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A Farewell to Commonwealth Drive

Posted on 13/10/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation
(Nicky Loh)

The brown-and-beige blocks stand solid but empty, the first and second floor stairwells locked to deter potential marauders. The seven blocks – numbered seventy-four to eighty and known collectively as ‘Zhup Lao’, meaning ‘ten storeys’ in Hokkien ­– form one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates. They now stand ready for demolition, possibly by the end of the year.

Chua Thiam Seng shuffles through this abandoned cityscape towards his neat piles of cardboard and aluminium cans. Once in a while, he pays someone to take them to the recycling depot for sale. After paying the driver, he earns about seven cents for a kilogram of cardboard. For the cans, it’s about $1.40 per kilo.

The sixty-two year-old has been a karang guni, or a rag and bone man, for over twenty years. He can’t recall the exact date he moved in, but for at least thirty years he has lived in Block 74 on Commonwealth Drive in the old central-western housing estate of Queenstown. He is now the last man standing in this ghost town, his cardboard and cans spread across a corner of the cordoned off car park.

“There was an old lady at Block 79 earlier this year. Everyone else had already moved out but she refused; I think she couldn’t bear to go,” he tells me in Mandarin, gesturing towards one of the blocks at the far end of the lot. “In the end they had to get the police to come get her to move.”

Mr Chua with his collections (Kirsten Han)

Having won the geographical lottery, its deep waters and key position on an important trade route made Singapore a well-known city port. After the British East India Company arrived in 1819, it became the region’s trading centre, and has become more and more so since.

A constant bustle of industry, trade and economic growth has ensured that Singapore is accustomed to change. Its land area has gone from 581.5 square kilometres in 1965 to 718.3 square kilometres, as a result of continual land reclamation that has literally changed the shape of the nation. Skyscrapers and steel-and-glass malls have sprung up at speed, transforming both the city centre and what we call the ‘heartlands’, where many Singaporeans live. Near the civic district Singaporeans eat, drink and shop in malls where once there was sea. Beach Road is no longer near a beach; it has moved further and further inland.

Singapore’s economic success has done much for the island and its inhabitants. The standard of living has risen for most people, and Singaporeans never lose an opportunity to boast about how safe the city is. Yet society also bears the strains of perpetual redevelopment in this changing urban landscape.

Lim Ang Ah in her provision shop (Nicky Loh)

Very sayang – the changing face of Queenstown 

Fifty years after Singapore’s independence, major change is now coming to Commonwealth Drive and the larger Queenstown area. Apart from the 669 families of Zhup Lao, over 3,400 flats will be affected by a massive renewal project. Market and hawker stalls, shops and eating-houses will also be required to move out or close up.

Mr Chua accompanies me on a walk around the neighbourhood. Sipping sugar cane juice, we stop before Kian Seng, an old-school provision shop across the street from Zhup Lao. Its shelves are lined with tinned food and biscuits in plastic containers. A very well-fed cat snoozes in a cardboard box.

Lim Ang Ah has been proprietor of Kian Seng for the past forty-six years, catering to the needs of residents and the sugar cravings of schoolchildren. Her store has been such a presence in the neighbourhood that it’s featured on a nearby marker for a heritage trail. Lim says she’s often seen guided tour groups dropping by her shop on the weekends.

Yet acknowledgement of historical significance and inclusion in a state-supported history tour is no guarantee of survival when it comes to the government’s master plan for the country. Talking to the organisers of the heritage project I learn that when the estates are demolished, the markers will be held in storage, and potentially re-erected once work in the area is complete, in memory of local history that made way for progress.

“I think we have another nine years left,” says Lim. She might take the coming change as a sign to wind up her business and go into retirement.

Her decision has been helped along by the opening of Sheng Siong – a low-cost supermarket chain – right under the blocks of new flats five minutes away. These large businesses, with their ability to buy stock in bulk and spread their expenses across multiple outlets, have made it difficult for small mom-and-pop shops like Kian Seng to compete. “Of course it’s very sayang (a great pity), but it’s about work – how can we survive?” she asks.

She pulls a small pack of biscuits out of a plastic container. “I sell this for $2 a pack,” she says. “My rent is $2,500 a month. How much longer can we go on?”

Mr Chua on Commonwealth Drive (Kirsten Han)

Mr Chua and I wander through the empty common spaces of Zhup Lao as he describes old scenes to me. “There used to be factories around here, so a lot of the people who lived here were workers,” he said. “There were many shops and also a kindergarten.” He points at a row of dilapidated shutters. “This used to be a coffee shop, and everyone would sit and drink and chat.” The coffee shop owners also chose to wind up rather than move.

