Firsthand: Yishun isn't cursed. It's just the Gen Z of towns.

No writers were harmed in this trip to Yishun.

Ilyda Chua | November 25, 2023, 10:13 AM



Sometime in August, I came across an Instagram reel.

It was one of those lifestyle videos, about a "hidden safe haven" in Singapore — complete with monitor lizards, zen cafes with avocado toast and light-wood decor, and plenty of lush greenery.

The catch? It was in Yishun.

You can imagine the comments.

If there's any place that Singaporeans love to hate, it's Yishun.

Singapore's most dangerous/weird/cursed town, depending on the headline of the week.

Coming from the kampung-esque safety of the distant West, I've been pretty sheltered from Yishun's notorious rap.

But I was curious.

What was this "safe haven"?

And of all places, why on earth did it decide to set up shop in Yishun?

Just young

The first is easier to answer. It's Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre.

Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organisation, originally from Taiwan. The Humanistic Youth Centre — HYC for short — is a community centre of sorts, which has occupied the premises of the former Yishun Polyclinic since 2019.

The HYC was created as a place of all-around good vibes. "A one-stop location for young people to gather, meet new friends, learn positive values, and be inspired," as the website puts it.

Or, in my colleague's droll words: "A zen oasis in a burning land".

In hopes of getting the answer to my second question, I emailed Tzu Chi, asking how the location for the HYC was selected.

Hours later, they responded:

Rather, they explained, the centre was established there for an entirely different reason: because of Yishun's youth population.

According to 2018 data from the Singapore Department of Statistics (DOS), youths account for 28.31 per cent of Yishun's total population — higher than the national average of 26.41 per cent.

This made sense to me. Considering, you know, it's a centre for youths.

But this piece of information inspired a new theory.

What if Yishun isn't a burning land at all?

What if it's just young?

Haters gonna hate

If there's anyone Singaporeans love to hate, it's young people.

Millennials were the first to be branded "the strawberry generation": a cute jab at the entitled fragility of the group which was, once upon a time, at the bottom of the societal food chain.

Gen Zs followed, although at least they had enough sass to hit back.

Whatever the case, I was kaypoh curious enough to want to find out the real origins of Yishun's notoriety.

Could this really all be the result of a generation's concentrated disdain for the young?

I had to find out.

With my colleague, I made the pilgrimage down to the Florida of Singapore.

We begun our trip the true Singaporean way: at a mall.

Hail, Northpoint City.

Stop 1: The Mall

Even at 5pm on a weekday, the mall was unnervingly crowded.

While it wasn't as bad as an MRT station after a half-day of school, there were definitely a fair number of uniform-clad students around.

But not enough for me to decisively say that there were more of them here than in any other mall.

That said, there were plenty of youth-targeted businesses in Northpoint.

Trendy snacks and bubble tea shops, for instance. (Fun fact: Yishun has one of the highest concentrations of  bubble tea shops on the island.)

Most damning however was the presence of a claw machine shop.

It was crowded enough that we had to queue to buy tokens for the machines.

Yes, we did try our hand at the machines. No, we didn't win anything, unlike this toddler.

Guess we weren't young enough.

Stop 2: The Town Centre

After losing S$10 to the allure of pastel-pink machines and cutesy background music, we decided to take a walk around the town centre.

If Yishun were truly a young town, I reasoned, it'd have something different from your typical assortment of dated hair salons, fish shops, and GP clinics.

At first glance, it wasn't super promising.

Sure, there were more maid agencies and tuition centres than I'd expected — but those were suggestions rather than signs of youth.

Until we chanced upon a familiar-looking sign.

I'd previously read about the shop — Singapore's first ants pet shop, and a definite contender for something "youthful".

If that weren't enough, a bunch of teenagers were gathered outside the shop, chatting and laughing.

We approached the shop, and — by happy coincidence — were greeted by the shop's owner, 43-year-old John Ye.

After some confused self-introductions, during which we explained our mission, I questioned him about the gaggle of teenagers who had been hovering outside the shop.

"There are quite a lot of schools here," Ye explained.

He added that while he knows of Yishun's reputation for being weird — "it's not that bad".

"Some people would say an ant shop in Yishun is part of the weirdness," I noted.

Outside, the teens had dispersed. In their place was a dad and his daughter who looked to be around primary-school age.

"Where's the ants?" she demanded, peering at the tanks without an ounce of fear.

Looking over at his new visitors, Ye merely shrugged and smiled.

"It goes well with us," he replied.

Stop 3: Humanistic Youth Centre

For our last stop, we headed over to the place that had started it all: the HYC.

A low, standalone building, elegantly panelled in white and lapis blue, it immediately stood out among the blocks of HDB flats and industrial buildings.

The foyer was no less impressive: a huge, airy space decked out in pale wood and warm lighting.

"This organisation must be really rich," my colleague commented.

While the place didn't scream youth in the same way that ice-cream shops and claw machines did, it was nevertheless apparent that it was designed to appeal to a certain age bracket.

Everything was aesthetic and Instagram-worthy, from the tastefully-decorated cafes, to the sleek boutique fitness studios.

Not to mention the exhibits on topics like eco-consciousness and mental health.

But by far the most crowded space on the first floor was a massive study area.

Ventilated with large fans and outfitted with books, tables, and even charging ports and wi-fi, it was as packed and silent as a library.

And did I mention it was free?

Meanwhile, posters bearing Buddhist teachings — occasionally supplemented by trendy buzzwords like sustainability and empowerment — were strategically plastered on the walls.

In the toilets, too.

The icing on the cake was the lush Yishun Pond Park that sits in the HYC's backyard.

In the post-rain twilight, it was the picture of luminous tranquility — blue-hued greenery and joggers skirting past puddles.

While we'd arrived shortly after the cafe closed, we noticed that it opened up to an outdoor sitting area with an excellent view of the scenery.

Just imagine the Instagram photos.

Photo by Alfie Kwa

As we walked through the park connector, we passed by the Nee Soon Sports Centre, which houses a pair of pristine futsal courts and three sprawling basketball courts.

There, teenage boys kicked balls, shot hoops, and traded good-natured jibes against the backdrop of the evening sky.

Photo by Alfie Kwa

Truth be told, there aren't many places in Singapore that I would call zen.

But there — in Singapore's very own Florida — I felt it.

The wonderful thing about Yishun

In case you've forgotten, my initial theory was that Yishun isn't cursed — that it's just young. The Gen Z of HDB towns, if you will, and hence its bad rap.

Going down, I'd expected to find a fair amount of teenage activity and call it a day.

What I discovered, however, was that more than a town full of youths, Yishun is a town that invests in its youths.

My colleague's earlier, offhand remark about the cost of the HYC was a good indicator.

An attractive space, where young people can hang out for entirely free, and partake in activities that they enjoy?

That's a big thing.

A shopping mall which dedicates space to goofy sh*t like claw machines? A town centre where there's room for youthful novelty?

Small thing, but still there.

And all that space, all that real estate, dedicated to that massive stretch of futsal and basketball courts?

That's huge.

So maybe Yishun is a dumpster fire of a town.

So weird things happen.

So weird people happen.

That kind of stuff happens. And Yishun — far from trying to mould itself into a cookie-cutter Capitaland mall — keeps investing in its youth anyway.

The result? It's full of weird, cool, interesting stuff. Like an ant shop, an ultramodern Buddhist community centre, and lots of spectacular nature.

Most importantly, it adds character to Singapore. God knows it supplies plenty of news.

I'm not sure if I'd call it safe.

But at the very least? It's a damn cool place.

Top image by Ilyda Chua and Alfie Kwa