In celebration of Queenstown

Former Xinyao singer Cai Yi Ren, standing in front of the old wet market in Queenstown.

SINGAPORE - In its heyday, from the 1960s to 1980s, Queenstown's bustling town centre could well compare with the buzz of today's Orchard Road. Singaporeans now take amenities for granted but the town boasted several firsts then.

Mr Kwek Li Yong, 24, president of My Community, a civic society that champions the preservation of history and heritage in Singapore, says: "There was a library, a polyclinic, a bowling alley, a sports complex and an emporium. There were also cinemas and many shophouses and eating places."

Many of these buildings have since been demolished and the town centre is a shell of its former self.

Still, Mr Kwek, who lives in Jurong West, says his group chose Queenstown as the first project because of its rich history and heritage, much of which remains unrecorded today.

It was named by the British on Sept 27, 1953, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the town's naming, My Community and Queenstown's Citizens Consultative Committee will organise a two-week arts and heritage festival from Sept 13 to 29.

Called My Queenstown Festival, it will feature 18 plays, gigs, performances and exhibitions at various locations in Queenstown to showcase its colourful history.

The colony suburb started out as the Singapore Improvement Trust's most ambitious project to tackle overcrowding in downtown Singapore.

Queenstown was also designated Singapore's first satellite housing estate, a self-contained estate with its own amenities so residents did not have to travel downtown for them.

Several public institutions were first set up there, including Singapore's first technical school, polyclinic, branch library and sports complex.

In 1959, when the People's Action Party came into power, the trust was replaced by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The first HDB blocks were built in Queenstown. By 1968, the town had more than 19,300 flat units.

In the 1990s, work to rejuvenate the ageing estate started. Besides flats, many iconic landmarks such as Tah Chung Emporium were torn down.

Those taking part in the festival, who knew Queenstown in its heyday, speak fondly of those days.

Part-time musician Jap Chong, who grew up in Queenstown and now lives in Serangoon, says the area has a unique charm. "Many of the early HDB blocks can still be found here. Unlike those built later in other estates, these were built quite far apart and are thus more pleasant architecturally."

Some of these are low-rise blocks with 10 or fewer floors each.

Chong, who declines to reveal his age, founded The Quests in 1961 with his schoolmate Raymond Leong from the now-defunct Queenstown Secondary Technical School. They took the name of their band from their school's acronym.

The five-man band went on to become a regional pop sensation in the 1960s.

Although the place has changed, Chong says his bandmates still return to areas such as the Tanglin Halt hawker centre, library and swimming pool, as "we have a deep sense of nostalgia about this great town".

Non-residents are sentimental about the place too.

Take Mr Cai Yiren, 48, who has never lived in Queenstown but studied at Hua Yi Secondary School in Margaret Drive from 1979 to 1982. He is now a producer at TCR, a music event company which will produce the I Love Xinyao concert at My Queenstown Festival.

"My classmates and I always looked forward to the end of school so that we could hang out at the town centre, which was right next to our school," he says.

They would go bowling, catch a movie at one of the three cinemas, tuck into their favourite chicken rice at Margaret Drive hawker centre or step into the library or Tah Chung Emporium for some cool air.

Mr Cai, who lives in Pandan Gardens, still has links with the town: His 15-year-old daughter is a student at Queenstown Secondary School.

He still drops by to eat at the chicken rice stall, which has moved to where the former Margaret Drive wet market is. He would also visit the school field, the only thing that is left of his former school, which has moved to Jurong West.

"No matter how much the place has changed, I will always associate Queenstown with the good memories of my secondary school days," he says.

For long-time residents, the kampung spirit is the biggest draw.

Retiree Alice Lee, 65, who will take part in a street parade during the festival, has been living in a three-room flat in Tanglin Halt since she got married 43 years ago.

She has been living on her own since 1986. Her husband died in 1983 and her two grown-up children eventually moved out. But she is hardly lonely.

"People are friendly here. We say hello to one another and will stop to chit-chat," she says. "It's safe here because we look out for one another."

The neighbours also leave their spare house keys with one another. "If it rains when I am out, they will help to bring in my laundry. Or if they are out and forget to turn off the fan, they will call me to help them switch it off."

