Some years ago, I remember speaking to a property developer/urban planner and he was taking pains to explain to me the concept of “integrated” living – creating buildings that would allow people to “live, work and play” all in one spot. It sounded very modern but I wasn’t sure it was the ground-breaking new concept he made it seem. I thought about where I live. Like most neighbourhoods in Singapore, it has a little bustling square where you pretty much get everything you need. There are hundreds of little shops open all day and all week and sometimes there’s a bonus. During festive seasons, a bazaar springs up (literally overnight) and you can buy bamboo plants, a cute phone cover or just about any unnecessary thing you fancy.
In the mornings, this square is filled with housewives and maids sending, fetching, buying and being busy with the day. There’s a little lull in the afternoon and by evening, it is back in business – dinner is served, drinks are ordered, people converge to eat and talk.
For many of the inhabitants, work is at a sundry shop, a laundromat, a school, at the doctor’s clinic or in a nearby office complex. Recently, a sprawling and rather beautiful hospital began business – which makes it more convenient for people to work and live in the same spot, or at least in a spot not far away. This is integrated living, HDB-style.
The Chong Pang market distills for me everything there is to love about this country. The snaking queue at the chwee kueh stall is filled with professionals, housewives, students, young and old, all patiently waiting for their turn and there is something charming about the absolutely nonchalant hawker who will not give out extra chilli and if she does, it is accompanied with a scowl.
It isn’t fancy and quite frankly, it can be very crowded. Finding a carpark lot can make you very annoyed and it is dirty (the toilets in the coffeeshops are especially awful), but my hood’ is as Singaporean as it gets. The Chong Pang market distills for me everything there is to love about this country. The snaking queue at the chwee kueh stall is filled with professionals, housewives, students, young and old, all patiently waiting for their turn and there is something charming about the absolutely nonchalant hawker who will not give out extra chilli and if she does, it is accompanied with a scowl. Then there are the funny fruit sellers who yell out that their mangoes are in season and there is always that little kid in uniform and his over-sized bag wolfing down chicken rice before his school bus arrives.
I started life in a sprawling village in Chong Pang, growing up in my grandmother’s zinc house. We moved to another new town when the land was taken back and now, I have come full circle in a way, moving into my home in Sembawang last year, a stone’s throw away from where I lived as a child. And I know I am not moving anymore. A trip to the Chong Pang market is a reminder of how I could never really leave this place or stop loving it. In the middle of the cacophony, my angst about overpopulation, the rich-poor divide, the rising cost of everything – all of it disappears for a brief spell, from the moment I take a sip of my kopi siu dai and tuck into my chwee kueh with extra chilli.
Crispina Robert is a lecturer at the Centre for Enterprise and Communication and an advisor to the Media Lab
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