The streets of Serangoon Gardens are as car-lined as they are tree-lined. Growing up in this continually gentrifying neighbourhood, my sole concern was to keep to the pavement and as far from the road as possible. My father, the social historian, told me how even after the rubber plantation and Occupation-era flower farms were cleared, Gardens came into being as a low-to-mid-cost residence of civil servants and Royal Air Force families. Once they were on the ground, they walked, he said. Nowadays Jaguars may roam the Gardens but it is still a humble place.
As a third generation Gardenite, I keep walking right past the commercial circus. In the popular imagination, Gardens is a food lover’s Camelot – with less and less place to park your horse. There’s the acclaimed Hokkien Noodles and BBQ Stingray at Chomp Chomp, of course, new-fangled eateries at myVillage (an empty, pseudo-heritage mall), Indian fare, Continental, and at the blacked-out Borshch Steakhouse, even “Russian Food by Ex-Troika”. The storefronts may have changed over the years, but their structural integrity has not. I’m happy taking away whatever from the eponymous food centre, Chomp Chomp’s poor relation, back home to eat.
Parties are usually held at my home but it never really occurred to me why, despite the HDBs of Ang Mo Kio, Bishan, and Hougang that surround Gardens. When I still had a mortal fear of vomit, the girl from next door came over for a birthday and puked the moment she stepped out. Nowadays, gatherings only attract the ambulance (alcohol poisoning) or friendly policemen and women (noise, neighbours). I guess like some others living here, I never felt particularly privileged.
“Although literally I may not be actually experiencing the same thing,” Matthew Tan of Matthew and the Mandarins (and Upper Serangoon) says of country music and poverty, “eventually, something, somehow might be related to your lifestyle.” To me, the essential ulu-ness and second- or third-rate nature of Gardens has kept it from the fate of other supposed gated communities like Holland Village and Bukit Timah. The Circle Line still does not reach this circus. Modern cars may now squeeze into crumbling and freshly constructed houses alike, but cowboys, somehow, still course through this part of the country. I don’t think I shall ever move out.
Like others in this Catholic stronghold, I attended preschool in the Church of St. Francis Xavier (SFX). Located at the top of Chartwell Drive, this parish, founded in 1959, can be considered Gardens’ summit. Behind SFX’s imposing bell tower, though, rainbows reign and bunnies still run upright. I may be an Indian Hindu, but I also learnt Mandarin at this kindergarten. I don’t remember much of the lessons. Mostly, I wanted to play with sand.
On Easter Sunday, I enter the Church again. It is some time after Mass and there is no one around. Along the pews, the red songbooks have been neatly replaced. The light is blue from the stained glass windows and saints and martyrs keep looking down. It is not silent but quiet, close to the choral magic of “Coronation”, a movement from Damon Albarn’s (of Parklife fame) opera about Dr. Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s advisor and the supposed model for Prospero. When I was a kid, my own crowning glory was to come when I mounted SFX’s belfry, but there was always the playground pyramid next door at Chartwell Drive Park.
SFX is a place for Gardenites to supplicate with larger powers and interact with those they can break bread with. To the once-prevalent Eurasian community, the Church was a particular meeting point. Where they have since gone only the Lord knows, but SFX still hosts bridge games – my mother’s old friend dutifully attends every evening.
Beyond the maddening circus
From the southern summit of SFX, Gardens extends downwards in slivers of narrow, interlocking streets, lined with contiguous houses. These streets can perhaps be divided into three sectors: the Groves (south), the Drives (south-west), and the Avenues (north-west). To the Chinese (who else), these sectors were once known by their average prices: $12,000 for a house in the Groves, $14,000 for a larger Drive home. Currently, a semi-detached house along Bodmin Drive is listed for a negotiable $3,800,000.
