Intimate look at Queenstown Singapore

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Intimate look at Singapore’s oldest housing estate

Residents’ personal stories a big part of heritage project by community group

By Janice Tai

[Source:  Straits Times, 17 February 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 publc housing, religion, old shops and natural heritage.

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They are believed to be the first few historical trails initiated by a community organisation and incorporating the personal recollections of hundred 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 24-year-old under-graduate, 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.

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The former depot of Hock Lee Bus Company in Alexandra Road on 1/5/1955.  Photos courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
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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.

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 local institutoions were pioneered there.

After reruiting 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 Citizens Consultative 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.  Miss Thangamma Karthigesu, director of the education and outreach division of NHB.  “We also worked with the grassroots to hold roadshows over two weekends to let people know we were planning a trail and 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 abd 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 Timah next, where it will develop trails over the next two years.

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,”

Queenstown rolls out heritage plan

5-year blueprint includes $2m museum to connect the present with the past

By Melody Zaccheus

[Source:  Straits Times, 14 August 2014]

Queenstown has unveiled a five-year plan to protect its heritage, becoming the first estate here to clearly outline its preservation efforts.

The plan will seek to not only conserve sites in Singapore’s first satellite estate, but also connect the present with the past with a $2 million museum by 2020 and a festival once every two years.

A highlight of its ambition is a network of galleries, heritage corners and markers to be rolled out across various parts of Queenstown by 2015.

The blueprint by civic group My Community and Queenstown Citizens Consultative Committee maps out tangible goals even as different pockets of the 61-year-old estate undergo development.

My Community founder Kwek Li Yong, who has been championing the estate’s heritage, said:  “It incorporates feedback from residents on what they feel is important to conserve.  Rather than just ride the wave of nostalgia, we worked out concrete plans for the neighbourhood.”

These include the construction of 11 galleries displaying residents’ old photographs across void decks, walkways and public institutions, and the installation of 38 site makers highlighting historic places and buildings.

The six Queenstown neighbourhoods will also have areas carved out to pay homage to the precincts’ rich history.  These heritage corners will feature interactive spaces with photographs, artefacts, 3D displays and stories from residents.  These will brighten up the half a dozen neighbourhoods including Commonwealth, Tanglin Halt, Princess, Duchess, Mei Ling and Queen’s Close.

Each area is distinct, said Mr Kwek: “There’s the industrial heritage of Tanglin Halt, the Hakka tombstones of Commonwealth, the military camps of Princess estate, the old town centre of Duchess estate and the Malayan Railway which used to run through Queen’s  Close,” he said.  He also gave the example of Block 145, Mei Ling Street which will have a kampung-themed exhibition that pays tribute to its early years as the site of Boh Beh Kang village.

Speaking at the blueprint’s launch on 14 August, 2014, Tanjung Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu said the aim is for Queenstown to become a centre for community heritage which people can visit to “relive their memories … and understand how different social institutions have evolved”.

It is also part of the estate’s bid for the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Town Award 2014.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, who was guest of honour at the launch, said balancing redevelopment and heritage will  continue to be a top piority.  “If we can do this well in Queenstown, it will be a testimony to how we can do things on a larger scale in Singapore, balancing conservation and development at the same time.”

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Please check out the related blogs shared here , here and here .

Queenstown housing estate in the 1960s (photo below) .  Photo courtesy of Eelke Wolters contributed to the National Archives of Singapore.

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