The name ‘Queenstown’ has acquired two meanings over the years: it connotes the heartland housing estate comprising six neighbourhoods—Ghim Moh, Holland Drive, Commonwealth, Margaret Drive, Mei Chin/Mei Ling and Tanglin Halt—and the broader bureaucratic planning area south of Singapore (see Map; URA, 1994). The former is commonly lauded and vernacularly imagined as the ‘first satellite town’ in Singapore, planned and built by the Housing Development Board (HDB) in the 1960s. However, perhaps the term ‘transitional satellite town’ is more apt as a representation of the housing estate’s genesis and history. Rather than a ‘town of firsts’, it is instead, a ‘town in-transition’: it marks the transition of Singapore from colony to independent nation, and embodies the nation’s colonial legacy; it illustrates changes in Singapore’s housing policies and urban morphology; and today, represents the changing consciousness of Singaporeans towards issues of heritage and memory.
Prior to the development and urbanization of Queenstown, the land was largely utilized for agricultural purposes until the 1940s. The landscape was dominated by two hills, and a village in the swampy valley between them was colloquially known as Boh Beh Kang—a stream without a source. Hundreds of modest attap huts dot the landscape, humble homes to mostly Hokkien and Teochew farmers who cultivated vegetables and fruits, and reared pigs and poultry. Another village, Ying Fu Lut, of mostly Hakka people, was located around the present-day Holland Close (see Low, 2007:22-23). A British military outpost—Buller Camp—was also set up in the Boh Beh Kang area. In response to the pressing housing needs of the growing population following the Japanese Occupation, Boh Beh Kang and Ying Fu Lut were slated for housing development by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the late 1940s. Despite strong resistance from the local farmers—many joined the Singapore Attap Dwellers Association—the colonial government acquired the farmlands of Boh Beh Kang for development, physically displacing the local population. Following Ebenezer Howards’ concept of a self-contained town— ‘garden cities’—away from the city center, the British planners mooted the idea of Queenstown, a suburban satellite estate named after Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. This renaming of Boh Beh Kang and Ying Fu Lut effectively completed the whitewashing of the area’s microhistories—the physical displacement of its population was coupled with the symbolic erasure of these names.
According to Jensen (1967: 124; also see Low, 2007: 58-59), the SIT initially developed Queenstown at very low densities. This is based on the developmental principles of post-war British towns, where small neighbourhoods and maximum privacy between individual homes were emphasized. Thus, with the exception of the 14-storey Fofar House, apartments buildings built by the SIT were mostly low-rise blocks, interspersed with some units of double-storey terraces. Of the five neighbourhoods planned for Queenstown—Princess Estate (present day Dawson & Strathmore estates), Duchess Estate (area in front of Queenstown MRT), Tanglin Halt estate, Commonwealth estate and Queens’ Close estate—only Princess Estate was completed by the time of independence; building works had just commenced at Duchess Estate and Queens’ Close. Queenstown was at the heart of Singapore’s transition between colonial rule and self-governance. As the HDB took over, a new locally situated Master Plan was drafted. Transposing the ‘kampong spirit’ into this context, local planners recognized that a neighborhood based on the British principles of privacy would not appeal to families who were used to a certain degree of communal living (Jensen, 1967; Low, 2007). In fact, without the easy mingling of neighbours, the cheerful chatter of people, sounds of children playing and the general feeling of togetherness, the neighbourhood would have seemed uncomfortably cold and unwelcoming. Thus, with the new Master Plan, social contact and interaction were prioritized alongside high-density living.
