Back in the 1960s, Singapore was a radically different place from what it is now. Racial riots, attap houses, zinc-roof squatter homes were a common sight. With the foresight of our leaders, a clean and green vision was sowed in the ’60s, and it has since blossomed. At present, 85% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.
“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us,” Winston Churchill
This post serves as a tribute to Mr Yim Chee Peng, lawyer turned photographer, whom we met serendipitously at a cafe along Keong Saik Road. Mr Yim graciously gifted his book “Aesthetically yours, Singapore” to me; from which I sought inspiration. All images in this post are credited to him unless otherwise stated.
This, is the story of Singapore as told through its housing, its people, its community.
Living in Tiong Bahru in the 1950s and 1960s was a huge privilege. Dubbed the “Hollywood” of Singapore; it was the first site chosen by Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) to develop low-cost housing. Tiong Bahru’s flats were built with a distinctive curved-midsection for the staircases and many of them are still preserved in that area.
After the Bukit Ho Swee fire ravaged Tiong Bahru and Redhill in 1961, rapid building and expansion was in place. Each new unit was inspired by Chinatown’s low-rise shop houses with spiral staircases. Demand of this district in modern times has soared, owing to its rich heritage and the fact that its gazetted as part of the government’s ‘conservation area’. Many quaint cafes such as the well-loved Tiong Bahru Bakery and Forty Hands have sprouted out in this district which makes it a popular destination for people to unwind.
“Chinatown was a slum, dirty and malodorous”
It was also known for its ‘death-houses’, which was literally where the poor visited to die. When the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh came for a state visit in 1989, a quick yet cheap cover-up was necessary for the slum areas. The solution? Paint everything over with a royal coat of blue. After the state visit, many parts of Chinatown retained the blue hue until it wore off.
Much change has happened since then. The most ambitious HDB project “The Pinnacle @ Duxton” was conceived and it became Singapore’s tallest public housing estate which promises dwellers a panoramic view complete with sky-parks, communal gardens and express lifts. The rustic, romantic charm of Chinatown attracts many to the Duxton Hill belt where eclectic cafes and shophouses reside.
Holland Village, classified as a Tree Conservation area, is home to many rare and mature trees, such as the Khaya Grandifoliola (African Mahogany) and Benin Mahogany which are native to Africa. Its quiescent atmosphere dates back to the colonial era which drew the hearts and minds of the British armed-forces’ members stationed in Singapore.
This is a corner of Singapore that I hold dear to me as I spent my formative years trawling its streets aimlessly. Holland Village by day, attracts many artists to its galleries located along Chip Bee Gardens; by night, the village comes alive with live music spilling out of bars such Wala Wala and food connoisseurs getting their fix at 2am: Dessert Bar. It is certainly worth a trip down as 2am: Dessert Bar‘s head pastry chef, Janice Wong, was recently awarded Best Pastry Chef by the “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List“.
If one takes a night stroll along Haji Lane / Arab Street in the 1960s, precaution had to be taken to avoid walking into ladders which jutted from the ceilings of the five-foot ways. For many shophouses along the stretch, the ladders were the only access point to the homes of families on the second storey. These “hole in the ceiling” leaders were unique to the vicinity, and were kept in the day so as to keep the passageways free of obstruction.
Haji Lane has one of the straightest, narrowest roads in Singapore flanked by an array of fashion boutiques (Pluck, Know it Nothing), swanky bike shops (Tokyo Bike) and kooky cafes (Maison Ikkoku, Ogopogo). It is also the go-to place in Singapore to get your shisha fix. Famous for its bohomeian vibe; Haji Lane’s streets are bursting with artistic fevour as iconic murals and graffitti adorn its walls.