Ah Wei of Singapore
March 16, 2015 - single portrait
It was the first time that I took pictures with my Hasselblad 500C/M around the housing blocks in Holland Village in Singapore. I realized that all the apartments were empty and Ah Wei and his team were putting up fences to block people from walking in. I talked to him for a bit and asked if I could spend a bit of time and take photos of this little ghost town. I also took a portrait of him without the knowledge that i would start the 100strangers project one day.
The blocks of the HDB (housing and development board) shape the image of Singapore once you leave the central area. The little satellite towns were built to contain full infrastructure and were thought to reproduce village life by means of “vertical” integration. The blocks around the Holland Village area are some of the oldest blocks built in the sixties. When Singapore became independent in 1959 the housing situation was a disaster. Most people lived in some of the worst slums in South-East Asia or in densely populated shop houses along the Singapore River. A low construction rate in the private sector as well as the damages of World War II made the situation even worse. In 1960 the Housing and Development Board was founded with the aim to built as many low-cost housing units as possible. In the beginning it wasn’t easy to convince the people living in the squatter settlements. It was only after the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 that HDB’s efficiency won the people over.
In the years to come entire new towns like Woodlands, Pasir Ris and Tampines were built in Singapore to host the ever increasing population. The HDB program enabled a large number of Singaporeans an affordable way to live in their own property. It also seemed to have boosted the nation’s pride and helped racial integration of the Chinese, Malay and Indian population. I had lived for five years in Singapore and I know people who lived in the squatter settlements. I know their pride they feel for what their country and they have achieved throughout the short history of Singapore. These people lived in the blocks that are up for being demolished now.
Ah Wei and I are from a different generation. We both feel somehow that these houses, old and ugly looking, need to be replaced by something fulfilling the demand for more luxury and less function. Yet, there is a feeling of sadness too. Every room behind a window has got its own story of happiness and sadness, of birth, making love and death, of childhood and of being adults. The “void” decks underneath the houses hosted weddings, birthdays and funerals. Kids used to play there and the elderly met for a talk. Business was done here. Friendships started and broke up right here as well.
It’s all gone by now and new history will be written. Singapore changes its face quickly and it will be remembered for the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Singapore Flyer, the first Formula 1 night race and when you sit in the New Asia Bar on top of the Swiss Hotel having a drink, you will see most of it and you might see an old HDB block as well where the people live who made this little proud nation.