As Queenstown developed based on the new plan, the architectural typologies of the neighbourhood underwent various changes and diversification. To avoid monotony in the urban morphology, variation of architectural styles can be observed in the flats around Queenstown. Initially in the early 1960s, nondescript, linear 7 and 10-storey blocks (the latter affectionately known as Chap Lau Chu) were built along Stirling Road and Tanglin Halt respectively. Equipped with lifts, blocks 45, 48 and 49 in Stirling Road were the first apartment buildings erected by the HDB. Subsequently, this housing typology was replicated on the hills of nearby Commonwealth Close—the 16-storey flats of Block 160 and 161 (colloquially, Chap Lak Lau) were also known as ‘VIP flats’. These flats were often visited by foreign dignitaries, and to the planners, these represented Singapore’s successful public housing system. Increasingly, towards the late 1960s, alternative architectural styles were experimented with. This is exemplified by the first Point Blocks—with only four units on each level—constructed along Mei Ling Street, and the curved block 168A along Queensway constructed in the early 1970s. The latter is commonly known as the ‘butterfly block’, and has become a distinct feature of the Queenstown housing estate. The varied architectural styles of buildings in Queenstown ensured that while there was a general sense of continuity in the estate. Ennui in its urban morphology was thus avoided.
Besides policy changes in architectural styles, the housing estates in Queenstown were also at the transitional forefront when the Home Ownership Scheme was introduced in 1964. Units in Commonwealth originally for rent, were sold to lower-middle income families. Gradually, with schools, markets, healthcare centres and leisure facilities like a library, bowling alley, cinemas, sports complex and even a shopping mall, Queenstown became largely self-contained by the 1980s. Its inhabitants have also acquired a sense of identity and developed an attachment to the estate. Yet, some contended that the names—Princess Drive, Commonwealth Avenue, Holland Close, Queens’ Close—associated with the estate were problematic; embedded within them is the ideological baggage of colonialism. Therefore, there were proposals to change these ‘colonial’ names to Malay ones, in a bid to strengthen local identity (Yeoh, 1996). However, in the typical vein of Singaporean pragmatism, the proposal for name change was strongly resisted by the HDB as so to avoid ‘confusion and inconvenience’. HDB further argued that since the name ‘Queenstown’ was synonymous ‘throughout the world’ with an internationally acclaimed public housing program, the names should be preserved (Yeoh, 1996: 301).
Today, Queenstown is a ‘mature estate’, turning 60 in 2013. With this maturity comes a certain sense of dilapidation and a perceived need for renewal. The old Queenstown Cinema and Bowling Alley and the surrounding flats were seen as needing renewal. The flats were selected for the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2005, and were demolished along with the cinema and bowling alley in 2012/13. Recently, it was announced that the Tanglin Halt estate would also eventually undergo redevelopment. The announcement sparked expressions and lamentations of loss. An online petition was set up to ensure that the sense of community in Tanglin Halt would be preserved. This is a broader reflection of the changing attitudes of Singaporeans towards issues of progress and heritage: many are increasingly questioning the pace and sentimental-blindness of developmental progress. The grassroots heritage group, My Queenstown, recently launched a ‘community mapping’ initiative (see map 2). Here, the psychogeographies of Queenstown residents are being mapped on guided walks as people share stories and memories of the various estates. Thus, beyond the nationalistic narrative of independence, Singaporeans are now identifying themselves with the histories of neighbourhoods and housing estates they call home. The attitude and actions of residents involved in My Queenstown embodies a verse in Cooling Off Day by Alfian Sa’at:
Is there a word called anomie?
Yah, that’s what I mean.
A sense of not belonging.
The loss of dialect also.
A lot of losses, you know?
I’m a firm believer that
You’ve got to love your neighbourhood,
You love your community,
And then you love your nation.
You don’t start from loving the nation first.
That’s going backwards.
From a housing estate at the forefront of progress, to one that actively questions the state’s relentless drive for progress, Queenstown has indeed come a full circle as a town in-transition.
Jensen, R. (1967), ‘Planning, Urban Renewal, and Housing in Singapore’, The Town Planning Review, 38(2): 115-131.
Yeoh, B. (1996), ‘Street-Naming and Nation-Building: Toponymic Inscriptions of Nationhood in Singapore’, Area, 28(3): 298-307.
Urban Redevelopment Authority (1994), Queenstown Planning Area: Planning Area Report 1994, Singapore: URA.
Low, C. (2007), 10-Stories: Queenstown through the Years, Singapore: National Heritage Board.
Map showing Queenstown planning area highlighted in red (URA, 1994)
Map of queesntown neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods 1-6 are those commonly associated with ‘Queenstown’ estate.
Map 2: Queenstown heritage trail map by My Queenstown