“In Singapore, unlike many newly independent countries, we do not have a policy of de-colonising the names of streets and places,” NHB’s Honorary Chairman Tommy Koh recently wrote in support of the Singapore French community’s campaign to rename Petain Road. The road is named after the national hero-turned-Nazi collaborator. “I approve of this policy because we should not deny the past,” Koh states, counting Petain Road as one exception to the rule.
Gardens may not have as controversial street names, but these colonial markers do indicate age. The predominantly B- and C-starting street names, like Brighton Avenue and Chartwell Drive, recall British towns and suburbs, as Remember Singapore remembers. In an inversion of history, the Malay- (Jalan Nira) and Chinese-named streets (Chuan Walk, Tai Yuan Heights) signify the newer part of Gardens, after the Bukit Sembawang group took over from Steven Charles Macey’s development in the early ‘50s.
Walking along the local Anglophilia of Burghley Drive, I pass single-storey houses, detached or semi-detached, situated directly beside four-storey monoliths. As with hip-hop’s evolution from social consciousness (here represented by a Return to Forever-recalling cut from The Roots) to self-glorifying vulgarity, three so-called architectural periods can be evinced in a sample size of about five houses.
Post-war, the first generation built brick abodes – distinct from colonial black and whites – set back from the road with a driveway, a patch of grass, and more often than not, a curlicue fence. These were constructed with a wonderful lack of consideration to land optimality, and are today complete with TV radials, telephone poles, and a brooding old person within.
These baby boomers passed the land to their children or property developers, who ushered in what can be called the era of “obiangism”, in veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon’s terminology. An obiang house is at least two storeys tall, and intentionally scars your eyes with its pastel largeness. Hawk statues are not uncommon, neither are aggressive small dogs. Lastly, obiang-ness is not complete without at least a few cars. As Rick Ross, the Miami don, propounds, “My Rolls-Royce triple black, Imma getcha ‘ho … I built it ground up, you bought it renovated … Hallelujah / One nation under God”.
Obnoxiousness only continues to mark some houses today: modern wealth has arguably found more discreet ways of displaying itself. These include Hemsley Avenue’s multi-layered glass house and the white wonder at the cul-de-sac of Conway Circle. Another option for self-distinguishing houses is the unit number. Almost gone are the painted or mailbox varieties. Mounted glass or giving your house a precious name are the new ways to go.
Because it is ever-present, you don’t notice the construction at Gardens. In a space of 25 years, my family has moved five times with the property tide. Portchester Avenue was my original home, but it never felt like we moved far away, both literally and otherwise. It was simply a different road with a different set of friends. It was another road where, because of the absence of traffic lights, drivers went wild with their accelerators.
The constant rebuilding can also be told through each flapping banner of property agents. “SOLD!” they proclaim, by “powerful negotiators” with names like Jenard Nair and Bjorn Chua. Even the one bus that serves the neighbourhood is not spared property ads, and certain companies have begun to set up stations near Chomp Chomp, selling condominiums that are nowhere near Gardens.
“There are places I’ll remember / All my life, though some have changed / Some forever, not for better,” Sean Connery intones at this point, recalling both a sense of timelessness and Jeopardy!
To some, a certain kind of home has been lost with the influx of money. Back at the circus, I bump into Mr. Ng, who is in his fifties. Only his mother continues to live at Borthwick Drive, while the rest of the family has moved to neighbouring Macpherson. In the stupor that extends to this part of Gardens post-lunch, his daughter, dressed in shorts and slippers, has ventured out with a pimple sticker attached.
“I had a big quarrel with my mother’s neighbour,” Mr. Ng says. “The fence was originally about 3 feet high, no blockages of view and air. Then one fine day somebody came in and said we’re building a house. The wall went from 3 feet to 9 feet, and she was very angry. To her it’s an inheritance – she grew up here, that’s why she doesn’t want to sell. Typically, this is kampong style with neighbours that you meet. It was never rich – maybe now. Now the ambience is completely different. Now it’s just like HDB: I go home, I don’t know you, I don’t talk to anyone.”
