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Aug 6, 2019

Bound for posterity: Portraits of neighbourhoods

Books on beloved S'pore districts, including painting series, published

[Source:  The Straits Times, 12 August 2013]

By Debbie Lee

A growing wave of nostalgia is sweeping across Singapore as more residents put together books about their beloved neighbourhoods.

At least three such title have been published this year, ranging from recollections of the blue glass-louvred windows in 1960s Queenstown to watercolour sketches of Bedok, Toa Payoh and Tiong Bahru.

For engineering consultant Tan Kok Yang, 59, it was his first time writing a book.

Dr Tan spent 10 years compiling his memories and photographs for From The Blue Windows:  Recollection Of Life In Queenstown, Singapore, In the 1960s And 1970s.

The book, which was published in April by NUS Press, cost him $4,000 to produce.  He successfully applied for a National Arts Council grant, which covered half the cost, and paid the rest himself.

"There's no going back to this era and it's good for younger people to know about life back then," said Dr Tan, who spent 18 years in Queenstown during his childhood.  He lives in Toh Tuck Road near Bukit Batok estate.

Another series involved a tie-up between a commercial publisher and an informal group, Urban Sketchers Singapore.

Publisher Epigram Books conceived the We Love ... series, which has so far covered Bedok, Toa Payoh and Tiong Bahru.  A fourth, on Queenstown, is about to be released.

"We wanted to reinforce the idea of a real neighbourhood through drawings, text and various methods," said its chief executive officer Edmund Wee.

Each title has watercolour paintings of the respective neighbourhoods done by the urban sketchers, who visit the area to paint their surroundings.  In return, they receive complimentary copies of the books.

"It's a win-win situation as their sketches make it into a book and they get more publicity for their work," said Mr. Wee.

Urban Sketchers Singapore founder, Madam Tia Boon Sim, agreed.  "I felt honoured to be able to share with people our sketches of these neighbourhoods," said the 58-year-old.

"It is our little contribution to the country".

While the majority of the books are written by Singaporans, American writer Stephen Black penned I Ate Tiong Bahru, which was published in May.

"I wrote this book as the Tiong Bahru I know is disappearing, as a result of increasing gentrification and the fact that many of the long-term residents are passing on," said Mr Black, 35.  He frequently visited the area's famous market at 4.30am to write about the historic estate's early morning buzz.

The writers and publishers are unfazed by the prospect that their works may not be commercially viable.

Mr Wee, who said his series has not yet sold enough to break even, said: "We intend to continue, as we have the conviction that neighbourhoods are important for all Singaporeans."

Added Dr Tan:  "If you do something you like, it is not too difficult.  It gives me a sense of personal satisfaction to be living the past again."

From The Blue Windows

The title of the book "From The Blue Windows" written by Tan Kok Yang attracted me the recollection of life in Queenstown, Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

I did not know about this book until I read Debbie Lee's article in The Straits Times published six years ago.

In the course of my research for material of the 'memory-aids' from various sources ... old newspapers, magazines, all sorts of publications and books I have come across by accident.

There are many topics covered in this book, but I would mention in the blog only those which I am familiar and would like to share the collective heritage memories about kampong life in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than the magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration."

- Charles Dickens (1812-70)


"To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without roots."

- Chinese Proverb

PREFACE by Tan Kok Yang

From The Blue Windows is a first-hand account of events based on my recollections while growing up in the public housing estate in Queenstown, Singapore.  This area was then known colloquially as "The Blue Windows" because of the unique, blue Georgian-wired glass louvred windows in the low-rise housing estate.  Being one of the earliest public housing estates in Singapore, Queenstown has since undergone immense changes and celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2012.

I wrote this book over a period of ten years out of a love for the Blue Windows.  This is how common people once lived in one of the first housing estates in Singapore.  In the book, I have tried to recount nostalgically the times and lives in Queenstown during those early days.  Indeed, I hope that this book will bring back fond memories of times past, and successfully evoke the lives of the people who once lived there.  The episodes in Blue Windows cover the period from when I was an inquisitive seven-year-old boy to my teenage years, when a redevelopment programme in the estate forced my family to move to Tiong Bahru.  For me, the memories of my early childhood are inseparable from the joy of festive seasons, and other interesting ocurrences at the Blue Windows.  As such, I have intentionally filled the book with what I hope are fascinating recollections of the customs, lifestyle, and games that we played as children during those days.

