How her 'kampung' changed, and she along with it

How her 'kampung' changed, and she along with it
Ms Tan Jee Wah, a theme park worker who will opt for a two-room flat in Dawson, with her Jack Russell. She has been told that her flat in Dawson, an area already rejuvenated by buildings such as SkyTerrace@Dawson, will be ready in about six years.

In 1965, Ms Tan Jee Wah's parents moved into a three-room flat in Queenstown.

It was a momentous occasion because the flat in Block 63, Commonwealth Drive was the first home they owned.

The flat cost the Hainanese cook and his housekeeper wife $6,200. Before that, the couple and their children lived in a series of servants' quarters provided by the expatriate families they worked for.

Fast forward 50 years.

"Both my parents are gone. But my elder brother and his family still live in the flat they bought," says Ms Tan, 69, who is the second of four siblings. "About 20 years ago, I bought my own flat just a few blocks away too."

There is, she says, much to love about her neighbourhood and the Tanglin Halt area that she has spent almost all her adult life in.

"It's like a kampung here. I speak to everyone. Everything's here and it's so convenient. I can take a bus or train to Orchard Road, I can walk to Holland Village," says the theme park worker who shares her corner unit with Lucky, her Jack Russell.

Last year, however, both she and her elder brother received a letter from the Housing Board (HDB) telling them that their homes have been selected for the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers). The scheme - introduced in 1995 - sets out to rejuvenate old HDB flats and has been introduced in 78 other sites in Singapore.

In what has been billed as the largest SERS project to date, their homes will be among the 3,500 flats in 31 blocks along Tanglin Halt Road and Commonwealth Drive that will be demolished. Ms Tan and her brother have been offered a new flat in one of five new sites in Dawson Road, Margaret Drive and Strathmore Avenue.

By 2020, the Dawson area will be a living showcase of the "Housing In A Park" concept, with its new-generation flats, modern amenities such as the Alexandra Canal Linear Park Connector, precinct pavilions and landscaped gardens.

Dawson's makeover is part of HDB's Remaking Our Heartland (ROH) initiative for Queenstown which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched during the 2007 National Day Rally.

As each new HDB town becomes more modern and better designed, the idea is to make sure that the older towns do not get left behind.

Besides Queenstown, the ROH has also been rolled out in Yishun, Punggol, Jurong Lake, East Coast and Hougang.

In many ways, the rejuvenated Dawson - where the striking SkyTerrace@Dawson and Skyville@Dawson BTO (Build To Order) buildings have already sprung up - will be as iconic as Queenstown was when it was first built.

Named after Queen Elizabeth II to mark her coronation in 1952, it was the first satellite town in the little red dot.

Construction of the first estate in the area - Princess Margaret Estate - began in the same year and two decades later, the area had become a self-contained community with its town centre, swimming and sports complex, cinemas and bowling alley.

Queenstown became a test bed for public housing in Singapore and was a model for other estates including Holland Village and Buona Vista.

Ms Tan saw Queenstown transform before her eyes. In fact, her own life mirrored the rapid changes her neighbourhood, and Singapore, were experiencing in the decades since independence.

Although she did not complete Primary 6 (her father felt that education was not important for girls), she went on to carve out a successful career in the hospitality industry.

Her first job after leaving school was babysitting the children of expatriates.

"I then learnt how to cook and later became a cook," says Ms Tan whose English is immaculate.

Over the next decade, she worked for several expatriate families, including the general manager of the Ford factory in Bukit Timah.

One liked her so much they even took her along when they returned home to La Hoya in California in the 1970s. But she had to come back to Singapore when she could not get a working visa.

"I landed a job with Peninsula Hotel as a chambermaid after that and was promoted to supervisor after six months," she says.

Her career took several interesting turns after that, including a two-year stint as branch secretary of the Food, Drinks & Allied Workers' Union as well as five years with fast-food chain A&W as its operations manager.

At A&W, she was given a Honda Accord to drive around, and she helped to open several A&W outlets including those in Thomson and Bukit Merah.

She then returned to the hotel industry and worked for several well-known names - such as Sheraton Towers and Beaufort on Sentosa - in various capacities.

Last year, the sprightly woman protested when her employer NTUC broached the subject of retirement. "I told them I was healthier than all of them," says Ms Tan who now works among the ground staff at the Wild Wild Wet waterpark.

For much of her working life until the early 1990s, home for the chatty single was the Commonwealth Drive flat her parents bought.

"At one stage, there were nine people living there," she says with a laugh. "So I decided to get a five-room flat in Pasir Ris, and I got my parents to live with me."

Her parents lived with her for five years.

"But they didn't like it and were miserable. They were lonely and kept saying that they missed Tanglin Halt and wanted to go back," she says.

So 20 years ago, she and her parents moved back into a corner three-room unit in Block 58, near Block 63.

Her folks lived out their final days in the neighbourhood they loved.

Ms Tan - who will opt for a two-room flat in Dawson - has mixed feelings about moving to her new neighbourhood. She has been told that her new flat will be ready in about six years.

The camaraderie she has developed with her current neighbours, and the tranquil surroundings will be things she will miss most.

"It's the stress of having to move. It's very convenient here, and it's so quiet," she says.

But she also accepts that change is inevitable.

She grudgingly admits: "I know lah, it's a brand new flat, and everything is very good. Let's just hope I will enjoy my retirement there."

This article was first published on May 27, 2015.
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