Secret Journeys in Singapore: Remembering Blk 29 Havelock Road and my grandma’s life

Bryna Singh revisits Block 29, Havelock Road, where her beloved grandmother once dwelled. But the block is being demolished. Wandering to Block 22, a mirror of Block 29, she sees another grandmother and speaks with her. Pick up a copy of The Straits Times to read her full story in the National Day Special.

Recently, I set off to visit my grandmother Wan Yit Poh’s flat - at Block 29, Havelock Road - for the first time since she died back in 1999 at the age of 77.

I have only childhood memories of the area, as my por por (Cantonese for maternal grandmother) died when I was 13.

Now, 14 years later, I am walking down memory lane on a breezy weekday afternoon. I’m glad to see that Giok Hong Tian, or Jade Emperor Temple, which is over a century old, still stands, and that its facade is still its signature chilli-red.

The lush, green hill behind the temple is still there, too, and I remember my mother telling me how she and her siblings would sit on cardboard and slide down it when they were young.

I arrive at where Block 29 should be. But it - or its remnants - are shrouded in grey material.

A sign says: Demolition.

Through a slit in the hoarding, I see the familiar staircase behind the block. When I was a child, it seemed overwhelmingly high. Today, it is a comforting sight, in the midst of change.

I am sad, and then grow angry that time - and development - did not wait for my return.

The sound of drilling, and the sight of debris falling to the ground, is taunting.

Opposite the site is Kim Seng Community Centre. A man at the reception counter tells me, with a wan smile, I am too late.

The block was vacated last December, and demolition commenced in February. I fight back tears. And imagine Block 29 as it used to be.

At ground-level are the coffeeshop, provision shop and the photo studio where my parents’ wedding pictures were taken.

I see the steps where my father would set us down when we visited por por, before he went to look for a carpark lot.

Bicycle bells ring. Children laugh as they cycle at the void deck.

Back to reality, and I am heartened by these memories, enough to walk on. My footsteps quicken when I see Block 22 in the distance - I realise it has the same facade as Block 29.

I snap pictures of Block 22’s diamond-patterned alcoves. As a child, I used to peer out from such “windows”, moving from one diamond to another.

Por por lived on the 15th floor. I take the lift to the equivalent floor here.

The narrow corridor is lined with potted plants. I think of all the plants that por por used grow outside her flat, and her green fingers which could revive the limpest of flowers.

I hear the sounds of a television, people chattering. I smell food being prepared for dinner. Por por would sit on the floor with a pestle and mortar, pounding chillies, shrimp, ginger, garlic, everything. She could cook so well. Chinese New Years were a feast.

A grandmother comes out of her flat, a toddler in her arms.

I watch as she talks to him, and points out Block 29. I see excavators pounding mercilessly away at the block.

I approach the grandmother and tell her about my por por.

What a pity, she says. You should have come earlier.

Yes, I should have, I say in reply, and bid her goodbye. It feels as though I am saying goodbye to por por again. up a copy of The Straits Times to read Bryna Singh's full story on Havelock in Secret Journeys In Singapore, the National Day Special.