My grandma’s stories: A roof over our heads

(This is part nine of an ongoing series recounting my grandma’s stories about her life and the old days in Singapore. For past entries, links could be found at the end of the post.)Grandma recalled with a sense of excitement the first time she laid her hands on the pair of keys to her first home.

It was a two-bedroom, corner apartment on the 11th floor in Telok Blangah, southwestern part of Singapore.

“I was excited to finally get my own place which is registered under my own name even though there was barely anything in the house apart from water and electricity,” she said.

Ah Ma scrapped together $3000 (USD 2,440) from her threadbare savings to pay for the housing deposit, but with three children in tow, she had little money left to furnish her Spartan flat.

“I was turning to tontines to borrow money to buy the furniture,” grandma said. “If I didn’t join a tontine, I would have never dared to borrow money from elsewhere.”

Tontines were unique features of life in the past, acting as alternative borrowing options compared to the banking system. It was a form of local investment fund where members would pool a sum of money that would be put up for monthly bidding to those who needed it most urgently. This system allowed other members to earn through collecting interest from the money loaned to others.

For grandma, weekly contributions of SG$3 (USD2.40) each gave her access to be a member of a few tontines, where she took loans over the course of five to six years to buy sofa set, beds and other items

But it was the $400 (USD 330) refrigerator that she still thinks back with a laugh.

“I took 10 years to finish paying the installments for the fridge!” grandma exclaimed. “It was a never-ending amount to repay because interest rates rolled on so quickly.”

A typical corridor seen outside a row of public houses in Singapore

Grandma was one out of the thousands who moved into government-built flats since the early 1960s as means for the newly independent nation to provide adequate housing for its population and also resolve its land shortage problem.

Prior to relocating to high-rise apartments, Ah Ma used to reside in an attap house, a traditional wooden house with roofs made from attap tree leaves, widely found in the Indochina area.

“It was a very tall and well-ventilated home retrofitted with water taps,” grandma described. “But we had to share common toilets that were built a distance away from our houses because the cesspits were cleared only once to week.”

Such traditional attap houses are hard to come by in modern-day Singapore given the rapid pace of development has given way to shiny tall buildings.

But there is still a last cluster of these traditional houses in Kampong Buangkok, the former being a local term to describe traditional villages, and I was there a few weeks ago to peek into the lives of these villagers.The houses were located in the midst of tall trees and brambles, with muddy rocky roads inside the village, a far cry from the concrete jungle that rest of us live in.

Yet most of them have ditched the attap roofing, which are costly and troublesome to maintain, for zinc, and are also fully equipped with modern amenities such as electricity, tap water and television.

As grandma looked back the first time she moved out of her village into a rented apartment, she vividly remembers the sense of awe being in a tall building.

“It was clean and there was electricity for the whole day in the apartment,” she said. “There were no stray dogs to chase me around when I return home late from work.”

And these houses in Kampong Buangkok today, are perhaps the last trace of an era that will soon be forgotten.
(For more information on tontines in Singapore, here is an informative entry I referred to)

You can catch up on previous posts below:
The eighth part II is about Ah Ma’s Hungry Ghost Festival entertainment experiences.
The eighth part I is about Ah Ma recounting cultural rituals of Hungry Ghost Festival.
The seventh part is about Ah Ma’s children.
The sixth part is about Ah Ma being a child bride.
The half-way post is an update about the difficulties I faced when writing this series
The fifth part is about Ah Ma’s job after war
The fourth part is about daily life during the Japanese occupation.
The third part is about the early years of the Japanese occupation.
The second part is about Ah Ma’s family.
The first part is about Ah Ma’s early childhood.
The introduction gives some background information about “My grandma’s stories”

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2 thoughts on “My grandma’s stories: A roof over our heads

  1. Wow, a fantastic story. As someone who is half Singaporean, and someone who has migrated to Singapore at 15 and now living here – it’s great to read stories about Singapore’s past in such detail. Reminds me there’s a history to everything, all around us, all the time 🙂

    1. Hey Kane, glad to have you enjoy reading these nuggets of Singapore history and it’s certainly my pleasure to have shared my grandma’s stories. If you’re interested, there’re many other stories that I have previously written, so do check them out if you’re free (:

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