Memories take flight over 'wide swamp'

Along Upper Paya Lebar Road, spanking new industrial complexes on one side of the road (left) share the skyline with old industrial buildings and shophouses on the other side.

SINGAPORE - Mention Paya Lebar, and it conjures up many different memories.

For 59-year-old Mr David Sia, what comes to mind is the former Paya Lebar Airport terminal building which he frequented with his cousins in the 1960s.

"We watched the planes from the viewing gallery on the open rooftop.

"It was a joy to look at them coming in and touching down," said the corporate trainer.

For others, Paya Lebar is an industrial town, dotted with low- rise hardware and repair workshops, and offices in the Singapore Post Centre and iPark complex.

The area will be transformed again after 2030 when its iconic airbase moves to Changi, as announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally speech, and new homes, offices and factories take its place.

The space was first used by the international Paya Lebar Airport from 1955.

It was converted into an airbase in 1981, when Singapore became such a popular destination that Changi Airport was opened to accommodate the traffic.

Today, military planes still roar overhead, a familiar sound for many long-time residents.

"They interrupt conversations for minutes," said Mr Sia, who grew up in Paya Lebar.

"Apparently the farmers back then said their chickens were so disturbed they couldn't lay eggs."

But Paya Lebar was also once a notorious gangland, said Mr Sia.

"If you were a stranger and came here, there'd be eyes on you. You might have been challenged to a fight.

"Gangsters would warn us and our neighbours beforehand to stay indoors on the nights that fights took place."

The town began as a "wide swamp" - which is exactly what Paya Lebar means in Malay. Sand quarries and rural settlements dotted the area.

Former residents like Mr Azhari Mohamad remember when home was a wooden kampung house where the current Paya Lebar MRT station now stands.

He and his family had to make way for the new development in 1979.

The 46-year-old drinks stall manager still misses the kampung atmosphere.

Where Paya Lebar starts and ends is loosely defined.

Its two main roads, Paya Lebar Road and Upper Paya Lebar Road, span five MRT stations - Paya Lebar, MacPherson, Tai Seng, Bartley and Serangoon.

Several workers at the SingPost Centre next to Paya Lebar MRT station said they liked the location and the lack of crowds.

That could change though with work already under way on the Paya Lebar Square office complex, which is part of government plans to spruce up the area with more shops, hotels and open spaces.

"It's pretty peaceful here, not as congested as the Central Business District," said information technology security consultant Antara Chakraborty, 30.

Ms Wong Siew Yim, 28, a network engineer, said that the food options were "good and cheap", especially at the hawker centres in the industrial estates nearby.

Further north, Tai Seng is a sprawl of warehouses, factories and headquarters of food and beverage companies like Sakae Sushi and BreadTalk.

Some of the shophouses that used to house bakeries and a flour mill still remain.

Today, several have become popular eateries that sell food like pork rib soup and roast duck rice.

Further up, the low-rise industrial estate of Defu Lane and the peaceful housing blocks of Lorong Ah Soo border the airbase.

On Defu Lane, subcontractors and workshop owners say that not much will change for them when the airbase goes.

"Our customers don't come from here anyway," said Mrs Soma Kumar, 48.

She has been repairing furniture with her husband in the same corner workshop for the past 20 years.

Lorong Ah Soo residents and shopkeepers are curious about what the future will bring.

Several, like minimart employee Rani Veddapan, 58, said that their business may pick up with more people coming to the area.

Residents too are hoping the increase in human traffic will bring benefits.

"Maybe there'll be more eating places nearby and better transport too.

"But taller buildings will block the breeze," said administrative assistant Jocelyn Lam, 53, who lives in a 13th-floor flat in Paya Lebar.

Her neighbour, seamstress Chok May, is looking forward to a new shopping centre or two, and fewer factories.

Said the 50-year-old: "But by then, I'll be old already. It's the next generation, kids growing up now, who will benefit from the changes."

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