A mosaic from my childhood

19 07 2012

I very recently set foot in a flat that had once been my childhood home, one that holds not just the memories of my formative years, but also of the wonderful moments of what had been a very eventful childhood. The flat in Toa Payoh, is one that I have not been in since I moved out to another in Ang Mo Kio some three and a half decades ago and although I have visited the block of flats several times in more recent years, I never did summon the courage to knock on its door – a door, just like the gate that protects it and the common corridor facing windows next to it, is the same one that I had left behind. Plus, it did look as if it wasn’t occupied.

The bedrooms’ mosaic flooring – unchanged since the time my parents put it in when we first moved in some 45 years ago … a mosaic which holds many memories of my childhood.

The opportunity to revisit the flat came by way of a message on my mobile. A Mediacorp Channel 8 team producing a variety show that is currently being aired on local television, United Neighbours Society, with whom I had been in touch with over the use of old photographs, asked if I could be interviewed at the flat. The flat was one of two which HM Queen Elizabeth II took a look at during a visit to Singapore in 1972 – a visit the team were keen to include in the Toa Payoh episode of the show, each episode of which is set in a different residential estate in Singapore and includes snippets of the particular estate’s past. An opportunity that I never thought would come to see my childhood home again had presented itself and I had to agree, which I did without much hesitation. With the current owner of the flat kindly agreeing to have his flat filmed, I soon found myself stepping through a doorway I had last stepped through in 1976.

Shaking hands with the Queen. The visit of the Queen to the flat in 1972 was one of the highlights of a wonderful childhood.

It’s hard to describe how I felt stepping into the flat … a surge of varying emotions went through me. Although furnished very differently from when I had lived in it, there was more that was familiar than that wasn’t familiar. One of the first things that struck me was how much hadn’t changed. One was the green terrazzo flooring that my parents had put in – in anticipation of the Queen’s visit, complete with the radiused light green skirting which I at that instance remembered I used to push my model die-cast cars along and against.

The front door and gate in 1968.

The ceiling was still the old familiar ceiling – just a little worn with age, as were the front grilles and the kitchen cabinets with the same Formica lining … Right at the back of the kitchen area is probably where most of the changes to the flat had be made. I could see the obvious signs of the upgrading work that the block of flats has since undergone – upgrading work which regretfully altered the clean façade of the block, and took away the rooftop viewing gallery and the wonderful open spaces below the block. The windows and grilles had been replaced and the bathroom and WC (in two separate rooms as it common to see in those days) had been modernised. I looked up – I had forgotten how high the ceiling at the back was – the space right at the back of the kitchen had when the flat was in its original condition been a service balcony – separated by a wall with a door and louvered windows. My parents had the wall removed and windows installed at the balcony which then became an extension to the kitchen.

Setting foot into a flat that once had been my childhood home brought with it a flood not just of the memories it contains, but also a surge of emotions in me.

The kitchen is one that holds many special memories. Memories that came flooding back to me as I surveyed the kitchen included the many occasions when I helped my mother with her baking –making pineapple tarts which she always made for Christmas and Chinese New Year. This was something I always looked forward to – I was particularly fond of using the pastry cutter which included a wooden block that fit into the metal shell that acted as the cutter to mould the little recess in which the filling went into. The filling would then already have been prepared – a tedious task that involved grating pineapples and cooking and then draining the filling before it was ready to be used. Another thing I enjoyed was cutting the little strips of left over pastry, forming then into shapes and letters and placing them on top of the filling before the tarts were baked in the oven.

The kitchen seen during the Queen’s visit.

Another memory that came back to me of the kitchen is one of the days that preceded the dumpling festival. It was in the space by the entrance from the hall – a spot where for a while my father had placed his fish tank, where a bamboo pole would be laid across two chairs from which lengths of bamboo twine was suspended. It was where we sat on low stools to pack the dumplings – glutinous rice with a filling of pork spiced in the Peranakan style with a peeled chestnut added wrapped in a bamboo leaf in the shape of a tree sided pyramid, which could then be secured using the bamboo twine before we put them in the steamer.

The Queen admiring my father’s fish tank. The area of the kitchen was where we prepared dumplings.

