Tanglin Halt (Queenstown, Singapore), 2019

Once a year (or more) (for few days) (or longer), for a decade now, I have been going back to Singapore. Almost always I stay and conduct all my affairs in the same place…always somewhere close to Bugis.

But sometimes I have the benefit of free time and able to go elsewhere. Tanglin Halt is my elsewhere this time.

Tanglin Halt is a pocket neighbourhood in Queenstown. A good friend, Grace, and her husband, Victor, moved there few years ago, and got involved with their community heritage group (called My Community).  Part of their service is a small historical museum called “Our Stories” that contains: (1) stories of the people of Queenstown— like a wall with photos, audio recording of interviews and other memorabilia of some old residents of Queenstown, including the homegrown band, The Quest; (2) stories of their their industries, like Setron (a black-and-white television factory, c.1960s), Matex paint, tin can that were used for Van Houten chocolates, among others; (3) stories of daily lives; (4) and stories of infrastructure development and redevelopment.

My friend explained that Tanglin Halt was called as such because the Malayan Railway, that brought people and goods between (Johor Bahru) Malaysia and (Tanjong Pagar) Singapore, had a track halt within the area. This halt and the rest of the train track is now converted into a “green corridor”, where people go for leisure or to exercise.

Tanglin Halt, the community, started developing around the 1950s. It was intended to be a living+working community, which means that there are residential places, industrial installations, schools, places of worship, of entertainment, among others. There are structures that were built under the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) (from 1950s, with some even slightly older) and others that were built by the Republic of Singapore (such as HDB flats). Two such structures from SIT are row of two-storey shophouses— for living and business (brown ones), and slightly similarly formed row-houses that are exclusively for residential purpose (red and white ones).

At present time, some of the shophouses' tenants have been there for several generations, including a medical clinic (Meng’s), flower shop (Universal Orchids), salon (Salon de Benzimen), a provision shop (Kian Seng), and hardware (Sim Huat and Co.). Adjacent to it is a “half-and-half” market, where they sell fresh products on one side, and a hawker centre on the other side, where people queue-up for their favourites. One of which is Mr. and Mrs. Teng’s Peanut Pancake, with curious store hours of 3:30AM to 11:30AM (the pancakes are to die for! i kid you not!).

There is nothing much to see on the residential SIT. It was very interesting though that in this community, one can stand anywhere and see a sampling of government housing estates— there are the very new ones with 40 floors, slightly older ones with 10 floors, and the very old SITs that only has 2 floors. These residences are surrounded by lush greens, so it feels a whole lot cooler than city centre.

Perhaps my personal favourite about this place, which unfortunately cannot be photographed or audio recorded is the feeling of the place— its vibe. It felt so much like an old town where everybody seem to know everybody (or at least friendly with each other) (including a very old dog!) (maybe except for that one bored cat!). It felt like they are used to visitors, but it doesn’t feel anything like a touristy place. And none of them were in a real rush to be somewhere else except where they are currently, which I find very interesting considering that people are familiar with the continuous redevelopment projects of the government, which requires them to move physically.

My tapao from all these is to experience a particular brand of heritage preservation at work. The kind that preserves not to freeze the past, but to take what was left of it to present, and make it as part of their daily lives.

The kind that is initiated and embraced by the community, not only because it was programmed by the state, but because they have a sense of ownership, of connection, of belonging.  It’s like taking your parents’ gene— the one that makes the colour of your eyes a particular shade of brown, or your hair a particular volume of curls, it came from them, but you live with it and own it, even after the time you had passed it on to somebody else’s life or memory.