The cluster of ten-storey flats in Commonwealth Drive were one of the first satellite towns built by the Housing Development Board in the early 1960s. Known as Zhup Lao, these flats have seen generations of Singaporeans growing up in them, the cornerstone of one of Singapore’s many local communities.
But there few sites in this ever-changing city-state can be taken for granted, and Zhup Lao has been earmarked for redevelopment under the Selective En Block Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).
For the past eight years photographer Nicky Loh and his family have been residents of Commonwealth Drive. He’s since got to know many of the aunties and uncles who have spent most of their lives in the neighbourhood.
“It’s sad to think that with the demolition of these blocks, all these old and long-lasting ties will be uprooted and lost forever,” he wrote in the introduction of his book Common Wealth.
Loh’s book was an attempt to document the people and stories of Zhup Lao before it’s gone. Through a series of portraits, his photos capture colourful scenes of cluttered shops and old-school stalls.
“I purposely shot every portrait with a wide angle lens because i wanted to also capture the rich detail of their shop environments,” he told TOC. “Scan every inch of the photo and you will see something interesting.”
Loh didn’t just show up at shops, snapping away, but tried to form relationships with his subjects. His efforts have allowed him particular access to the area and people’s stories. “My wife says I’m like the unofficial MP here because I always start waving at the different shop owners when I walk by. Last week, I asked for permission from one of the old shop owners if I could do a fashion shoot for a magazine, and he said, ‘别人不可以， 只有你可以.’ (‘Others can’t, but you can.’) That really touched me,” he said.
Nostalgia has become very much on-trend in Singapore recently; cafes with old-school décor and themes sprout up with great regularity, just one example of how the past has been commodified for hipster consumption.
But Loh says he’s simply trying to hold on to one thing before it joins the legions of other physical and emotional landmarks that have been erased from Singapore. “Everything is changing so fast in Singapore and people in their 30s like me find it very hard to recall what our childhood was like. That’s why we try to preserve every memory that we can hold on to, he said. “The sand pit playgrounds and the mamak shops where I would spend a day contemplating how to spend my 50 cents – they are all gone.”
“Zhup Lao has a special place in my heart so I definitely think it should be conserved than demolished. The ten-storey blocks are actually vacant now so it could easily be transformed into a creative space for artists to work on. I have a dream of displaying close-up portraits of people from the neighbourhood on the metal shutters of the shops that are closed,” he added.
Still, Loh is aware that development in Singapore stands still for no one: “As far as Singapore’s constant development and demolition, there will always be nostalgic people like me but we can’t stand in the way of progress.”
Common Wealth can be purchased online here.