Diamond HDB blocks in Jurong a rare gem

When Mr Philip Chew, 82, visited his old workplace in Taman Jurong three years back, he was struck by how much the place had changed.

The retired civil servant, who worked for JTC Corporation in the 1970s, could find neither the old shophouse in Corporation Road where his office once stood nor the food centres he used to frequent.

"Only the diamond blocks are still standing," said Mr Chew. He was referring to how blocks 63, 64, 65 and 66 in Yung Kuang Road are connected to form a diamond with a courtyard in the middle.

Mr Tan Chan Kiat, 43, who spent his childhood there, described the four blocks as "the closest thing we had to a mall".

"The supermarket was our go-to place for things we could not get at the wet market, such as fishing gear, lottery tickets and videotape rentals," said Mr Tan, who lived a five-minute walk from the Taman Jurong blocks.

He added: "The courtyard was where we played hopscotch, catching and badminton."

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien said the blocks' design, with the corridors facing inwards and looking over the courtyard, encouraged social activity.

Having the corridors face one another is "a social form of defence for the neighbourhood", he added.

"It's the idea of knowing your neighbours so well that you can distinguish between the residents, visitors and strangers."

JTC, formed in 1968 as Jurong Town Corporation, built the 456-unit residential development in the 1970s.

Companies in the industrial zone rented the units to house their employees, including foreigners.

Residents nicknamed the development "di zhap yit lau", or "21 storeys" in Hokkien, for its height.

The blocks were built as Singapore made an industrialisation push to attract investments and create jobs.

By 1980, more than 110,000 people lived in JTC housing units in Taman Jurong, Boon Lay Gardens, Teban Gardens and Pandan Gardens.

The flats were handed over to the Housing Board in 1982 but the units in the four blocks in Yung Kuang Road remained as rental ones.

Over the years, most of the former JTC blocks were demolished, except for the Yung Kuang Road blocks and a few others in Boon Lay Drive.

When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, companies that fell on hard times terminated the tenancies of employees living in the diamond blocks.

With occupancy rates falling, HDB decided in 2001 to relocate remaining tenants to other rental blocks nearby.

But businesses on the first two floors continued operations.

"Our business took a hit then," said Madam Lek Kim Noi, 62, who runs Chee Khiang Bookstore with her husband. He had set up the business in 1973.

"A few shops closed during that time. We then moved from the second floor to the ground floor, which had better visibility," she added.

Long-time grassroots leader Roland Choo, 49, said there was talk that the four blocks would be demolished.

"It didn't happen and eventually HDB used them as interim rental housing for families," he added.

From 2009 to 2014, the blocks were used in a scheme which offered low-cost housing to people without permanent homes.

In 2015, a year after the last interim housing residents were relocated, the units were spruced up for HDB's Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme.

The scheme puts families in temporary homes as they wait for their new Build-To-Order flats.

Residents move out within three months of getting the keys to their new homes, and other couples take over the units.

Mr Choo said he is unsure of the HDB's plans for the estate while architecture and landscape photographer Darren Soh, 40, who captures buildings in Singapore, thinks the blocks will eventually have to go.

"At some point in time, the building will be too old to keep," he said. "But some old buildings are socially significant too. The diamond blocks are a remnant of our industrial past."


This article was first published on Mar 02, 2017.
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