Special memories from my HDB corridor

This is a story about a corridor.

Yes, those nondescript passages that help us get around a Housing Board block. More often spaces we simply pass through, rather than places in their own right.

I like to think of the HDB corridor as the poorer, less glamorous cousin of the much celebrated void deck - that ubiquitous open deck on the ground floor of an HDB block.

Like the void deck, a corridor is a public place, managed by the town councils. But it is more personal and meaningful to residents. For one thing, it is literally closer to them.

No wonder people want to plant their own crops along the corridor - high-rise farming interest groups are taking off on social media - or dress them up with extravagant decorations during festivals like Chinese New Year, as Bedok resident Linda Cheng did.

Some, like Jalan Rajah resident Priyageetha Dia, go to more extreme lengths to express their feelings. The art student made headlines last month by covering the 20th-storey corridor staircase of her block in gold foil.

And honestly, I'm not surprised that these people do what they do.

My corridor has been the site of many valuable memories. It has given me, and I'm sure many other residents in HDB blocks all around Singapore, many stories to tell.

I have lived in my HDB block in Yishun for 24 years of my life, since I was two.

A maisonette type with just two storeys, the long horizontal block has been repainted quite a few times over the years. There is a staircase at each end and my unit sits right beside one flight on the upper level. They don't build flats like this any more.

In 2013, a lift was installed in the block. Life got more convenient. And admittedly lazier.

But amid all these changes, the grey concrete corridor has remained unchanged. I still look with fascination at that lifeless stretch, brought alive by my own experiences growing up.

I recall an incident when I was eight. My family had returned home from a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration. You know, the one where people light candles and hold lanterns and many children learn for the first time that they shouldn't try to play with fire.

We turned the corner from the staircase and there it was - a fire along the corridor outside my unit, fed by some burning paper.

It was small enough to be stomped out by my dad, but big enough to be scary. My mum quickly pulled my brother and me backwards towards her.

Oh, and two kids were hightailing it from the scene. My dad chased them, down that long corridor to the other end. He caught one of them - long story short, nothing was damaged and we settled it without calling the police.

Until today, that episode remains one of my most vivid reminders of my parents' love and care.

But that very same corridor was also daunting at times.

When I was in Primary 1, there was once when my mum didn't turn up to pick me from school. So I walked home on my own and when I reached my gate, there was no one home.

Back then, I didn't have a mobile phone. If that incident had happened now, I would probably have just WhatsApped my family chat group, asking if anyone was home, then hung out in the corridor tapping on the house WiFi to surf the Web. I might even have posted an Instagram story. "Forgot my keys. LOL. Hashtag stranded. Hashtag send help."

Instead, I trudged along that corridor to my neighbour's unit, rang the doorbell and asked in my most calm and polite voice if I could use the phone.

Okay, maybe I wasn't that calm. I might even have panicked slightly. Turned out my mum just went to the market for a bit or something.

But I came out of that episode safe in the knowledge that I could make the 500m journey home from school alone in one piece.

Fast forward many years and I was heading out to work at the Neighbourhood Police Centre during my national service days.

I thought I heard someone crying outside my apartment, which was unusual because people don't normally cry outside my home.

So I opened the front door and looked out. It was my neighbour's daughter, dressed in her school uniform and carrying her school bag, standing outside her locked door down the corridor from my flat.

No one was home and she was freaking out. And although little me hadn't bawled back then, our feelings of fear had probably been similar.

So I crossed that corridor, let her use my mobile phone to call her mum and waited with her until her brother appeared a while later.

And just last Wednesday, at 1am in the dead of the night, the corridor was the scene of a totally different experience.

Usually at that hour, we only hear the neighbourhood stray cats meowing at each other, or the reverse sensor of a car beeping as it parks.

But that night, it sounded like someone - or something - in a nearby unit was repeatedly knocking against a wall.

"Dun, dun, dun, dun..."

My brother and I walked out into the corridor trying to find the source of the noise. Two other curious neighbours also came out. It was the cutest pyjama party ever.

As it turned out, someone in a unit below was trying to open a bedroom door that was stuck.

We returned to our flats as there was nothing we could do, being neither locksmiths nor the Hulk.

A while later, the repetitive knocking sound was joined by the noise of walkie-talkies. There were now two cops at my corridor party, probably called by some worried neighbour.

I explained to them the situation downstairs and I will never forget the look of bemusement on their faces. The stuck door was eventually opened and all was well.

Anyone living along a corridor would likely say that the space has played an essential but oft-overlooked role in their lives.

It brings an intimate human element to community living, fostering among residents an unusual sense of ownership of the public space, and of the personal and communal memories created there.

My corridor will never be mine alone. But that's exactly what makes it so special.

• #opinionoftheday is a column by younger writers in the newsroom on issues that matter to them and their peers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline Special memories from my HDB corridor. Subscribe