38 Commonwealth Avenue, Singapore 149738. Image: Roots Gov SG

It started with an error in a social studies textbook naming Toa Payoh as Singapore’s first satellite town.

Heritage researcher Kwek Li Yong spotted the mistake in 2011 and immediately informed the Ministry of Education. The incident prompted him to document the history of Singapore’s public housing estates, particularly the country’s first satellite town, Queenstown.

“Seeing that error showed me that there is a lot of misinformation on Queenstown and it emphasised the importance of documenting our social history,” said the 33-year-old, who works at a heritage consultancy in 2016.

The former Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre
The former Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre


Then parked under the Queenstown district, here are some of Commonwealth estate’s landmarks. Visit them before they’re all gone:

Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, built 1962. Collection of National Museum of Singapore
Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, built 1962. Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre

According to Roots Gov SG the Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre was officially opened on 29 May 1965, comprising of 39 cooked food stalls and 63 stalls in the wet market.

Today, the building is no longer around.

Block 75 Commonwealth Drive was the former Commonwealth Neighbourhood Centre

You can still map your way to Block 75 Commonwealth Drive on Google Maps. However, the land seems to have been cleared for redevelopment.

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115 Commonwealth Drive, Singapore’s First Flatted Factory

Image Roots Gov SG. Block 115 Commonwealth Drive
Block 115 Commonwealth Drive. Image Roots Gov SG

Block 115 Commonwealth Drive is Singapore’s first Flatted Factory.

Built at a cost of $1,500,000 in 1965, the Flatted Factory has five floors, spans 240,000 sq ft, and originally housed 30 factories.

Flatted factories like this one at 115 Commonwealth Drive supported smaller businesses, and allowed nearby residents living in neighbouring HDBs to stroll over for work – women included.

115 Commonwealth Drive map view

Today, this flatted factory is still in operation and remains bustling with activity. A kopitiam here serves as the congregation point for office workers in the Commonwealth Lane and One Commonwealth vicinity.

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Built in 1963, Block 38 was popularly known to residents as the "coffin market" for its distinctive protrusion in its roof. Together with Margaret Drive Hawker Centre, the market served as a site for social and civic interaction for residents in Queenstown. (Image by My Community)
38 Commonwealth Ave Wet Market was popularly known to residents as the “coffin market” for its distinctive protrusion in its roof – My Community

Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market (Conserved)

Today, the Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market is the only Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) designed wet market in Singapore. First opened on 23 October 1960, the market was to remove roadside hawkers from the streets of Margaret Drive, Commonwealth Crescent and Tanglin Halt Road and house them in proper stalls.

The “Coffin” Market

Later in 2013, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced that 38 Commonwealth Ave Wet Market will be the first wet market in Singapore to be conserved. Today, the same building remains structurally, albeit refurbished to house the new Margaret Drive BTO‘s hawker centre.

The closest market and food centre in the vicinity would be the Commonwealth Avenue Cooked Food Centre (1970 to 2011).

“Coffin” shaped roof for air flow

The wet market’s “coffin” roof is actually called a parabolic-vaulted roof. Shaped this way, rainwater can drain quickly from the outside, while air can easily flow through the premises on the inside.

Originally, there was also a honeycomb screen wall (pictured above) that allows air flow and sun shade.

Read More: Tanglin Halt and Margaret Drive – A walking tour

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VIP Block, 81 Commonwealth Close

The VIP Block, 81 Commonwealth Close, Singapore 140083. Image Roots Gov SG
The VIP Block, 81 Commonwealth Close, Singapore 140083

Located at 81 Commonwealth Close, or known as the “VIP Block” amongst residents in Queenstown, was built in June 1964.

Spanning 16 floors, there were 192 three-room and 64 two-room HDB units.

Nicknamed Chap Lak Lao (or 16 storeys)

Thanks to its towering heights (back then), Block 81, 82, and 83 was colloquially called Chap Lak Lao (translated from Hokkien to mean 16 storeys).

This block fell under HDB’s 1964 “Home Ownership for the People” scheme piloted in Commonwealth by then Minister for National Development, Lim Kim San, to encourage lower middle income Singaporeans to purchase their own homes.

HDB’s 1964 “Home Ownership for the People” scheme

Singaporeans earning a monthly income of $800 per month (and under) were eligible to purchase one of the 2,068 two- and three-room 99-year lease HDB flats under this scheme.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore’s success in public housing drew foreign dignitaries such as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1965; then Crown Prince of Akihito in 1970; and Spiro Agnew, then Vice President of the United States of America, in 1970.

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9 Commonwealth Lane, Singapore 149551, Singapore's last Hakka burial ground, Ancestral Temple of Ying Fo Fui Kun
Singapore’s last Hakka burial ground – Ancestral Temple of Ying Fo Fui Kun by Singapore’s Hakka Clan Association (Image Roots Gov Sg)

Other Sites: Ying Fo Fui Kun Ancestral Hall, Eng Wah Theatre

Other interesting sights in the Commonwealth and Holland Village vicinity, for example, include the Ying Fo Fui Kun ancestral hall (9 Commonwealth Lane, Singapore 149551), which was built in 1887 and was the oldest building in Queenstown.

Ying Fo Fui Kun ancestral temple of hakkas at 9 Commonwealth Lane, Singapore
9 Commonwealth Lane map view

Of course, don’t forget to pay a pilgrimage to the Eng Wah open-air theatre, which closed down in 1985.

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Holland Village to Commonwealth history heritage tour.

My Community – Heritage walking tours in Singapore

It was for all these historical landmarks that in 2009, heritage researcher Kwek Li Yong and his friend, Mr Jasper Tan, 26, founded My Community, a charity that documents social memories and champions community heritage. Mr Tan works on My Community projects full-time.

The group organises heritage tours around older estates and coordinates exhibitions on the social history of these areas using oral accounts and items from residents. It receives funding from the Lee Foundation, the Tote Board and the National Heritage Board.

Singapore heritage tour

“Every neighbourhood has a story and we want to document these stories,” said Mr Tan in 2016. “We realised that residents of older estates, particularly Queenstown, are very proud of their history, so we decided to start in those places.”

Some of these resident guides meet participants along the route. These guides are able to provide interesting snippets of information and share with the participants their own experiences living in the estate.

For example, travel agency director Huang Eu Chai, 60, who joined the Queenstown tour in 2016 after going on a tour in 2013. “I wanted to compare what I knew with what had been documented,” he said. The long-time resident of Queenstown also wanted to share the heritage of the town with others.

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This article first appeared in The Straits Times in 2016.