Living in Kovan

A picture of Heartland Mall, which is near the Kovan MRT station. The Kovan neighbourhood remains unchanged as home for the author all these years even as it undergoes many modern developments.

SINGAPORE - I was in the office loo last Tuesday when a colleague walked in, saw me, and immediately asked in hushed tones: "Were the murders near your place?"

I took a few seconds to register what she was saying.

No, I replied, when I finally got it.

It happened quite far away.

She was referring to the Kovan murders, of course, a case that got Singapore talking because of the sheer horror of what happened.

A father and son slashed in their Hillside Drive home. The body of the son dragged 1km by a car on a busy road before being dislodged outside the Kovan MRT station. The arrest of a policeman as the suspect.

For days, the "Kovan murders" hogged headlines.

The Kovan MRT station is a 10-minute walk from my home, and the house where the killings took place about 2km away.

Because I'm familiar with the neighbourhood, the crime affected me in a more direct way. I could picture clearly where everything happened. I felt sad that tragedy could suddenly befall people who travelled the same roads I do, who probably shopped at the same supermarkets, and who were as familiar with the area's landmarks as I am.

I've lived in the neighbourhood all my life. I was born in a house there before moving directly across the street to another house where I've lived for the last 40 years.

My grandparents settled in the area just before World War II to escape the Japanese soldiers. It was the countryside and considered safer than the more central parts of the island. A lot of Teochews, like my paternal grandparents, settled there.

After the war, my grandmother, an astute, business-minded woman, bought several plots of land. Some she developed into houses and sold, others she gave to each of her six sons (the four daughters got shares in houses).

The family house - where I lived until I was about 10 - was set in a mini-plantation of rambutan trees. There were two wells in our garden which children were warned to keep clear of - they did look ominously deep - and the banana trees growing behind them were the source of many pontianak stories.

There was also a pavilion in the garden. It was lined with glass cabinets and my grandma displayed corals, driftwood and dead seahorses inside.

For a while in the 1950s, my grandfather ran a provision shop near the family home. He saw a market in the British soldiers living in Serangoon Gardens nearby and supplied them with Western items like ham, butter and cheese.

The neighbourhood was very backward. When my mother came from Japan to live in the family house in the mid-1950s, there was no electricity in the area.

A Tokyo-born woman who had spent her weekends in Ginza watching Montgomery Clift movies, she found herself having to light kerosene lamps and help my grandma slaughter chicken from the garden coop. (She had fun, though, she said.)

Although there is a Kovan Road, the area wasn't popularly known as Kovan then. People called it the Hougang 6th Milestone in Teochew. It sat at a junction. On one side were houses like ours, further down was Punggol and its pig farms and fishing port, to the north was Old Tampines Road, and in front was Upper Serangoon Road which led in and out of the area, into the city.

Whenever young Singaporeans today wax nostalgic about the past and lament how old landmarks have been torn down, I smile wryly to myself. History looks better through rose-tinted glasses.

Singapore of the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up wasn't pretty. It was messy and smelly.

I remember a wet market where the MRT station is today. A canal ran through it, splitting the market into one section for meat, fish and vegetables, and another for dry goods. The water in the canal was green, stagnant and stinky. You could see dead poultry, furniture and faecal matter floating on it. The floor of the market was wet and grimy. Whenever I followed my mother there, I lived in dread of stepping in a puddle.

Up till the late 1970s, my neighbourhood remained largely undeveloped.

I suppose there must have been a sort of rustic charm to walking on roads pitted with potholes and lined with wild foliage (occasionally, animals like a giant chameleon would leap out at you and there were lots of terrifying bumblebees), but I was glad when the area started to modernise.

Nearby kampungs were knocked down and new houses built. More roads came up. Street lighting was improved. The old market was torn down. An army camp was vacated.

The area felt brighter, cleaner and safer.

The best news came in 1996 when we were told the MRT North East Line would be built and that we'd have a station at our doorstep. The trains arrived in June 2003.

Over the past decade, the area has changed even more drastically. Condominiums with fancy names have sprouted around the MRT station. Inside the estate, long-time residents with plots of land tore down their old houses to develop rows of new ones. More eating places opened and there is now a bustle like never before.

There are downsides. Roads are doubled-parked with cars, tempers can get frayed and with so many new neighbours, it can feel too crowded.

Through it all, I have lived in the same house, in, yes, the same bedroom.

My house has not had a major renovation since it was built 40 years ago. The furniture has basically remained the same, and I've watched saplings grow into trees.

Other than my grandparents' house, this is the only house I have lived in and barring any unforeseen event, will be the house I will die in.

I don't own any other property. Yes, I know there is money to be made (or there was) from buying and selling houses and I have missed out on many opportunities. But I am just not interested in putting my name to another property.

To me, a house is a home, not an investment. It is not only a place to live in, but also where I can sink my roots, make memories, feel loyal to, and, simply, belong.

It is a place I feel at peace in, no matter what headline-grabbing events take place around me.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.