Hard for old-timers to say goodbye

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 17, 2013

FOR nearly 50 years, a small cluster of low-rise Housing Board flats have stood in the heart of Siglap, alongside posh condominiums, stylish restaurants and pricey landed homes.

In about two years’ time, these four blocks at the junction of Siglap Road and East Coast Road will be demolished under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers).

And they will take a small slice of Singapore history with them.

On the first day of Chinese New Year in 1962, a fire razed 50 attap huts on the site. The flats were built to house affected residents, and were officially declared open in 1964 by Mr Rahim Ishak, then the assemblyman for Siglap.

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The beige-and-brown development still looks the same today. It has never been upgraded and has no lifts. But it retains much of its old-world charm that residents like social welfare worker Mary Lee, 54, will miss when the bulldozers finally arrive.

“This place is very quiet and very peaceful. I will miss this place because I go to East Coast Park for exercise every day and the food here is very nice,” she said.

Almost all of the 117 flats are tiny two-room units, served by a single staircase in each block. A third of the flats are rental units.

Under Sers, the current flat owners have been given priority to buy new flats in Chai Chee Road at subsidised prices.

But for the shopkeepers, some of whom have plied their trades at the ground level of these flats since the 1960s, it is the end of a long road. At least half of the 10 shops - which include two barbers, two clinics and a sundry shop - intend to close for good.

Some of their facades and signs appear to be the same ones they had since setting up shop decades ago.

Mr Anthony Teo and his wife are among those who will leave with heavy hearts. The couple own Raffles Prime Enterprise at Block 2, where Mr Teo repairs and modifies violins and his wife alters clothes.

“I saw this empty shop every time I passed by on a bus (in the 1960s). So I told my girlfriend, now my wife, why don’t we tender for it?” he recalled.

They paid just $253 for the unit. “You’ll never get a place like this in Singapore again,” said Mr Teo, who is in his 70s.

The owner of Hawaii Photo Studio in Block 1, Mr Soh Yiok Tien, is also calling it a day. “Look at how old I am,” the 74-year-old said. “When I came here 40 years ago, there was no Marine Parade; it was all beach and sea nearby.”

Shopkeepers eligible for compensation will get $60,000 and a 10 per cent rental discount should they set up shop at another HDB block. But Mr Jamaluddin Sana, 64, who owns Jamal Restaurant - a regular hangout for residents - is still unsure about his future.

“Customers love our roti prata and teh tarik,” he said. “If we have to find a new place, we aren’t sure whether we can successfully run our business. We fear our costs will increase.”

Many residents are reluctant to leave too. When redevelopment plans for the area were announced in November 2011, they appealed unsuccessfully against the new location - Chai Chee Road - that was provided. But most have since registered for a flat there or applied for one elsewhere, leaving just five households.

Ms Lee will leave behind a brightly decorated two-room flat that has been her home for 15 years when she moves to Chai Chee. “I'm happy to move out to a new flat, but sad because I will miss this place.”

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 17, 2013

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