I have also included poignant real-life stories of people who resided at the Blue Windows - some were relatives, others were neighbours and the rest were technically strangers - and hope that they may give readers a better understanding of the socio-economic situation of Singaporeans at that time.  Although this work is neither political nor academic, I have also touched on historical events in Singapore's past - such as the racial riots and the student unrest in the 1960s - from the perspective of how they impacted the daily lives of residents at the Blue Windows.

Indeed, the mention of the Blue Windows invokes memories of the simple, yet fulfilling lifestyle of Queenstown residents during the 1960s and 1970s.  Through the narrative, it is my wish that readers take away an understanding of the humble, "kampong-like" lifestyle then.  Unfortunately, such a way of life no longer exists in modern-day Singapore.  I hope that this modest work will appeal to anyone with interest in Singapore's past and the various districts that have a rich history.  Hopefully, the tales in this book can also offer readers, particularly those from the younger generation, a glimpse of what life was like in Queenstown in the not-too-distant past.  Perhaps, it will enable readers to have a better understanding of our roots here in Singapore, and help them appreciate the richness of the multi-cultural and multi-racial way of life in Singapore.

The tales and happenings in this book are now but precious memories.  Yet this book will allow the experiences I had living at the Blue Windows to be recorded for posterity.  I believe that those who have at one time or another experienced living there, will from time to time fondly recall those good old days at the Blue Windows.  This is my tribute to my family, old neighbours and friends, any fortunate ones who share a connection with Queenstown, especially those who lived there, and to Queenstown itself.

In Queenstown, many of the three-storey low-cost flats were installed with typical blue-glass louvred windows.  The people who lived there called their estate the "Blue Windows"; "Lam Poh Lay" in Hokkien ( 蓝玻璃,blue glass) and "Nam Tieng Meng" in Teochew (蓝天门 , blue sky doors").  It was not uncommon that someone who wished to go to Queenstown to visit friends and relatives would tell the taxi driver to go to the Blue Windows.  Those flats with blue glass were unique - one could not find flats with such signature windows anywhere else in Singapore.

Three-storey flats near Tan Kok Yang's block along Margaret Drive in the late 1970s, built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT).

Low-rise two-storey terrace houses built by SIT at the Dawson Estate.  These have been torn down but similar units still stand along Stirling Road.

Forfar House in 1996.  It was subsequently demolished; Forfar Heights now stands in its place.

Princess House in the 1960s, where the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was located.

Tan Kok Yang in the mid-1960s.  The cardboard box on the shelf behind him contained their first home telephone.

Our first home telephone

Modern - or rather what we then co0nsidered "modern" - gadgets began to surface in the late 60s and early 70s.  My family got our first home telephone in 1969 when I was in Secondary Three.  Everyone at home was excited and wanted to learn how to use it.  It was not the first time we had seen a telephone since most of us knew about the rotary telephone at the provi8sion shop; Father must have used one in his office as well.  Yet, when the Telephone Man cme to our house to install the all-black, round-dial gauge telephone, we were very proud of it.  But like country bumpkins we were too frightened to use it since we found it strange to talk to a box and not a human.  One of my younger sisters once ran to hide in the room when the telephone rang, generating much laughter from the rest of the family.  Of course, all of us became used to the telephone in due course and it slowly become indispensable at home.  In the mid 1970s, our old round-dial gauge telephone was replaced with a light-grey, push botton telephone.

Tan Kok Yang with his younger brother and three sisters.  The photo was taken at Margaret Drive during Chinese New Year in 1968.

Tan Kok Yang spent his formative years in Queenstown in the 1960s to 1970s.  He attended Kim Seng Technical School and Queenstown Secondary Technical School in the 1970s.  In 1980, he graduated with a Degree in Building from the University of Singapore and went on to obtain a Masters Degree in Building Science (Acoustics Major) in 1988 from the National University of Singapore.  He also holds a Doctorate (1997) in Housing and Environmental Studies from the University of New England, N.S.W. Australia.  A former lecturer in Environmental Science at the Singapore Polytecnic, he now runs hias own acoustic consultancy firm.  His interests in environmental issues, in particular, that which affect human habitation, prompted him to write about life of the people who once lived in Queenstown.