The sense of neighbourliness is also what makes new residents such as Mr Michael Cheng feel at home. The artistic director of Tapestry Playback Theatre moved into a four-room flat in Strathmore Green with his wife and mother-in-law last December.

The 36-year-old, whose group will be putting on an improvisational play at the festival, says: "Compared to Havelock Road where I used to live, people here are friendlier. Even strangers smile at one another or say hello."

Queenstown's milestones

1953: Officially named Queenstown to mark the coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. It is Singapore's first satellite or self-contained housing estate.

1956: Singapore's first technical school, Queenstown Secondary Technical School, opened in Strathmore Road. The school is now known as Queenstown Secondary School.

1960: First HDB blocks (Blocks 45, 48 and 49) were completed in Stirling Road. The seven-storey blocks still stand today.

1963: Singapore's first polyclinic opened in Margaret Drive. The building was turned into a dormitory for foreign workers around 2009. The new polyclinic opened in Stirling Road in 2007.

1965: Venus and Golden City Theatres, opposite the old polyclinic, opened. The grounds have been occupied by Church of Our Saviour and The Fisherman of Christ Fellowship since around 1985.

1967: A three-level shopping complex in Commonwealth Avenue, called Tah Chung Emporium, opened. It was demolished in 1999 and the piece of land it occupied has yet to be redeveloped.

1970: Singapore's first national library branch and sports complex were opened. Both still occupy the same spots. The popular Margaret Drive hawker centre, officially called Commonwealth Avenue Cooked Food Centre, also opened that year. It was demolished in 2011.

1977: The iconic Queenstown cinema and bowling centre along Commonwealth Avenue opened. The building was closed in 1999 and demolished in June this year. There are no known plans for redevelopment yet.

2011: Queenstown Remand Prison in Jalan Penjara behind the library, which was set up in 1966, was demolished. The area has yet to be redeveloped.

2012: Prince William (right) and his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, visited Queenstown as part of the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the British throne.

Source: My Community

Festival highlights

Music

MusiQuality 2013 Featuring

The Quests Band

What: The gig includes songs from Shanty, the first record of the band, which were a 1960s pop sensation in the region.

Where: Queenstown Community Centre Auditorium

When: Sept 13, 7.30pm, Sept 15, 2 and 7.30pm

Admission: $33

I Love Xinyao

What: A live band and more than 20 songs by xinyao singers, such as veterans Roy Loi, Hong Shao Xuan and Pan Ying as well as newcomer Yu Hui Ling.

Where: Queenstown Community Centre Auditorium

When: Sept 27 to 29, 7.30pm

Admission: $33

Queenstown's 60th Anniversary Concert

What: Catch home-grown artists and musicians, some of whom grew up in Queenstown.

Where: Tanglin Halt Community Plaza (next to Tanglin Halt Hawker Centre)

When: Sept 28, 7.30pm

Admission: Free

Theatre

Old Flames

What: Skits set in Queenstown by The Necessary Stage's Theatre for Seniors.

Where: Queenstown Community Centre Auditorium

When: Sept 16 to 22, 7.30pm

Admission: $18

This Is Where I Live: This Is My Story

What: An improvisional play by Tapestry Playback Theatre, where actors will act on real stories drawn from the audience.

Where: Queenstown Community Centre Auditorium

When: Sept 22 and 29, 2.30pm

Admission: $21

Parade

Street Parade@My Queenstown

What: Students, residents and community partners in Queenstown get together to perform stunts and dances.

Where: Tanglin Halt Community Plaza and part of Tanglin Halt Road

When: Sept 15, 7.30pm

Admission: Free

Exhibition

Urban Sketchers@My Queenstown

What: Sketches of landmarks in Queenstown, such as the first HDB blocks in Stirling Street, will be on display. It is staged by the Urban Sketchers Singapore, which is part of a global non-profit group that champions on-location drawing.

Where: Queenstown Community Centre Concourse

When: Sept 13 to 29, 9am to 10pm daily

Admission: Free

Get tickets from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg). For details on the festival, go to www.queenstown. org.sg/festival or www.facebook.com/myqueenstown, call Queenstown Community Centre on 6474-1681 or e-mail myqueenstown@gmail.com

leawee@sph.com.sg


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