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Photographer spent 30 years capturing old HDB estates

Photographer has spent 30 years capturing old estates before they were demolished

Hobbyist photographer Koh Kim Chay feels deeply rooted in Singapore's public housing estates.

For almost three decades, using an analogue film camera, he has documented thousands of homes before they were demolished.

The retired engineer, 60, grew up in Stirling Road, in two of Singapore's oldest HDB blocks.

Three rental blocks - 45, 48, and 49 - were completed in 1961, and Mr Koh's family had a flat on the seventh floor of Block 48. They moved to Block 45 in 1974.

He remembers that when a man selling bread came by on his bicycle, there was no need for his mother and other neighbours to go downstairs - they would just lower a basket on a rope to pay for and collect their bread.

There were also cows that roamed freely in the vicinity. And he recalls many happy hours spent fishing for guppies in the stream that is now the Alexandra Canal.

Mr Koh, who is married with a son, now lives in an executive Housing Board flat in Choa Chu Kang.

 

From the lush expanse of the colonial-era Princess Elizabeth Park estate to the brick-clad heights of Pickering Street, they have all been captured by Mr Koh before they were demolished.

Many of the dwellings were built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), set up in July 1927 under the Singapore Improvement Ordinance to solve the serious housing shortage then faced by a rapidly growing population. The SIT was dissolved in 1959, and its successor, the HDB, took over in February 1960.

Other photographs showcase the newer-generation flats in refurbished or newly emerging estates in the 1970s through to the 1980s, with amenities such as schools, food centres, markets, and shops. These are all gone too.

Mr Koh hopes to publish a photo book of 27 old estates, titled Singapore's Vanished Public Housing Estates.

Working with him is photographer and former teacher Eugene Ong, 39, who helped to curate the pictures and did research for the accompanying text.

Last month, they started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise US$10,000 (S$14,000) to cover the design and printing cost of 500 copies.

The book is designed by Do Not Design, a creative agency specialising in work for art, culture and commerce.

So far, the duo have raised about 86 per cent of their target. The campaign will end on May 10.

Mr Koh hopes the book can help Singaporeans remember the places that had to make way for new buildings. "After documenting old Singapore for the past 30 years, I feel it is important to leave something tangible for posterity," he says.

"There are lots to learn from the photos and they are a part of Singapore's history that many have never seen before as the buildings are no longer here. We have to tell those stories."

•Go to igg.me/at/svphe to support the crowdfunding campaign.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Housing the old days in print'. Print Edition | Subscribe