Void decks remain a vital slice of HDB life

Madam Chen Yuemei (left), 68, and her husband, Mr Wang Ye, 69, both retirees, teach elderly residents how to make dumplings at Palmwalk Cafe Corner, which is located at the void deck of Block 839, Tampines Street 83. The newly opened community cafe i
Madam Chen Yuemei (left), 68, and her husband, Mr Wang Ye, 69, both retirees, teach elderly residents how to make dumplings at Palmwalk Cafe Corner, which is located at the void deck of Block 839, Tampines Street 83. The newly opened community cafe is where residents can interact informally over coffee and tea.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Madam Chen Yuemei (left), 68, and her husband, Mr Wang Ye, 69, both retirees, teach elderly residents how to make dumplings at Palmwalk Cafe Corner, which is located at the void deck of Block 839, Tampines Street 83. The newly opened community cafe i
ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Residents are drawn to them even as changing block designs threaten their existence

It is a Tuesday morning, and about 20 elderly women are huddled at the void deck of Block 839, Tampines Street 83. Two neighbours are teaching them how to make dumplings while they slurp free coffee and tea at the block's newly opened community cafe.
 

Also at the void deck is a mobile library filled with children's books, including comics and literary classics - the perfect after-school treat for students living nearby.

A few streets away, beneath Block 718, Tampines Street 72, a group of senior citizens are engrossed in a regular session of tile game Rummy-O which, as retiree Tan Bak Muay puts it, is "good for the brain and eyes".

 

"I don't want to get dementia," quipped the 72-year-old former hawker as she gingerly laid one of her tiles on the stone table at the block's residents' corner.

These everyday scenes are but glimpses of the daily bustle at void decks - communal spaces typically on the ground level of most of Singapore's 10,000 HDB blocks.

SOCIAL HUB

Everyone is nice here. Sometimes, we chat until we forget the time.

MADAM WONG CHEET KIAT, a housewife, on how having an HDB void deck also means being able to make friends.

Void decks recently came under the spotlight after metal barriers and posters banning chess-playing went up at some of these common areas in Mei Ling Street and Haig Road respectively.

Void decks have come a long way since the first one popped up at Block 26 in Tiong Bahru in 1963. At the turn of the decade, more blocks were similarly equipped so residents could interact and have planned activities, said the HDB.

Designed to be "large flexible community spaces", void decks were soon used for all sorts of social activities, from block parties and bird-singing competitions to weddings and funeral wakes.

Over time, facilities such as sundry shops, childcare centres, kidney dialysis centres and bomb shelters were added to cater to the needs of residents.

But even as void decks became an integral part of public housing, the evolving design of HDB blocks has threatened their traditional existence. While older, slab blocks meant more space on the ground floor, newer and taller blocks now spell shrunken void decks.

The Housing Board told The Straits Times that the shift in block design caters to "residents' preference for greater privacy", and that precinct pavilions were introduced to supplement void decks.

Unlike void decks, however, these pavilions - stand-alone sheltered areas of about 200 sq m - are shared among several blocks.

Void decks have also assumed other forms in recent years. At HDB project Skyville @ Dawson, for instance, sky gardens on higher floors offer interactive space with both greenery and a view.

Regardless of their incarnation, void decks remain an indelible slice of HDB life. But some things do not change: Children still chase one another around the pillars playing catching games as teenagers sweat it out over a game of badminton. Elderly folk chuckle over a silly chess move, while others try to keep up with the latest zumba beat.

For housewife Wong Cheet Kiat, 83, having a void deck also means having friends. "There is nobody at home in the day because everyone is working," said the Tampines resident, who lives with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson.

Gesturing to some friends she first met at a nearby void deck, Madam Wong added: "Everyone is nice here. Sometimes, we chat until we forget the time."

•Additional reporting by Lim Yaohui

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Void decks remain a vital slice of HDB life'. Print Edition | Subscribe