En bloc fever reaches iconic post-independence architecture


(Clockwise from top left) People's Park Complex, People's Park Centre, Golden Mile Complex and Golden Mile Tower. ST PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG/KHALID BABA


Mr Kea Chee Tong opened his first shop at Golden Mile Tower in 1972 at the age of 29, selling stainless steel Seiko watches.

A year later, he moved to the livelier People's Park Centre in the heart of Chinatown and diversified his business to gemstones and gold jewellery.

The building became his home in the same year when he bought an apartment in the residential block above the commercial complex and moved in with his father, wife, two sons and in-laws.

In 1988, his shop, Golden Watch Gold & Jewellery, relocated again, this time three buildings down to People's Park Complex where it remains today.

For Mr Kea, now 75, each of the landmarks - People's Park Complex, People's Park Centre and Golden Mile Tower - holds a significant place in his life. But he may soon see all of them disappear from the Republic's landscape.

The three buildings, along with Golden Mile Complex, have each formed their own collective sale committees recently.

But Mr Kea is pragmatic about the potential loss of his home and his shop. "Time waits for no man. One must know how to let go of things, otherwise it becomes too painful. I will miss the buildings, but the leases are shortening and I will let go if the price is reasonable," he added.

Mr Kea Chee Tong has spent 46 years working and living in three of the buildings that are hoping to garner a collective sale - Golden Mile Tower, People's Park Complex and People's Park Centre. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The developments are mostly halfway into their 99-year leases.

Mr Lee Chin Chee, 64, has also spent most of his life in the two prominent buildings in Chinatown.

In the 1970s, he and three siblings started a business at People's Park Complex and People's Park Centre. They sold bags, luggage and shoes.

His family has a shop and an office unit at People's Park Centre and five stores at People's Park Complex. In 1974, his family moved into a 2,200 sq ft apartment in the Centre. All its four bedrooms each came with an attached toilet.

People's Park Centre features retail, office and residential spaces and was completed in 1976. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

"I am thankful for this place but it is time to cash out. The buildings are ageing and repair and maintenance costs will rise," said Mr Lee, who listed a litany of problems, ranging from unreliable lifts to leaking water tanks and air-conditioning systems.

"These are landmarks and they hold sentimental value for me... but the retail scene is evolving and it's time for change," he added.

People's Park Complex is widely recognised by experts as architecturally and historically significant.

It was completed in 1973 as part of the Government's first Land Sales Programme beginning in 1967 where land parcels were offered for sale with 99-year leases.

Occupying 1ha, People's Park Complex was once the largest shopping complex in Singapore. It also featured the country's first atrium in a shopping centre where a large number of shops and kiosks generated a bazaar-like atmosphere.

Mr Chan Chor Sun, 68, has been leasing the atrium space since 2003. He sublets seven booths.

"Some stay for six months, others for eight years, such as that booth which sells safe deposit boxes. So you get both variety and familiarity," said Mr Chan.

Architects say the complex layering of space created by the tiered floors and dramatic staircases was a favourite arena for people who wanted to watch and be seen.

Its under-one-roof model, comprising shops and offices as well as a 25-storey residential block, was widely replicated in later local and regional retail developments.

"You can get anything you want here. It is here that I bought the calculators used in my shop, battery-operated games for my son and medicinal herbs when we fall sick," said Mr Kea, who has formed close friendships with several customers who work or live in the building.

In its heyday, People's Park Complex was a popular gathering point for people on the weekends, he recalled. "The corridors would be so packed with people that it was impossible to walk through. There was an opera theatre on the second floor that showcased big stars like Taiwanese singer Yao Su Rong."

People's Park Complex, comprising a mall and a 25-storey residential block, was completed in 1973. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

However, both buildings have deteriorated over the years. In People's Park Complex, for instance, there were calls for the escalators to be upgraded following breakdowns in 2006. In 2016, all three lifts broke down at the same time.

The allure has also dimmed for some shoppers.

Retired factory worker Tang Yen Yen, 64, who has been frequenting Chinatown for decades, said: "I have seen prostitutes loitering outside the massage and foot reflexology shops. The atmosphere has changed."

Mr Wang K.C., 70, who used to own a bookshop in the Complex, said local seniors hardly hang out at the mall now. "It's mostly Chinese nationals here and the food stalls and remittance agencies have moved in to suit their palates and needs," said Mr Wang, who prefers to have his coffee at the newer Chinatown Point a stone's throw away.

