SINGAPORE: “There's nothing much to say,” 80-year-old Mdm Lee said, when asked about the looming demolition of Rochor Centre, her home for the past 40 years. “I'm very sad.”
Authorities have yet to announce the exact date the wrecking crew will turn up, but have previously said the iconic, rainbow-coloured estate would be torn down at the end of 2016.
Mdm Lee remembers the day the Government said it would acquire the four blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats to make way for the 21.5km long North-South Expressway.
While the initial announcement back in November 2011 caught many by surprise, Mdm Lee said she had already been tipped off by her nephew a few years prior. "My nephew works at HDB and he told me one day: 'Auntie, your HDB is going to be acquired.’ And then I told my neighbours about it but they didn't believe me," she recounted.
Despite getting the early heads-up, she still recalls receiving, with a heavy heart, the official letter notifying Rochor Centre residents that they would have to move.
“It has a good location, very central,” Mdm Lee said as she peeled an orange outside her unit. “There’s shopping too, like the (nearby) OG shopping centre. This is a very nice place - it’s such a waste.”
As Mdm Lee sauntered to the stairwell, she caught sight of a 17-year-old neighbour climbing the stairs. "Why are you so tanned nowadays?" Mdm Lee called out, her brows slightly furrowed.
The boy, Outram Secondary School student Yong Wen Qing, later told Channel NewsAsia that Mdm Lee has been a familiar face, growing up.
The teen's family moved to Rochor Centre in 1999 but was due to move out a day after he spoke to this reporter.
"It's very sad that they're tearing this place down. If you go elsewhere, the HDB flats are mostly white, so to me, these are the most colourful HDB flats,” he said.
This is where his love for freestyle football began, he said. Over the last five years, he has been honing his skills every evening with fellow residents at the open areas of the estate. He also holds close to his heart memories of block parties at open-roof areas. “Sometimes people gather here and have barbecues. For instance during birthday parties, we invite our kindergarten, primary school friends to come over,” he said, pointing to the playground.
MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua and her grassroots volunteers have held many activities at the estate since she started representing the constituency in 2006, including National Day parties.
“Rochor Centre is uniquely constructed," she said. "There is a common courtyard-like space which is right in the middle of the centre towered by a few housing blocks. Although in the city district, Rochor Centre is one of the oldest public housing estates there.
“It is kampong-like. Most residents are elderly and do not speak English or aren't computer literate. However, many of them are nice and gracious people. They often ask if I have eaten or rested enough when I visit,” she said. “The shops were also reminiscent of the earlier days of Singapore – old coffeeshops, shops selling pots, pans, plates and other knick-knacks. As the location is very near Albert Centre and the popular Kwan Im Temple, many shops were also selling joss sticks and items for Chinese prayers.”
NINE OUT OF 10 HOUSEHOLDS MOVING TO KALLANG TRIVISTA
To make way for Singapore’s eleventh expressway, residents at Rochor Centre will be offered relocation benefits similar to those offered under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). They will have the opportunity to move to a new, 99-year lease home and will be given a package comprising compensation and rehousing benefits.
A spokesperson for HDB also told Channel NewsAsia that Rochor residents must move out of their flats by the end of this year. As part of the acquisition package, they are assured of a replacement flat at Kallang Trivista.
Of the 567 households in Blocks 1 to 4 Rochor Road, nine out of 10 households will be moving to a replacement at Kallang Trivista, said the spokesperson. Almost all the households have collected their keys, she added.
One resident, Mr Pang Siew Seng, tried in vain to appeal to authorities not to tear down the flats. “I asked HDB if there were other options other than to acquire the flats, but I was told ‘no’, as they have to build the roads,” he said, recalling a trip to HDB Hub in Toa Payoh.
He has been living at Rochor Centre since 1977 and was offered S$470,000 for his 3-room unit.
HDB said an appointed private valuer had physically inspected all the units in Rochor Centre to derive a fair market value for compensation. “The valuation varies from flat to flat, taking into account the individual flat attributes such as the internal layout of the flat, floor area, condition of renovations, state of maintenance, the location and orientation of the flats,” said the spokesperson.
