Ghost town comes alive

Ghost town comes alive
“Previously, people gave Mr Chua Thiam Seng their trash and didn’t really talk to him. Now, with the estate vacated and almost ghost-like, he can be almost anything he wants to be.”

They do not look any different from their neighbours in the vicinity, but seven blocks of flats will be the subject of a photo exhibition to be held later this month. A group of recent Nanyang Technological University (NTU) graduates have zoomed in on the chap lau chu, Singapore's first 10-storey flats, built in 1962 by the Housing Board in Commonwealth Drive. These are the latest heritage buildings to be memorialised by young Singaporeans, as the flats have been vacated following an en bloc redevelopment scheme announced in 2008.

The project is the students' attempt to look at history in a fun, offbeat manner. Titled Chap Lau Chu: The Reopening Of Commonwealth Drive, Tanglin Halt, it will display five photos, two videos, a soundscape, a magazine and props used during shoots. It will be held at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Filmmaking from July 24 to Aug 18.

The exhibition stars karung guni man Chua Thiam Seng, 60, who lived for 30 years in a three-room flat in one of the blocks earmarked for redevelopment. He moved into a four-room flat nearby in January.

In the pictures, he is seen planting a tree, a garland around his neck, politician-style. In another, he smilingly cuts a ribbon against the shutters of an abandoned coffee shop at the foot of one of the blocks.

The students have chosen to represent the Tanglin Halt area in this way to explore a different perspective on housing history. Ms Aurial Lee, 23, who works as a graphic designer, says: "We wanted to introduce the idea that history is plural. There is not just one official version, but many ways of looking at one thing."

The team wants to share the memories of the old housing estate in a lighthearted way and hopes that visitors to its showcase will take the cue from Mr Chua's quirky poses and view the redevelopment of old places in a positive light.

While the chap lau chu were not the tallest flats ever built - the Singapore Improvement Trust, the predecessor of the Housing Board, built the now- demolished 14-storey Forfar House in Queenstown in the 1950s - they introduced Singaporeans to a "public housing precinct", says assistant professor Imran Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore's department of architecture. This "mini estate" included several tall blocks and the food centre, which were closely placed together, he explains.

To stage the exhibition, the organisers have been appealing for funds since June 24 via crowd-funding site Indiegogo. They aim to raise US$600 (S$748) and have raised US$75 so far.

The project brief by assistant professor Lucy Davis at NTU's School of Art, Design & Media was to capture the Tanglin Halt area and avoid a nostalgic tone.

"We were told specifically not to do a Royston Tan," says team member Malvina Tan, 26, a performance artist, referring to the home-grown film-maker's sentimental style in some of his works.

The team - which includes illustrator Mary Bernadette Lee, 29, and price analyst Reuben Tan, 26 - felt that creating a hive of activity around the lone figure of Mr Chua, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the empty flats, depicted an interesting role reversal.

Ms Tan explains: "Previously, people gave Mr Chua their trash and didn't really talk to him. Now, with the estate vacated and almost ghost-like, he can be almost anything he wants to be."

But while their project steers clear of nostalgia, their subject Mr Chua clings to the past.

The bachelor is reluctant to give up his little space beneath his former block, which is still strewn with old newspapers, boxes and a little alcove he created for naps: a pillow on a "bed" of cardboard and an alarm clock stowed behind pipes.

The former construction worker, who became a rag-and-bone man after he was retrenched about 10 years ago, says in Mandarin that he was happy to be part of the project.

"It was nothing much. The students did all the work. I just stood in front of the camera and helped."

He waxes lyrical about life in the estate, such as having coffee at the kopitiam thrice a day. "It was a nice area but is now a ghost town. Perhaps in time, the businesses nearby will move away too because now that no one is left, what are we still here for?"

Chap Lau Chu: The Reopening Of Commonwealth Drive, Tanglin Halt, is on at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, 56A Arab Street, from July 24 to Aug 18. Go to for details.

This article was first published on July 6, 2014.
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