-conditioned POSB Bank branch – located at the corner of Block 178 – again just by where the library is (a Bata shoe store now occupies the units which the bank occupied).

The Bata store now at the corner of Block 178 occupies the units which housed the first ever POSB Bank branch to be fully air-conditioned.

In the same area across the open space from Block 179 is another building which is significant in Toa Payoh’s history – the building that housed Kong Chian Cinema – Toa Payoh’s first ever cinema, which opened on 11 May 1972 with the screening of a Charity Premier ‘The Loner’ for the nearby Chung Hwa Free Hospital. Now called 600@Toa Payoh, the building housed a single screen cinema with two classes of seating, which was very typical of the day – where tickets were printed on coloured pieces of paper on which seat numbers were scribbled onto by a box office clerk with Chinagraph. The cinema screened mainly Chinese films for close to fifteen years until it screened its last movie, ‘The Legend of Wisely’ on 31 January 1987 after which the building was sold to McDonalds.

Now 600@Toa Payoh, the building was where Toa Payoh's first cinema, Kong Chian, was housed from 1972 to 1987.

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.