Mr Pang said he feels extra sentimental about the flat, as this is the first home he bought. "I will miss this place for its convenience,” the 78-year-old said in Mandarin. “There are shops everywhere, including a FairPrice supermarket, four coffeeshops and a pawn shop.
“When I first moved here, I found the sound of the traffic can be boisterous but I’ve gotten used to it,” Mr Pang said. “This is the one and only estate in Singapore that has so many colours.
"This is a good location and I can see fireworks from here during every National Day Parade.”
Mr Chan Mun Ban Norman was seen taking in the view outside his Rochor apartment for the very last time when Channel NewsAsia visited the estate. Flanking him were large piles of cardboard boxes, as he and his family were all packed up and ready to go. Resting his arms on the parapet, Mr Chan stared hard at the bustling, traffic-filled roads. “I haven’t admired this view for so long,” the 78-year-old said in Mandarin. “It feels very nice.”
Mr Chan added: “In the past, there were no trees and flowers – just a canal which was very smelly, especially when the wind blew. So much has changed now. The road conditions have improved so much.”
Like Mr Pang, Mr Chan moved to Rochor Centre 39 years ago and has called this place home till now. “Today, I am already an ah pek (old man)!” he said, flashing a toothless grin.
When news of the acquisition first broke, it did not go down well with Mr Chan. He could not fathom the need for the North-South Expressway. “Even if there are no tunnels, cars can still move,” he said. “It has been like that for many years. The vehicles still go by and the traffic lights still work.”
But he was quick to add: “I believe the houses here are too old, so maybe if the authorities were to build a tunnel, the flats situated above it may collapse.”
MP Denise Phua, who said some residents have become "good friends" with her over the years, said it was “understandable” that many found it hard to accept the notice to relocate. “We have many elderly residents who have lived at Rochor for decades. It is understandable that they felt a loss, unsettling and at times upset about having to move."
“I had many sessions with residents and the HDB to provide more information and to be the conduit to express their concerns to HDB. It was a very busy season,” she said.
Where she could, she gave voice to their concerns in Parliament as well. “Many of the SERS regulations and practices, back when the Rochor SERS was announced, were fairly old,” she said. “For example, the ‘ancient’ practice of sticking a notice on the door of the flat, although done for decades, was offensive to the residents. This was soon changed.”
Affected residents were only presented with one relocation option early on – Kallang Trivista. “I thought that was not right since the call to relocate was not the residents',” Ms Phua recalled. “Some of them may have children living elsewhere and wish to reside near them. Some may not wish to move to the designated one-choice new estate. Thankfully, (then-Minister for National Development) Khaw Boon Wan agreed with me and soon, a major policy shift to allow the affected residents to select BTOs or other new flats in other housing estates.”
In 2012, Minister Khaw announced that Rochor Centre residents would still enjoy the same relocation benefits – including the price discount – even if they chose not to relocate to the new flats in Kallang.
“Since then, all residents affected in other SERS projects could enjoy these new provisions. I am very grateful to Minister Khaw and his team,” Ms Phua added.
She also gave special mention to NTUC FairPrice for keeping its outlet at Rochor open till end-November despite seeing dwindling business. "They were losing money, even with some support from HDB, (but) continued to stay on to serve my residents due to my appeal and (NTUC FairPrice CEO) Seah Kian Peng's graciousness."
Even as residents packed up, leaving a trail of unwanted belongings and worn-out furniture in their wake, members of the public have flocked to Rochor to snap photographs for posterity.
“During the weekends or on public holidays, I’d look out of my window and think: ‘Oh, there are people here again’,” said Wen Qing, adding that he makes the effort to chat with visitors and share memories of the estate.
Even after he moves out, he plans to visit his old neighbourhood for as long as he can, until the area gets barricaded, and is no longer safe to access. "I hope to come back to Rochor Centre every day to take photos and videos, until I’m no longer allowed to anymore. Then, I will stop visiting this place.”