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'Dragon-master' proud of his old-school playgrounds

Mr Khor Ean Ghee was an interior designer at the then-nascent Housing and Development Board, when the project to build playgrounds in the new towns was launched in 1973. -TNP
Shaun Soh

Tue, Mar 13, 2012
The New Paper

Mr Amir Kadir, 30, remembers fondly the playground in front of his grandmother's flat in Toa Payoh Lorong 6.

Growing up, he spent hours at the sand pit and running around the structure shaped like a dragon.

"We would jump down from the rungs of the dragon's body and even play hide and seek at night!" says the operations executive with some glee.

He and his friends would create storylines and mini adventures playing in and around those structures.

He adds that the neighbourhood kids would sneak their way there at all hours - and the playground "bonded" them.

Says Mr Amir: "It brought all of us kids, no matter what race, language or religion, together. We all just hung out at these neighbourhood playgrounds."

Unfortunately, many of these old-school playgrounds - featuring structures resembling birds, ships, fruits and even an elephant - have gone.

There are only about 10 of them left.

As for the dragon ones that Mr Amir remembers, only four remain.

Those dragons were particularly hard to build, recalls Mr Khor Ean Ghee with a slight laugh.

Now 78, the still-spry grandfather of three was an interior designer at the then-nascent Housing and Development Board, when the project to build playgrounds in the new towns was launched in 1973.

"It was difficult to get the dragon's head done properly by the contractors because of the elaborate outlines," says the avid water-colourist.

He is particularly proud of the dragons, although he reckons he had come up with more than 20 playground designs.

The first dragon prototype - located at Toa Payoh Gardens - was initially made of metal, he said.

Recalling the project, he says with a chuckle: "It was us adults trying to think like children, about what we would want to do if we were kids.

"We thought of building the playground around the favourite rides like the merry-go-round, swings, see-saws and slides."

But the designers at HDB wanted a distinctly local feel.

He says: "The main thing our boss was thinking of was to do something with identity - to turn what we saw at the time into playgrounds."

So in went motifs like attap huts and fishing boats, sights which were still commonplace in Singapore then.

Another challenge that the builders faced was getting the materials, he recalls.

"We thought of using marine paint, which can withstand the weather, but it was too expensive.

Instead, we decided on getting colour mosaic tiles in red, blue, yellow and green from Italy," he says.

And thanks to those tiles, the playgrounds have not lost their colour or distinctive character despite going through generations' worth of grimy childrens' palms and roughhousing.

He is also happy about how the sand pits, which the structures are embedded in, have stood the test of time.

"The sand pits were designed with pipes underneath, so that rainwater can be drained from them," he said, beaming with pride.

Even then, they were careful to ensure that the structures were designed with no enclosed spaces, so that children were always visible to their parents while they played.

"When we designed the rides, we were thinking of our own children playing with them," he says.

He also tried to tap on his experiences as a scout in designing the playgrounds by incorporating ropes and suspended bridges.

Many of his creations are no longer around - he reckons that the maintenance costs eventually meant that generic playground sets were easier and more cost-efficient.

But Mr Khor says: "I'm happy that they have played such pivotal roles in people's childhoods."

His playgrounds were the inspiration for a photography exhibition that was part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival last year.

They also inspired Ms Antoinette Wong, owner of curio shop The Little Dröm Store at Ann Siang Hill, to make dress pins in the likeness of the dragon's head, the elephant and the pelican.

Ms Wong has fond memories of these playgrounds. She says: "It's sad hearing that there are so few left. If they are going to disappear, we should at least preserve them in small ways."

The 27-year-old adds that the pins have been quite popular and a second batch is coming later this month.

The playgrounds also inspired Mr Justin Zhuang, an independent researcher and writer, to share the locations of many of Mr Khor's creations on Google Maps.

Says the 27-year-old: "I guess it's only in comparison with the playgrounds of today that we realise that we have such unique places in Singapore."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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