Out and About in Toa Payoh: The Real Estates

by Choo Shuen Ming (16A01E)
Photos by Choo Shuen Ming (16A01E) and Marvin Tang

the real estates 2

The 40 odd of us photowalkers and the team from Logue pose in front of Toa Payoh’s iconic Dragon Playground. (photo by Marvin Tang)

I thought I knew what to expect when I arrived at Toa Payoh two weeks back on 27th February – light chitchat, a tour of photogenic locations, and some photography critiques – but in a pleasant turn of events, The Real Estates ended up being a much richer experience for the 40 or so of us who showed up that Saturday.

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Photographer Marvin Tang giving us pointers: “One thing we want to focus on today is what you put in the frame… things you can put into that frame of yours that will tell people more about Toa Payoh, so when you go home with your images, people can see different angles of Toa Payoh instead of just very wide views.”

To be clear, the photowalk certainly wasn’t without photography enthusiasts, having attracted participants like Nigel Gomes, ex vice-chair of Raffles Photographic Society (RPS), and avid photowalker Jaya Suryana, who’s visited many places ranging from MacPherson to Mount Faber to Holland Village. But there were also those like Natalie Diong, who was simply interested to “learn more about [her] country,” and others who’d stumbled upon it on Peatix or Facebook, and thought why not? Everyone did learn at least a thing or two about photography as fine arts photographer Marvin Tang from Logue brought his experienced eye to bear, sharing some tips with us. However, that was but one of the walk’s various aspects, and as we set off, The Real Estates indeed proved to be about more than just photography.

What soon stood out was the insight we were getting into the neighbourhood’s history, as group leader and former chairperson of RPS Gaby Jeyaseelan (RJ 15S06A and current Logue intern) gave us bite-sized glimpses into the Toa Payoh of old. Stopping at the Town Park for instance, we learnt how Toa Payoh’s seen many ‘firsts’ – it pioneered the HDB estate we know today way back in 1964, and is also home to Singapore’s first air-conditioned bus interchange and first MRT station. At the same time, Toa Payoh’s rich history means it’s also home to many ‘lasts’, such as the iconic Dragon Playground we visited. Having stood for nearly 40 years since 1979, it’s one of only four remaining dragon playgrounds, and the last with its sandpit still intact – a truly unique window into our past. As we strolled among the low-rise flats and lorongs, enjoying the trees’ generous shade, we also felt Toa Payoh’s relaxed, ‘kampong’ vibe. Residents leisurely caught up with one another, cats lazed about having siestas – an atmosphere all too rare nowadays in Singapore’s hectic concrete jungle. Walking in the Sensory Garden, we heard singing and the strumming of a guitar, and as we drew closer we saw a quiet, magical scene – under a pavilion some residents were gathered playing chess, laughing and talking, and beside them sat the singer with his guitar, passionately crooning away in a call back to a slower, mellower time.

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It’s a common theme in Toa Payoh – past and present side by side, the unique sense that the neighbourhood’s both changing, yet unchanging. As Nigel observed: “You hear a lot of redevelopment taking place there — enblocs, new malls, new buildings popping up — but there’s still a lot of history.” Take one of our photowalk stops for instance, Bugs Bunny Barber. As we learned, it’s been open since 1971 – “eons” as Nigel puts it – and seeing such history still alive today certainly made an impression. I was constantly struck by how small details shared with us on the photowalk could shed new light on familiar things, like the Town Park pavilion – it’s always looked familiar somehow, but I’d never known till The Real Estates that it was once part of the temporary bus interchange. “These little things I think really made the difference for me,” said Natalie of “the history and story” behind each aspect of Toa Payoh, citing discoveries like how the first HDBs were 12 storeys high, or that the unique Y-shaped Block 53 was twice-visited by Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, as Jean Loo from Logue shares, “[searching] for the essence of a place, we choose to pay homage to the little things, as these little things are the glue that binds a community together.” From Toa Payoh’s unique colours, to the fascinating tidbits of history nestled among its lorongs, discovering those little things certainly helped give the photowalk its richness.

As we walked on, I began to wonder why we so rarely take time to discover our own neighbourhoods. “I guess that’s how you feel when you go to some other place,” Nigel mused, “you always think it has more interesting stories than your own home.” Our experience with The Real Estates has certainly made us more curious though, as we’ve realised how little we know our own neighbourhoods. Novena resident Natalie reflects: “Just the whole history behind the blocks – like who visited it, that they have a special VIP deck on top of the HDB, these things you know? I don’t think I know that much about Novena at all. Maybe they should organise the next one at Novena.” Indeed, asked if he’d go had the photowalk been in his neighbourhood, Nigel says that, “Before this, I don’t think so – ‘I know enough of AMK’ – but now that I think about it, I would probably go (laughs), I’ll probably discover a lot more I never knew.” Indeed, that’s quite likely as Toa Payoh resident Kuek Jinhua can attest to. “It’s interesting,” he says of the photowalk, “exploring the town that I grew up in, there are some parts I didn’t know you can just cut through, that there are some places where the scenery is actually this nice.” He reflects that as a resident, “you would just go to your favourite places, you walk your usual routes, so you perhaps wouldn’t have realised that hey, there are actually so many interesting things.”

