IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Suburb where time stands still

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 1, 2013

A SWANKY new National Stadium rises in Kallang. Two years ago, the nearby Goodman Arts Centre opened its doors to a hip young crowd. One street away, a new condominium has been built on the site of Housing Board flats.

But amid these changes, time has passed by Dakota Crescent, one of Singapore's oldest HDB estates, located off Old Airport Road. The 17 blocks of low-rise flats have hardly changed since being built in 1958.

No wonder, then, that their retro architecture and old-school playground make them a hot spot for photographers and artists.

"It's rare to see such old flats," said Mr Renalto Wong, 25, who was there on a Sunday, sketching a 54-year-old provision shop that recently closed down. "There's something comfortable and nostalgic about this place - it's almost like a hideout."

The estate was named after the Douglas DC-3 Dakota, a model of plane that landed at Kallang Airport in the past.

Built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) - the forerunner of the HDB - most of the 600 flats are leased to low-income families under the board's public rental scheme. The flats are occupied mostly by elderly residents, who pay as low as $26 a month for a one-room flat and $44 a month for a two-room flat.

Scrap-goods buyer Ng Guan Swee, 68, has lived in Dakota Crescent since it was built.

"There was a fire in Cecil Street in the 50s and our house got burned down, so we were allocated a house in Dakota Crescent," he recalled in Mandarin.

At that time, Mr Ng's grandmother had bound feet - as was the custom in her day - and the family requested a ground-level unit. Theirs, at Block 20, has been home to Mr Ng and his sister for more than 50 years.

"When we came in 1958, there were no streetlights," said Mr Ng, sitting amid old laser disc players, hi-fi sets and other vintage items in his home. He remembers traversing the dark streets to go to the nearby Guillemard shophouses for snacks.

But in the 1960s, as more families moved in, a market sprang up opposite the estate.

"Almost every unit in this estate was occupied. Neighbours knew one another and our doors were always open," said Mr Ng. "Those were good times."

Madam Yong Fong Keow, 64, who moved there in the 60s, also misses such communal life.

Gesturing at a new condominium, she said in Mandarin: "There was a bakery there. At 3pm or 4pm, we would smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. That's when you grabbed some money and a neighbour and went to buy bread."

But now, communal life in Dakota is a shadow of what it used to be. Only about 60 per cent of the units are occupied. Of a row of four shops, only two - both Chinese medicine clinics - remain.

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Neighbours started moving out in the 90s, some to live with their children.

Then, a new wave of tenants moved there in 2005 when the HDB leased empty units to private operators, who, in turn, rented them to foreign workers.

"You could hear Thai accents, Filipino accents and Chinese accents around the neighbourhood, it was like a mini United Nations," Mr Ng joked.

While some residents got used to these new faces, others did not.

Madam Amy De Silva, a long-time resident in her 60s, said: "Some of them were rowdy and you could hear them coming home late at night. Their living habits just didn't suit ours."

The HDB's agreement with the managing agent ended last year and the foreign workers have since moved out of the Dakota estate.

However, at Block 32, an empty unit is littered with cardboard boxes and clothes. Mr Y.Y Goh, 57, a resident, said foreign workers live there but they do not disturb anyone.

One empty unit in Block 12, though, has become a party spot for teens. "They drink, eat, smoke, and mess the place up," said a resident who wanted to be known only as Mr Zhang.

When The Straits Times visited, there were drink cans, chip packets and cardboard boxes in the unit.

In another vacant unit in Block 16, graffiti was scrawled on the walls. Some residents suspect teenagers sniffed glue there - some were spotted going into the unit with bags over their noses.

The HDB said that it has received complaints about crime and mischief in the area and informed the police.

But Dakota, now somewhat of a ghost town, may soon be more crowded again. The HDB said it is offering empty units as interim housing to needy families awaiting new flats. They were expected to start moving in progressively from last month. It has not indicated any long-term plans to develop the estate, however.

Although Dakota has been dubbed an "old people's estate", the few young faces who live there have no complaints.

"It's a five-minute walk from Dakota and Mountbatten MRT stations, we have the Old Airport Road hawker centre and I hang out with friends at the Kallang Leisure Park nearby," said Mr Kartigesan Saravanan, 20, who has lived in Dakota for the past 13 years. "It's really a good location."

Indeed, resident Bill Koh, who is in his 50s, said: "So many new buildings are coming up around us, it's hard not to worry what might happen.

"People always come here and say how nice this estate is. There's lots of green space between these old flats. It's a pity if one of Singapore's oldest estates is gone - maybe they should consider conserving it."

kashc@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Lee Jian Xuan

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 1, 2013

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