Home, or at least the idea of home, are not just points on maps. For some, they represent investments for the future while for others, universal sanctuaries and places of communion and safety. As a country synonymous with change and progress, Singapore’s landscape has been terraformed. From kampungs and cemeteries, dense jungles and tropical maladies, the country has transformed from one of the worst housing crises in the world to a place where 90% of its citizens own their own home. And although our physical homes have changed irrevocably through the decades, our own emotions and attitudes have adapted to these upheavals as well.
Photographer Koh Kim Chay, 61, has been documenting changes in Singapore since the mid-80s. An avid street-walker and lover of old Singapore, he remembers that “[i]n Pickering and George Street, the rows of Chinese coffin shops fascinated me, and in the street market of Chinatown, I watched exotic animals being slaughtered for sale. All of these are gone. The rapid economic progress that started in the 1970s saw the demise of much of our architectural heritage”. Working with Kim Chay is photographer Eugene Ong, 39, who has edited copious amounts of negatives and researched on these vanished scenes.
Part of this two-decade long effort to remember Singapore’s past has been formalized into a photographic body of work- Singapore’s Vanished Public Housing Estates. Shot on analog film and mostly developed in the traditional darkroom, the publication features photographs of 27 early public housing estates and precincts with an introduction to the photographer’s work and vision.
From the lush expanse of colonial-era Princess Elizabeth Park estate to the brick-clad heights of Pickering Street, these photographs are not turn-of-the-century archaic but neither are they contemporary enough to be familiarly recognized – especially to a younger generation of Singaporeans. Some of the photographs feature Singapore’s dwellings constructed by the SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust) in their last standing days. Others showcase the newer generation flats in ‘refurbished’ or newly emerging estates then, with their concomitant architectural features and recognizable amenities, though all these have been expunged already.
Accompanying these photographs are postcards, vintage maps, HDB (Housing Development Board) eviction notices and other memorabilia related to the estates. Each works associatively and non-verbally to activate the past as something that was lived in; pockets of domestic drama that although enacted years ago are not difficult to reimagine. As pictorial records of our first homes in historically significant and newly emerging estates then, they are an invaluable window into Singapore’s changing housing landscape in the 50s and beyond.
The book caters to a broad range of interests and sensibilities —advocates of heritage, photographers, artists, amateur historians and perhaps professional architects. Singaporeans, local and abroad, might find in these pages something worthwhile to reminisce. Foreigners and tourists, coming from regions with vastly different identities and dialects, may be curiously attracted to this formative period in Singapore’s housing program.
Singapore’s Vanished Public Housing Estates is designed by Do Not Design, a creative agency specializing in work for art, culture and commerce. Setting out to design to surprise and innovate; to create values and to build relationship with audiences. They have also published Architecture and the Architect: Image-making in Singapore and Dear Vol 1: Lost & Found. The latter, which is a celebratory funded project by SG50, has been awarded two wood pencils at the prestigious British D&AD (Design & Art Direction Awards) for the independent magazine category as well as Tokyo Type Director’s Club Award 2016.
About the photographers
Koh Kim Chay
Koh Kim Chay (Born 1956) devoted 38 years of his working life in Singapore’s cutting and welding industries, including the last 15 years tinkering with welding robots in a government-linked company.
He is an active contributor to Singapore’s heritage and is a recipient of the supporter award at the Patron of the Heritage Award 2006 by the National Heritage Board.
Eugene Ong (Born 1977) studied Political Science and English Literature in the National University of Singapore and the University of York. An experienced educator of 13 years, he is also interested in city planning, architectural heritage and photography.
His photographs on housing estates have appeared in LianHe ZaoBao. He taught the International Baccalaureate in the School of the Arts, Singapore from 2008 to 2016.