Same same, but different: A visit to the Dakota Crescent replica in Johor Baru

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Just 10 minutes across the Causeway, stands a replica of the iconic Dakota Crescent Dove Playground in Stulang Darat, Johor Baru.
The dove playground in Stulang Durat, in Johor Baru, which bears a striking resemblance to the playground in Dakota Crescent in Singapore. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Ms Yap N.K., a former hotel worker who lives in Stulang Darat estate. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Letterboxes hanging from a staircase wall in Stulang Darat estate. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Retired factory worker Amy Chik, who has lived in the estate for 52 years. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
The Stulang Darat estate in Johor Baru is populated mainly by older folk. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - Dakota Crescent, home to the iconic dove playground, is now a ghost town, having been vacated this year as part of redevelopment plans for the estate.

But a parallel universe exists across the border, just 10 minutes from the Causeway in Stulang Darat, where elderly residents chit-chat around a playground which boasts the same key design elements.

The playground features a concrete dove and a bridge connecting it to a pyramid just like the one in Dakota Crescent. And like the Singapore version, there are also rubber tyre swings at the pyramid's base.

Photos of the Johor Bahru (JB) version, snapped by photographer Weixiang Lim last week, have made its rounds online and in heritage circles. Mr Lim, 35, said: "It's a very strange feeling because there has always been this tension in Singapore to save this and that and then you see the Dove playground, at risk of disappearing, right here in JB."

How the two estates ended up with similar playgrounds remain unclear although both date back to the same era. Dakota Crescent is thought to have been built first, dating back to 1979.

The Stulang Darat playground is currently maintained by the Johor Baru city council and it is likely also the one that built it.

Speaking to The Straits Times (ST),the council's landscape architect Mustika Ally Zulkifli said she was unable to obtain records that show when the Stulang Darat playground was built. But she said that it - together with another similar Dove playground 10 minutes away in Taman Nong Chik - were likely put up in the 1980s.

The Stulang Darat estate in Johor Baru is populated mainly by older folk. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Ms Mustika added that there used to be a few more dove playgrounds in JB but most of them have since been demolished.

When residents of Stulang Darat where shown photos of Dakota Crescent by The Straits Times, most were surprised at the existence of a twin estate.

Retired factory worker Amy Chik, 71, exclaimed in shock: "This one is Singapore's (playground)? Same hor? How come ah?"

Only two of 10 residents The Straits Times spoke to said they knew about Singapore's playground. Housewife Ms Tong Joo Tiang, 54, said she saw it last year in a Singaporean drama that had been filmed in Dakota Crescent.

Ms Mustika understands why the design might have been duplicated back then. Apart from its "classic and timeless" appearance, she said such structures are easier to maintain because they are made out of concrete, terrazzo and mosaic tiles.

In contrast, she said modern playgrounds made of plastic are more susceptible to vandals and thieves who can unscrew components and run off with them.

She added: "If the dove playground gets vandalised or sprayed with graffiti, we can just repaint it or use thinner to clean it."

When asked whether she would feel offended or flattered if someone had copied her design, she said: "I would feel proud because indirectly I can share good things with others. Secondly, I become a trendsetter."

Meanwhile, the man behind the design, Khor Ean Ghee, 82, who worked with Singapore's HDB from 1969 to 1984, declined to comment on the Stulang Darat playground when contacted. However, ST understands that he was only aware that his design exists in Malaysia upon seeing Mr Lim's photos. Two other dove playgrounds were also built in Bukit Batok and Clementi.

Some architects in Singapore said that while duplication is the highest form of flattery, designers usually appreciate it if they were consulted.

Beyond the playground, the suburb in Stulang Darat itself also bears other similarities to Dakota Crescent of the past - before residents moved out of the Singapore Improvement Trust estate earlier this year.

Like in Dakota, doors are largely left unlocked in Stulang Darat and neighbours let themselves into each other's homes. Its residents are also colourful and charismatic.

Take former hotel worker Ms Yap N.K., 60, who at one moment was bobbing up and down to Chinese New Year ditties blaring from her flat, and the next moment, taking a ride on the playground swing.

Ms Yap N.K., a former hotel worker who lives in Stulang Darat estate. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

When The Straits Times visited on an overcast Thursday morning, there were scenes which harked back to a Singapore long gone.

From a ground floor unit, a resident hawks bowls of steaming hot yong tau foo to residents. On some evenings, a man selling bread, rolls into the neighbourhood in a van. Those who hear his horn, lower a basket from their units for the bread-seller to hand them a loaf.

Ms Yap, who set up a small gardening area of her own behind the estate, is aware of this. She said: "My son asked me to move to Singapore. I won't be able to create my own space like that over there right?"

Ms Chik, who has lived in the estate for 52 years, said they can relate to how Dakota Crescent's residents felt when they were asked to move out.

Retired factory worker Amy Chik, who has lived in the estate for 52 years. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

According to Ms Chik, their old fishing village in Stulang Laut was told to vacate in the 1960s so a glass factory could be built in its place. In turn, the authorities erected three-storey walk-up blocks for them which they moved into in 1969.

Former Dakota Crescent resident, Ms Low Shuilin, 27, a childcare teacher, said she somewhat envies the residents of Stulang Darat. "The neighbourhood is much more alive as people still stay there. Maybe I will visit one day. It is really cool to see my playground there."

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