When the bulldozers and builders moved in, the move to modernity and all its novelty brought upheaval for those whose life had beat unchanging in quiet cadence with the land. But they soon grew to appreciate and marvel at their new bricked home, the clean water that flowed right out of the tap, the toilets that flushed, and the lifts that transported them magically up and down the multi-storeyed block.
Embracing their new life, before long, they made the new satellite town ‘home’ for themselves. And each generation that came after added their own rich imprint and sense of ‘home’ to the town.
The town itself has witnessed many changes throughout. True to the planning vision of Toa Payoh as a self-contained town, with its own housing, offices, factories, schools, shops, hawker centres and transport facilities, residents today enjoy well-planned infrastructure, right at their doorstep. Toa Payoh boasts many ‘firsts’, including the first air-conditioned bus interchange integrated with the MRT station at its town centre.
And as one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates, Toa Payoh was the first to benefit from the Estate Renewal Strategy to rejuvenate older HDB towns. New developments have been rebuilt over cleared sites to achieve better housing and facilities while old blocks of flats received a fresh makeover to the standards of the newer ones. All these have lent a new lease of life to this grand old dame. And still, there are more plans afoot - plans to move it well into the 21st century idea of smart, sustainable and liveable towns.
The transformation of Toa Payoh’s physical landscape and community – in the transition from slums and hovels to the modern homes with distinctive design and finishes – is also manifested elsewhere, in other heartland towns. But as with every place, each is different in its own special way.
Like arteries coursing through the heart of Toa Payoh, the town’s many vibrant Lorongs (lanes/streets) are where its residents live, work and play and where its infrastructural landmarks link generations across time. One such neighbourhood marker which has seen its relevance transcend the decades is the dragon playground at Lorong 6. Designed in 1979, the playground today has its own comic book story and has also gone abroad to join the ranks of “Amazing Playgrounds From All Over The World”. Despite the competition from the modern playgrounds of today, the dragon continues to weave its magic in the imagination of generations past and present - children and adults alike.
Weaving another kind of enchantment is the Toa Payoh Town Park with its landmark tower, near the traffic junction of Lorongs 1 and 6. A regular fixture in wedding albums of the 70s and 80s, it was one of the first town parks designed and built by HDB. The Tembusu and Angsana trees which were planted more than 40 years ago still stand tall today, marking a tranquil retreat away from the bustling, madding crowd.
And sited a stone’s throw away is the Toa Payoh Sports Centre, built to host the first South East Asia Peninsula (SEAP) Games in 1973. It now houses the Singapore Table Tennis Association, and has continued to make inroads as the host of the Asian Youth Games in 2009 and the Singapore Youth Olympic Games in 2010.
Visitors from near and far have come to Toa Payoh, not for these landmarks but to experience first-hand heartland life and living - with the story of Singapore’s public housing well known in the world. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visited the town in 1972 and again in 2006, gracing Block 53 Toa Payoh Lorong 5, as did former Australian Prime Minister John Gorton. Toa Payoh also hosted the visits of former dignitaries such as Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, Chinese Premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao, and Indian President K R Narayanan.
In the search for a nation’s heart, one will do well to start at the core – and this journey could well start from Toa Payoh. Beneath its bustling exterior are many sweet spots that hold special and significant moments and meanings not only for those who grew up in the town, but also for those who passed through and lingered long to savour its rich myriad of flavours, food included ☺
Why we love Toa Payoh - and any other place where our heart has been planted - could well be why we love Singapore.