A week ago, I was offered the opportunity to go on a walking tour to explore the Toa Payoh neighbourhood at night.
As a Toa Payoh resident for 15 years, I was skeptical that I would learn anything new on the tour, thinking I knew my area pretty well.
However, after having experienced the tour myself, I found myself pleasantly surprised, and learnt a number of new things about my neighbourhood.
Toa Payoh was the coolest place to be in the 1970s
The tour, which was organised by My Community, started at 10pm, and I was able to take a leisurely stroll from my house to the meeting point.
There were more than 15 other people on the tour, and as far as I can tell, we were a pretty mixed group of individuals from different age groups.
The facilitator of the tour sorted us into groups of five or less, and gently reminded us to keep to our groups throughout the tour, due to safe distancing reasons.
Our tour guide, Patrick Lee, is not a full-time tour guide (he’s actually a lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic), but he quickly showed us that he had the right credentials to show us around the neighbourhood.
For one, he was born in Toa Payoh Hospital.
For anyone too young to remember (like me), the hospital was once named Thomson Road Hospital, although it was later renamed Toa Payoh Hospital, after the town it was serving.
The hospital later merged with the old Changi Hospital to form Changi General Hospital in 1997.
He recalled spending his childhood days playing at the now iconic Toa Payoh Dragon Playground, and proudly shared the history of Toa Payoh with us as he kicked off the tour.
For one, Toa Payoh means “big swamp” in Hokkien, which was exactly what the area used to be in the 1960s, before it was designated as the first satellite town to be built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB).
Lee shared that the 1970s was the “golden era” of Toa Payoh: the neighbourhood was one of the first to enjoy access to the MRT, and the Toa Payoh Public Library, believe it or not, was regarded as one of the top places to visit in Singapore.
In fact, the satellite town was so successful, Queen Elizabeth II herself visited Block 53 at Toa Payoh in 1973, mere blocks away from where I currently live.
Unfortunately, by the 1990s, Lee said that Toa Payoh had become a victim of its own tremendous success.
Similar satellite towns sprouted across Singapore, with more modern amenities, and Toa Payoh soon lost its spot in the limelight.
Toa Payoh has many historic sites that are often overlooked
However, Lee was quick to assure us that Toa Payoh’s lower prominence in recent years did not mean that the neighbourhood had nothing to offer.
In fact, Toa Payoh was brimming with history, and Lee quickly showed us what we were missing out on.
As we moved towards the Toa Payoh Industrial Park, he introduced us to the Sri Vairavinmada Kaliamman Temple, just next to Toa Payoh Polyclinic.
Funnily enough, I’ve never noticed the temple was there, despite having visited the polyclinic on multiple occasions.
He explained that the temple is one of the oldest temples in Singapore, although the original temple structure was at Killiney Road.
In 1982, it was relocated to its present location in Toa Payoh, and had many amenities for the Tamil community, such as a wedding hall, and Singapore’s first Tamil/English pre-school.
Toa Payoh’s hidden funeral parlours
While most of us prefer not to live near industrial estates these days, Lee pointed out that in the 1970s, many people actively sought out HDB blocks near such industrial areas, as it was extremely convenient for those living there to go to work.
As we entered the industrial estate, we arrived at our tour’s main destination: a row of funeral parlours, many of which boast decades upon decades of history.
I was initially expecting to be led into one of these old establishments and prepared myself for rooms with dim lighting, pungent with the smell of joss sticks burning.
But I was pleasantly surprised when we were led into a relatively new unit, occupied by Flying Home, a company that offers repatriation for human remains.
This is a subsidiary of Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, a company that provides a wide variety of funeral services in Singapore.
On the outside, Flying Home stood out aesthetically; it certainly did not look like its neighbours.
In comparison, this is one of Flying Home’s neighbours, Chye Seng Undertaker.
