Housing estates with stories to tell

A participant of the Dawson and Alexandra tour taking photographs of an abandoned bunker in Kay Siang Road. Participants listening to long-time Queensway resident Paul Fernandez, 74, sharing his memories of the estate during a Dawson and Alexandra he
Participants listening to long-time Queensway resident Paul Fernandez, 74, sharing his memories of the estate during a Dawson and Alexandra heritage tour run by charity My Community. Since the charity's inception, it has organised public tours for over 7,000 people. PHOTOS: MY COMMUNITY
A participant of the Dawson and Alexandra tour taking photographs of an abandoned bunker in Kay Siang Road. Participants listening to long-time Queensway resident Paul Fernandez, 74, sharing his memories of the estate during a Dawson and Alexandra he
My Community volunteers (from left) Jasper Tan, Choo Lip Sin, Ivan Ho and Mohammed Herizzad Ruslan.PHOTOS: MY COMMUNITY
A participant of the Dawson and Alexandra tour taking photographs of an abandoned bunker in Kay Siang Road. Participants listening to long-time Queensway resident Paul Fernandez, 74, sharing his memories of the estate during a Dawson and Alexandra he
A participant of the Dawson and Alexandra tour taking photographs of an abandoned bunker in Kay Siang Road.PHOTOS: MY COMMUNITY

Charity organises tours in older towns and exhibitions on their social history

It started with an error in a social studies textbook naming Toa Payoh as Singapore's first satellite town.

Heritage researcher Kwek Li Yong spotted the mistake in 2011 and immediately informed the Ministry of Education. The incident prompted him to document the history of Singapore's public housing estates, particularly the country's first satellite town, Queenstown.

"Seeing that error showed me that there is a lot of misinformation on Queenstown and it emphasised the importance of documenting our social history," said the 26-year-old, who works at a heritage consultancy.

In 2009, he and his friend, Mr Jasper Tan, 26, founded My Community, a charity that documents social memories and champions community heritage. Mr Tan works on My Community projects full-time.

The group organises heritage tours around older estates and coordinates exhibitions on the social history of these areas using oral accounts and items from residents.

It receives funding from the Lee Foundation, the Tote Board and the National Heritage Board.

Besides Queenstown, the charity has also focused on Dempsey and Tanglin.

Since the group's inception, it has organised public tours for more than 7,000 people.

There are currently three tour routes: Commonwealth and Holland Village, Tanglin Halt and Margaret Drive, and Alexandra and Dawson. A fourth tour covering Labrador Park is set to be launched in July.

"Every neighbourhood has a story and we want to document these stories," said Mr Tan. "We realised that residents of older estates, particularly Queenstown, are very proud of their history, so we decided to start in those places."

Interesting sights on the Commonwealth and Holland Village tour, for example, include the Ying Fo Fui Kun ancestral hall, which was built in 1887 and is the oldest building in Queenstown, and the Eng Wah open-air theatre, which closed down in 1985.

The free walking tours, organised three times a month on weekends, last three to four hours a session. Each tour takes about 60 people. They are guided along the route by volunteers familiar with the area.

There are also resident guides who meet participants along the route. These guides are able to provide interesting snippets of information and share with the participants their own experiences living in the estate.

Some volunteers are previous tour participants. One is travel agency director Huang Eu Chai, 53, who joined the group after going on a tour in 2013. "I wanted to compare what I knew with what had been documented," he said.

The long-time resident of Queenstown also wanted to share the heritage of the town with others.

With its tours often fully booked, the group is hoping to add more sessions starting this year. To do that, it is recruiting 50 more volunteers - to add to its current pool of 30 - to guide tours and curate exhibitions.

Those selected will be given training by the group's founders to equip them with basic information on the tours they will be leading.

Mr Kwek said: "We are looking for people who are committed, independent and open-minded, with a passion for community heritage."

•For more information on tour schedules and how to volunteer as a guide, visit My Community's website at www.mycommunity.org.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Housing estates with stories to tell'. Print Edition | Subscribe