Boundaries and quarters
In 2008, 1,400 residents signed a petition against the authorities’ plan to convert the former Serangoon Gardens Technical School into a foreign workers’ dormitory. After even Hitler pitched in, the conversion continued with a slip road built to channel non-Singaporeans straight onto the CTE, bypassing Gardens. The dormitory is named the Central Staff Apartments, a bland and innocuous retelling of this incident. As recently as February, it was used as a shameful example of the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality.
From the front, you can’t see the Central Staff Apartments – hoarding has been erected to fence the sight off from Burghley Lifestyle Hub and Gardenites beyond. The Burghley Lifestyle Hub is essentially a gym, café, and dance and yoga studio. On a weekend, there are not very much people, let alone any lifestyle, to be found here.
At its side, underneath a bridge, I notice a Chinese foreign worker carrying a bamboo pole pushing past a bush and follow him. It’s a muddy trail that runs along the length of a longkang. On the left, through the fence, is first a dog, locked in between the Central Staff Apartments and the Burghley Lifestyle Hub. Then it’s where the men live and then the women.
The blocks of housing quarters are staid and dull. With grayish zinc roofs, they call to mind a Soviet camp, but with a soccer field and three swing sets outside. The school’s fitness corner still stands – now bicycles are chained around them.
A man is sitting alone by the benches. He’s Cho, a Burmese in his thirties, and is waiting for his friends to come out to play soccer. The engineering graduate has worked as a gardener here for five months, and plans to return home after two years to sell plants back to Singapore. Cho sleeps eight to a room with other Burmese, Thais, Bangladeshis, Indians and Chinese. According to him, there is little interaction amongst the nationalities except for the canteen where one can buy food. For one, I imagine the clash between Gold Panda’s “Quitter’s Raga” and Sai Htee Saing's "Mandalay Yao, Shan Ta Yao”, a country song about a country bumpkin in the big city who is met by rejection.
Do you like staying here, I ask him. “I don’t know, just work,” he says, “two days a month rest.” Cho has never been inside Gardens, and knows Singapore from the Central Staff Apartments and Pasir Ris, where he works. At this point, a silver Mercedes Benz streams into the driveway, with a lost and confused bourgeoisie within. “This place is strange”, Cho says.
From one end, I walk to the other tip of Gardens, Tavistock Avenue Park, where HDBs and the Lycee Francais de Singapour are in clear sight. Like the houses, the park too has been transformed. It’s quaint, I know, but there used to be a real black tarmac track here where Dad ran. As I kept watching him from the slides and swings, I knew I had to soon withdraw from the moat of Stephen King novels, Iron Maiden albums, and six prata breakfasts I had built around myself. So during college, I too ran around the track here everyday. After eight months, I lost 35 kgs. I became new as quickly as the place did.
Ringo the barber
There is a barbershop at Serangoon Garden Village that I have been going to for a while now. Behind myVillage, where the Paramount Theatre and NTUC used to stand, Ringo cuts your hair. He’s skilled and also an Arsenal diehard — we have it out every time. Inside, there are mock-War newspapers (“Mr. Churchill Sees Coast Battles”) and Malaysia’s LiteFM always plays cheesy hits.
In between snips, I ask him if Gardens has changed much to him. “Not much la, still the same feel.” “See you, man,” we both always say.
A friend’s grandmother used to live on Crowhurst Drive. They converted it into a big house, sold it, and moved to a small house. According to him, she now talks about storing rice underneath floorboards so that people wouldn’t come in and take it away, in between complaining that there is no breeze in the new place.
Maybe there’re still some people like that here, who live as if money wasn’t all around them. They bake not in an oven but in a toaster, charred chicken wing brown. Then, in these big houses, they eat together with small, weathered utensils.
Music Curation & Words Indran Paramasivam
Images Melvyck Leong
Special thanks to Justin Ong, ‘Tiger’ and Wee Li Lin.
SOUNDSCAPING is cross-published with Midnight Shift, the electronic music events and label uprising.