Toa Payoh is a planning area and one of the well-developed estates in Singapore, well known for its hidden gems in hawker centers, and niche cafes and restaurants that stretch out across this residential district.
Toa Payoh New Town is not just Singapore’s second ever satellite town, (See Queenstown blog), but also the very first to be built by the Housing Development Board (HDB) as well!
Thus, it might come as a surprise to many that just 50 years ago, this land of food paradise was an extensive and notorious squatter district, and also home to some of Singapore’s largest crime syndicates and gangs alike.
With its name translating to “Big Swamp” in Hokkien, come and explore what this swamp has to offer!
1. Church of the Risen Christ
Back before in the 70s, the Roman Catholic community in the Toa Payoh region conducted its activities in makeshift areas, such as the Ho Ping Centre, and the Social Function Hall of the HDB East Area Office.
The very first mass to be conducted in the Toa Payoh region was on 6 April 1969.
However, eventually, the community started growing in numbers and these facilities were too small to hold everyone.
Thus, in June 1969, religious bodies were invited by the Government to tender for a piece of land of 40,000 square feet, which eventually led to a proposal made to build a Roman Catholic Church at the junction of Toa Payoh Central and Lorong 4.
This announcement spread like wildfire throughout the community and soon enough came their next challenge:
To raise $450,000 for the building, or it can’t even be built.
OVERCOMING THE OBSTACLES
This challenge fell onto the shoulders of the late Rev Fr Pierre Abrial and Rev Fr Adrian Anthony.
Although contributions were forthcoming from benefactors and parishioners (Church goers) alike, the sum of $450,000, which is about $3,197,000, wasn’t an easy number to hit.
Therefore, Fr Abrial himself made personal visits to parishioners to ask for further donations, of which some were even collected over 18 months of installments.
By mid-June 1971, they were only short of $30,000 away from the target, of which the parishioners eventually filled in the shortage over the next few months.
And about two weeks later, the Church of the Risen Christ was officially opened on 3 July 1971 by the then Archbishop Michel Ocomendy.
THE LONG AWAITED EXPANSION
Now situated in the center of the new satellite town, the Church of Risen Christ was initially built to serve a population of 200,000 flat owners alike.
However, as Toa Payoh town grew in its affluence and size, so did the Church and the number of parishioners alike.
Eventually, space constraints posed to be a growing issue. Catechism (Bible lessons) classes for children were conducted in places like the kitchen, thus impeding the priests’ privacy and space.
Therefore, the Church decided to build a new extension in order to meet the needs of the growing community.
Construction on the new 4-story extension began in early 2003, costing approximately $3.5 million, the new building houses the priest quarters, and kitchen and contains 13 rooms that double up as classrooms and meeting rooms.
Today, the parish holds a population of roughly 8,000 parishioners served by 3 priests and is often known as the church with one of the prettiest interiors, and a tight-knit community.
2. Dragon Playground
Playgrounds are definitely a major part of every Singaporean childhood, after all, who doesn’t have memories of them swinging across these colorful structures, climbing up and down the stairs, and of course, going down the slides?
Although many of them share the same distinct functions, the designs and size of each playground vary from each others.
Some stand out much more than others.
THE HERITAGE PLAYGROUNDS
In an effort to create playgrounds that connect us with our local identity and culture, the Housing Development Board (HDB), decided to design a range of playgrounds, much more different than the regular ones.
First conceptualized in the 1970s, HDB came up with their first series of the newly invented playgrounds, based on different animals, and the subsequent series featuring objects and concepts easily identifiable with the local culture, such as the Watermelon Playground.
THE DRAGON PLAYGROUND
Arguably the most popular out of the whole bunch is the Dragon Playground.
Built in 1979, it was designed by Khor Ean Ghee, HDB’s in-house designer. He drew inspiration from the Oriental dragon often seen in Chinese communities.
Similar to the rest, the dragon playground is also built using mosaic tiles, much unlike the ones we commonly see around Singapore, which are often made out of plastic.
The initial design had a longer spine, a metal head, and a circular monkey bar. However, feedback was given that the dragon was too long and that the initial metal head was too difficult to fabricate, which eventually led to a new design being adopted.
The improved dragon design featured a larger head tiled with terrazzo and tiles as well as a body of colorfully-painted steel rings that could be used to slide or climb through.
Unfortunately, as these heritage playgrounds were all built using mosaic tiles, it was deemed unsafe and eventually phased out in the 1990s and replaced by the plastic ones we see today.
Today, the Toa Payoh dragon playground is one of the few heritage playgrounds left in Singapore and is still extremely popular among local residents.
3. Toa Payoh Town Park
Situated right in the center of Toa Payoh estate is possibly one of Singapore’s most beautiful parks.
First built in 1972, the Toa Payoh Town Park was once a popular venue for wedding shoots, as the park is filled with willow trees, bamboos, and a gorgeous pond with its cascading waterfall and series of bridges which is also home to fishes and tortoises.
Along with a pavilion and gazebo, the park is ideal for hosting events.
The Park’s popularity among visitors led to the HDB building and included more green spaces all around the different estates in Singapore.
The most popular aspect of the park is definitely its observational tower.
Standing at 27-meters tall, this tower was once scalable, and was a very popular landmark among residents, with its rather futuristic and alien-like features, one could also get an amazing view of the entire park from the top.
Unfortunately, the landmark was accorded conservation status in 2009 and has been closed to the public ever since.
4. Block 53
Known as the Y-shaped Blocks, due to their prominent Y-shaped design, Block 54 is one of the crown jewels of Toa Payoh, even being nicknamed the,
“VIP Block of Toa Payoh.”
First built in 1967, it became the tallest HDB block estate at that time, standing at 19-stories high.
Due to its unique design and its unique view over the Toa Payoh estate, it quickly gained a reputation with overseas leaders, as many of them who had come down to Singapore, also took a visit to this block, therefore gaining its name, “VIP Block.”
Among these leaders was the British Monarch Queen Elizabeth ll who on her trip to Singapore, also visited block 53 as well.
Block 53 remained the “VIP Block,” until one of the 25-story point blocks in Toa Payoh Central eventually replaced the Y block.
Today, block 53 remains the only block with a Y-shaped design and is one of Singapore’s most uniquely designed HDB blocks.
It remains a crown jewel of Toa Payoh and a reminiscent of the older times.
The residents of the block are also a close-knitted family, some who grew up there even make time to visit their childhood homes from time to time and to catch up with their previous neighbors.
Block 53 is truly a testament to our kampong spirit and a representation of our local heritage.
From a swamp to a new satellite town, Toa Payoh is a true representation of our Singapore spirit, never giving up and pushing through tough times together!
If you would love to bring your team or classes out for a fun day out to explore Singapore, feel free to check out our Customisable Learning Journey Tour! Do check out our previous article on the Sembawang Heritage Trail for its own route experience as you discover the prominence of Sembawang!