End of an era in Joo Chiat

SLATED FOR DEMOLITION: One of the four HDB blocks in East Coast Road that will be demolished in the next two or three years.

SINGAPORE - In an area dominated by condominiums and landed property, four lonely blocks of Housing Board flats are something of an anomaly. In a few years, the blocks in East Coast Road, facing Siglap Centre, will be history as Joo Chiat is poised to become Singapore's first all-private-property constituency.

It was a quirk of history that brought them into existence in the first place. They would never have been built but for a need to re-house the victims of a massive kampung fire in 1962.

Since then, entire lives have been led and memories forged in the low-rise blocks, which have an assortment of shops and eating places on the ground floor and ageing residents above.

The next two or three years will be a time for goodbyes as the blocks are demolished under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme and the occupants resettled elsewhere.

For many, it is a time of unnerving change. Mr Anthony Teo, in his 70s, has spent almost half a century at his ground-level unit at Block 2. He was the first tenant of the shop, which started out as a school to teach dress-making run by his wife.

Sometime in the 1980s, the couple shut the school and Mr Teo started a shop to sell and repair violins. He also teaches music and spontaneously played a piece on his favourite violin when My Paper visited him. "I tendered for this place with my wife, who was my girlfriend then," he said nostalgically. "It cost us just $253."

He now grapples with practical concerns. He needs a new space for his 400 violins. He's afraid he won't find it for anything like the $1,100 he pays as monthly rental.

Retiree Tan Gim Huat, who has lived in his two-room flat for 34 years, feels sad to be uprooted from his home. "It's peaceful at night and the neighbourhood feels safe," said Mr Tan, 75, who lives with his wife.

He will be resettled in a new three-room flat in Chai Chee, but the former bus driver, who vouches for the excellent bus service around his current home, is not sure he will find the same level of public transport elsewhere.

The former Member of Parliament (MP) for Joo Chiat, Mr Chan Soo Sen, said: "Although many (HDB) residents are not well-off and are elderly, they are dignified, with many helping out in the community."

He said that grassroots workers used to pay special attention to the residents of these blocks.

Owners of private property have mixed feelings about the move. One resident said that she would miss the eating places that would leave with the blocks. On the other hand, she was optimistic that property prices may rise.

That might not happen. SLP International executive director Nicholas Mak said: "Just because four blocks of HDB flats are removed from Joo Chiat doesn't make it Orchard Road."

Still, Ms Christine Li, head of research and consultancy at OrangeTee, pointed out that the addition of an MRT station in the area could "greatly enhance the attractiveness of the location".

But, to Mr Teo, the area will lose something along with the flats. "It will not be a 'kampung' anymore," he said.


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