Faces of Commonwealth and Holland Village
My Community has launched the new Commonwealth and Holland Village Heritage Tour to add to their growing list of the wildly popular Queenstown walks. Participants will hear first-hand accounts from business occupants, educators, and residents – existing and former. Against rapid waves of gentrification at Holland Village, some institutions have stood still and many faces have stayed on to share their personal experiences of living and working in the Commonwealth and Holland Village estates.
One stopover of the tour is at the Ministry of Education (MOE) Heritage Centre, a museum that provides insights into Singapore’s education journey. Exhibition galleries have been repurposed from classrooms of the former New Town Primary School, which was taken over by the MOE in 2007 to build the current heritage centre today. Interesting tales at the Heritage Centre included the free milk distribution from the 1950s onwards to provide nutrition to undernourished school children.
“When many teachers came on their learning journeys to the MOE Heritage Centre, they were surprised to learn that Queenstown, not Toa Payoh, was Singapore’s first satellite town,” said Mrs Ong.
The MOE Heritage Centre (former New Town Primary School) compound is of an H school architectural design, which allowed for more communal spaces for school children. This was a marked improvement from the single slab block design like Selegie Primary School, where students and educators shared cargo lifts to move between the ten storeys.
Mrs Ong also highlighted Queenstown’s self-sufficient town planning as Singapore’s first satellite town. The light industries and factories in the estate made it convenient for working mothers to send and pick up their children on foot from schools like New Town Primary School. “Many parents would pass food to their children through these fences during recess time,” she said. “Such was the convenience of living at Queenstown.”
The five-storey factory at 115 Commonwealth Drive was inaugurated on 30 May 1965 by then Minister for National Development Lim Kim San, as part of Economic Development Board’s idea to introduce light industries in residential areas to provide employment to residents. It was the first flatted factory block in Singapore and paved the way for the introduction of light industrial blocks in other housing estates.
Mdm Noorsia has lived at Commonwealth Close for 31 years and has worked for ten years at Wing Heng, an electronics factory, at Singapore’s first flatted factory block. “It was extremely convenient because I could bring my four children to school before heading opposite for work,” Mdm Noorsia added. “Every afternoon, I could return home to prepare lunch for my children.”
As Singapore’s first satellite town, Queenstown was a test bed for public housing in Singapore. The first HDB blocks, first point blocks and first curved block were built in Queenstown and the estate was seen as a public housing success story. Queenstown welcomed the visits of several foreign dignitaries in the 1960s and 1970s. Distinguished guests included Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh who visited in 1965, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India in 1968 and Crown Prince Akihito in 1970.
“Nobody told us that these guests were coming. It was a surprise for us. But I remembered feeling proud as a child,” Mdm Tham recounted. “I still live here but many of the original residents have moved.”
Block 81 Commonwealth Close is known as the VIP Block, thanks to the list of distinguished guests it has hosted. Completed in 1964, the 16-storey block comprises 192 three-room and 64 two-room units. Other than the foreign dignitaries, the estate also had more British presence. Chip Bee Gardens at Holland Village was established in the 1950s as a military estate to house British soldiers. The bungalows at Ridout Road area also housed British officers and their families.
The Thambi Magazine Store traces its roots to the 1960s when P. Senthilmurugan’s grandfather delivered newspapers in the estate on a bicycle. His late father, Peritathambi G, opened the magazine store in 1996 and was one of the most familiar faces of Holland Village.
As the winds of change constantly sweep Queenstown and its surrounding estates, it is comforting to see enduring faces who share their stories at the Commonwealth and Holland Village Heritage Tour. Organised by civic group My Community, and supported by the National Heritage Board, Lee Foundation and Tote Board, this tour brings participants through iconic landmarks and former sites at Commonwealth and Holland Village. The Commonwealth and Holland Village heritage tour is free and held on every third Sunday of the month, beginning in May. Interested participants can sign up at www.myqueenstown.eventbrite.sg.
My Community is also actively recruiting volunteers who are keen on guiding, curating or researching. Interested individuals may e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.