Singapore photographer Nicky Loh captures the people and rich heritage of Commonwealth before it vanishes

For the past eight years, my family and I have lived at Commonwealth Drive. The first home I ever owned was a small but cosy three-room flat on the seventh floor of block 79. But I’m just a ‘baby’ in the neighbourhood compared to some of my neighbours, who have lived in Commonwealth Drive for most of their lives. This cluster of ten-storey flats - more popularly known as Zhup Lao (“ten floors” in Teochew or Hokkien) – was one of the first satellite towns built in 1962 by the Housing Development Board (HDB), and I’ve heard a wealth of stories about the area from my neighbours and local shop owners.

Last year, HDB announced that these flats would be redeveloped under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers). It’s sad to think that with the demolition of these blocks, all these old and long-lasting ties will be uprooted and lost forever. I love how this neighbourhood oozes old-world charm with its provision shops, barbers and traditional medicine halls. I’m trying to document as much as I can before it all vanishes.

Many of these things also remind me of my grandmother, who brought me up. I’d like to think that I’m honouring her by being nostalgic in this series of photographs.


Mr Francis Ting and Madam Elaine Lerh, Chin Hin Eating House kopitiam owners since 1976 (took over from the founders, Ting Chin Kwan and Lee Sui Kin),
“They have gotten used to the flavour [of our teh and kopi] and this taste cannot be replicated.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


Dr Chan Khye Meng, 82, a doctor at Meng Clinic since 1962. “I have had very poor patients whom I could not bear to charge, but it made me happy to see them get better. One of them came back later on to give me eggs and a pot of flowers to thank me.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


Mr Goh Shu Jeng, vegetable store owner since 1964.
“Why do they [customers] always come back? One word, trust [that I always give them the freshest vegetables].” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


(Left to right) Mr Sim Ang Chew, 54, Madam Yiap Ah Sioh, 80, Mr Ong Guan San, 53 and Madam Nancy Teo, 51, are tofu shop owners since 1962. 
“My family has been here the longest.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


Madam Li Toh (left), 77 and Chen Xiu Zhen at 52
Golden Star textile shop (since 1966). 
“I grew up around this neighbourhood with my mum since young. You can say my youth was built in this area with bicycles and marbles and good friends, many who are in their 50s too and still my neighbours. We sold a lot of saris and sarongs to the people around here because it was a predominantly Malay and Indian area back then. I bet you didn't know that.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


Madam Ng Ew Teng (left), 68 and Mr Tan Yew Hock, 73 at Yew Hock fruit store (since the 1970s
). “Sweet is sweet, sour is sour. I won’t bluff you.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


Mr Lee Wu Song, 63 and Madam Ho Jin Liang, 67, at Hock Ann Confectionary (since 1960s).
 “You can follow a recipe to the core, but it might not taste as good when you do it with feeling.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH 


Madam Rabbiah Binti Haja Madin at Rabbiah’s Cury and Spice (since 1999)
. “My customers are not my customers. They are my friends and I have learned many things about life from them through our long chats at the store.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


Albert and Monica Lim are aquarium shop owners since 1993
. “We met in 1975 during a Singapore Tourism Board promotion show. I was a classical Chinese dancer and Albert was a lion dancer. We blended well together because we both loved the arts and our first date was at Queen Elizabeth Walk (currently where the Merlion is).” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH 


Mr Goh Song Guan, 65 and Madam Zheng Yi Zi, 59 at Xin Guang dry provisions shop (since 1972)
. “The rent for this store used to be one dollar a day.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH 


Mr and Mrs Tsai,
 owners of an Econ minimart shop (since 1963). 
“Our family business started off at a carpark lot where we would lay our provisions on a mat and sell them by the roadside. Now I am proud to say I have this shop.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH 


Mr Lin Feng Ai, 76 at Kian Seng incense shop (since 1968). 
“After spending such a long time here in Zhup Lao, friends and neighbours become closer to you than blood relatives.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH 


Madam Jasmine Chong at Poh Onn Tong traditional Chinese medicine shop (since 1964). 
“It was intense during the Sars period. I wanted to serve my customers well but I was also afraid of contracting it because many of them came in coughing badly. I could have easily closed the shop, but I persisted and did what I felt was right for my customers.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH


(Left to right) Older brother Wang Jia Zhong, 67, and couple Zhuang Xiu Lian, 55 and Wang Jia Xi, 61 at Thin Huat provision shop (since 1960).
 “Business was different back then. Customers would come and take what they need, or we would deliver the provisions straight to their doors. You would only pay for what you spent at the end of the month, because there was trust.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH 


Mr Yeo Hian Seng, 78 and Madam Cai Ya Li, 73, at Universal Orchids flower shop (since 1973).
 “We were in our 20s when we met each other. I was working for her family business manning the flower gardens. My first flowers for her were 步步高升 and 剑兰 [gladiola], not roses. You get what you get back then.” -- PHOTO: NICKY LOH