When I was recently back in Singapore to visit family and friends, I was struck by a desire to visit a favourite playground from my childhood on one afternoon. After having lunch with my dad, I suggested that we drive to our former home in Clementi. I wanted to see if Clementi Woods – which was at the doorsteps of the HDB block that we lived in – was still what I remember it to be.

I grew up in Clementi before we moved to Jurong in 1989. Our apartment at 612, Clementi West Street 1 was at the end of the block and looked out to the dense woods.

A partially restored digital image of my mum with my sister with Clementi Woods in the background
A partially restored digital image of my mum with my sis with Clementi Woods in the background

I would often tiptoe to gaze out of the window, on the lookout for one of those colourful bright blue or yellow birds whose names I didn’t know. Every once in a while, I would spot a trail of smoke instead and observe it for a few minutes before rushing off to dial 995 to report the forest fire.

On weekends, my dad would take me for walks in Clementi Woods. Painted onto the paved walkway were huge yellow footprints that I would jump/skip from one to the next. Occasionally we would spot a tree snake on the ground before it slithered away, probably startled by the noise that I was making.

My favourite place in Clementi Woods was a playground that was surrounded by dense vegetation in what seemed like a sunken area in the centre of the woods. I liked that it was hidden from view by tall trees and less frequented by other children (though been viciously attacked by the mosquitoes that laid in ambush might have marred my experience!)

Sadly, the Clementi Woods of my memory has become a thing of the past. What remains today is a sterile park with an unexciting terrain and much of the vegetation had been cleared. The footprints have disappeared. As did the playground of mine, where a bare concrete amphitheatre stood in its place.

Feeling rather fixated on the idea of finding a playground that is reminiscent of my childhood, I searched online using my father’s phone. Unfortunately, the two playgrounds that we located in the vicinity – at Dover Road and Bukit Batok – had been demolished in the past year. So all we saw was a flattened grassland at the former and a pile of broken concrete and steel bits at the latter!

In the end, I decided to visit the dragon playground at Toa Payoh that has been kept safe from destruction (so far). I returned on two consecutive days, taking photos for over an hour each time. Below are my favourite shots from those sessions under the sun – I was so engrossed in exploring new perspectives around the playground that I forgot momentarily how hot and humid it can be in Singapore!

The HDB block in the background is uninhabited and to be demolished; The peeling paint shows the layers of paint through the years
The HDB block in the background is uninhabited and to be demolished; The peeling paint shows the layers of paint through the years

This distinctive dragon playground was part of a series designed by Khor Ean Ghee, who was an interior designer with HDB, in the 1970s. I always loved how the mosaic tiles look on these giant creatures, while the concrete slides – which were always cool to touch – were a joy to run up and down.

The playgrounds that I hung out at during my childhood were of the pelican and tortoise designs. I was, and still am, always a little wary of the dragon, thinking that my feet would slip through its “ribs” if I were to run too fast or slip!03DSCF2500k64

The merry-go-round and swings at the playgrounds provided endless hours of fun as I pushed my limits to see how much it would take for me to become completely giddy or how far my feet could soar into the sky. At the see-saw, I learned about balance, maneuvering between the centre and the end to catch my my friend(/s) off guard and keep them aloft in the air. Here was where I first gained practical knowledge of physics, including gravity (with the occasional fall while swinging across the monkey bars)!04DSCF2424k64

This lone ranger has been extensively documented, as you would see on the Remember Singapore blog and by Evelyn who captured it on film.

To learn more about the history of these playgrounds, I’d recommend to download Mosaic Memories, an excellent e-book created by Justin Zhuang, together with Zakaria Zainal (photography) and Wee Ho Gai (graphics design). Enjoy!

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9 replies on “Singapore: Mosaic playgrounds from the 1970 & 1980s

    1. So am I! Though the dragon playground doesn’t come as close to heart as the one in Clementi Woods as I’ve no childhood memories associated directly with it. Still, this was an interesting exercise to see some parts of Singapore : )

  1. Angelina,
    You captured the exact feeling I got when I returned to Singapore but for me, its somewhat more poignant. I am from Australia and had a girlfriend in Singapore (I am the guy who asked you about knowing her in Jurong a little while ago). Anyway, as we broke up due to the distance between us, I had returned to Singapore for work and tried to visit the many places that were special to us from that time. Sadly, due to Singapore’s constant reinvention of its landscape, these places had been flattened,… changed beyond all recognition,…..like they had never existed except in my mind. It is only recently that I have become a photo buff and wish that I had had a camera at the time to photo these special places with myself and this special girl in them. Now, we only have the occasional email and our memories.
    I think that would make a great photo essay:- the changing face of Singapore and the loss of its magic and its history. So very sad!
    Thanks

    1. Hello again, I know what you mean about Singapore’s ‘constant reinvention’. I moved to Europe in late 2010 and every time I’ve been back to Singapore, I see new skyscrapers (mostly) popping up all over, including over some of my childhood haunts. I think it’s a shame that in Singapore there’s a common misperception that just because something is newer/taller/bigger/more modern means that it is better than its ‘predecessor’. I’m not saying that they can’t be but I think it is also about recognising the significance/value of what the predecessor has to offer.

      These places are also special to you because of your memories associated with them, so in a way, there’s a part of them in you : )

      P.S. You’d be happy to know that this playground has been saved from destruction and this was just made public recently: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/iconic-dragon-playground-toa-payoh-escapes-demolition

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