A trip down memory lane in Tanglin Halt, soon to be demolished
What will be lost, and what has already changed in one of Singapore’s oldest districts? Residents and business owners share their stories with the programme On The Red Dot.
SINGAPORE: When Tanglin Halt resident Venkatachalam Gomathi, 57, used to work late at the office, her neighbour made a point of checking whether her daughter was home alone.
It is one of her precious memories of the next-door auntie, all of 97 years old.
Venkatachalam, who has lived in Tanglin Halt with her husband for 25 years, said: “And during Chinese New Year, her children would come and give a hongbao to my daughter … Very nice. Then slowly, one by one, they all left.”
Ngern Kah Cheng has been in Tanglin Halt even longer. The 72-year-old has been selling braised duck noodles there since 1969.
Her first stall was next to a rubbish collection centre, and she had to stop serving food every time the truck came by to collect the rubbish.
Her brother, Ngern Jwee Chye, 68, later joined her as a hawker at Tanglin Halt Market and discovered the area’s “kampung spirit”. “Everyone takes care of each other,” said the laksa seller.
His sister’s husband, 72-year-old Chua Ngen Leng, added: “Back then, our customers were the young folks. Now, they’ve become fathers and grandfathers. They bring their grandchildren here to eat. That’s almost three, four generations.”
There is a collage of memories that many residents and visitors will have of Tanglin Halt after its 31 blocks of flats, seven commercial blocks and two markets and food centres are demolished from the end of this year.
It is the biggest project under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme since 1999, and the programme On The Red Dot discovers what will soon be missed.
On the list are some famous food stalls that have helped to put Singapore’s hawker culture on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Wei Yi Laksa and Prawn Noodles, which Jwee Chye set up at Tanglin Halt Market in the 1990s, is considered one of Singapore’s most popular laksa stalls today. The queues start from as early as 6am.
“Many traditional dishes were slowly disappearing, so after my mum taught me, I added my own flair,” he said. “She didn’t have an education, but when it came to cooking, she was number one.”
Another stall there is Tanglin Halt Original Peanut Pancake, opened in 1965 by the father-in-law of the current owner.
Their pancake stands out as having a distinctive flavour and a denser and chewier texture than the ones Singaporeans usually eat — and costs only 80 cents apiece.
But owner Teng Kiong Seng is now in his mid-70s and has not yet found a successor, nor does he know the future of his stall after the market is demolished.
He hopes, however, to continue making his famous snack until he is about 80 years old.
WATCH: Taste these traditional snacks at Tanglin Halt before they’re gone (2:22)
Gabrielle Kennedy, 23, a customer at the market, said: “With every stall being so different, they represent different cuisines, different cultures, and that’s just what Singapore is. So if it was to go away, it would be very sad.”
FROM ICONS TO ARTEFACTS
Some of Tanglin Halt’s icons are already a distant memory: The now defunct railway line, the Van Houten chocolate factory and the Setron television factory, which manufactured Singapore’s first locally-made TV sets.
Tanglin Halt’s rows of 10-storey blocks with diagonal staircases — completed between 1962 and 1963 as one of the five initial districts within Queenstown, Singapore’s first satellite estate — have also become an iconic image.
Doctor and food blogger Leslie Tay remembers visiting his maternal grandparents there and what his mother “always” told him: Their unit had “so many people” that she “got married quickly to get out of the house”.
He now feels “quite sad”, although Kiong Seng told him they “shouldn’t complain”. The hawker said: “To transform the entire area and upgrade the buildings is a must … This is part of Singapore’s future development.”
Still, with having to leave it all behind, many residents and business owners have sentimental feelings about their personal connections in the district.
“It’s a pity. I’m very emotionally invested in this place,” said 71-year-old Alice Tan, the owner of Alice’s Hair and Beauty Shop, which has been around for 50 years.
Everyone including the customers get along well. So I feel a sense of loss and unhappiness. When the time comes to leave, I’m not sure how I’ll accept it.
All will not be lost, however. Museum @ My Queenstown, located in Tanglin Halt, contains artefacts from bygone industries and buildings that were once part of the neighbourhood.
Non-profit organisation My Community opened the museum in 2018 and has also collected stories and old photographs from residents, to be preserved at the new museum in Margaret Drive.
Tanglin Halt even has a village chief, as Alice Lee, 73, is fondly known as — or whom Leslie referred to as the “queen of Queenstown”.
She has lived there for 53 years now and is one of the head volunteers with the Queenstown Residents’ Committee.
Asked about the story behind her “village chief” moniker, she said: “I used to help (residents) keep their keys in my house. Whenever they needed their key, (if) they’d lost a key or anything, they’d come to my house.
“One of the uncles lost (his) key. He had to call the key maker at midnight to come and open the door. They charged S$80. From then on, I said you can come over to my house and get your keys.”
WATCH: The full episode — Tanglin Halt: Bidding farewell to some of Singapore's oldest flats (23:10)
Residents could also get a nice view from her windows, which look out on greenery. Every day at 5pm, she takes a photograph of the scenery. “The view every day is different. The sky, everything, is different,” she said.
“Then I can keep (the photos) … for memories.”
Watch this episode of On The Red Dot here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.