The iconic multi-coloured block of Rochor Centre was demolished in 2018, to make way for the new North-South Corridor connecting towns in the northen region to the city centre.

The former residential and retail complex sits on a 13,749 sq m site. Back then, the HDB estate was merely 41 years old.

Residents were given a deadline of Dec 30, 2016 to move out of the estate. News of the demolition shook the nation as citizens celebrated and mourned the loss of an eye-catching landmark.

As coffee shop owner Jackie Chua who has a stall in the area called Rochor Traditional Snacks, selling items such as curry puffs and soon kueh says, “I was born near here, and I grew up and grew old here. Rochor is meaningful to me,” she said.


Rochor Centre History: Built in 1977

Built in 1977 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Rochor Centre is a commercial and residential estate.

Over the years, the colourful blocks have become iconic structures of public housing in Singapore.

In 2016, the buildings will be demolished to make way for the construction of the North-South Expressway. While residents are assured of replacement apartments at HDB’s upcoming Kallang Trivista flats, shop tenants have to find new homes.

Residents assigned new homes, Shop owners to find their own

After more than 30 years working at Kwang Hui Kopitiam, Ms Chua is looking for a smaller space for her new business. She has yet to find a place in the Rochor area that is within her budget.

“Times are different now. It’s not possible to get a place with the same size and same price,” she said. Space is also a concern for residents of the HDB estate. Some have lamented how new flats are much smaller than older ones.

Resident Vivien Wan was able to knock down the wall between two three-room flats she owns, creating a six-room apartment – a feat she says is not possible for new flats. “You can’t do that with new flats. They are all pre-fabricated, like Lego pieces,” she said.

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Rochor Centre: Moving out deadline 30 Dec 2016

Upon announcement of the demolition plans in 2016, heritage and photography enthusiasts flocked to the estate, which is one of the last vestiges of 1970s’ freewheeling Bugis.

One week before the deadline, residents in the 567 units have vacated their flats, leaving behind some 30 last residents living in a veritable ghost town.

A silence lingers in the air. The flats are empty but the common corridors are full of furniture, mattresses and appliances left behind.

The last 30 residents who have yet to leave said it would be tough for them to meet the deadline.

Some Residents Couldn’t Move Out In Time

They include housewife Nargis Banu, then 39, and her family of five. Key collection for their new flat in a new Build-To-Order (BTO) project at Kallang Trivista in Upper Boon Keng Road began in April 2016, but they collected their keys only on Nov 11, 2016. This was due to her family’s delays in securing a $150,000 bank loan for the new flat, said Madam Banu.

Then on Nov 22, 2016, an HDB letter came in the mail: “As most of your neighbours have already moved out, for your own safety and security, we urge you to return your flat by Dec 30. “By returning your flat to us as soon as possible, you will avoid incurring additional expenses in holding on to two flats concurrently.” The Straits Times understands the “additional expenses” refer to the service and conservancy fees that Madam Banu will have to pay for both her Rochor and Kallang homes.

Renovations For New Home Not Done

Her husband, who has been in talks with HDB for an extension, said he was verbally given additional time after Dec 30, 2016 to move. Their contractor has been hard at work renovating their Kallang flat, she said. But judging by the state of her new home – the flooring is still not yet finished – meeting the new deadline does not seem likely.

Loved it at Rochor Centre, Didn’t want to leave

Said Madam Banu, who has lived in their Rochor Centre 3-room flat for 14 years: “In the first place, we love it here and don’t really want to move, but we’ve already digested that fact and come to terms with it.

“But now with this deadline, it seems like we are being backed into a corner.”

Moving On The Last Day

A block away, Madam Kee Lian Hua, 65, said she also needs more time to move.

Her family collected the key to their BTO flat in September and knew of the urgency to move. But there were just too many things to pack away, she said wistfully. Her daughter has arranged for the movers to come only on Dec 29, the day before the deadline.

At Rochor Centre, cleaners sent by the Jalan Besar Town Council are still tidying up the estate, especially at the common bulky refuse disposal point on the fourth floor. But there is still plenty of trash generated by the mass exodus of residents.

All businesses at the first three storeys, including the FairPrice supermarket, have left.

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Bryanna, then 16 years old, and her sister Gianna, then 2, will be moving out with their family in February 2017.

Rochor Centre: Residents still there past moving out deadline

Where there used to be lively crowds, Rochor Centre is now a ghost town to Bryanna Koh, 16. “I have lived here all my life. I have so many fond memories of my home, and it has never been so quiet,” she said.

By the middle of next month, Bryanna and her family of five will possibly be the last household to depart the iconic Rochor Centre, which will be demolished to make way for the North-South Corridor.

22 Households yet to move out as of January 2017

As of January 2017, 22 households still remain, Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua told The Sunday Times. There were 567 households living in the four Housing Board blocks previously. Of these, 504 chose to take up replacement flats in Kallang Trivista.

Rochor Centre: A tight community

Bryanna said she grew up in a tight community of Rochor residents and shopkeepers.

“My favourite place was this friendly shop which sold Buddhist offerings downstairs. When we were young, the uncle passed us old clothes that they no longer wanted,” said Bryanna, who is currently waiting for her O-level results.

Due to examinations, she could not join a barbecue party thrown by her neighbours to commemorate the end of Rochor Centre. With most neighbours having left, she said: “It feels lonely here now.”

Kallang Trivista BTO – Late key collection

The family busted the original deadline of Dec 30, 2017 due to the late collection of the Kallang Trivista keys, said Bryanna’s mother, who wanted to be known only as Mrs G. Koh.

Said Mrs Koh, who has lived there for two decades: “HDB gave us an extension till March [2017] to move out, though we will probably be able to move out in February after the renovation at Kallang is complete.”