Mother and Small Aunt on Chinese New Year day in the 1960s.

Mother and three younger sisters making "love letters" for Chinese New Year in the early 1970s/

Map of Queenstown in the 1960s and 1970s.

The following topics are inspired from Tan Kok Yang's book "From The Blue Windows".  Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s at different parts of our island nation, the memories of our kampong life is almost similar.

"Chap Ji Ki"

... The hawker whom my mother used to buy bean sprouts from was also an illegal bookie who took bets for a very popular game at that time in the 60s, known as "chap ji ki" (Hokkien:  十二支, twelve sticks). 

The game is quite simple:  if you wished to place a bet, you simply wrote two digits on a tiny piece of paper.  All bets must come in one day before, and the results would be announced at noon the following.  The sums involved were not large and the changes of winning were definitely higher than 4D, which requires four digits.  At the same time, the winnings were not huge either.  Like many other housewives at the time, my mother often picked the numbers of her choice and scribbled them on a small piece of paper.  She gave it to me, together with some coins, to pass to Uncle Botak Head.

Like now, housewives would pick their numbers based on some special event that occurred or on interpretations of their dreams.  For example, if there was a wedding, the age of the bride and bridegroom could be considered good numbers to bet on.  As for dreams, my mother would consider betting, for example, on the number four and two if she dreamed of two persons sitting at a table.  Since a table has four legs and there were two persons - the logic goes - the number to buy was "42".  There were of course various other interpretations for which I am no expert.

Ice Ball

One other food items we children loved very much was colourful ice balls.  Ice was first compressed into a ball with bare hands and different syrups then added to create a vibrantly coloured ball.  There was red bean at the centre of the ball, and milk was sometimes added to its surface.   Because bare hands were used to shape the ice (there were no rubber gloves at that time), the health authorities put a stop to the sale of the ice balls.  Ice kachang, served in a bowl instead, became more popular.  While this is surely a more civilised way to enjoy the dessert, the fun of eating from a ball of ice is lost.  What a pity indeed!

"Char Kway Teow"

...  The other type of kway teow "black and white" kway teow.   This was the stall nearer our flat, and was located just at the corner of our opposite block.  This hawker operated his stall from a timber cart.  This type of hawker was a common sight in all parts of Singapore in the 1960s.  The stall stayed open from about 7 o'clock in the evening till late at night.  Each plate of fried kway teow came with fresh cockles and lap cheong (Cantonese:  腊肠,  Chinese sausage) and cost only 20 cents without egg and 30 cents with egg.  There were no styrofoam boxes or waxed paper for takeaways then.  Instead, the food was wrapped with opeh leaves, and was tied with thine cane, not raffia, string.

Malay Satay Man

Itinerant hawkers were also a common sight at the Blue Windows.  I remember vividly an elderly Malay Satay Man, who wore a traditional sarong and a songkok, who came to our estate, mostly during the weekends to sell his delicious satay.  During those early years, satay was mostly sold by the Malays just as roti prata was sold by the Indians.  The Malay Satay Mdan would usually call at about dinner time, carrying a wooden pole with two small timber cabinets hanging at each end of the pole.  He used to station himself at the badminton court and start a makeshift barbecue fire.  We could choose from chicken, lamb and beef satay.  His satay was grilled over red-hot charcoal in a homemade stove and was accompanied by a delicious but spicy peanut gravy that contained mashed pineapple.  Another interesting aspect about satay stalls at that time is that most hawkers would charge their customers by counting the number of satay sticks there were after the meal.  Naturally, there were cases of dishonest customers who secretly hid or threw away the sticks before the Satay Man counted them.  Eventually, this practice was discontinued when the Satay Man wisened up!

...  we thoroughly enjoyed the meal, which included ketupats (Malay: rice cakes) in satay gravy and Red Spot orange drinks in glass bottles .