Stepping into the bedroom, the one that was separated from the common corridor by a wall with the same two panels of louvered windows still there which we normally kept closed, brought back many memories as well – many bittersweet. The bedroom, still with the same blue and white mosaic flooring that was put in when we first moved in, was one which I shared with my late maternal grandmother, one in which I have my happiest memories of my interactions with her. She had a high metal framed bed fitted with four posts and an upper frame on which she fitted a mosquito net or kelambu as she had referred to it, on the side of the room away from the doorway. It was from her bed that she related the many stories I heard of her life and from her. It was also on her bed where she would apply when seemed then like her cure-all – Minyak Kayu Putih as she called it – Eucalyptus oil to my stomach area whenever I had experienced a stomach ache.

Windows and grilles which had been unchanged for 45 years – on the windows of the hall and the bedroom which I had used.

The room with its original door and windows also intact, somehow looked a lot smaller than it appeared to me as a child. Standing there, it was hard to imagine how we had fitted a metal framed double-decker bed, the lower bunk of which I had used, on the other side, as well as my grandmother’s old style cabinet cum dresser and another cupboard at the doorway end and an altar (which once caught fire) in the top corner above my grandmother’s cupboard. Staring at the flooring – there seemed to be a lot more memories – many which are personal, which seemed to be held in the repeated patterns that the blue and white tiles form, that came back … some bringing a tear to my eye.

Playing in the hall … the mosaic flooring that my parents had originally fitted can be seen – the same one which still exists in the bedrooms.

The very pleasant gentleman that now owns the unit, is the same one who had bought the flat over from the HDB after we had moved (rules then did not allow HDB flats to be traded on the open market). I did have a photograph of him taken with me after filming was completed, as I did take a few photographs of the flat with his kind permission – out of respect for the owner’s privacy I will not post the photographs except the ones which do not reveal too much. I took the opportunity to also have a chat with him and one of the things that I did learn from him was that the lady who went door-to-door selling bubur pulut hitam (a dessert of black glutinous rice served with a topping coconut milk) – a fond memory I have of my days in Toa Payoh (I would always look forward to her coming), still does it. He says that she must now be at least in her 80s …

The kitchen and the cabinets which are still there seen during Sir William Goode’s visit in September 1972.

The time soon came when I had to say goodbye to my childhood home once again. Although it was with some reluctance, I did leave also with a sense of contentment. It wasn’t just one that comes with the comfort of seeing a place that I was emotionally attached to as a child and one that has retained many physical reminders of the world I was familiar with, but also one that comes with the many hidden memories that my visit to the flat has awakened in me.





A journey through time: a heritage trail through Toa Payoh

7 10 2010

A journey through time

A heritage trail through Toa Payoh organised with the National Library Board

Take a walk back in time to the Toa Payoh that I grew up in, a Toa Payoh that was taking its first steps as the first planned satellite town. The route will pass through a mix of residential and commercial properties that had existed in its early days as well as the public and communal facilities which included a hospital and a girls’ home. The journey would also go back to the Toa Payoh that was the village that hosted athletes for the very first international mass sporting event held in independent Singapore in 1973 and the block of flats that hosted HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. More information on the walk can be found at the end of this post


The Toa Payoh that I grew up in …

The Toa Payoh that I grew up in at the back end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s was perhaps one that was looked at very differently from the way it is looked at now. Over the 40 years since its start as a new satellite town that rose from what was a swampy area – the first planned town and the first that was built following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, it has evolved from being one that was a public housing exercise to house the burgeoning population of the new nation whose population consisted of young families as well as the many that were resettled from the kampongs that were being clear to make way for the Singapore we see today, to a much sought after residential district with a mix of private and public housing, due to its proximity to the city.

Toa Payoh back then was a very interesting place for a young child to grow up in … it was where new HDB residents were still coming to terms with living in high density and high rise blocks of flats and where the transformation of the heartlands was taking place to what we see today. Back then, it was common to see vegetables being planted on plots behind ground floor units as well as chickens running around, hawkers on push-carts as well as those who went door-to-door balancing their wares at the two ends of a wooden stick or on the top of their heads, much as it might have been in the old kampongs many of the residents came from.

