Of neighbourhoods past and present

Gosh. I can’t remember the last time I attempted creative writing. I wrote this 1,500 word piece for poskod.sg, based on my field research for the book ‘A House is not a Home’. I tried to adapt the writing style to fit the online magazine – a personal and prosaic style. I still think my writing style is rather stilted, but this can only improve with more practice. Once I got started, the creative juice started flowing, and I managed to finish the article steadily. I hope the magazine editors will choose to publish it! Here is my submitted draft reproduced in full:-

So it was through a series of fortuitous events that I found myself recently at various local neighbourhoods, various residential spaces that when seen as a whole, reflected a sense of how the typical neighbourhood in Singapore has evolved over time. A deliberate visit to the last kampung in Singapore at Lorong Buangkok and some incidental walks around the Toa Payoh HDB estate and The Pinnacle@Duxton constituted my informal exploration of these neighbourhoods, with each location representing chronological milestones in Singapore’s housing story. I was struck at how different my personal experience of each place was, reflecting what would perhaps be the different spirit or feel of each neighbourhood, namely that of a kampung, a mature HDB housing estate and a newly acclaimed pinnacle of HDB housing (pun intended). Kampongs were the main form of housing in pre-1960 HDB, with a subsequent trend of moving towards high rise and densely populated living. As I walked, I would imagine what it was like living there.

man at Kampong Lorong Buangkok

man at Kampong Lorong Buangkok

Upon arriving at Lorong Buangkok, the meandering dirt path leading up to the zinc and wooden squat houses was a refreshing sight as a simple throwback to the past. It represented something incongruous in a present day Singapore obsessed with deliberate and meticulous planning, where grid like cemented pavements ordered pedestrian traffic. Walking past the first few houses which seemed rather empty and unoccupied, my friend and I came to a rather prominent looking house which seemed to be the biggest as well. There was a big and neatly kept porch behind a big gate.  An elderly singlet clad man appeared from a neighbouring house and greeted us. He introduced himself as the brother of the landlord of the kampong and began telling us a bit about the kampong. According to him, the younger people have moved out to the HDB estates, and what was left are the original inhabitants who are mostly middle-aged or older. Each house pays only a few dollars of rent each month. After a few minutes, the landlady herself appeared at the porch and started to get her bicycle. She saw us and greeted us in Mandarin, and then promised to be back after feeding the dogs around the kampong on her bicycle. As if on cue, a scruffy looking and rather large dog ambled into view from an adjoining alley and laid down along the main street, waiting patiently.

The landlady told us about how the the kampong residents have known one another since young and grew up together, learning one another’s languages, and attending funerals, weddings and cultural festivities at one another’s homes. Even the animals are shared, sometimes moving from one owner to another, or are adopted by the whole community at large and roam freely. Gesturing at the HDB blocks just beyond the thin perimeter of foliage ringing the kampong, she acknowledged that the kampong’s days are numbered, as the land is leasehold, which means that the government has the right to reclaim the land anytime and relocate the residents elsewhere.

lady at Toa Payoh void deck

lady at Toa Payoh void deck

Exiting from Toa Payoh MRT station, one immediately emerges at the town centre, with a large public atrium surrounded by shops, eateries, amenities, and services, and the attendant hustle and bustle of commuters and residents running about their errands. The headquarters of the HDB, the HDB Hub, is also located here, together with the HDB Gallery which showcases the public housing story as one of triumph, national pride and necessity, requiring meticulous detail and planning. One of the exhibits enthuses the possibility of using media technology to help residents interact via virtual pods. On one facade of the town centre building, I could not help noticing four bank signboards, outnumbering that of a bookshop and supermarket.

