My fond memories of 'chap lau chu'

My fond memories of 'chap lau chu'
The old estate at Tanglin Halt, comprising seven housing blocks, has been vacant since late 2013 and is slated for redevelopment later this year. The writer's family lived there for many years, part of a close-knit community. For him and his childhood friends, the place holds many fond memories.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

While the chap lau chu (10-storey house in Hokkien) mini-estate at Tanglin Halt may have earned a reputation as a ghost town because of its deserted housing blocks and eerie vibe, it was my first and only home for 26 years until I moved out two years ago in July.

My memories of the place - a cluster of seven housing blocks comprising Singapore's first 10-storey flats - are fond ones.

I used to sneak across the railway next to my block to the colonial houses in Wilton Close, via an entrance with a wooden sign that read "Welcome to Malaysia".

There, I spent many afternoons imagining fantastical stories about ghosts in the brown-and-white houses, scaring myself silly.

Those clandestine outings carried a fair amount of risk as Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) trains were still running up and down the railway, now disused and part of the Green Corridor.

Whenever my parents caught me playing there, I had to kneel and remain still in front of my ancestors for an hour to show penance.

On some occasions, my cousins, friends and I would also challenge one another to walk across a large pipe, at least 2m long, that stretched across a drain where we caught guppies.

My favourite pastime, however, was helping my grandfather at his home workshop, where he made incense paper for a living.

My grandparents and great grandmother sank their roots in the estate decades ago, when they moved from a kampung in Jalan Lim Tai See to a three-room unit in Block 80 in 1978.

A decade later, my parents moved into their marital home in Block 78, two weeks before I was born. Other members of the extended family also settled down in the estate. An uncle and his family of four lived in Block 75, while an aunt and her family were a 10-minute walk away in Block 45 - an extension of the chap lau chu.

After my grandfather died in 2005, my relatives moved to newer towns in Choa Chu Kang and Sengkang. An aunt stayed until 2010; she was the last one in my extended family to leave the estate.

But my parents and I stubbornly remained in our three-room flat until 2013, when we had to move because of the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme, where older flats are torn down and residents given the option to move to a new flat nearby.

We wanted to live in the area because of its familiarity, its proximity to the train station and its hawker centres.

Also, it was simply too much of a hassle to move.

In July two years ago, we finally moved across the road to a new four-room unit in the 40-storey Block 50, in an estate called Commonwealth 10 - a tribute to the area's past.

Even as the years go by, chap lau chu still binds me to my childhood friends, many of whom have moved away to start their own families.

We remember the stone tables near concrete open spaces and the oddly placed badminton court behind Block 80, where an old gas tank used to be. We remember the smells of freshly baked bread and the catered food of businesses that operated out of void decks.

The other night, I bumped into an old primary school friend near my home. He now resides in the north, but visits his mother who lives in the same block as I do.

We talked - with a tinge of sadness - of how isolated neighbours are nowadays, and reminisced about how it would take more than half an hour to complete a short walk down a corridor, with neighbours greeting one another and chatting. Conversations would be yelled across blocks, without a care about who listened in.

The unsettling quiet of the deserted estate today is a far cry from the past. But though chap lau chu has become a ghost town that will be demolished later this year, I will remember its happier past.

This article was first published on August 20, 2015.
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