Street View: Buona Vista pools have a place in many hearts

Complex which has been part of residents' lives shuts after 38 years

THREE generations of Mr Riduwan Matni's family have used the pools at Buona Vista Swimming Complex, which after 38 years will lock its gates for good tomorrow as the land is cleared for redevelopment.

As a child, Mr Riduwan and his brothers would splash around in the pools under their parents' watchful gaze. Now, the 44-year- old marketing agency owner is the doting father, watching over his two daughters.

"The cycle ends here, unfortunately. My daughters won't be able to bring their children here," said Mr Riduwan, whose family has lived in the area since he was two. "It's like how you want your kids to go to the school you went to. You want them to have the same memories you did. That sort of bond brings you closer."

The complex is more than a timeless landmark to residents.

A regular since it opened, Mr Phillip Tan, 85, said: "It hasn't changed at all, it's like walking back into the past. This place is our heart. When you demolish it, it's like you're breaking our heart into pieces."

When it first opened in 1976, the $1.8 million complex was a modern marvel with three pools equipped with bi-flow filter systems that automatically filter and drain water. It was part of the Singapore Sports Council's (SSC) Master Plan on Sports Facilities.

But the complex's time has come. It joins eight other public pools that have ceased operations since 2001. The SSC has told residents they can use the Queenstown, Clementi or Delta pools instead.

But most Buona Vista regulars are senior citizens who have lived in the area for decades, and travelling may be too difficult.

Last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced plans for Holland Village, including new mixed-use developments and a community park.

The modest Kampong Holland Mosque and the open-air carpark next to it will also disappear soon.

The SSC's assistant director of corporate communications and relations, Mr S. Parameswaran, said part of the new community park will be built on the swimming complex's current site. Part of the complex will also be used as an interim carpark while a new underground one is built.

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Change has been lapping at the edges of the complex for years. Flats around it were earmarked for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme in 2005 and construction barriers from the projects ring its perimeter.

But swimmers still see in it rosy memories of their youth: swimming lessons marked by desperate flailing, horsing around with friends and even the first, timid steps of teenage courtship.

Mr Kenny Lee, 48, took his first girlfriend there on a date. "We were both too shy to hold hands, but that day I reached out under water to take her hand for the first time," he said.

"I thought nobody could see, but my friends suddenly stopped playing and started shouting 'Goaaaallll!' My girlfriend was so embarrassed she cried."

Residents have rallied to save the swimming complex on several occasions. In 1999, when whispers of its closure swept through the community, they sent a petition to the SSC, which assured them there were no such plans.

Years later, these whispers resurfaced. In 2011, actress Pamela Oei, a long-time resident of the area who had watched the pools being filled up from her window when the complex first opened, handed MP Chan Chun Sing a petition to save the complex.

She said he later told her the plans been sketched out before he took over as MP and the land was already divided.

"I never doubted it would go," she said. "But I just had to make an effort, and register my unhappiness. If it just closed down with nobody protesting, it would be a bigger shame."

The end will come not with a whimper, but a splash.

Mr Tan and 83-year-old Mr Cheng Yoon Kong - who meet other old-timers at the complex about five times a week for a swim and a chat - organised a buffet lunch yesterday at their own cost to thank the pool staff.

Ms Letchami Ramachandra, who has worked there for three years, will be redeployed to Queenstown Swimming Complex.

"A lot of senior citizens are regulars here and they've become like grandparents to me," said the 30-year-old. "It's like I'm losing my family."

Tonight, a group of volunteers have planned a charity swim, inviting residents and fellow swimmers to bid "Hasta La Vista Buona Vista" to the complex. Proceeds will be donated to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund. One of the organisers, Mr Dennis Quek, has trained at the complex with fellow triathletes for over three years.

The 51-year-old said: "It's how we want to say goodbye to a place so many people have grown fond of. If we have to let it go, let's do it by having a good time and by having one last swim, all of us and our memories."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 7, 2014