Commonwealth Drive’s One Last Block Party
Pile drivers, tower cranes, budding skyscrapers and pre-fabricated unit stacked atop each other – construction and urban renewal are everyday scenes of the Singapore cityscape. On the other end of the spectrum is that scene of demolition, which goes down quickly without a whimper, often rendering buildings to mere stone and sand in a few days.
Come November 2015, that iconic image of the row of flats depicted on the one-dollar note of the Orchid Series (Singapore’s first currency series issued in 1967) will be relinquished to nothing more than paper memory. Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive were among the first public housing blocks built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). HDB took over the colonial administration’s Singapore Improvement Trust in 1960 and continued with the development of Queenstown, Singapore’s first satellite town.
These Commonwealth Drive chup laus (Hokkien colloquial for ten-storey flats) were built between 1960 and 1967 under HDB’s first Five-Year-Programme. Dr Chia Shi-Lu, Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC (Queenstown Division) said: “Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive were the earliest public housing flats constructed by the Housing and Development Board to alleviate overcrowding in Chinatown in the 1960s. These flats play an important role in the country’s national building.”overcrowding in Chinatown in the 1960s. These flats play an important role in the country’s national building.”
Former residents spoke highly of the estate’s kampong spirit and sense of neighbourhoodliness. Tanglin Halt resident, Alice Lee, 67, said: “My neighbours and I used to meet and go to the pasar malam along Tanglin Halt Road on Friday and Saturday nights, bargaining with the hawkers and sampling the street food. Everyone was happy to talk to you, even if you weren’t there to buy but just wanted to look and sample.”
Tanglin Halt, like other estates of Queenstown, was planned as a self-contained town. Other than amenities like clinics, shops, markets and food centres, it was also close to the Tanglin Halt Industrial Estate. Many residents, in particular working women, worked there, and the proximity and flexibility of shift work allowed them to achieve a work-life balance.
In 2008, these flats were announced for the Selective En Bloc Replacement Scheme. Residents and business occupants began to move out of the estate to replacement flats and/or business units. Among the last to relocate was the iconic Chin Hin Eating House, a coffeeshop institution that had called 75 Commonwealth Drive home for almost 40 years. The coffeeshop rolled down its shutters for the last time on 28 February 2014.
My Community and Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Committee have organised a carnival on 3 October to welcome all ex-residents and friends to gather for the final time. Dr Chia called this carnival a fitting tribute to her (74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive) contribution in the collective memory of Tanglin Halt residents and Singaporeans.
This carnival is a block party of a different kind where ex-residents and friends gather for one last block party. With change being the only constant in Singapore, what goes up, surely must come down.