Towering over all seven blocks are the new public housing flats, white and grey structures with sheltered walkways and a multi-storey car park attached. This is where the Zhup Lao residents have been relocated.

It’s a good-looking estate; modern and well-equipped, offering residents a fresh 99-year lease on their homes. Unlike the five-decades-old Zhup Lao, the lifts not only work, but stop on every floor. The food court and supermarket on the ground floor might have undermined small business owners, but are undeniably convenient for residents.

Mr Chua now lives in a four-room flat on the 25th floor of a 40-storey tower block. He expects his mother, currently living with another sibling, to move in with him.

He says he’s all right with his new accommodation, but there’s one thing that bothers him. “There are too many corners,” he says, pointing at his new block.

Zhup Lao had been built with common corridors; returning to one’s flat involved walking past neighbours’ homes. People often kept their doors and windows open, meaning that greetings and conversation could easily be exchanged.

The new generation of public housing blocks don’t follow this configuration. Instead, lifts bring people straight to their floor, where they can quickly access their flat without having to pass any of their neighbours. As Mr Chua says, everyone has a corner.

Common spaces, too, have changed. The ground floors of Zhup Lao were either taken up by shops or empty communal spaces known as void decks, allowing residents to gather and children to play. But void decks in the new generation of public flats have become more segmented, the empty spaces broken up and sectioned off by pillars.

“Now privacy has come at the cost of neighbourly relations,” says Dr Lai Chee Kien, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. “It breeds a mindset where people start to think of public areas as liabilities. That’s when they object to childcare centres or senior citizen corners being built in the void deck below their flats, even though these are social facilities.”

This change in housing design can arguably undermine efforts to foster the much-coveted kampong spirit, which refers to the camaraderie and communal atmosphere that was characteristic of the old villages and urban slum areas. While older Singaporeans can still remember the organic sense of gotong royong, or mutual aid, life in Singapore today has become more about work, keeping up with material trends and retreating to one’s own private space.

Preserving Dakota Crescent

Dakota Crescent (Kirsten Han)

Zhup Lao is not the only estate counting down to the wrecking ball. 62-year-old Auntie Shirley lived in Dakota Crescent for about two decades before being moved to a new flat not far away. She’s has encyclopaedic knowledge of the neighbourhood, and is quick to take visitors – such as myself – under her wing.

“I liked it, the rooms inside were big and the neighbourhood was very friendly,” she tells me of her old home. “It was very ‘international’; there were Malays, Chinese, Eurasians, Indians and we all talked to each other.”

Not all of Dakota Crescent’s residents have stuck together in the move; some have chosen to buy their own flats elsewhere, while others have given up on renting a flat altogether to live in the homes of grown-up children.

“Of course there’s heartache,” she says of Dakota Crescent’s impending demolition. “But who do I tell except people like you?”

Residents are rarely, if ever, consulted about the fate of their estates. “We are unable to consult residents in advance on the identification of sites for [the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme] as the information is market-sensitive,” the Housing Development Board and Urban Renewal Authority said in response to my questions.

Government announcements of redevelopment are thus often accepted with a sense of resignation. Like so many policy decisions in Singapore, it’s essentially fait accompli.

Auntie Shirley believes that the old blocks will make way for pricey condominiums, but the HDB and URA merely said in response to questions that the land will be reserved for “future residential development”. The then-Minister of National Development said in Parliament in July that the area would be used to develop “high-density housing” due to its proximity to a train station.

Dakota Crescent playground
Dakota Crescent playground (Kirsten Han)

Little more is known of Dakota Crescent’s future, although a brief spark of hope surfaced during the recent general election period. The opposition candidate, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, put forward a proposal to preserve at least a representative portion of the historic flats.

As part of her campaign, Chong-Aruldoss launched the Sketching Mountbatten project, working with artists to document Dakota Crescent in the hopes that their work would push people to support her proposal.

Seow Kim Siang, a concept artist for an animation studio, was attracted to the idea. “I was quite disappointed [to hear Dakota Crescent would be demolished] because I thought it could be preserved due to its unique design,” he said.

“People have seen images of the playground [an iconic structure in the shape of a dove] but I want to try to capture the charm, nostalgia and history of this place,” he added. “If people knew about this history they might want to preserve it.”

The plan was dealt a blow when Chong-Aruldoss lost the election to the incumbent Member of Parliament, but the project continues to encourage its members to keep up with their submissions as a way to fight for preservation, if not in real life, then at least in art.