Funeral parlours moved to Toa Payoh after it became a satellite town
Entering Flying Home, we were then greeted by Ang Ziqian, the Deputy Chairman of the Ang Chin Moh Group, and a fourth generation funeral director.
Ang Chin Moh was founded in 1912, and was one of the few funeral companies in Singapore at the time.
Today, the company has expanded greatly, and provides a one-stop service for various funeral services.
Ang then gave us a short presentation on the history of the funeral parlours in Toa Payoh, as well as the industry as a whole.
When Toa Payoh became HDB’s first satellite town, it became an obvious choice for funeral parlours: after all, there was a ready supply of customers in the vicinity.
As time went by, more funeral parlours were established across the island, although many of the older ones stayed on in Toa Payoh.
We also enjoyed a sharing session by Shane Teo, one of Ang Chin Moh’s embalmers who has the distinction of being one of Singapore’s only facial reconstruction specialists.
The young man was an eccentric character; he shared how he actively sought out a job in the funeral industry (he was tired of mainstream jobs), and how his job allows him to do make-up for friends and family (although he prefers his subjects to stay still).
All in all, it was a rather educational experience; I learnt a lot about Singapore’s funeral industry, and was quite surprised how all these funeral establishments were basically a short walk from my house all this time.
Many old funeral parlours may not be around in a few years
We then moved on to another funeral parlour down the street: Singapore Funeral Services (SFS), run by founder Hoo Hung Chye.
Unlike Ang, Hoo started from scratch in the funeral business.
He shared that when he first started out, the industry was very different from what it is today.
The staff working at funeral parlours were often dressed less professionally, and he shared that when he first wore a suit to a funeral, everyone thought he was crazy.
This did not deter Hoo; he thought that professionalism was important, and the company was one of the first to utilise a Mercedes Limousine as a funeral hearse, believing that providing a premium experience for the dead was vital.
Hoo also said that most of the funeral parlours in the area have to renew their lease every three years, making it difficult to predict when they have to pack up and go.
And while some of the funeral parlours may choose to simply relocate to a new location, others may choose to close down altogether, given how old some of the owners are.
It was then when I realised that if I came here a few years later, I might already have missed my chance to see many of these historic establishments.
Unfortunately, the vegetable night market was closed
Towards the tail end of the tour, we walked towards Toa Payoh East Lorong 7.
By this time, it was already half past midnight, although on a normal night, the area would be bustling with activity, due to the existence of a wholesale night vegetable market, one that has been running for several decades.
Some of the stalls have been running since Singapore’s pre-independence days.
Lee said that several of the market stall owners were keen to show members of the public the inner workings of the market, though we were unfortunately not able to visit the market in all its glory, due to its recent closure after several Covid-19 cases were found there.
Lee shared that the market would normally operate from midnight to dawn, and that the key to getting the cheapest vegetables was to come as late as possible, given how the stall owners have to clear all their stock on the day itself.
The market was first closed on Sep. 3 for two weeks, Lee said, and the market should reopen by Sep. 18.
While I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to check out the night market (and maybe grab something for the family), the trip was an enlightening one overall.
The pace was comfortable but not too slow, and I learned many things that I wouldn’t otherwise have known during the three-hour tour.
Lee and our facilitator, Jamie, were also extremely friendly, and we were able to ask many questions without feeling awkward, despite the fact that we just met earlier that night.
Luckily, the After Hours @ My Toa Payoh isn’t the only tour organised by My Community.
If exploring Bukit Brown cemetery, or any of the other neighbourhoods sounds like an interesting experience, you can find more details about the tours here.
The tours organised by My Community highlight the work of unsung heroes working in a variety of essential sectors, who all play a part in keeping Singapore running while most of us are asleep.
The tours will continue until Oct. 3, 2021, so grab your tickets while you still can.
This sponsored article by My Community makes the writer wonder what else he doesn’t know about Singapore’s many neighbourhoods.
Top image via Jason Fan & My Community.