Some of you have asked me if this is some form of eulogy, except that HDBs still exist. Yes, but the idea of affordable homes for all has died and we all mourn its loss keenly, and with a touch of nostalgia… now, do read on…
Now, what is a HDB estate for those of you not privy to the Singaporean life? Well, it simply means “Housing Development Board” apartments.
A few decades ago, while my city was still in its infancy as a kick ass place to be, there came plans to give everyone, poor and rich, the chance to stay in affordable government building housing. It was a beautiful dream that enabled many of my elders to stay in lovely apartments. Of course, these days, one of these “public housing apartments” can cost beyond $700, 000 USD(hey, we are talking about places as small as 800 sq metres!)… and the price keeps rising.
But the more dastardly thing is… the powers-to-be are also slowly reclaiming some of these “cheap” apartments and re-selling them to land developers who are all too happy to capitalize on the property bubble that will soon engulf my beloved city.
So what happens when a place is deemed not “liveable” anymore… simple.. as H.P. Lovecraft would say “… with even stranger eons, even death would die.”
As a disclaimer, this is not a rant. I will not encourage political discourse here, rather, I hope to indulge in some nostalgia of my childhood, having lived in one of these. (Okok, I lived in a place with my own yellow swing until my dad’s business failure meant that we needed to stay in a HDB in the late ’80s.)
My current home is near an old HDB estate recently vacated for reasons I do not know. I decided to pay a visit with my camera and was surprised to find many nostalgic moments. Let me take you through them. (Its a long journey though, so pls, be patient)
During the 50s and the 60s, many Singaporeans still lived in villages or even squatters for lack of a better phrase. The plan was to provide cheap and affordable housing for citizens. My mum used to tell me that the first flat she and my dad bought cost only $30,000 SGD in the 1970s (probably about 5000 GBP then)
Back then, it was an extension of the communal life many Singaporeans shared in the “villages” or kampongs (Malay word for village). Many knew their neighbours… except that now, there is proper sanitation, and not so much land.
Above is an example of some older HDBs where many families shared a common walkway. Today, this common walkway has become a place of tension as neighbours fight for their space, or right to cook aromatic food…but I think its silly. My grandmother, who is illiterate, can speak both Indian and Malay languages, because in those days, you had to speak the language to get along, not everyone spoke English as is the case in Singapore today.
Even though these were residential areas, there were always shops at the bottom, maybe a hangover of the five foot days where families would operate businesses on the ground floor of their 3 storey shophouses.
Many of these shops are very similar to your mom and pops kind of stores. They sold everything… As children, we used to revel going downstairs to get snacks with the spare change doting adults would spare us, or even to go on an errand to buy cigarettes for our uncles and fathers. Sadly, many of the shops like this that still exist today are being forced out of their livelihood by “unionized” megastores.(Unions by the way are a joke in Singapore)
Above: The Chinese medicine shop, a place of wondrous herbs and exotic smells; No ailment or discomfort was too much of a hassle for our grandparents to pay a visit to one of these places where they would consult wise old men in thin white singlets who always had a remedy readily available.
A classic playground where many of us made friends with children of all races. Singapore is a multi-racial society, many of us have lasting friendships with people of different cultures. For the young ones like us then, our first education in acceptance and harmony began in places like this where our only differences were: who played the police and who played the thieves in a game of catch.
Personally, i used to like climbing into the safe hollow of the concrete arch and stare up to the sky in the hope of better things. Of course, as you will see below, you never know who is watching you from your apartment’s kitchen window.
Now, I remember that in the late ’80s, early ’90s, your interior design and furnishings represented how well you were doing. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon of renovating their humble public apartments. Of course, no one could really see inside and discern how great your place is.. but the secret lies in the kind of window panes you have… you not quite sure what I mean? Follow below…
Notice the nice straight lines that were so emblematic of late ’80s, early ’90s fashion consciousness? Of course, there’s always the tainted windows… a protection against the harsh glare of tropical sunlight… for which you have to fork out an extra premium… as you can see below (notice the more diagonal styles of the mid ’90s?)
The estates were never stagnant. It seemed that back then, a lot more thought was given to how people lived, and what could improve their lives. Have a look at the newer types of playgrounds where kids got lazy and instead of climbing animal looking structures, they preferred leisurely rocking…
Then there’s the mailbox. Quaint little metal miniature apartments that heralded the promise of a returning letter from an overseas penpal. I used to have two American, one Nepalese and one Norwegian penpal when I was a young boy. I wonder how they are now and if they would add me if I tried befriending them on facebook.
As we grew older, we never forgot the cooling void decks (below!), the place for furtive cigarettes, public phone booth calls to girls we met the week before… and just general chilling with friends. Sometimes with our guitars till the wee hours of the night when irate neighbours would set the rabid police on us. (sorry, don’t like them)
But for the old folks, there were also always places to sit and watch the world. Below are some pictures of benches in a garden setting, from different eras no doubt.
In Singapore, however, things remain in constant flux. Our playgrounds are torn down in the sake of perpetual development. This estate haunts me because of the hints it offers to my own growing up memories… as well as the transience of our memories in this lion city.
HDB housing will always remain a collective memory for almost 80 percent of people in Singapore. As it is, we sometimes don’t even realize how even these public apartments are slowly shapeshifting, becoming something very different from what we experienced as children.
But I guess that is the price of development. One day, the mum and pops will be reduced to picking up paper cardboards from the co-ops that now operate in place of their former shops. But I hope that is just an unlikely dystopian future.