Saturday 23 June 2012

US blog names a Toa Payoh play area one of the world's amazing playgrounds

By Rachael Boon, The Straits Times, 22 Jun 2012

One of Singapore's oldest playgrounds - a dragon- shaped structure winding above a sand pit in Toa Payoh Lorong 6 - has been picked by a New York culture blog as one of 15 amazing playgrounds in the world.'s design-related post in April, titled 15 Amazing Playgrounds From All Over The World, also featured The Blue Whale in Plikta park, Gothenburg, Sweden, designed by Danish design firm Monstrum, and The Forest of Cherry Blossoms at Moerenuma Park in Hokkaido, Japan, designed by Isamu Noguchi, which has seven play areas.

Posted by the website's literary/weekend editor Emily Temple, the slideshow-list is not meant to be exhaustive and readers are invited to suggest their own favourite playgrounds in their comments to the post.

The Toa Payoh dragon is one of the few concrete play structures built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) before the 1990s that remain standing here.

Many of the structures were designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, 77, an interior designer with HDB from 1969 to 1984.

An HDB spokesman says: 'Generally, from the 1970s till the early 1990s, the playgrounds were designed in-house by HDB.

'From 2003 onwards, playgrounds in HDB estates were designed by consultants appointed by HDB.'

In the early 1970s, playgrounds came with functional play equipment such as slides, swings and see-saws. By the mid-1980s, they were inspired by themes such as nursery rhymes and Singapore's multiracial heritage.

The late 1980s saw playgrounds inspired by local fruit, vegetables and vehicles such as lorries.

Materials used included concrete and brightly coloured Italian mosaic tiles, which have withstood the test of time - and the wear and tear from countless eager small hands and feet.

In the 1990s, playgrounds were built to cater to different age groups instead.

For example, equipment designed for those aged three to six are lower in height and encourage imaginative play.

These days, playgrounds cater to the entire family, with user-friendly gym equipment.

Reminisce with Life!Weekend and take a play trip across the island to explore five vintage playgrounds before they are gone.
Tip: Some of them still have sand pits, so arm yourself with sturdy cardboard sheets to serve as makeshift toboggans in case the slides get too sandy.

Where the children play...


Sadly, the vintage watermelon structures at Block 92, Pipit Road have been removed to make way for a new playground. Still, a mini dragon slide remains standing just a short walk away, in Circuit Road.

A landmark in the estate, it has gone through upgrading: The sand pit around it has been replaced by rubber mats.


This playground (right) in Toa Payoh Lorong 6, which was chosen as one of the most amazing playgrounds around the world by, was designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, 77, when he was an interior designer with the HDB, and remains one of Singapore's most iconic playgrounds.

He says the emphasis of such playgrounds is the sand pits. 'There were pipes below the sand to drain water away, something which foreigners praised us for.' He also remembers the glass mosaic tiles imported from Italy, which were easy to maintain. It is likely to have been completed in 1970 and he says the dragon head became the 'template' for other dragon structures.

According to the HDB, between the mid-1970s and early 1980s, 'elaborate playgrounds with distinctive identifiable forms' such as dragons, elephants, spiders and bullock carts were introduced.

The dragon is majestic up close, with a rib cage comprising metal bars to climb through. Take a peek through its eye before descending the concrete slide.


Slide down an elephant's trunk at this stylised elephant structure (right) at HomeTeamNS Pasir Ris Holiday Chalets. Looking like something pixellated out of an Atari game, it has two slides which make up its trunk. It is flanked by other play equipment, such as tunnels for the kids to climb through.


This blue dove (right) sits prettily in the quiet Dakota Crescent estate. Designed in-house by HDB and estimated to be completed in 1959, it has all the elements of an old-fashioned playground: an elevated bridge, sand pit and swings made of rubber tyres - the last a rare sight in playgrounds these days.


A Chinese bumboat marooned in the middle of Pasir Ris? This ship-shaped playground is estimated to have been completed by the HDB by 1994. It reflects the estate's theme of 'resort by the sea'.

The play-boat's mosaic tiles still retain their beautiful colours and it has rubber tyres attached to it for kids to grab and climb on - a nod to the tyre-padding that protect the sides of bumboats plying the Singapore River when they berth.

The HDB says that in the mid-1980s, it introduced many playgrounds 'with themes inspired by nursery rhymes, children games, daily experiences and Singapore's multiracial heritage'.

