HDB tour and ang ku kueh moulds: Little eye-openers on a walk around the heartland

Early HDB blocks were modelled after shophouses, with their five-foot ways and residences sitting above businesses. PHOTO: LESLIE KOH

What do Housing Board flats have to do with shophouses? Or with ang ku kueh moulds?

More than I would have thought, as it turns out. On a recent local walking tour, I also discover that spending a couple of hours ambling around the heartland can be more interesting than I would have imagined. (Yes, even if the new cooling measures may be squelching the property market.)

It is probably not a tour I would have considered signing up for, to be honest. The "Evolution of Public Housing - An Architecture and History Tour through the Everton, Cantonment and Pinnacle Housing Estates" sounds very much like an educational tour, something that only tourists and architectural or history students would be interested in.

Indeed, most of the guests joining tour guide Yeo Pei Shyuan on the walk have tended to be expatriates, students and locals who have not lived in a HDB flat. ("Crazy Rich Asians," we joke.)

But if you are looking for something a little different from the "usual" exploration of historical and heritage areas around Singapore - and a way to use up your SingapoRediscover Vouchers, which you will need to redeem by the end of December - this might be worth considering.

While more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats, many may not know much about the story behind them or the evolution that they have gone through since HDB was set up in 1960 to provide homes for the bulk of the population.

Ms Yeo herself finds Singapore-style public housing intriguing. "I've lived overseas for some years and seen public housing elsewhere. There is nothing like this on earth," she enthuses.

She grew up in Tiong Bahru - where the first public homes were built by the pre-war Singapore Improvement Trust - and now lives around Cantonment Road, the site of our two-hour walking tour.

This area, as she proceeds to show us, houses HDB flats from three eras.

The slab blocks in Everton Park reflect the ethos of early post-Independence years of public housing, when the priority was to build as many flats as possible.

"They were all standardised so they could be built quickly, just like this," notes Ms Yeo, holding aloft the ang ku kueh mould.

At the same time, HDB was already giving some thought to building communities, and not just homes. Many of the blocks around Everton Park feature shops and coffee shops on the ground floor. "They're modelled after shophouses," she points out.

This comparison had never struck me, but now, looking at the long corridors so reminiscent of the five-foot-ways, and the concept of co-locating shops downstairs and homes upstairs, it all clicks into place.

In recent years, newer businesses such as bespoke barbers and bakeries have moved into the area, injecting a bit of buzz - and youth - into the old estate.

Making a pit stop at bakery cafe The Better Half, we meet owners Jonathan Ng, 28, and Neo Hwee Ying, 26, who had started out with an online business in Bukit Batok, but were drawn by Everton Park's central location to set up shop in a tiny space on the ground floor of a HDB block.

"It's easier for our customers to collect their cakes," says Mr Ng, "and we can fulfil our vision of bringing cakes and coffee together. Everton Park is coming back to life."

New shops like bakery café The Better Half have sprouted up in Everton Park, bringing a new lease of life to the old estate. PHOTO: LESLIE KOH

By comparison, the newer blocks in nearby Cantonment Close, with their quiet void decks, seem almost lifeless, even though they are arguably nicer. These blocks represent the burgeoning growth-years of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw more thought being given to aesthetics and flat sizes being enlarged.

If these two estates epitomise the past and present, then the Pinnacle @ Duxton must surely embody the future, with its soaring towers, sky gardens and integrated community facilities.

It is quite a sight and I find myself gawking like a tourist, snapping photos and pretending to nod sagely as Ms Yeo points out the estate's modern and green features.

The Pinnacle @ Duxton (left) and HDB blocks of Cantonment Close loom over old shophouses and the former Yan Kit Swimming Complex. PHOTO: LESLIE KOH

If not for the tour, I would probably never have thought of taking a walk around this estate.

Another surprise awaits me on the other side of the Pinnacle - a former swimming complex that stirs up imagination of life in the 1930s. Now a community sports facility, the lovely, nostalgic-looking Yan Kit Swimming Complex is probably old news to residents in the area, but a delightful find to me.

And that is probably one of the nice things about local tours, I think. They may not always be the most exciting of trips, but the little "Oh, I never realised this was here" discoveries can make them worth the trouble of getting out of the house for an afternoon or two. Even if it is to walk around an HDB neighbourhood.

  • The writer is a former Straits Times journalist.
  • This walking tour was hosted by Blue Sky Escapes. For more stories on exploring Singapore, go to str.sg/sg-go-where

The deadline to redeem SingapoRediscovers Vouchers has been extended to Dec 31, 2021, though bookings can be made for experiences until March 2022. More details can be found at the SingapoRediscovers website.

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