A brilliant new e-book reveals the story behind Singapore’s distinctive old playgrounds, including an interview with the man who first designed them. Toby Skinner speaks to its author, Justin Zhuang. Photography Zakaria Zainal
First published on 27 Jul 2012. Updated on 30 Jul 2012.
While it’s easy to see the HDB blocks built in Singapore from the 1960s onwards as little more than utilitarian creations, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in the old playgrounds that were built alongside them, which represented everything from giraffes to dragons and mangosteens. The most impressive document on the old playgrounds is an e-book by young local writer Justin Zhuang entitled Mosaic Memories, the centrepiece of which is an interview with Khor Ean Ghee, 77, the man who designed the first of these playgrounds after joining the Housing Development Board in 1969.
According to Zhuang, there are now fewer than 20 of the playgrounds left, most having been demolished. ‘It’s hard to say exactly how many of these playgrounds there were,’ says Zhuang, ‘but every estate had one, so I’m guessing hundreds.’ Zhuang first started taking an interest in the subject in 2009, after reading a magazine article about playgrounds around the world starting to look the same because of globalisation. The story of how they came into being starts with Khor, now a watercolour painter. ‘It wasn’t a priority for the architects back then, and they needed a fix. Mr Khor was tasked with designing them, referencing what he saw overseas and coming up with animal shapes. He learned more and got more ambitious. He did a lot in the late 1970s, when the brief was to have more adventurous playgrounds with a local identity.’
Though he wasn’t the only playground designer, he was the first and pioneered a distinctive strand of design. ‘Before Mr Khor, it was just swings and merry-go-rounds,’ says Zhuang. ‘He added a kind of narrative.’ Khor left the Housing Development Board in 1984, and the locally designed playgrounds were phased out in the early 1990s. ‘Inspectors came and said that the playgrounds didn’t meet international safety standards,’ says Zhuang. ‘A few people had got hurt, so they started importing global designs.’
Now there are just a few left, with five or so of Khor’s designs. Says Zhuang of the designer: ‘He’s pragmatic – he thinks it’s natural that old things get demolished, and he’s happy that his designs lasted a generation. For me, I grew up playing on these playgrounds. It would be sad if we lost this piece of our history.’
Download: Zhuang’s Mosaic Memories: Remembering the Playgrounds Singapore Grew Up In