The Dawson and Alexandra Footprints in Queenstown
Queenstown exudes this air of royalty. Not only is she Singapore’s first satellite town, she is also the model estate for much of public housing. Her many housing firsts include the first Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, the first point blocks, and even the first curved block – aptly referred to as the Butterfly.
A walk around the Queenstown neighbourhood promptly unravels her royal treatment. Many streets and institutions are named either after British royalty or in relation to colonial administration. Queenstown was named to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952; Alexandra Road was named after Queen Alexandra, the consort to King Edward VII; and Princess Margaret estate after HM Elizabeth II’s younger sister.
During her first trip to Singapore in 1972, Queen Elizabeth II visited Toa Payoh estate instead. This paradox was corrected 40 years later when her grandson Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge visited Queenstown estate in 2012.
The new Dawson and Alexandra trail highlights colonial and military history in Queenstown. It takes participants from historic sites – hidden, forgotten or demolished – to iconic landmarks dwarfed by new development. Make no mistake though, for it is people who bring the Queenstown story to life. The voices of residents (both current and former) and anecdotes from volunteer guides are what make this tour truly meaningful.
Dr Chee Sze Nam, 42, a former resident, regaled us with stories of his childhood and adolescent years at Forfar House, the pinnacle block of Queenstown. He resided at Forfar House from 1978 to 1999. Forfar House, with its distinctive zigzag appearance, was the tallest public housing building in Singapore when it opened in 1956. The 14-storey building was also one of the pioneers of the modern sanitation system with built-in refuse chutes in every unit. Forfar House was subsequently demolished to make way for the 30- to 40-storey Forfar Heights cluster.
A river flew through the Hong Lim and Hong Yin hills in Queenstown and villagers were unable to pinpoint its source. Hence, before it was Queenstown the area was known as Boh Beh Kang (Hokkien for No Tail River). At the foot of the hills was the Boh Beh Kang village, which was demolished for the development of Mei Ling estate in 1968.
Mr Ang Beng Teck, 85, a former Boh Beh Kang villager, still returns to this site even though he is a Choa Chu Kang resident now. He lived at the village of the 300 households with the Ang clan. The Tiong Ghee Temple built on the new site at Stirling Road in 1973 was a replacement for the older Taoist temple in the village. It is not merely a place of worship. It also serves as a gathering point for the ex-Boh Beh Kang villagers like Mr Ang.
Not all is doom and gloom in the face of redevelopment. Boh Beh Kang’s demolition gave rise to 160 and 161 Mei Ling Street, the first point blocks in Singapore. This style of public housing with increased privacy quickly replaced the older model, which had many units dotted along a long common corridor.
Another trendsetter was 168A at Queensway. Long-time resident Paul Fernandez, 75, said it best, “We call this the Butterfly block because the building looks like a butterfly!” 168A was the first curved HDB block. The retired teacher is a pioneer resident, having lived at this block for 40 years. This was his first high-rise living experience – a transition that many from our pioneer generation would relate to, having made the housing move from low- to high-rise.
The excellent volunteer, Mr Huang Eu Chai, when queried on the best part of living in Queenstown, said that it was the sense of reassurance that everyone was like his extended family. Queenstown was where he grew up and lived all through his life. Queenstown was home.
In spite of all the housing accolades and recognition by foreign dignitaries, it is her people who make Queenstown the crown jewel of a housing estate in Singapore. The pride and sense of belonging they have for their living environment may be something we can resonate to.
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