* Iconic "dragon" playground in Toa Payoh to remain due to cultural heritage
Channel NewsAsia, 5 Jan 2014

The iconic "dragon" playground at Lorong 6 Toa Payoh will stay put - as one of the less than 20 surviving playgrounds of yesteryear.

This is one of four playgrounds in Singapore featuring the vintage "dragon head" design.

The other dragon playgrounds can be found in Ang Mo Kio, Braddell and MacPherson.

It was built in 1979, when local designers experimented with designs to convey the Singapore identity.

By 1993, the HDB started to import play-sets from overseas, and most of the playgrounds found today are plastic play-sets with rubber mats - similar to those in most developed countries.

Concerns about saving the dragon playground arose after it was announced that neighbouring Block 28 would be torn down for redevelopment.

The block has now been barricaded, and works should complete by mid-2014.

Real estate analysts said it would be an ongoing challenge for the authorities to ensure that newer developments are compatible with older ones.

Donald Han, managing director of Chesterton Singapore, said: "It's interesting to note that while HDB is looking into developing their SERS, intensifying use, urban renewal, at the same time they're keeping check on heritage to make sure that some of the interesting heritage nodes are for future generations to enjoy."

Way of the dragon in Toa Payoh
By Cheryl Faith Wee, The Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

It is arguably the most iconic playground in Singapore. But Mr Khor Ean Ghee, the designer behind the distinct dragon playground in Toa Payoh Lorong 6, got lost on his way there for an interview about three years ago. It had been decades since he last visited the red mosaic-tiled dragon slinking above a sand pit.

Mr Khor, 79, recalls: "I did not know that the playground was within walking distance from the Toa Payoh bus interchange. So I took a taxi from there and the driver took a big detour."

He came up with this and more than 30 other playground designs when he was an interior designer with the Housing Board from 1969 to 1984. The dragon design in Toa Payoh was built in 1979.

Some of his designs, such as the pelican playground in Dover Road, have been demolished. Based on a map by freelance writer Justin Zhuang that identified 21 retro playgrounds in Singapore, about 10 of Mr Khor's designs still remain. These include similar dragon- themed ones in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, Toa Payoh Lorong 1 and Circuit Road.

Mr Khor is not sure how many playgrounds in all were built based on that design. He chose the mythical dragon as he felt it was a familiar symbol in Asian culture that children would be able to relate to.

Getting the dragon's head done was especially tricky because of its elaborate outline. He did many sketches to ensure it could be done by contractors. He says: "I burnt my fingers when I was making a small model of the dragon using wire and a welder."

Despite having no prior experience, he says he was tasked with designing playgrounds because his supervisor felt that he would be able to come up with imaginative concepts, given his fine arts degree from the National Taiwan Normal University.

He also has a diploma in interior design from the University of North London. He learnt on the job and through books and playground catalogues from places such as the United States and Japan.

To attract children, he says playgrounds must have at least one or more of their favourites: swing, merry- go-round, see-saw and slide.

The father of three children, aged between 40 and 51 years old, never had the luxury of spending time in playgrounds when he was growing up in Penang. "In my childhood, I would play with things such as kites and coconuts. I had to use my imagination for the playgrounds and try to think of what children would like."

His idea of incorporating a stream with fishes into a playground was vetoed. Instead, dragons, bumboats, pelicans and elephants became the themes of his playgrounds. Durable materials such as cement, coloured mosaic tiles and terrazo were used in construction.

On some weekends, when he was required to do spot checks on the playgrounds, he would take his children along so that they could spend time there.

After he left the HDB in 1984, he worked for a construction company for a few years before becoming a lecturer of fine arts and interior design at Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1990s. He is now retired and spends his time doing watercolour paintings. He is a member of the Singapore Art Society and Singapore Watercolour Society, and often helps out with their exhibitions.

In the past few decades, his playgrounds have experienced wear and tear. When SundayLife! interviewed him at the dragon playground in Toa Payoh Lorong 6, he says: "It needs some cleaning. There is a small plant growing out of its nose."

About two years ago, when the buzz about retro playgrounds began, the media, heritage enthusiasts and students started to approach him for interviews. He currently does several interviews a year, such as for local television programmes on heritage.

Asked how he feels about the hype over his dragon playground, he says: "I never knew it would become so popular. When I designed it, it was part of my job and I just tried my best to come up with an interesting place for children to play. Now it has become part of our heritage." He adds: "My three grandchlidren are not that interested in them. Children these days play with things such as the iPad."

Our Favourite Playgrounds of Yesteryears -Remember Singapore

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