After spending ten years living in Toa Payoh, local Doris Sinnathurai reflects on what made her fall in love with this historical neighbourhood and why she’s not planning on moving away any time soon.
I returned home to Singapore in 2005 after having worked in the Philippines for two years. As I had nowhere to stay initially, I bunked with a friend who was living in Toa Payoh Lor 4.
I remember waking up to the sounds of the market coming to life in front of our block, the smells and the chatter of the aunties. I would take my coffee out to the corridor and look down at the constant motion of a waking community. Old aunties stopping to chat, young parents looking harried as they dragged their kids in tow and a whirlwind of trucks making their daily delivery to the market.
I fell in love with the area right away and found a flat to rent in Block 83 on Toa Payoh Lor 4 for a year before I was eligible to buy my own flat. I told the estate agent at the time that only a flat from 85A, B or C would do. It had to be on the higher floors and in its original condition. Within a few months of waiting, I got my dream flat, renovated it and moved in.
Why Toa Payoh you may ask? For me there was just something charming about the estate, particularly the people that had been living there since it first opened back in the early 1960s.
When I first moved into my rental flat in early 2005, I was always charmed by the fact that everyone greeted each other. Neighbours took time to stop and ask you how you were, or nodded their heads in acknowledgment as you passed, and shopkeepers in the neighbourhood would greet you as you walked by. The community at the estate had lived in the area for so long that everyone knew everyone. Moving in I didn’t feel isolated in any way, something I’d noticed when exploring some of the newer housing estates around the city.
Having lived here now for many years, there have been many occasions where I’ve gone down to the grocery store down the block for provisions and spent time chatting with the shopkeeper. I absolutely love it when he regales me with tales of the early Toa Payoh, where the police would do regular raids and shop-keepers were advised to keep their shutters down. The old neighbourhood sounded both exciting and fascinating.
Some days when I come home late, the shopkeeper might comment “ah, today very late you finish.” To some it might sound intrusive, but to a single person living alone, it’s reassuring that someone notices you, should something negative ever happen. I usually stop to chat a bit about my day. I love talking to folks that have been around for a long time, hearing their stories of triumph over struggle, especially during the early years of Singapore’s journey; it’s such an eye opener.
My neighbours here are fantastic. I am probably the youngest flat owner on my floor as most of my neighbours have lived here since it first went up in the 1970s. Their kids grew up together in that neighbourhood, got married and moved on. Many are now retired; some hang out under the block playing Chinese Chess or in the kopi tiam shops nearby chewing the fat. Everyone looks out for one another – when I have deliveries sent over and am not home, I can safely say to the delivery man to leave it outside the door, knowing full well it will be there when I get home.
Looking back, the first thing I fell in love with in Toa Payoh was its people. Another major plus point is how economical it is to stay in the area. Groceries, toiletries and daily expenses are very affordable – some of my friends who live as far as Punggol come to Toa Payoh to shop because of this and you can find literally everything you need.
Everywhere I need to go is within walking distance of my flat – the library, the post office, the wet market, the spa and the salon. And there is fantastic food here too. With so many choices, you’ll never go hungry in Toa Payoh. Just ask the cab drivers for a good recommendation! So life in Toa Payoh, with its collection of new and old residential blocks, is surrounded by a wonderful community. To experience its old charm and history for yourself, come take a visit!
In the run up to the Neon Lights festival on