The flatted factory that made history: Inside 115 Commonwealth Drive

The flatted factory that made history: Inside 115 Commonwealth Drive

Singapore’s oldest flatted factory is a microcosm of Singapore, capturing the diverging fortunes of companies and the evolving business mix as the country’s comparative advantages changed over time.

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The flatted factory’s first tenant – a printing company. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

SINGAPORE: From garment factories and precision engineering firms, to dive shops, a music studio and a personal finance startup – these are among the motley crew of tenants who do business out of Singapore’s oldest flatted factory.

While it may look unremarkable, the 52-year-old building along Commonwealth Drive is what is left of an industrial cluster, which back in the day played a key role in operationalising Singapore’s early industrialisation drive, providing businesses with affordable industrial space.

“This flatted factory was actually opened by a minister (then Minister for National Development Lim Kim San),” said longtime tenant Chen De Li, pointing out that as Singapore’s economic development took off, such factory openings subsequently became “non-events”.

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115A Commonwealth Drive is home to Singapore's oldest flatted factory. (Kane Cunico)

First mooted by the Economic Development Board and managed by its Industrial Facilities Division (which would later become JTC), the flatted factory comprises two buildings – the five-storey 115a, where most of the tenants are located, and the two-storey section, which has a coffeeshop on the ground floor.

The 240,000-square foot factory was divested to government-linked company Mapletree in 2008, and according to JTC, this allowed it “to focus on its strategic infrastructure developer role”.

THE FLATTED FACTORY TODAY

Today, in Singapore’s post-privatisation phase, 115 Commonwealth Drive is just like any other building in the competitive, largely private-sector-controlled industrial space market. But with its glory days behind it, it is no longer the pick of the bunch, with the upkeep and maintenance of its facilities described by one tenant as “very basic and minimal”.

At the same time, ageing tenants in sunset industries have hollowed out. One tenant, who only wanted to be known as Mdm Koh of Soon Hong Dressmaking, said she plans to discontinue her business and retire, as she is already 68. “Right now, I’m keeping it going at the request of my longtime customers. I give it about two years before I stop.”

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Mdm Koh, a dressmaker who has been at the flatted factory for the past 30 years, with a colleague. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Mr Chen, 65, who imports and distributes desktop components, is in a similar position. “I know it’s a dying trade, so I don’t want my son to come and take over,” said the proprietor of CDL Trading, adding that he has tried unsuccessfully to shift to other business lines over the years.

And it’s not just Mr Chen and Mdm Koh who are struggling. Sally Chua, a tenant of 19 years, says many tenants have fallen on hard times in the last five years. “They haved either down-sized or closed shop."  

“These were mainly occupied by small-time ‘cottage industries’ type of businesses, including dress-making, semi-conductor and electronic components, photography, medical and scientific equipment, and confectionery packaging,” said the 48-year-old.

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Dressmakers at Kah Huat uniform factory. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Ms Chua’s company, Singapore Kitchen Equipment, is arguably one of the most successful in block 115. It expanded from a single unit to 19 over the years, and listed on the secondary board of the Singapore Exchange in 2013.

In a way, Block 115 Commonwealth is a microcosm of Singapore: capturing the diverging fortunes of companies and the evolving business mix as the country’s comparative advantages changed over time. Its newest tenant, personal finance portal MoneySmart, reflects this shift.

“We need more space, and besides there’s a time limit to how long startups can stay in Block 71, as it’s meant to be an incubation centre,” said founder and CEO Vinod Nair, explaining his decision to move from a neighbouring flatted factory, Block 71 Ayer Rajah Crescent.

“What we saved in terms of rental, we put it back into doing the place nicely, so that even though the exterior may be a little bit grubby, people can enjoy coming in to work,” added the 36-year-old. He believes Commonwealth could be the next startup hub, due to “affordable rent, transportation links, and range of food options”.

THE FUTURE

The flatted factory does not boast iconic architecture, such as the nearby former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market, which was gazetted for conservation in 2013. But some tenants and researchers believe the factory holds enough historical significance to qualify for conservation.

Mr Kwek, whose non-profit group runs guided tours with a flatted factory as a tour stop, says that apart from supporting entrepreneurs, the flatted factory also contributed to the overall Singapore Story.

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A participant on a heritage tour around Queenstown where the flatted factory is located. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

“It facilitated female participation in the workforce. This was important because society at the time was rather patriarchal. But women were able to take (sewing) work home for example, or do part-time work in the factory and walk back to their homes to cook and clean,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Mr Chen, the desktop components supplier, reasoned that block 115 deserves to be conserved as “a lot of old flatted factories have been torn down already”, and that we “should leave something for the future generation to look at.”

