Tucked away in the heart of Siglap and in the centre of the area defined by the Joo Chiat SMC of today are four 5-storey low-rise flats. These were built in 1962 as one of the first projects by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) after a big fire destroyed the kampong houses that stood in the same area. That fire was sparked by firecrackers near the then-famous Siglap Market (now rebuilt into Siglap Centre) during the Chinese New Year celebrations of 1962. HDB moved quickly to build the flats to re-house the affected residents. The ground floor of the front two blocks were built as shophouses. These four flats were a major landmark of Siglap in those days, the tallest buildings in that area until condominiums such as Ocean Park, Fernwood Towers and the HUDC and flats in Marine Parade came up from the 1980s onwards. In fact, when these blocks were first built, it was next to the sea and Marine Parade did not even exist then as land reclamation that created Marine Parade only took place several years later.
These four buildings will soon be history with the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) that will see residents relocated to new flats mostly in nearby Chai Chee from 2015. The flats will be demolished and will likely make way for modern commercial cum residential buildings like its neighbours Siglap Centre and Siglap V. The demolition seems inevitable. Built over 50 years ago, the flats have no lifts. One of the blocks even had the staircase on the outside, exposing the residents to the rain and scorching sun when they go in and out of their homes. I had visited all the homes during GE2011. Three of the blocks are flats that are owned by residents while Block 4 is made up of rental units. Some of the units seem to be left empty as the elderly folks may have moved out to live with their children or are occupied by elderly folks who struggle daily with the staircases. The 2-bedroom flats are small by today’s standards and have served their time for their residents.
I had grown up with these four blocks, particularly their shop units. Many residents of Joo Chiat SMC also have fond memories of this place. Hence on 11 October, instead of doing our regular house visits in Joo Chiat SMC, we decided to do a photo documentation of this area before it is forever demolished.
Wong Clinic was arguably the most famous clinic in the area in those days. It was the first stop for my siblings and I whenever we were unwell. We knew the late Dr Wong Kum Hoong well so whenever we ran a high fever in the middle of the night, my dad would call Dr Wong, who was living in Woo Mun Chew Road and he would make a visit to our house to dispense medication. Dr Wong is well known and well liked by residents in Siglap. He worked right till his last day in August 2009, attending to patients in the morning and then going back for his regular routine of lunch and a nap before passing away suddenly. During GE2011 when I visited the clinic, the nurse immediately recognised me even though I had not visited the clinic for many years. She even joked about me running around the clinic in my pyjamas as a young child. The clinic has since been sold after Dr Wong passed on.
Another shop that I had frequented often was Hawaii Photo Studio, operated by Mr Soh (Su 苏）since around 1965. Most of my passport and IC photographs were taken from here, in a small studio. Even my children’s photographs for official purposes were taken here until I could now use my digital camera to take our own photos which I would digitally edit to submit online. Mr Soh lamented the gradual decline in his photography business, which was the most profitable part of his shop. He has added other activities such as photocopying, selling of phone cards and other items to make up for the loss in revenue.
The shop though had kept Mr Su going all these eyes, enough to see his children for their education. He lives in East Coast GRC. At least one of his children studied in America and is now working with one of our local tertiary institution. He will hang up his trade when he collects the $60,000 compensation by the HDB next year.
Next to Mr Soh’s shop is the hairdresser that my late mother had used for decades before she passed away two years ago. My mum would often ask me to drop her off at the Tiong Poh Beauty Saloon and then pick her up again when she was done, usually about 2-3 hours later. When I went into the shop, it was just about to close. Ms Ye, the shop owner immediately asked if I was “Auntie’s” son. That was how she referred to my mother. My mum had told her that I had entered politics so she was particularly on the lookout when I entered her shop wearing my WP T-shirt.
Ms Ye came to Singapore from Malaysia at a young age. She didn’t even have her birth certificate because in those days, her father did not bother to register the births of daughters. She came to work as a hairdresser. Her elder brother wanted to help her and applied to rent the then-vacant unit from HDB in the 1960s. She could not apply under her own name because she was not a Singapore citizen then, having difficulties with her registration because of her lack of a birth certificate. Her brother was already a Singapore citizen so he applied to rent the shop to let her operate. She has since successfully become a Singapore citizen, after which she inserted her name into the tenancy for the shop.
