'We would compare which 'sng bao' was the best': Desmond Tan laments loss of childhood home Tanglin Halt

Desmond Tan’s earliest memories are of his life at Tanglin Halt and he spent his primary school years there. 
PHOTO: Instagram/Desmond Tan

The Tanglin Halt Food Centre closed its doors on July 31 and one person who missed the opportunity to have a last meal there was local actor Desmond Tan. Going to the Margaret Drive Hawker Centre that opened in its stead just would not be the same.

“Some of the hawkers from Tanglin Halt retired because of the move and eating the same food at a new place would be a different experience,” Desmond told AsiaOne in a recent interview where he was promoting his new drama When Duty Calls 2.

One of Singapore’s oldest housing estates, Tanglin Halt was selected for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) in 2014 and as of May this year, 74% of the residents there had relocated to Dawson estate.

Desmond’s earliest memories are of his life at Tanglin Halt and he spent his primary school years there. 

“Walking back home from Tanglin Primary School, I would buy sng bao (ice lolly) from [a resident living on] the first floor,” the 35-year-old actor said. 

“Then the other kids and I would compare, 'This sng bao is the best' and 'At level two there's this makcik who sells better sng bao at cheaper prices' — so there was this little war. 

“It was such a nice representation of Singapore, of all the different races coming together. It was just so beautiful."

A young Desmond Tan with his mother. PHOTO: Instagram/Desmond Tan

Last year, he made a pilgrimage to his old home. “My first memory of home is of Block 38, level 8, the corner unit.

“It was not actually how I remembered it. In my memory, the ceiling was very high and the corridor was spacious enough to play football in. When I went back, I realised I had grown quite a bit. My head was almost hitting the ceiling and the corridor was much narrower. 

“I got goosebumps when I stepped onto the doorstep of my old flat.”

Tanglin Halt. PHOTO: Google Street View

Going back to his estate felt like a movie to Desmond: looking onto the courtyard and badminton courts, he got flashbacks of being a child, playing with other kids and also helping a friend get to the hospital when the latter fell off a tree and broke his leg. 

Tanglin Halt was also where Desmond — an avid dog lover — got his first pet.

“I had my first dog there and I actually saw the place where I buried my first pet,” he said.

Desmond Tan with his dogs Hoshi and Udon. PHOTO: Instagram/Desmond Tan

Desmond has so many vivid memories from his childhood that he could almost recall the sights and smells he experienced shop by shop.

“I lived behind the kopitiam and it was a traditional coffee shop so they would make their own baos (buns),” he remembered. “When I walked to school, I could see the steam and smell the starchy bao scent.

“And then I used to go to the barber just beside the coffee shop and the Indian barber who cut my hair would put this lotion on my sides after shaving them and it had a particular smell — I can’t even find it anymore.”

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Desmond lamented that he won’t be able to show his future kids his childhood home anymore.

“It's just painful to know that these physical memories will be gone forever, and it will be only in my mind,” he said, adding that it was “heartbreaking”. 

“I can only share with my kids in the future that I used to stay at this place called Tanglin Halt through whatever monument they’ll put up there.” 

He visited Museum @ My Queenstown, a “little shop converted into a museum”, and compared to the details in his memories, the photographs did not suffice.

“I went in and I just couldn’t,” Desmond said. “A museum is just a small representation of the whole place and you could only see pictures.”

You can catch Desmond Tan in the new drama When Duty Calls 2. The show, which also stars Paige Chua, Kym Ng, Pierre Png, Felicia Chin, Tyler Ten, Nick Teo and Edwin Goh, premieres on Channel 8 on Aug 15 at 9pm. It will also be available on demand for free on meWATCH.