Life for many revolved around the amenities that the new town provided, there were the markets, shops, banks, clinics and food stalls that catered to the day-to-day needs, new schools built to cope with the large population of children of school-going age, new factories that provided work for many who lived there, as well as the many places of worship that were constructed that catered to the spiritual needs of the residents. The areas around the markets were particularly lively – especially in the mornings when residents shopped for their market produce on a daily basis – a practice that was prevalent in the pre-refrigerator age of the kampongs. Around the markets there would not just be the shops and food stalls that would be opened early to catch the market crowd, but also many itinerant vendors – many of whom were Nepali – displaying their wares: leather belts and wallets; trinkets; cigarette lighters; and many other little items on mats that they laid on the ground. The whole area would be bustling with people, some seated on the tables and chairs laid around the periphery of the markets feasting on a breakfast of fishball noodles, kway chap, chee cheong fun, or chai tow kway. The benches laid around the open spaces would be filled with elderly men, dressed as they would have back then in unbuttoned shirts exposing their undershirts or singlets they wore under the shirts. Some would have their undershirts rolled up as they sipped black coffee poured into the saucer to accelerate cooling of the steaming hot beverage.

In those days, the black and white television set might have been on of the few things that occupied our evenings, the pasar malam, the arrival of a travelling Chinese Opera (Wayang) troupe, along with the entourage of hawkers and vendors that accompanied it, or the trade fairs and their games stalls that were a common thing back then, was always seen as a treat. It was when we had a chance to troll the streets and plots of land which came to live each evening, coloured by the incandescent glow of lights, the smell of corn or peanuts steaming and the sounds of generators in the background that rose above the din of hawkers promoting their fare and the shrill cries that came from the wayang stage. Once in a while, we would have a bonus in a travelling circus coming to town – the Royal Circus of India being a regular visitor – and the tents and caravans would occupy the open piece of land part of which the Esso Station at the corner of Lorong 4 and 5 sits on now, or the one which the Police Station now occupies.

Take a journey back in time to the Toa Payoh of the late 1960s and early 1970s ...

Toa Payoh besides being the first planned satellite town, was a place where there were many other firsts as well. It was where the first purpose built VIP block – used to showcase the very successful public housing experiment that Toa Payoh was, was erected by the HDB, complete with a viewing gallery on the roof. The block played host to the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 as well as a host of both local and foreign dignitaries including Sir William Goode, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara who also served as a Governor General of the colony of Singapore, and President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President. Other firsts include it hosting the games village for the first major international mass sporting event that Singapore hosted in 1973, as well as having the very first NTUC supermarket – started as a cooperative named “NTUC Welcome” in 1973, and the first fully air-conditioned POSB Bank in Singapore. Toa Payoh also has the distinction of being the first (and probably only) town in Singapore that was built without traffic lights – large traffic roundabouts were used to regulate traffic instead – certainly something that would be feasible in the Singapore that we know today. That was the Toa Payoh that I spent a significant part of my childhood in, one that I had many wonderful experiences growing up in, and one that also hid some lesser explored places such as the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home and the Toa Payoh Hospital, and one that I can certainly journey back in time to.



A Journey Through Time

Saturday, 20 Nov, 10.30am – 12.30pm

Toa Payoh Library

To register (registration has already closed), log on to http://golibrary.nlb.gov.sg and surf on to Heritage. This session is limited to 30 participants only. Participants are advised to wear comfortable attire and walking shoes for this trail. Do also remember to bring umbrella and some drinks. Feel free to bring your cameras and start clicking!






Going up 40 years back in time …

29 09 2010

It’s nice sometimes to discover that, what you have thought might have been consigned to memory, has somehow remained right where it had been. I made such a discoveryon a journey back in time, to the place where I had grown up in – Block 53 in Toa Payoh. It was during this visit to my “kampung” that I was pleasantly surprised, to see that the front door (and gate) through which I had spent many hours staring out at a world beyond the confines of the three room flat that I had lived in, is still right where it had been, albeit a little worse for wear induced by the passage of time.

The Front Door, 1968

The very last time I had seen the pair was way back in 1976, some 33 going on 34 years ago when I moved. I had, despite having for long intending to, not ventured to old place, one that holds a wonderful collection of some of my fondest memories, until I decided to have a look around on Sunday. I did this partly to help in the recollection of memories I have of Toa Payoh in preparation for a trail of Toa Payoh that I am working on with the National Library Board, and partly to satisfy a desire to go back in time, stirred by walks that I had been taking of late around what had once been my hometown.

The front door and gate today ... still there after all these years!

There had been many occasions during which I had strayed into the area where the block of flats is … walking past the empty void decks of Blocks 54 and 55 that once held the banks and shops that I had once frequented –  a huge gaping void where I had once bought the loaf of bread from a lady who opened a foldable table on which she would slice the fresh bread that arrived straight from the nearby bakery each evening; where the smell of rubber and grease emanated from the old bicycle shop where I had the tyres of my bicycle inflated; and the old provision shops from which I got my supply of ice lollies from. The huge open space which held the expansive playground where I had countless hours of enjoyment at around which there had been an elliptical red brick path on which I had fallen many times whilst learning to ride a bicycle is also gone, replaced with the clutter that somehow seems to accompany the upgrading of the older estates. The faces of the block of flats had also been altered, once again disfigured by seemingly useless additions that only seem to add to the clutter of the surroundings.

