Matilda Portico? HDB gets into the name game

It says branding efforts help residents identify with neighbourhoods

A portico is a columned walkway that originated in ancient Greece. Nautilus is a shellfish and the name of Captain Nemo's submarine in the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

What about ancilla? It does not exist even in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, but is said to have a Latin origin and apparently means girl servant, or sea snails.

These words, however, have somehow found their way onto the Housing Board's list of names for public housing estates. Among the latest Build-To-Order (BTO) projects announced in March this year was one in Punggol called Matilda Portico.

Compassvale Ancilla in Sengkang Central and the Nautilus in Punggol are the other names the HDB has come up with in recent years. Others include Waterway Sunbeam, Punggol Spectra, The Periwinkle, Edgedale Green and The Coris.

These tongue-twisters may be a bane to non-English-speaking elderly folk and taxi drivers, but the HDB says it is all part of a long- term branding policy, which it hopes creates a special identity and builds a sense of community among residents. "The objective was to create local identities that residents can relate to and foster neighbourliness," said a spokesman for HDB.

It all started with Kim Keat Court back in 1995, after old blocks in the estate were given a new paint job and amenities such as fitness corners were added. Before that, they were just Blocks 1, 2 and 3 in Toa Payoh Lorong 7.

But how did the HDB go from Kim Keat Court to the Nautilus and Compassvale Ancilla? With plenty of thought, apparently.

The HDB said its guiding principles for names include the location of the estate, special design features and any interesting historical or cultural link.

As much as possible, HDB would also choose names that are distinct from nearby developments to avoid confusion.

This process also involves the project's architects. The Waterway Sunbeam, for instance, draws influence from the Punggol waterway, a prominent feature in the area, and the local Malayan Sunbeam butterfly.

The HDB even has a theme going for studio apartment projects, which are meant to provide seniors with affordable housing.

All have the word "golden" in the first part of their names to indicate graceful ageing. The second part can come from local plants or spices, like Golden Saffron in Woodlands.

Sometimes the names come from residents, as in the case of selective en bloc redevelopment when residents move out to make way for redevelopment. They get to vote on a selection of names for their next development.

An example is Commonwealth 10 in Tanglin Halt Road, which was picked by residents because of its link to their former "Chap Lao" (Hokkien for 10-storey) blocks before the relocation.

But what's in a name, really?

According to sociologist Tan Ern Ser, having a distinctive, meaningful, catchy and easy to understand name can help residents identify with their estate. But he felt it was more important for residents to get together and collaborate on common projects.

Some residents are getting into the swing of things, like Mr Sam Zhiquan, a Punggol Spectra resident or "Spectran", as he and his neighbours like to call themselves.

The 27-year-old runs a Facebook page with more than 700 Spectrans on it. "The name is easier to search for online than, say, block numbers and roads," said the IT consultant. "It makes it easier to find fellow residents, and for us to help one another out."

Taxi driver Vincent Ng, however, said it would be a long while before such names catch on, unless there is a nearby landmark or a famous food stall.

The 50-year-old said in Mandarin: "It's nice to see, but there are so many HDB flats all over, how can I remember everything?"

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