From huts to high rises
Queenstown consisted of hills, swamps and cemeteries before it was transformed into Singapore's first high-rise housing estate. Below are edited excerpts from a new book - titled 10-Stories, Queenstown Through The Years - charting the 55-year-old estate's colourful history as seen through the eyes of its residents.
Sunday Times, The (Singapore)
News, Pg 30
December 2, 2007
WHEN Ang Beng Teck was born in Boh Beh Kang (Hokkien for No Tail River) in 1928, he was just one more bawling addition to an extended household that comprised six families living together under one attap roof. He did not want for minders or playmates, growing up in close quarters with the families of his five paternal uncles.
'Hut', however, was not a fitting description of the Ang abode. It had 'over 10 rooms', and a large living room and kitchen - all built by his uncles and his father, who was just seven when he arrived in Singapore from China.
In those days, births and deaths, and every life event in between, were shared experiences of joy and grief for the whole kampung (Malay for village).
'Last time, people were so close. If anything happened, all the kampung people would gather,' Mr Ang recalled.
Not any more. 'Now, if anything happens, nobody would even know about it,' he lamented.
But his wizened features reveal no hint of surprise at this loss. After all, Mr Ang has witnessed far more tumultuous changes in his 79 years - with World War II putting an abrupt end to his kampung days and the transformation of the physical landscape itself into today's Queenstown.
Boh Beh Kang was relatively remote, and deliberately so, for its earliest residents sought to escape the chronic congestion of the city for the relative peace of this backwater area.
Whole lives were enacted within the shadows of Hong Yin Sua (Hokkien for Hong Yin Hill) and Hong Lim Sua (Hokkien for Hong Lim Hill), the two hills that dominated Boh Beh Kang.
Before the War, people spent more time interacting with one other at work and play. There was no electricity. There was no radio or television; and certainly no Internet or online gaming to keep one away from others. After dark, the most one could do was to read a book by the glow of a kerosene lamp, as the former Boh Beh Kang villagers recalled.
Other pastimes involved socialising. After the day's toil in the farms, at the nearby Hock San brickworks or the quays of the Singapore River, where some villagers worked as coolies and odd job labourers, the adults - mainly men - would visit the local coffee shop to catch up with friends.
The humdrum of farm work was occasionally interrupted when someone got married. 'Last time, getting married was different. It was like in the movies - the newly-weds would wear red clothes and sit in a rented horse carriage,' Mr Ang Kok Tee, 84, a relative and fellow Boh Beh Kang villager said.
Wedding feasts were self-catered. 'We'd slaughter the chickens, ducks and pigs and cook them. There usually weren't many tables - just for people in the kampung,' recalled Mr Ang Beng Teck.
'Then when the bridal couple arrived and everyone was seated, they'd set off firecrackers,' Mr Ang Kok Tee recalled. The men and womenfolk attended the wedding feast separately.
'The women would be invited to attend in the afternoon. The men, in the evening,' said Mr Ang Beng Teck. But both men and women would sit together at the gambling table, playing card games and reviewing the day's chap chi ki (Hokkien for local lottery) results.
'Nowadays, people play with dollars, but in those days, they'd wager only three or five cents. People were more thrifty,' Mr Ang Kok Tee recalled. Not that there was much money around, nor a bank in sight.
Whatever cash they owned was hidden in a quiet corner of the home, Mr Ang Beng Teck explained.
The idyllic, if spartan, life of the Boh Beh Kang villagers was rudely interrupted when the Japanese invaded during World War II.
'When the Japanese bombed this place, the whole stream was on fire! When the artillery shells came, you couldn't see them. But you would hear their sound 'shiu shiu shiu shiu'. And you'd know they are here,' Mr Ang Beng Teck said.
Life was even more difficult under the Japanese.
'Food was hard to get. Everything had to be registered before you could get your rations. If you want rice, oil, or kerosene, you have to register with the kampung chief and show him your ration card.
'Even to get roti (Malay for bread) you need to register. The roti was as hard as rocks because they used red palm oil to make them,' Mr Ang Beng Teck said.
Resourcefulness saw the farmers of Boh Beh Kang through those lean times.
Mr Ang Kok Tee recalled: 'There was not enough rice, so we grew our own tapioca and sweet potatoes in the hills and mixed these with rice.
'Children today are so lucky! If food is dropped onto the floor, they wouldn't eat it. Last time, we would just pick it up, blow blow, and eat it.'
Post-war life was no easier. Mr Ang Kok Tee, who worked as an odd-job labourer at the brickworks and later at the ABC Brewery, said: 'We earned just over 10 cents a day. Of this, we spent two cents on rice with some curry gravy on it. And then, we had to get back to work. No kopi (Malay for coffee), no drinks. There was no money for kopi. We just drank tap water.'
Despite this, the old men still miss the simplicity of life in the old days.
'Life in the past was better. We didn't earn much, but things were cheap too. No need to pay water or electrical bills, nothing!
'Just $2 a year for the address, that's all,' Mr Ang Kok Tee said.
But village life at Boh Beh Kang was quickly drawing to a close. The British government had made plans to develop the land for Queenstown. And by the 1960s, the villagers had to move out.
Mr Ang Beng Teck moved to Tanglin Halt where he opened a grocery store. The transition to an urban existence was hard for the former farmers.
'Of course, in the beginning, we were all very sad and frustrated. We were really not used to the new environment,' Mr Ang Beng Teck said. 'When we moved to Tanglin Halt, the rent was $380. But it kept increasing every three years. In the kampung we didn't have to pay for water.
'Everything became a financial burden - the bills, the rents. Even to go out, you needed transport fares."
But Mr Ang Beng Teck was resigned to the change. 'Even if you were not used to it, you had no choice in the matter.'