She said the keys were ready in August 2016 but there were delays in submitting the paperwork to HDB. An HDB spokesman said it considered the circumstances of Rochor residents who asked for an extension and would work with them to vacate their units.

Privileged to be the last resident of Rochor Centre

Said Mrs Koh: “I feel privileged to be the last one to leave Rochor. I can’t bear to say goodbye too.”

While a small number of households still live in the blocks, municipal services at Rochor Centre are still available. All corridor lights remain lit through the night, even on floors where the residents have left.

Cleaners from the Jalan Besar Town Council still work daily, especially at the common refuse disposal on the fourth floor, to remove hazardous trash generated by the mass exodus of residents, such as broken glass and sharp objects.

Ms Phua, MP for Jalan Besar GRC, said several agencies – the Jalan Besar Town Council, HDB, National Environment Agency and the Singapore Police Force – responded to her appeals to continue serving the remaining residents. Said Ms Phua: “The situation is not without challenges because an estate that is emptying may attract more dust and pests. It takes a village to make things work.”

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Rochor Centre Demolition: Cost $1.81 million

LTA awarded a $1.81 million public tender to contractor Aik Sun Demolition and Engineering last month to carry out demolition and reinstatement works for Rochor Centre.

When asked how the demolition of Rochor Centre would be carried out, LTA said the method used will comply with the code of practice for demolition, which recommends good practice methods for the safe demolition of buildings and structures and takes into account environmental issues.

Takes 6 months to tear down

Demolition specialists said a development the size of Rochor Centre could take between three and six months to be torn down.

Said Mr Tay Hing Heng, a demolition specialist at contractor Rock Busters: “Generally, the conventional method for demolishing buildings here involves using excavators, concrete breakers and crushers to hack away from the top floor to the bottom.

“It can take around half a year for something the size of Rochor Centre, if the contractor carries out the works concurrently at all four blocks.”

Internal cables, furnishing, plumbing recycled

Ms Jestilia Toh of Beng Siew Construction, which specialises in demolition works, said the contractor would have to submit demolition plans to the Building and Construction Authority. All internal furnishings, cabling and plumbing will be stripped from the building for recycling purposes, she added.

Nonetheless, said Mr Tay, there will inevitably be negative effects on surrounding properties, such as dust and noise.

Dust & noise controlled through water sprinklers, barriers

He added: “Rochor Centre is right next to several buildings and the area around it has high human traffic. Dust and noise can be controlled through measures such as using water sprinklers and barriers, but they can only do so much.”

Impact on food & beverage, retail stores

About 100m from the complex, the proprietor of Indonesian food stall Impian Wahyu in Jalan Besar, who is known as Abang Batman, then 60, said the road diversions and hoarding from previous nearby developments, such as Rochor MRT station on the Downtown Line, nearly halved the number of customers at his eatery.

He said: “Business has been good now that the hoarding has been removed, and hopefully (the upcoming demolition of) Rochor Centre will not affect us as much because it does not block traffic.”

Meanwhile, former residents at the blocks, most of whom have been relocated to new HDB flats at Kallang Trivista, said they would remember their former home fondly.

Some, like Ms Angie Ng, then 30, a public relations officer who lived in Rochor Centre for 25 years, said they would go to see it for the last time before it disappears.

Said housewife Gie Koh: “It’s definitely a pity that such a colourful building that has livened up Bugis will become history soon. Though the building may not stay, I’m sure memories of Rochor Centre will last a lifetime.”

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Rochor Centre: 5 Surprising things you didn’t know

Rochor Centre sits on a 13,749 sq m site earmarked for the upcoming North-South Corridor, slated for completion in 2026. Here are five things you might not have known about Rochor Centre:

1. It wasn’t rainbow-coloured originally

The four blocks were originally all-white when they were first built in 1977. They were repainted in 1994 in their current colours under the Interim Upgrading Programme.

Residents also reaped other benefits, including covered walkways, a jogging track, landscaped gardens, faster lifts, new lift lobbies and games courts – totalling a cool $5.5 million then. The best part? They didn’t have to pay a single cent.

2. It used to smell bad… & was located near a red-light tourist spot

Night soil trucks – also known as honey wagons – had their deposit point located opposite the estate in the 1970s and 1980s. The point has since been replaced by Albert Complex in the 1980s.

However, the smell did not deter tourists who visited the area to pose for pictures with Trans individuals who frequented the Rochor Centre vicinity after the original red-light district Bugis Street closed in 1985.

3. It was Singapore’s first basement carpark

Rochor Centre housed the first basement carpark in 1975.

Nearly three decades later in 2003, it became one of the first public carparks – along with one in Toa Payoh Central – to implement an automated charging system using Electronic Road Pricing technology and per-minute charging.

Drivers said goodbye to coupons and inserting their CashCards into readers.

4. It had a community-oriented design

The 1970s marked a move away from utilitarian HDB designs to those that were more community-oriented, like that of Rochor Centre’s.

It was also built in the “podium-and-tower” style, with the four towers sharing a playground on the fourth floor podium, as well as three floors of retail space. Shenton House at Shenton way is another example of the style.

At the start, the estate had been home to 183 shops and 567 households. Devotees who were on their way to nearby temples were frequent shoppers at Rochor Centre for religious goods.

5. It was once known as “Little Johor”

It earned the nickname for being popular with Malaysians in the 1980s, as they found shopping there cheaper than in their home country.

Rochor Centre is located near the Queen Street bus terminal, where SBS bus service 170 plies routes between Singapore and Johor. It is also located near Ban San Street Taxi Kiosk, the only place in Singapore where people can get a Malaysia-registered taxi to take them to Malaysia.

Parts of this article first appeared on The Straits Times in 2016 and 2017.