Bicycles lined up along a row where a bicycle shop and other shops had once been ...

Where there had once been shops and where a crowd had once gathered to greet the British Royal family ... now is an empty void ...

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne amongst the crowds in 1972 in front of Block 54 - the shops below the block of flats can be seen in the background.

A cluttered space where that had once been the open space of the expansive playground ...

With all the changes that seem to have altered the entire area, I did not expect to see much that would be familiar. I suppose that was partly due to the fact that I did not want to be disappointed by the foray to the corridors around which I had spent a very eventful childhood in. Making my way up what is now one of four lifts that serve the block of flats (back when I was living there, we only had two … one that went right up to the top, with an intermediate stop at a lower floor and another that only went up to the tenth or eleventh floor), I noticed that the lift cabins were provided a much more positive experience than the dark, slow and claustrophobic ones that I had once had a moment of horror in (I had been in one that stopped momentarily during which time it was pitch black – the lights having gone out) – although it had been only for a few minutes. Reaching the top floor where I had lived at, everything appeared a lot smaller than I had imagined it to be: the corridor around what was the circular core which held the lift shaft and a ventral stairwell around which I had kicked plastic balls with neighbours and where I had played games such as Police and Thief, and Cowboys and Indians looked a lot narrower, seemingly a little to small for us to have played our games on. There was also the central staircase, which again looked smaller in scale. I had used the landings of the flight that led up to the roof on which to build fortifications out of cardboard boxes. From the relative safety provided by the fortifications, I would fire paper bullets in a game of Cowboys and Indians – while that is still there, the locked iron gate that led to what had been the viewing gallery has since been replaced by a wooden door.

The four lifts serving the block are much improved from the two that had served the block I had once had a moment of horror in.

The cabins of the lifts are now a lot less claustrophobic than they were ...

Somehow, everything seems to be smaller in scale than I had imagined ... even the wide circular corridor around the central lift shafts and stairwell ...

The landing at the top of the flight of stairs leading up to the roof on which I often built a fortification of cardboard boxes behind which I would fire paper bullets whilst playing a game of Cowboys and Indians.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh.

Besides the familiar front door and the gate of the flat that I had once lived in (the door still has the letter slots through which the post man who went door-to-door would deliver letters in the days before letter boxes were installed on the ground floor), there were a few others that were familiar. There were the grills against the parapet which many, not used to looking down from heights, dared not go near to in the early days (those were days when we were still getting accustomed to living high above the ground); and school shoes drying in the sun below one of the grills – a very common sight back when I was growing up …

Grills in the parapet that some dared not get close to in the early days ...

School shoes drying in the sun were a common sight back when I lived in the block of flats ...

Looking beyond the grills and over the parapet … I realised how much the face of Toa Payoh has changed … what had started as a mix of one, two and three room HDB flats, shops and market areas and some light industrial properties interspersed amongst the blocks of flats in what had been Singapore’s first planned satellite town is now a mix of first generation blocks of HDB flats (mostly three room flats that still stand), with the newer and taller blocks of HDB flats as well as blocks of private flats: condominiums that have come up in place of the blocks that have since been torn down. It is amazing how in the space of half a lifetime, Toa Payoh has been transformed from a public housing experiment built over what had once been an unusable swamp to house the burgeoning population of a newly independent Singapore, into a neighbourhood that is much sought after by an upwardly mobile middle class population. For me however, it is still somehow that Toa Payoh that I knew, one that from time to time, whenever I am feeling a little nostalgic, I am still able to take a walk down memory lane to … and to be fascinated with in the same way I had been as a child growing up in the Toa Payoh of the early days.

What had started as a public housing project to house a burgeoning population of the newly independent Singapore, Toa Payoh is now a mix of public and private housing that is much sought after by middle class Singaporeans.

A once uncluttered view that extended all the way to Kallang basin is now cluttered with the newer and taller housing units that have replaced some of the older units in the housing estates that now dominate the landscape of Singapore's Heartlands.





Psst … guess who dropped in today?