I will miss the two Mr Chang (张), brothers in the Sung Wah Barber. I chat more often with the younger Mr Chang who was not there that day when I went for my photo documentation of the area. The Chang brothers had lived in the shop itself, at the back section of the unit until the younger Mr Chang got married and obtained his flat in Bedok. The elder Mr Chang continued to live in the shop, all the way since the 1960s when he was just in his teens. He recounted how he started out as a barber helping his father in their shop in Geylang before they were evicted. They found an empty unit in the then new-Siglap flats and were successful in securing the tenancy. That began his 50 years of life in the shop. My son and I had our hair cut by the Chang brothers on several occasions.
Unfortunately, the elder Mr Chang was diagnosed with kidney failure 12 years ago and have been undergoing dialysis. Whenever he has to do dialysis, he would absent himself from the shop.
Speaking of barbers, the Malay Barber shop Siglap 5 Salon was busy with activities when we called on them at around 5 pm. Almost every chair was occupied and some were seated outside the shop having their cuppa ordered from Jamal Restaurant nearby. We were surprised to find clients from all over the country, including Mr Adnan from Bukit Panjang.
Mr Adnan had lots of stories to tell. His father had contested under UMNO’s ticket in Singapore when we were part of Malaysia. He renounced his citizenship after independence to go to Malaysia with his father but opted to return to Singapore subsequently. He recounted how he had to make various appeals before getting his citizenship back.
Another customer of the salon introduced himself as an old boy of St Patrick’s School like myself. He was a few years my senior in school. He lives in the vicinity like many of the St Stephen’s and St Patrick’s alumni whom I had met when I visited homes in Siglap.
There was a family type of atmosphere at this salon. Most people seemed to know one another. They were there not just for the hair cut but it seemed that some were there for the tea fellowship with one another as well.
Then there’s the provision and joss stick shops. Both are part of a unit, with the joss stick shop being the main tenant. The provision shop is owned by a resident in Block 2 who had hired Mr Liang to work in the shop. An animated Mr Liang told us many stories about his 3 years working in this shop. I noticed our Hammer magazine and brochure sitting amongst some goods. I recognised these from what our team had distributed / sold to them previously when we visited the area some months back.
The joss stick shop has a longer story to tell. Miss Liu, aged 81 had come to Singapore from China with her father when she was only 2 years old to escape from the Japanese. She successfully bidded to rent the shop in 1964 and has operated it since then. She is unmarried and has lived at the back of the shop ever since opening it 50 years ago. She has no other place to live in and will likely seek a rental flat when she has to give up her shop. She recounted fondly about Dr Wong whom she would visit whenever she was unwell. She said that even before she could sit down, Dr Wong would already make his diagnosis and prescription, which worked for her wonderfully.
Next to the joss stick shop is Framer’s Choice, a framing shop owned by Mr Adbullah who had already gone home for the day when we dropped by. His worker, Mr Suren showed us around and said that they had already secured another location in Siglap, the Universal Frame Shop next to the Siglap Neighbourhood Police Post so that they can continue their operations in the vicinity. It certainly looked like a busy shop with the inside of the shop stacked with completed and semi-completed frames while the backyard had even more stuff stacked there.
Jamal Restaurant is a favourite food joint of residents in the vicinity. The owner, Mr Jamaluddin Sana was not around that day. He had told the press last year that he was uncertain if he could get another place to run his business. There’s a constant flow of customers for this place, with some coming from as far as Jurong when I was doing my interviews. I certainly had many of my meals at this place, especially when I need a place with good halal food to eat with Muslim friends.
Soon it was getting late as I moved around the homes to see if I could catch up with any residents. The doors and windows of many units were shut. Perhaps some had already shifted out to live with their children. I found some playing with their grandchildren. The grandchildren came by especially during weekends. A young lady was waiting for transport to go out with her baby. She told me she will be upgrading to a 5-room unit and moving her in-laws together with her. Nearby in the playground, children were kicking a ball around and playing hide and seek. None of those that I spoke to lived in these four blocks of flats. They live in the private houses nearby and had chosen to play here because it has the biggest patch of empty land for them to play football.
The evening gave way to dusk as the sun sets. In less than a year, the sun will set permanently on this piece of Siglap when the residents and shops shall move out to make way for new developments. Thanks for being part of my growing up memories.