Mr Richard Ho, 71, used to buy dried food and seafood snacks from push-carts at the Complex but he too is not upset by the possibility of the building being torn down.

"The emporium used to be popular and it occupied three floors. Now it has shrunk and nobody really shops there any more. The building has lost its relevance and it should make way for better things," he said.


Golden Mile Complex was completed in 1973 and has since become known as Little Thailand. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Stepping into Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road is akin to entering a typical mall in Thailand.

Brightly lit shop signs are lettered entirely in Thai, while the scent of incense, herbs and spices wafts through the walkways. A wide, winding staircase leads to the basement where a neon sign marks the entrance of a disco.

The complex, informally known as Little Thailand, bears the familiarity of home for the predominantly Thai shop owners and shoppers.

But the 16-floor development is also known for its rough edge. Recent reports of rowdy behaviour include an incident last October that left a 25-year-old man with facial injuries after he was repeatedly kicked and stomped on.

While shoppers have continued patronising the mall, which is home to massage and tattoo services as well as several boutiques and small pharmacies, footfall has declined over the years, noted seamstress Long Wai Yen, 72, who has been operating her clothes alteration service there since 1992.

Seamstress Long Wai Yen, who has been working at Golden Mile Complex for 26 years, says business has declined sharply in the last two years. ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID

"What I miss about this place is back in the day when it was packed with people," she said.

"It used to be very popular. Even I used to shop and watch movies here in the past."

Although the Singaporean has fond memories of her 26 years there and has even learnt to speak some basic Thai, she was ambivalent about the possible collective sale.

The building, which is halfway into its 99-year lease, has recently formed a collective sale committee.

Business has been on a steep slide over the past two years, said Madam Long. "If you don't believe me, just come on a weekend - it really is empty."

And if the mall is deserted on weekends, business is worse during the week.

Madam Sukkrom Khwanmuang, 48, who runs River Kwai Minimart, said: "I can open only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays now. There aren't that many people any more."

Madam Sukkrom Khwanmuang with her son Tay Phing Ha at her minimart in Golden Mile Complex. She now opens only from Friday to Sunday as weekdays are quiet at the mall. ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID

Were the shutters to come down, the single mother plans to find a job elsewhere.

But her 11-year-old son, Tay Phing Ha, who heads to the shop after school, would have no one to take care of him if she were to work.

"Maybe I can put him in childcare. It's really tough," she fretted.

The possible collective sale has been a hot topic among shop owners in the past few days.

Some shop owners are uncertain about where they can go in the future as some of them speak only Thai, said hairdresser Chutanard Phakdisomsakun, 52, who has been working at Golden Mile Complex for a decade.

Hairdresser Chutanard Phakdisomsakun said she was saddened by the news of a possible collective sale. ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID

She said it would be difficult for them to rebuild a community like the one they have there. "We are saddened by the news," she said.

Her sentiments were echoed at the adjacent Golden Mile Tower which could face a similar fate.

Although the 22-storey building is even less vibrant than its neighbour, Ms Sae-Chu Mueaichi, 39, who runs a small Thai-Buddhist amulet shop in the building's three-storey commercial complex, said she would miss the friendly atmosphere.

Completed in 1974, Golden Mile Tower was also used to house Golden Theatre, Singapore's largest cinema at the time. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

The most special thing, she said, is the annual Songkran celebrations usually held at Golden Mile Complex. Songkran, a water festival, is celebrated during the Thai New Year from April 13 to 15.

During the festival, the first level of the mall would be turned into an arena for "water fights" where people splash each other with water.

Ms Mueaichi, who is Thai, would join in the water fights and blessing of elderly family members with water. "A few hundred people celebrate at the complex, both Thai and Chinese," she said. "It is a lot of fun."

But lively occasions like this are few. In fact, there are signs that it might perhaps be time to move on.

At Golden Mile Tower, Ms Mueaichi said persistent lift breakdowns were a "very huge problem". The lift buttons often don't work, she said, and the doors would slam closed on users.

Nevertheless, the authentic Thai food and atmosphere in both buildings remain a draw for some visitors.

Junior college student J. Mok, 18, who goes to the area for its food offerings, said: "The oldness is part of its charm. It's a place in Singapore that doesn't feel like Singapore, and that's all part of why people go there."


The story first appeared in The Straits Times. Click here to read the original story.