Invisible Singapore |01| On a Quest for Dragons

Singapore is known for many things but definitely not for “mundane‘ playgrounds. That’s why I was pleasantly stunned when I read that one of our playgrounds was listed as Emily Temple’s 15 amazing playgrounds in the world. For info, Emily Temple is an editor at Flavorpill, a blog affiliated to The Atlantic, covering cultural events, art, books, music, and world news. If you want to find out which 15 playgrounds she was referring to, you can check out the blog. What was so intriguing in
her listing was that she shortlisted, not one of those modern playgrounds that could be found around Singapore, but a very old playground from the eighties. That was more than 30 years ago! And I guessed many shared my relief as her unexpected nomination breathe new hope for these antique playgrounds, especially when these were on the verge of being evacuated to pave way for newer, more modernized playgrounds.

I remembered these old playgrounds with the shapes of mythical and your average creatures, such as dragons, pelicans, elephants and so on. In fact, I came from that era where I enjoyed playing on these amazing structures. Unlike today’s modern playgrounds that are equipped with everything that you could ask for, the old ones were simple and that forced us to unleash our creativity. Hence these playgrounds could sometimes be the wilderness, a pirate ship, an aeroplane, a safari – it’s all in the mind. Now that these playgrounds caught my attention again after 30+ years, it’s time to seek them out, perhaps while they…or I still stand…

I had to do quite a bit of research on these playgrounds given that there were only a few left standing. Lucky for me, Emily Temple’s article raised some buzz and there were already hyped-up enthusiasts and photographers who had wrote and took some shots. I also realized that there was a wonderful article wrote by a writer, Justin Zhuang, titled Mosaic Memories. It was a gem commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project and it detailed the history of these old playgrounds in Singapore. From his documentations, these playgrounds were designed in-house by one of the staff of the Housing & Development Board (HDB). His name was Mr Khor Ean Ghee. In the late seventies and early eighties, HDB wanted to create spaces that are fun and yet instill in users a sense of the local identity and life. It was along this design philosophy that the old iconic playgrounds were birthed. There is the dragon playground, a symbolism of Asia, bum boats and rickshaws. It was unfortunate that in 1993, HDB stopped designing in-house and imported playgrounds from overseas suppliers due to higher production and maintenance costs, as well as new regulations to meet international safety standards. The tipping point came finally with an incident at one of these old playground.

For my search, I centered in on the most iconic of all the old animal-themed playgrounds – the dragon playground. There are only four dragons left – two in Toa Payoh Town, one in Ang Mo Kio Town and one in MacPherson area. The first dragon that I found was also the most authentic one left. It is located at Block 28 Toa Payoh Lorong 6. The authenticity being that the playground still uses the traditional sand instead of synthetic materials for its base. The majestic dragon head was created out of orange terrazzo and glass tiles. Referencing from the Mosaic Memories, it appears that the idea to use these materials was for easy maintenance – they don’t need annual paint jobs! How ingenious! Besides, it gave the dragon a cheery and inviting face. The body of the dragon was bathed in colorful metal railings that raises the adventure-bar for users as they try to make their way through in the fastest of time. The dragon incorporates a slide in its body too! Edging closer, you can see the age of the playground where time and harsh nature elements had made a graceful mark on it.

The second dragon was a mini-me of the first dragon – without the long slender metal railing body  Instead, the slide took on the modified shape of the dragon’s body. The Mosaic Memories recorded that these mini-me dragons were devised to fit into some of the smaller spaces in public housing estates. Incidentally, this dragon was also orange-colored and everything seems yester-year, except for the new synthetic base that the dragon rests on. This dragon is located at Toa Payoh Lorong 1, between Block 201 Block 240.

The third dragon took me round the town of Ang Mo Kio for 30 mins before I realized that it was so right in front of me. The playground is located at Block 572, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3…which is just by the main roadside…Well, this is a full-sized dragon similar to the one at Toa Payoh Lorong 6. However, this dragon sports a more colorful head in orange, blue and red. It has a long yellow metal body and more slides for users. In fact, it is the largest of the four dragons. It was also the first dragon that I find kids playing on it, possibly because Ang Mo Kio Town is a more populous location. I recalled that the many corners of these dragon playgrounds are also great hiding spots for the occasional hide-and-seek game.

The last dragon is located beside Block 58 of Circuit Road in MacPherson. This was a mini red-colored dragon. Though Circuit Road was a small area, this was the dragon playground that was most heavily used, at least when I was there. There was a wonderful bunch of kids playing around there, all of them game for photo shoots. In fact, their smiles were among the best that I have seen! Kids in play are always the best as they are fully in delight in their own world. The dragon here is similar to the mini dragon in Toa Payoh, except for the color, and of course the location.

Hopefully, the authorities will continue to preserve these iconic structures of the past and would not let the speed of economic development erase these memories off the facade of nation. To me, these playgrounds are still as functional, if not even more fun than their modern counterparts! I believe those kids playing in these playgrounds would agree with me wholeheartedly.

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