Ode to the Heartland

Celeste
4 min readJun 29, 2021

I love neighbourhood town centres. Each town evokes a different memory of me. Clementi is my best friend in uni and I taking a walk after dinner, musing in hushed tones as we cut across the modern HDB flats, discussing an idea or gossiping about a professor. Toa Payoh (or is it Choa Chu Kang?) is my sister and I hanging out after a zi char dinner with our extended family, walking aimlessly in circles, uninterestedly looking into a neighbourhood bakery, waiting for the adults to conclude dinner so we can all go home. Bedok is where my eldest aunt used to bring my sister and I whenever we visited her old house, as we window-shopped in the two-storey NTUC, bought takeaway from one of the kopitiams, or visited the multi-storey library that has since been occupied by a Social Development agency, and the memory is fading away from me. Tampines Round Market is where I would get my brows threaded for $10 in Rupini’s; my dad must have also parked the van there once as we did takeaway dinner. Khatib is where Alex and I explored slack-jawed en route to the zoo, marvelling at the sheer size of the town centre and the aged population casually queuing up for breakfast or surrounding a shopkeeper hawking their wares.

I have a fondness for these neighbourhood town centres which is the fixture of the ‘heartland’, so conscientiously arranged such that nearby HDBs are within walking — if not cycling — distance for groceries (supplied by Giant or Sheng Siong, as Fairprice or Cold Storage take over city centres instead). Last month I paced around my childhood home in Tampines, as an unseen force of buried memories guided me across the laundromat, the wall mural, the Western food store which I always hoped my mom would get lunch/dinner for as a kid, to the Fairprice being flanked by the multi-storey carpark, with 2 POSB ATMs ready for people to make a purchase. Across the carpark there are now tuition centres, reflecting the hopes of parents that their children will not be left behind in Chinese or Math or Science.

This morning I visited the Pasir Ris Town Centre for the last time. My sister and I used to trail behind our eldest aunt when we were kids spending our school holidays. She dragged along a grocery trolley and we glumly climbed the stairs to the wet market. At the poultry shop there were stickers of pigs flying; slightly further up was when she bought the vegetables and haggled with the same lady she’d been doing business with for 20 years. There were fruit sellers, fishmongers in yellow boots, a man selling yong tau foo. Someone once remarked to my aunt that my sister’s mouth could “never close”, like a 发呆. Beside that was Seashell Park, with a cascading fountain of water pouring out of stone fishes’ mouths, and at the top of the park was an amphitheatre shaped like a seashell. My sister and I loved running up and down it, and as a sentimental adult I visited it again with Fairul last year. Last month and today I walked along the stretch of the wet market for the last time, buying a peanut mee jiang kueh for the last time. Some of the shop owners were playing Japanese radio, some other auntie playing EDM music that sounded straight out of an Ah Beng’s Techno Playlist. The wet market was as crowded as usual, and I caught a glimpse of the vegetable seller of 20 years, whom my eldest aunt remarked was now the most successful person in the market, as she had recently bought a new condo. I picked up my peanut pancake from Han n Han, queued up for a Kopi-bing, which was served to me in a plastic cup instead of a clear plastic bag. I walked past the chain of neighbourhood bakeries for the last time, selling Singaporeanised versions of Western pastries; past a Chinese auntie buying kuehs from Malay shopkeepers, past the neighbourhood clinic and dentist I used to clean my teeth at for a discounted rate. The aunties at the hardware store and the drinks stall knew the orders of their regulars and sometimes the latest gossip about them, like if the son of the lady wearing a tudung had just recently welcomed a new child (making her a grandmother).

I narrowly missed my youngest aunt who was an early riser and left the Pasir Ris market about the same time I entered it, and I walked the kilometre back home.

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