Review: 10-Stories Queenstown Through The Years
by Loh Kah Seng
For scholars, history buffs and elderly Singaporeans seeking an â€˜authenticâ€™ slice of Singaporeâ€™s history in a time of social change and adaptation, 10-Stories is a welcome breath of fresh air. The National Heritage Board (NHB) coffee table book, completed in collaboration with the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the Queenstown Citizensâ€™ Consultative Committee (CCC), is the latest in a long line of public histories on places and communities on our little island. It retains some of the characteristic motifs and problems of preceding publications but also sets out on important new paths which future social histories can take.
The subject-matter of 10-Stories is Queenstown New Town, Singaporeâ€™s pioneer suburb, which the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) â€“ the de facto colonial housing authority â€“ first began building in 1952 and was subsequently completed by the first generation of HDB architects. The book is written in a light style for the general reader, who will also find the numerous beautiful photographs of old and contemporary Queenstown useful. The copy-editing, however, is shoddy and a later print should correct the grammatical errors.
The book is divided into ten chapters â€“ hence the cheekily-punned title which also refers to a well-known cluster of flats of a certain height at Tanglin Halt. They cover aspects of social and economic life in Queenstown such as the experiences of moving into a flat, relationships between neighbours, the trades and recreational activities plus well-known personalities of the estate.
Much of the material is based on oral history interviews conducted by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and the NHB project team. Interspersed between the chapters are shorter â€˜inside storiesâ€™ which utilise official records to map out the historical context within which the development of Queenstown took place. In these pieces, we learn about the genesis and implementation of the neighbourhood concept and the link between Singapore public housing and postwar British town planning ideas.
The singular strength of 10-Stories is its human element. The commissioned writer, himself a long-time Queenstown resident, takes us to interesting events and places through the collective memory of the elderly dwellers. Through their recollections, Queenstownâ€™s colonial trappings quickly recede into the background. What emerges, in Hokkien, Mandarin and Hakka, is a sense of the strong ties which Singaporeans have with their physical environment and the people â€“ relatives, neighbours and friends â€“ who live in it.
We learn that Queenstown was really Boh Beh Kang (â€˜No Tail Riverâ€™ in Hokkien), while fourteen-storey blocks of flats were, literally, chap si lau. The oral histories affirm, in their own vernacular, the experiences of a generation of hitherto un-named Singaporeans who made the momentous transition from unauthorised wooden dwellings to modern public housing from the 1950s onwards.
In some remarkable ways, the book eschews political correctness and takes us, as all good histories should do, into a different world which once existed. It shows empathy for aspects of social and economic life which were criminalised or officially frowned upon.
Two stand out in particular: the affinity of dwellers for the fare peddled by unlicensed hawkers (indeed some of the individuals featured hawked in their younger days) and the social memory of high-rise flats as places of tiao lau (â€˜jumping off a high-rise buildingâ€™). The â€˜attap hutâ€™, we also discover, may turn out to be a fairly spacious housing for an extended family, not the cramped, insanitary dwelling typically so depicted in the usual official and public histories of housing.
We hope for elaborations of such social history in future publications. In 10-Stories, secret societies are yet to be properly viewed as an embedded part of community life in post-World War Two Singapore. My own interviews with elderly Singaporeans show that while gang fights were understandably feared, the secret societies were neither â€˜secretâ€™ nor â€˜dangerousâ€™ to the residents.
The book also fails to give politics an appropriate place in the lives of the residents. When the SIT first tried to clear Boh Beh Kang in the early 1950s, many kampong dwellers joined the Singapore Attap Dwellersâ€™ Association, led by a Labour Front politician, to actively contest it. The first neighbourhood, Princess Estate, was consequently delayed by the resistance and not completed until 1956.
The book quotes a former kampong dweller as saying that the resettlement was â€˜bo bianâ€™ (â€˜no choiceâ€™, p. 18) but this is evidently a reflection from hindsight and not how the situation was appraised at the moment in time. Queenstown, too, was for a brief period in the early 1960s the constituency of the late Dr Lee Siew Choh, the former PAP and Barisan Sosialis leader. Yet the book is silent on this facet of the past.
The main theme of 10-Stories is this problematic relationship between the past and present. â€˜The story of Queenstownâ€™, as the author writes, â€˜is where past, present and future come togetherâ€™ (p. 166). There are, he argues, strong continuities in the history â€“ a spirit of tenacity and the close neighbourliness which survived the transition from kampong to new town.
Yet there are pressing questions which this affirmative approach does not address. On the graying of Queenstown and the migration of the children of the elderly generation to outlying housing estates, the book simply states, â€˜[t]he remaining older residents of Queenstown nevertheless took the decline of their physical and social environment in their strideâ€™ (p. 146). This surely is inadequate if the purpose of the book is to be served; one needs to confront the generational fractures in family life which took place from the 1970s onwards.
The elderly residentsâ€™ longing for a warmer and simpler past also does not belong to the early chapters on Queenstownâ€™s history but more properly to a late chapter on social memory. In fact, the bookâ€™s nostalgia for a treasured past indicates an uncertainty towards the future. Present-day Queenstown, it is noted, â€˜enjoys the honour of being one of the most desirable estates in Singaporeâ€™ (p. 6) and is lauded as the â€˜undisputed king of HDB estatesâ€™ (p. 150).
These statements, however, come from different voices. It is unclear if the elderly generation has as strong an affinity with the â€˜remakingâ€™ of Queenstown which the HDB is presently undertaking as with the past. Nostalgia is further strengthened, not lessened, by rapid social change. The bookâ€™s chief value is as a document of the mental landscapes and reflections of an older generation of Singaporeans.
Loh Kah Seng is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University, working on a social history of the 1961 Kampong Bukit Ho Swee Fire. He has a keen research interest in Singapore history, particularly the official use of history, the Great Depression, leprosy, the student movement, and oral history and memory. He received his BA (Hons) and MA degrees from the National University of Singapore in 1996 and 2005 respectively. In between those years, he was a History teacher in a junior college, and still teaches and gives lectures to school students.