Bread seller home delivery service with a basket

I also recall how we children would wait eagerly almost every afternoon for a middle-aged Indian man to pass by our flat.  He had a very special way of carrying the basket of bread that he sold:  he placed them on his white turbaned head.  It was indeed fascinating that he could move his head from side to side as he talked to his customers, even with that basket-load of bread on his head.  Whenever we wanted to buy bread, we would call out to him and use rope to lower a basket from our first floor flat.  The friendly bread seller would place the bread inside the basket, after which we would retrieve the basket and take out the bread.  We would put coins in its place and lower the basket down again to the bread seller.  This commonn practice is interesting in retrospect and reflected the simplicity of life at that time; the bread seller trusted that we would pay him in good faith.  Like all our neighbours, we did so every time.  However, it is clearly no longer feasible to continue this practice today, not with the more suspicious nature of people living in our urbanised society today.  Besides, lowering a basket in this matter from a twently-storey HDB flat is simply unthinkable now!

"Tit Tot" Hokkien prawn mee

The other hawker who formed a lasting impression was the young boy who took orders of Hokkien prawn mee.  He went around the estate alerting postential customers with the tit tot sound he created by hitting two short bamboo sticks together.  He would then rush back to the stall after an order was placed and come back later with the bowls of noodles on a tray.  It was the equivalent of a home delivery service.  Once, my brother ordered the mee, then a mere 20 cents a bowl, for all of us in celebration after winning five dollars in a riddle contest organized by Rediffusion Singapore.  And so the boy brought all of us bowls of noodles on a Saturday afternoon.  He would come back a while later to collect the empty bowls.  Such was the practice then, when trust and honesty were the order of the day.

The Bukit Ho Swee fire

During the Hari Raya Haji holiday on the 25 May 1961, the whole estate was shocked to learn about a big fire that occurred at the Bukit Ho Swee area along Tiong Bahru and Havelock Road.  The entire area was totally destroyed in a short span of time.  Fortunately, those who stayed at the Blue Windows were not affected since the fire occurred at a distance from the Margaret Drive area.  In total, four people were killed and approximately 16,000 were rendered homeless.

All our neighbours were concerned about the fire, which naturally became the talk of the town for a few weeks.  As a young boy then, I was not sure about what was going on.  I only remember my father saying that we all needed to be more aware of the dangers of fire.  This vigilance as an extension of his personality; even before sitting down on a bench next to a tree, Father would survey his surroundings just in case anything fell on him or his loved ones.

The fire eventually impacted the Blue Windows indirectly.  Very soon, some of the previous Bukit Ho Swee residents began moving into our estate.  Another consequence of the fire was that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) kicked off a mass housing programme for the displaced residents.  The new satutory board later inaugurated a home ownership scheme in which citizens could use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) to purchase their flats.


The older lower-rise flats at Duchess Estate contrast starkly with the more recent high-rise developments.


It has been almost four decades since my family and I moved out of the Blue Windows.  They say time flies and I have come to agree with this.  I've stayed in various areas in Singapore since but none of these places can inspire the same sense of nostalgia that I feel for the Blue Windows.  For most people of my generation, the "good old days" are dead and gone, and will only remain as sweet memories.

In a recent visit back to Queenstown, I drove along the now almost unrecognizable Margaret Drive.  I felt conflicted by the new but congested developments that were taking place there.  The once familiar landscape no longer existed.  It was indeed painful to realize that many of the old Queenstown landmarks were gone, including the low-rise SIT flats with the blue louvre glass windows.  Yet the new, imposing HDB flats, with their huge glass panes and beautifully designed facades amazed me.  A sense of remorse overcame me: a part of our national heritage and our rich past had been eliminated in the endless pursuit for a more modern lifestyle.

The scarcity of land in Singapore makes it understandable: urban planners need to get rid of the old to make way for the new.  Is it possible to be more selective and cautious when deciding what should be torn down and what should be preserved?  Not all these strucjtures may be high-profile but they may possess value in terms of their unique architecture or historical significance.  A case in point would be Forfar House, regarded as one of the earliest high-rise public flats in Singapore.  Yet every time I visit Queenstown, I realize a chunk of it has disapppeared.


Still, I sometimes wonder if there will be any landscapes familiar to my generation that future generations will be able to come into actual contact with.  The Queenstown of my childhood is gone and a new dwelling enclave has emerged in its place.  It is now up to the next generation to tresure their living space.  As for me and those who once stayed at Queenstown, the Blue Windows lives on, if not in our hearts, then at least between the covers of this book.



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