The first stop on my quest to visit all the dots on the MRT map is my home station. Toe-PIE-oh… only you have to say the ‘toe’ part as fast as is humanly possible, making it more like t’PIE-o.
It’s fitting (as well as bloody convenient) that Toa Payoh was the first ever stop on the MRT map – Singapore’s subterranean railway opened in 1987 with a 6km stretch of track from here to Yio Chu Kang.
MRT = Mass Rapid Transport… everything is rapid in Singapore – like the growth of the MRT. There’s also an emphasis on mass, in the sense of ‘for the masses’, which brings me back to Toa Payoh.
Around 85% of Singaporeans live in public housing in the form of tower blocks in model towns, the like of which failed spectacularly in England but (in a classic case of student surpassing master) succeeded in Singapore.
Toa Payoh Town was the first to be entirely purpose-built by the Housing Development Board. And its convenient little high street – actually a few streets lined with all manner of chain- and mom-and-pop shops where I’ve bought everything from shampoo to a diamond – is thriving. Tell that to Telford.
The HDB arrived in Toa Payoh – the name is Hokkien for ‘big swamp’ – in the 60s, when the area was said to be as rough as Chicago, and most of the residents still lived kampong-style in attap houses. Wooden huts, thatched roofs, stilts to stay out of that ‘big swamp’.
Out on my balcony – 50 years on and 31-storeys up – there are no echoes of the kampong. Traffic is snarling on the PIE, brakes like hundreds of red eyes. I see street lights, flood lights, head lights, neon lights, traffic lights, dreamy submerged swimming pool lights, even the orange light of a gas flare off Malaysia – but no kerosene lamps. If I close my eyes, the cicadas and lapping water could suggest a swamp… but a siren, a TV set, and the little German-sounding bell belonging to a convent school below break the spell.
In the vanguard of the HDB and the MRT, Toa Payoh was a pioneer in the mass, rapid transport of Singapore into the future. “One of Modernisation’s / first ports of calls”, as the poet Koh Buck Song has it.
There are many other reasons to visit Toa Payoh and not just transit at the bus interchange: the remaining dragon playgrounds, the excellent public library with its special kids’ area, the oldest Buddhist temple in Singapore, and a suggestion that the Toa Payoh Long House popiah might just be the best in the country. I’d say “I’ll be back” but I’m already here.
I don’t have permission to reproduce it, so I won’t, but the National Heritage Board has a wonderful photo of the attap houses in Toa Payoh with the new HDB towers in the background taken in 1968.