Monday, 18 February 2013

Intimate look at Singapore's oldest housing estate: Queenstown

Residents' personal stories a big part of heritage project by community group
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 17 Feb 2013

Seized by the desire to preserve the memory of Singapore's oldest housing estate, a civic group has come up with not one, but five, heritage trails in Queenstown.

To do so, they had the help of residents, who shared personal photographs and memories.

The trails, which can be accessed through the MyQueenstown app on an iPhone, cover the whole of Queenstown and are organised along themes of public housing, religion, old shops and natural heritage. They are believed to be the first few historical trails initiated by a community organisation and incorporating the personal recollections of hundreds of residents. Their creation was much in the vein of recent community conservation projects that grew ground-up.

An islandwide network of 10 trails has been introduced by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to highlight the history and identity of different areas of Singapore.

The NHB's Queenstown heritage trail was launched in 2007 but it left out some important landmarks and collective memories close to the hearts of the residents, said Mr Kwek Li Yong, president of civic group My Community. "We wanted a different kind of trail, something more intimate which includes greater input from the residents and not a top-down approach," said the 24-year-old undergraduate, who lives in Jurong.

For example, Mr Kwek said, the residents suggested including Princess House, a seven-storey red-brick building at the junction of Alexandra Road and Commonwealth Avenue, home to the first Singapore Improvement Trust and HDB headquarters. Queenstown become Singapore's first satellite estate in 1953. They also wanted to include sites like the junction of Dawson and Alexandra roads, where the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots occurred.

Mr Kwek said it was also time for an update as places along the NHB trail such as the Queenstown Remand Prison and Commonwealth Avenue Cooked Food Centre have been demolished. So they developed their own trails, though some sites overlap with NHB's.

The trails and mobile application will be launched by Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing at Queenstown Community Centre today as part of the celebrations for Queenstown's 60th birthday.

This ground-up initiative started in 2009 when Mr Kwek was volunteering at a senior activity centre in the neighbourhood. He noticed the elderly residents enjoyed sharing their recollections of the place.

"Unlike other elderly who usually talk about their family or grandchildren, they had a strong attachment to the estate and were keen to share their memories," he said.

He and a friend decided to set up My Community, a registered civic society that champions the preservation of history and heritage.

The group adopted Queenstown as their first project as many social institutions were pioneered there.

After recruiting 12 other heritage buffs, they fanned out and interviewed residents in Queenstown.

For four years, they pounded the ground, starting with the neighbourhood wet markets, then knocking on every door in the estate. They also talked to residents at communal facilities such as schools, libraries and churches. The photographs and memories collected from the residents, many of whom had lived in Queenstown since the 1960s, were uploaded onto the app.

The mobile app is funded by the Queenstown CitizensConsultative Committee and developed by software company Tocco Studios. It uses Global Positioning System technology to guide users. At different sites, it narrates the history, displaying photographs and recounting memories from the residents.

For example, if the user approaches the site of the Hock Lee bus riots, he would hear Strathmore Avenue resident Sim Cher Kheng, 69, recalling: "I was visiting my friend at Buller Terrace when I saw from the window a group of riot police spraying tear gas at the rioters. The rioters were not afraid of the police and marched aggressively towards them."

As the group wanted to include such personal memories without compromising on accuracy, they took pains to corroborate the material with the national archives.

In developing heritage trails, NHB said it starts with the official history, and complements it with social and communal history from interviewing people on the ground.

For its Queenstown trail, which covers historic sites such as places of worship and community facilities, it worked with grassroots leaders, who helped identify long-time residents for interviews."Our researchers also independently walked the ground speaking to some hundred residents, religious organisations and business owners, and schools in Queenstown," said Miss Thangamma Karthigesu, director of the education and outreach division at NHB. "We also worked with the grassroots to hold roadshows over two weekends to let people know we were planning a trail and asked for people with memories, memorabilia and stories to share to come forward," she added.

But she acknowledged that not everything could be included in recounting the history of a place.

NHB said it is heartened by the efforts of My Community to take ownership of the area's heritage and is in discussion with the group to install information boards along the trail.

Academic Terence Chong, an executive committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, feels historical narratives are best shaped by both the authorities and the community, with one providing the official narrative and the other the local colour and personal recounts. "The more conversations between national and local stories we have, the more textured and layered the Singapore story will be."

Madam Alice Lee, a resident in Tanglin Halt for more than 40 years, said she looks forward to exploring the five trails. "It is history at our doorstep and we walk past it every day," said the 65-year-old. "The places contain so many of our stories."

My Community will move on to Bukit Merah next, where it will develop trails over the next two years.

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