Within a stone’s throw away are some of Singapore’ oldest  12-storey HDB flats. At one of the void decks near the MRT, there is a bunch of elderly folk sitting quietly at the void decks. They are sitting at intervals apart and staring blankly into their surroundings. I remember this one lady who would always occupy a particular stone seat, dragging slowly on her cigarette. At another void deck, there is a gaggle of old men playing chinese chess on the bare cement floor. They are enthusiastic about their game and behave like little children, clapping and shouting with excitement. There are holes on their shirts, on their shoes. A few of them have amputated limbs or deformed fingers and toes, and I wonder if they could afford medical treatment. Upon speaking with them, I learn that they have been staying at Toa Payoh for decades, and most of them were relocated from the same kampong when the government staked out the land.

There are signs at the void decks prohibiting rollerblading, skating, cycling, soccer, littering, and parking of bicycles. Around the area, there are few children. I came across a single forlorn looking playground, and it was cordoned off for renovations. The kopitiams are crowded though, and so is the MacDonalds where the youths hang out. The community centre was not crowded on weekends, but there were a few residents reading the newspapers at reading tables.

man at The Pinnacle

man at The Pinnacle

A sense of monumentality pervades the whole structure of the Pinnacle. It towers over you and crowds out the surrounding buildings. It casts a black imposing shadow against the sky when one looks up. The entrance staircases on the sides of the building encompass you like a foreign dignitary as one walks up due to their magnanimous girth. The exterior is mostly black, white and grey, adding an air of solemnity and elegant sophistication. There are no void decks at this new HDB version. Instead, there is the environment deck on the third floor, above the carparks, a landscaped park with pavilions, basketball courts, playgrounds, and sheltered walkways.

A group of youths are playing on the basketball courts. There is a family or two at the playground. When I approached them, they revealed that they are not residents at The Pinnacle. A pair of grandparents are accompanying their grandson on a toy bike along the sheltered walkways. They moved in two years ago from their previous HDB flat. They find the environment pleasant although they do not know as many neighbours as they did at their previous residence. A pair of teenagers are chatting merrily and studying at the same time at one of the pavilions. They are also not residents here, but from neighbouring HDB blocks. On the environment deck, one cannot miss the HDB Heritage garden, with paeans to the achievements of HDB and contextualising The Pinnacle as a shining beacon and material symbol of Singapore’s economic success. There are a few metal drums here and there with smoldering ashes of paper offerings, evidence that traditions and ritualistic beliefs are still alive in a small way in such a modern setting.

Entering the building, there are areas near the lifts where the sheer verticality of the building hits you when you peer up the skywell. Amidst the enclosed surroundings illuminated by pale artificial light, the sun peers down as a pinpoint of blinding light from above. Riding up the lift to a random floor, I find that there are four units to each lift landing. There is no common corridor, unlike the conventional HDB flat. The units are right beside the lift. Riding all the way to the 50th storey, the skydeck offers an awe inspiring 360 degree view from all sides, as it stretches across all seven blocks. One can see almost the whole island of Singapore, especially with the aid of the installed binoculars. The sunrise and sunset there can be breathtaking.

The Duxton Plain park next to The Pinnacle is a small long strip of walkways, exercise corners and underground passageway. The park is uncharacteristically chaotic in its design, unlike conventional parks in Singapore. There are different elevations and hidden nooks and corners about, leading to delightful expected surprises. It looks rather old, and leaves the impression of being a leftover or remnant space rather than a designed space. Sitting here for an afternoon hour gives you an idea of what a mix of people Singapore really has, as one can spot Filipino domestic workers, Malay teenagers on their skateboards, residents from surrounding HDB flats, foreign yuppies with their children, Caucasian Buddhist monks and so on.

 

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With the inevitable trend towards high rise living, one wonders how the challenges of space can be met to accommodate the important social and communal well-being of its residents. While the laidback life and strong community spirit of the kampong is a nostalgic and subliminal part of our consciousness, one must be reminded that the social spaces at which one comes to know and interact with one’s neighbours can be found at the most unexpected of places in every urban setting.

 

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About me: Loh Jian Hui has many interests, including architectural, culture and heritage issues. He likes to read and explore places. He lives in Yishun.

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