How 'Boh Beh Kang' and 'Chap Si Lau' came to be
QUEENSTOWN was developed from swampland that was home to a famous Hokkien village called Boh Beh Kang, which means No Tail River in Hokkien.
Boh Beh Kang refers to the stream that flowed between two hills, Hong Yin and Hong Lim. The name came about because the villagers could not identify the source of the stream.
The stream branches off in two directions; south-east to the Singapore River, and north-west to Sungei Pandan and eventually to West Coast. Hence, it appeared that there was no 'tail' to the stream.
The residents were mostly immigrants from Tong'an in Fujian, China. Many were members of the Ang extended family.
When the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) started planning Queenstown in the 1950s, engineers reclaimed the swamp and the Boh Beh Kang stream became a large concrete monsoon drain running between Commonwealth Avenue and Stirling Road. The drain still exists today. Older residents still refer to the canal as Boh Beh Kang.
The canal was partially covered when the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) viaduct was built in the mid 1980s. Today, it re-emerges as the Alexandra Canal after the Queenstown MRT station, flowing east towards Kim Seng Road.
In the early days, Queenstown was distinguished by the 14-storey Forfar House, (see below). That is how the place became known as Chap Si Lau, Hokkien for 14 storeys.
Copyright, 2007, Singapore Press Holdings Limited
Sunday Times, The (Singapore)
News, Pg 31
December 2, 2007
FROM wooden walls, mud floors and congested shophouses to concrete units in a planned housing estate, the early residents of Queenstown certainly had a lot to learn and adapt to.
One such lesson was learning to deal with the height of these new blocks of flats 14 storeys at Forfar House, 10 storeys at Tanglin Halt and 16 storeys at Commonwealth Close.
Or new facilities such as running water and flushing toilets, commonplace today.
Mr Calvin Low, aged 49, moved to Tanglin Halt in 1964 when he was five. He recalled: From afar, they looked like giant pigeonholes stacked-up concrete boxes, some with impressive columns of stairs at either end arranged with military precision on an angry, red and ochre landscape of exposed earth.
As we approached on our rickety lorry, with all our family and possessions in the back, the clean, sweeping lines of corridors rising to the sky and the distinct smell of new concrete and fresh paint brought a spring to our step. We were finally moving into our very own flat. It may have been small, but it was our castle in the sky.
Hailing from Kampung Batak in the Eunos-Kaki Bukit area, his family moved to a three-room flat in an eight-storey block in Queenstown. Id never been that high up in the air before in my life and the adults were anxious that I didnt take a liking to peering over the precariously thin, four-inch parapet wall for a better view, remarked Mr Low.
Nor were they keen on him riding the lift for fun in case it got stuck, or yelling when playing, for the neighbours were a mere hollow concrete block thickness away.
For a long while, this was all part of the novelty of living in a high-rise block of flats. The faces of new neighbours, the half-finished roads and buildings in the neighbourhood, the newly planted saplings and even the raw earth itself, awaiting development, lent a sense of frontier fervour to the residents lives.
It was a singular experience mirrored across a whole segment of Singapore society who had moved from rural villages, slums and the chronically overburdened inner city to the frontier town that Queenstown was in the early 1960s.
For many Queenstown residents, overcrowding still remained a fact of life. Not that they really minded. Mr Dominic Teo, 61, a retired army regular, moved to a three-room flat in Margaret Drive in the 1950s. It was home to 16 members of his family, including Mr Teos grandmother.
That time, I was not sleeping on a bed; I was sleeping on a plank. My grandmother was sleeping on the bed. Still, it was better than in the kampung. It was all muddy, and dark without street lights in the kampung. It was cramped in our flat.
But we all didnt feel it because we were young. They would just put down a plank and we would j ust sleep, al l squeezed together, said Mr Teo.
When I was living in an attap kampung house, it was scary. Because, when you hear fire engines, you worry about your house getting burnt, he added. His wife Margaret Lim, 59, knows that fear first-hand.
Her family survived the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 and was resettled at Strathmore Avenue in Princess Estate.
Princess Estate was also where the family of Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, 53, Minister of State for Defence, moved to in 1959, when he was five, leaving behind the Killiney Road workers quarters where he was born.
We were on the third floor and it transformed my parents lives. They told me because they used to have to queue for long periods to use the toilet and then also to use the kitchen. So there was a schedule like a military schedule.
When they moved to Queenstown in their own flat, to them it was heaven. They had their own bedroom; own kitchen, own toilet; they separated the toilet and the urinal. So they were very happy.
High-rise living a fact of life for most Singaporeans today, made its debut in Queenstown. When the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) developed its first neighbourhood in Princess Estate in the 1950s, it built the 14-storey Forfar House, Singapores tallest housing block at the time. It was the estates crown jewel.
Forfar House was also known as chap si lau (Hokkien for 14 storeys).
Chap si lau was also famous for another reason, said Prof Koo.
Its called tiao lau (Hokkien for committing suicide by jumping off a building). In those days, if people wanted to commit suicide, they would go to a high building . So they would go to Forfar House. That place became very famous for suicide.
Mr Ronald Pereira, 54, director of a printing company who lived in the area since 1957 remembered stepping into Forfar House only a couple of times for fear of the place.
I dont think suicides happened very often. People talked about it. But it became a place youd be scared to go to. When youre a kid, ghosts, everything comes to mind, he said.
10 Stories: Queenstown Through The Years, by Calvin Low, is a joint collaboration between the National Heritage Board, Central Singapore Community Development Council and Queenstown Citizens Consultative Committee. It is on sale at major bookshops for $30.
Copyright, 2007, Singapore Press Holdings LimitedEdited by ^tamago^ 02 Dec `07, 12:50PM