“The thing about conservation is sometimes people don’t think about it until it’s going to be torn down. But while it was there, nobody cares about it. I feel if (the flatted factory) is actively used as a stop for heritage trails, then I think it’s worth conserving, because people are actually coming in to see it,” said Mr Nair.

Not every tenant feels shares the same sentiment. Mdm Koh, who has been based there for 30 years, says she would not be sad to see it go. “The building is so old, and there are these cracks on the floor. Perhaps it’s better for it to be torn down.”

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The factory is part of Queenstown's heritage trail. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

In 2013, My Community submitted a conservation paper to the authorities proposing that more than a dozen sites in Queenstown – including the flatted factory – be conserved. To date, URA has gazetted three of those sites for conservation. The flatted factory is not one of them. When contacted for comment, Mapletree told Channel NewsAsia in an emailed reply that it “do[es] not have any redevelopment plans” at present.

It added that it “regularly evaluate[s] opportunities to improve the competitiveness of [its] properties”, and completed “lift modernisation, improvements to toilets and façade painting” at the flatted factory over the last two years.

MEET THE TENANTS

1. Singapore Kitchen Equipment 

The largest tenant at the flatted factory, occupying 19 units.

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Managing Director Sally Chua says one very visible change over the years is the neighbourhood’s demographics. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Managing Director Sally Chua says one very visible change over the years is the neighbourhood’s demographics. “I used to see many middle-aged and old folks, and those from the lower income group. But in the recent years, this place has morphed to become quite trendy with many young workers, especially the white collar PMETs.”

2. Lion Studios

One of the oldest recording studios in Singapore, built in 1979.

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Director David Tan (left) and manager Rufus Varghese run one is Singapore’s oldest recording studios, Lion Studios. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

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Inside Singapore's oldest recording music studio, Lion studios. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Director David Tan (left) and manager Rufus Varghese run one of Singapore’s oldest recording studios, Lion Studios. Constructed and opened in 1979 by then-Polygram Records, the studio has seen the likes of Bon Jovi, Teresa Teng, Jeremy Monteiro and Malaysia’s The Alleycats record sessions there.

3. Marlin Divers

Husband-and-wife team Martin Benedict and E Lin Pow are second-generation tenants.

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Husband-and-wife team Martin Benedict and E Lin Pow are second-generation tenants whose dive shop rents and sells dive equipment, and conducts lessons and dive tours. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Ms Pow took over the place from her parents, who ran an injection moulding business. The couple appreciates the vibe in the flatted factory, describing it as a “little community who helps each other”.

4. Kah Huat

A second-generation uniform business which has been operating out of the flatted factory for the last 18 years.

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A second-generation uniform business which has been operating out of the flatted factory for the last 18 years. The business has been in operation for more than 40 years, and one of its longest-serving employees has been working there for 42 years (above). (Photo: Kane Cunico)

The business has been in operation for more than 40 years, and one of its longest-serving employees has been working there for 42 years (above).

5. MoneySmart

A personal finance startup, and the flatted factory’s newest tenant.

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A personal finance startup, and the flatted factory’s newest tenant. “When I first came here, the lifts were so slow and old. But the biggest jolt that took me to the past was going to the toilets. It’s got the 70s tiling," says CEO Vinod Nair. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

“When I first came here, the lifts were so slow and old. But the biggest jolt that took me to the past was going to the toilets. It’s got the 70s tiling," says CEO Vinod Nair.

6. The Central Industries

The flatted factory’s first tenant – a printing company.

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Second-generation owner Ong Siong Sen, who worked at his father’s operation as a young teen, said one fond memory of the flatted factory was seeing singer Teresa Teng, who was at Lion Studios for a recording session. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Second-generation owner Ong Siong Sen said one fond memory of the flatted factory was seeing singer Teresa Teng, who was at Lion Studios for a recording session. “I saw her, but I just walked past. There were many people looking. She was eating chicken rice downstairs.”

7. CDL Trading

A desktop component distributor and a longtime tenant.

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A desktop component distributor and a longtime tenant.

“I live in Woodlands, but I’m so familiar with this place. Every morning you wake up, you drive – take the same road, you come here, walk up, and the place is there," says proprietor Chen De Li, who chose not to be photographed.

8. Soon Hong Dressmaking

A dressmaking business which has been around for the past 30 years.

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Mdm Koh, a dressmaker who has been at the flatted factory for the past 30 years, with a colleague. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

Mdm Koh, a dressmaker who has been at the flatted factory for the past 30 years, with a colleague. She plans to close the business.

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