28 01 2010

When I was growing up in Toa Payoh, my family had the privilege of receiving some rather important visitors to our humble 3-room flat. We were living on the top floor of a block of flats that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) built intentionally with a viewing gallery on the roof to provide visiting dignitaries with a vantage point from which the latest public housing project, Toa Payoh New Town, the pride of the HDB’s resoundingly successful public housing programme, could be better appreciated. This, together with the advantage that both my parents had, that given the general view that being teachers, they would have a better command of English than our neighbours on the same floor would have, and living in the flat that closest to the lift landing, had its benefits: the HDB would usually have our flat in mind when there was a need to provide the dignitaries with a view of how the typical dwelling looked like.

So it was with that, that we received out first VIP visitors not long after moving in, in June 1968 – John Gorton, the then Prime Minister of Australia and his family. I guess I was too young to really understand what the fuss was all about and all I can really remember is that towering hulk of a man from Australia who had come by and had given me with a gold-coloured tie-pin which had a figure of a kangaroo on it. I also remember that following the visit, I had somehow developed the fascination that I had with kangaroos as a child.

Photograph and newspaper cutting of John Gorton's Visit, June 1968

The most notable visitor we had was none other than HM Queen Elizabeth II, who dropped in on the afternoon of 18 February 1972. It was an occasion that deserved quite a fair bit of preparation, and there were several interviews and briefings before on areas such as security and protocol. It was for us an occasion that called for a makeover to be given to the flat. My parents had the flat renovated and terrazzo tiles tinged with green, white and black replaced our original black and white mosaic flooring. Outside, the area below the block of flats had been spruced up by the HDB for the occasion – pots of flowering plants lined the area where the Queen’s car would be driven up to, as well as the corridor leading up to the lift and the lift landing on the top floor. The block of flats had also had in the meantime, been given a fresh coat of paint. The lift cabin was done up very nicely as well, which was a welcome change from the rather tired and dirty looking interior it wore after five years of service.

It was an occasion that I had kept from my classmates in school – not that I would be missed. The schoolboys in the afternoon session, which I was in, were to be distracted, having been tasked to line the sides of Thomson Road to wave flags, where the motorcade that was to carry the Queen was to pass that afternoon. I was certainly happy for the opportunity to skip school, but maybe a little disappointed that I would not get my hands on the miniature Union Jacks my classmate were to be given – a favourite flag of mine back then.

When the Queen finally arrived at our flat that afternoon, I was caught somewhat unawares. I had decided to sit down before she arrived and while daydreaming – which I was fond of doing, Her Majesty had appeared at the doorway, and I was seen on the evening’s news scrambling to my feet!

Scrambling to my feet at the arrival of the Queen.

Shaking hands with the Queen.

HRH Princess Anne during the visit.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

One thing I avoided doing immediately after the visit was to wash my hands. A neighbour had told me that I shouldn’t wash my hands that day, as I would wash my luck away, having shaken hands with the Queen. The Queen also made her way to the block of flats behind, where she had visited the flat of another family. A neighbour from the 17th floor, Ranu, related how there were crowds of people who gathered in the car park separating the two blocks of flats, hoping for a glance at the Queen, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne. Ranu also related how she had shouted “Long Live the Queen” at the top of her voice, along with the crowds.

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne among the crowds

Going to school the following day, the driver of the minibus I took to school, was quick to shake my hand having witnessed the events on TV the previous evening – he had wanted to shake the hand of someone who had shaken hands with the Queen. I remember him saying to me: “no wonder you ponteng school lah”, ponteng being a colloquial word used to describe playing truant, from the Malay word meaning the same.

Somehow, from the evidence of the photographs I have, the kitchen seemed to be the focal point of the visitors, perhaps because it was probably the most spacious part of the flat – unlike the kitchens of HDB flats that were built later, or perhaps it was because of the excellent view we had looking south towards the Kallang area, being on what was the tallest block of flats around.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The kitchen during Sir William Goode's visit - the man on the extreme left is the late Teh Cheang Wan, the then Chairman of the HDB, who later served as the Minister of National Development.

Over the few years until 1973, when a new and taller “VIP block” was built in Toa Payoh Central, part of housing built to initially house athletes participating in the 7th South-East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games (which Singapore hosted for the first time that year) before being sold to the public, we saw a few other notable visitors. The visitors included President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President, as well as Sir Willaim Goode, a former Governor General of the colony of Singapore who served as the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore when Singapore was granted self-government in 1959.

President Sheares saying hello to my sister, June 1971