Documentation and nostalgia

Yet efforts to document these disappearing neighbourhoods can also be problematic. Succumbing too quickly to nostalgia can have the effect of flattening lived experiences, reducing formerly vibrant communities to sepia-toned caricatures of themselves. Assumptions can too easily be made to fit preconceived notions, erasing the complex considerations and desires of the people most affected.

Nostalgia can also be commodified, made trendy and marketed back to Singaporeans at a premium. Hipster cafes and restaurants with “old-school” themes are now a common sight in Singapore. (Nestled in the middle of Dakota Crescent itself is Tien Kee & Co, an old provision shop-turned-café that serves iced coffee in mason jars.)

In this context, “heritage” becomes problematic, a product to be manipulated and sold even as lived experiences vanish. The preservation of culture and tradition then gets co-opted into the process of gentrification, with little attention paid to affected communities.

These are issues that photographer Nicky Loh considered when he first began taking pictures of the old shops, like Kian Seng, around Commonwealth Drive. “It’s very easy to make things look ‘emo’,” he says. “The reason why I did my photo project was to make a point that the photos can be happy too.”

For Loh, who lived in Zhup Lao for five years before his family was moved, the genesis of his project came from the shopkeepers themselves: “First and foremost I did it for the memories of the people who would be leaving their shops. I thought if I didn’t do it for them, they were unlikely to have done it for themselves.”

He started with a small number of shops first, establishing relationships with the proprietors. He would then print his photos and present them to the shopkeepers, which led to his project growing as other shops asked to be photographed. What began as a personal initiative eventually resulted in a photo book, Common Wealth, with portraits of these long-time businesses and the people who run them.

(Nicky Loh)

Goodbye Commonwealth Drive

On the first Saturday of October, a selection of Loh’s photographs hangs on panels erected in a second-storey unit at Block 74 as part of a farewell party for the old estate. Visitors queue below to be able to enter the building, and have to sign an indemnity form promising to take full responsibility for their own safety and well-being.

A large gazebo in the car park provides a resting place for other party attendees, and three local films are screened in the course of the day. A short distance away, people queue for ice cream, popcorn and kacang puteh – a mix of beans, peas and nuts. At the end of the lot, musicians perform everything from Malay folk songs to Ed Sheeran covers while families loll on beanbags.

Organised by My Community, the people behind the heritage trail, the full-day event is meant to celebrate the life and memories of Zhup Lao, before they are lost for good. Although the event attracted a large number of newcomers to the flats, old residents also came along to say goodbye.

53-year-old Jumaidah binte Shabbeer Hasan has had a lifetime of memories on Commonwealth Drive. She and her family had moved into the neighbourhood when she was 13. She ended up marrying a neighbour.

For Jumaidah, some experiences have been lost forever. She will never again be able to relax by the railway tracks with her husband, neighbours and their pet birds singing in cages. Those evenings, and the sense of community they represented, will live on in her memories.

She accepts these changes as part of life in Singapore, but worries for future generations as progress comes hand-in-hand with rising costs. “Change is okay because it’s for the benefit of the people,” she says with a shrug. “But everything is increasing, that’s the problem! I don’t know whether our children can even afford to buy their own home or not.”

(Kirsten Han)

It is difficult to distil the human experience of a changing urban landscape into one comfortable narrative without ignoring the complex considerations of those most affected. Experiences of Singapore have always been, and will continue to be, diverse and uneven according to ethnicity, class, nationality and other histories. “I grew up going to mama shops and playing hopscotch outside with friends, but later generations didn’t,” Nicky Loh says. “So change affects everyone differently. I guess for some Singaporeans [lack of such traditions] will be normal, but not to us.”

Every generation of Singaporeans will have their own memories of life in the city, but in ongoing discussions of conservation and development the same questions repeatedly remain unanswered. Factors often taken into account include the distribution of amenities, market value and distinctive architectural features, when it comes to deciding what stays and what goes. Yet community relationships and ways of life tend to fall by the wayside. Without a say in the decision-making process, the voices of those most affected – people like Mr Chua and Auntie Shirley – are often only heard after their fates have been decided.

Kirsten Han

Farewell-to-Commonwealth-Drive-Kirsten-Han-writerKirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and writer whose bylines have appeared in Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, the Diplomat and Southeast Asia Globe, among others. She is happiest when covering social justice and human rights issues, wherever they may be in the world, and has written from countries including Scotland, Greece, Mexico and Malaysia. When not working, she volunteers with anti-death penalty campaign group We Believe in Second Chances.