 

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Jinhua was also one of three long-time residents who graciously took time out of their Saturday to share about Toa Payoh. Their stories enthralled us, bringing Toa Payoh’s history to life in a vivid yet down-to-earth way. For instance, Jinhua’s playful recollection of his childhood ‘McDonalds’ days’ when he’d breakfast there every weekend was something many of us could connect with, and such small personal stories honestly conveyed the flavour of life in Toa Payoh back then. Peggy at Sin Yip Seng framers’ shared how the business has endured over the years, letting us in on their secret –“price and service both”. As she says, she’s flexible about staying open for a customer who’s coming over, especially nowadays when they can simply call to tell her they’re on their way.  “要赚钱 (want to do business) no need so serious,” she quips wryly, in her warm, knowing tone borne of her 41 years’ experience. At Bugs Bunny Barber, we met Mr. Hamzah who’s seen generations of customers grow up over his four decades there. He recounted how kids were attracted by the shop’s name, and how he once sought a Chinese customer’s help to paint ‘星期五休息’ (‘Friday rest day’) on the door, nice episodes that convey the close sense of community he’s experienced. It may have been called a photowalk, but through those conversations with the residents, we had the privilege of learning about what can’t be seen through any viewfinder –– the history of Toa Payoh as they saw it and their lives as they lived them. Those real interactions, and the “personal dimension” they brought, as Gaby puts it, made the walk all the more unique, fulfilling and worthwhile.

As we exchanged contacts after the walk, it was apparent that our interactions with fellow photowalkers had been meaningful too. It was pleasant to find ourselves meeting people from diverse backgrounds, discovering common interests while hearing new perspectives. From Nigel for instance, I heard how breathtaking yet disappointing it was to see from Tekong airshow jets banking at their lowest overhead – without a camera, and also gained some insight into NS life from him as a senior. Similar conversations unfolded all around, as photowalkers swapped university stories, or discussed photography, and so on. It proved enjoyable for the team too, with Jean sharing that “it was refreshing to be able to engage people offline”, and Gaby saying it was very casual and she “loved talking to the participants, who also brought their own insights and experiences in Toa Payoh.” Admittedly, it wasn’t easy during the walk to balance photography, discovering Toa Payoh, and interacting with fellow walkers: one can’t hold a proper conversation and frame a shot through the viewfinder, and it was sometimes a tough choice between capturing a beautiful moment, or letting it pass to continue a meaningful conversation. Travelling in a group further put dampers on how much wandering we could do, and between photography and conversation, paying attention to the team’s sharings was also difficult sometimes. However, this balancing act highlights how there’s more to appreciate besides the photography, that there’s a different way we can engage with our world – not just from behind a lens, or with a quick snap and post, but a lingering, a worthwhile interaction with the people and places around you.

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In fact, interactions also played a big part in how The Real Estates came together. For the design and site, Logue collaborated with ONO Creates, and Sulphur respectively, with close interaction being a key feature throughout – “a lot of brainstorming, communication, critique and creating a strong, streamlined workflow that enables all partners to work together effectively,” as Gaby says. Jing from ONO Creates further shares that one project priority they settled on was that the “final installation must have an interactive element”, and in fact, they’d got on board because they “loved the idea of The Real Estates being an arts project the community can interact with.” As Jing shares: “I think people tend to view design and art as something that’s more for ‘creative’ or ‘cultured’ people – but we hope to slowly change that notion.” Logue also engaged with the neighbourhood: “we designed and planned routes, met community partners, and carried out interviews,” says Gaby. So from conception, to that Saturday, to the installation, human interaction has been central. “It’s always a party,” Jean says, “things are constantly changing and you’re able to bring people together to work on something so fun.”

As the walk wrapped up, one moment stood out – a photowalker had just exchanged contacts with Natalie and was scrolling through her Facebook profile, when she suddenly exclaimed in surprise that they apparently have a mutual friend. As it turns out, that friend was churchmates with one of them, and schoolmates with the other – what a small world indeed, even smaller now with social media. But our small world remains rich in discoveries, as Toa Payoh shows. “On the map it doesn’t look very big, but you can find a lot of things, like the town park, the interesting HDB designs, the Dragon Playground” Jaya reflects. And Singapore may be small, but as Jean says, “its neighbourhoods are full of character, each with a unique identity” and stories to be discovered. What’s interesting, and what The Real Estates shows, is that technology can facilitate this discovery. Too often we engage with technology at the expense of engaging with our world, losing ourselves in our screens, forgetting to interact with the people and places around us. With The Real Estates however, technology and real-world interaction worked together – online platforms helped bring people together for the photowalk itself, where we then engaged with the space and people around us. That experience was in turn further shared with others online, and also through the interactive installation currently up at Toa Payoh HDB Hub. When online and real-life engagement complement each other, we see how meaningful the result can be – discovering a neighbourhood, meeting people from different walks of life – we see how stories and lives can intertwine.

Now that you’ve heard about The Real Estates here online, why not head on down to see their installation for yourself? It’s open 10 to 7pm every day till Friday 25th March, and if you drop by from Fridays to Saturdays, you’ll also be able to chat with members of Logue and hear from them directly about their work. Press invites you to take some time to join them at Toa Payoh HDB Hub, and maybe even at their upcoming photowalk this November, and intertwine your own story with the rich tapestry that is the stories of our lives and neighbourhoods.

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