It’s time to say goodbye to one of the oldest residential areas of Singapore – but not before getting to know it one last time
Oh 2016, you have saddled us with relentless heartbreak. After a slew of news announcing the end of memorable landmarks such as Fish & Co’s Glasshouse, Dakota Crescent and Sungei Road Flea Market, we now have to face the impending demolition of the iconic government flats of Rochor Road.
The Centre will give way to a section of the new North-South Expressway, which runs from Admiralty Road to East Coast Parkway.
To cope with this looming loss, our feature writers trotted down to rediscover Rochor Centre. We unearthed the true character of Rochor Centre beyond (and beneath) its four colourful residential blocks, and dug deep into the heart of this cluster of more than 180 shops and eating houses.
1. Buy old-school wares and decorations
Most of the stores at Rochor Centre have closed down, but the first floor remains a hustle and bustle of activity. A number of stores are still selling homewares, from childhood essentials like rattan balls and bamboo hula-hoops to Lunar New Year decorations and even foil balloons.
If you’ve yet to spruce up your home for the Lunar New Year, this is one alternative to the crowded roads of Chinatown. We were here on a Saturday morning, and Rochor, while a hubbub of happenings, somehow still retained a sense of serenity and coziness.
2. Eat famous roasted pork from the Philippines
Lechon is a popular roasted pork rice stall from the Philippines. When we spotted the stall sign hiding in the Kopitiam on the first floor, we homed in like bees to honey.
This roasted suckling pig meat is nothing like the Chinese dish. Every bite yields a sweet-salty taste that has soaked into the tender meat, which has a chewy spring to it thanks to the oodles of fatty layers intertwined. If there was marbled pork, this would be it.
The skin has been roasted to a hard crisp. It’s difficult to break with utensils, but delightful to crunch into. Be sure to help yourself to a free bowl of Lechon’s homemade sour vegetable soup, which plays well with the saltiness of the roasted meat.
We found out that Lechon will likely be moving in September this year, so be sure to pop by for a bite and find out where they’re off to next.
3. See local life from a different perspective
Inside the four colourful blocks of Rochor Centre lives a rich community of lives and stories, and as we wandered through the corridors and shops, we gained a different perspective of this place, and beautiful portraits of people blossomed around us.
Because most of its residents – and even shopkeepers – have lived and/or worked here since Rochor Centre was built in 1977, everybody knows each other. An uncle popping into a homeware store spent a while joking with the storeowner; patients at a clinic updated the clerk about their lives; even those who were popping into the public restrooms stopped to chat with the auntie who collects the entrance fee.
We learned from residents that not only do shopkeepers remember their customers’ regular food and coffee orders, but because they’re all neighbours, the storeowners will sometimes bring a purchase to their neighbour on the way home.
Take your time strolling through the corners and corridors of Rochor Centre, and you can feel the fabled “kampong spirit” that makes this space so special.
4. Find out where your favourite stores have relocated to
Most of the shops here have already relocated to other pastures, and their new addresses are scrawled or pasted on their shutters. We noticed that several stores have flocked to Veerasamy Road, and it seems the one above managed to secure a nice, potentially fortune-beckoning address.
If you used to frequent a store here or knew someone who worked here, now’s a good time to find out where they’ve moved. Also especially important if you need to know where “Piles-Hemorrhoids” is now.
5. Gather your friends for rooftop futsal
When I previously visited Rochor’s rooftop, a group of children had repurposed the sprawling open space into a futsal court. On late afternoons when the sun has begun to slowly sink, you can grab a group of friends up here for a futsal session against the sunset.
There might be a cautionary sign on the ledge, but it’s faded, and Rochor Centre is closing down anyway.
6. Relive your childhood… Almost
If you’d rather obey the signs, then have old-school fun at the playgrounds here instead. The palm tree playground had our inner child bubbling with excitement – it’s the ideal Toys ‘R’ Us setup we all wanted as a kid.
For an old estate, its leisure corner looks in surprisingly good condition. After all, the see-saw didn’t bend or break under my weight, so it should still be safe for play.
7. Check out the Community Quilts
You may have heard of or seen Community Quilts, an installation put up on Rochor’s Blk 1 rooftop to celebrate SG50. All the murals are still there and in perfect condition, from the heartwarming classroom scene to the lift doors made up to look like MRT stations.
It’s like a giant interactive photobooth, and waiting patiently for the single elevator to reach your level so you can get a shot inside the “MRT-lift” – and apologising sheepishly to the resident inside who’s just trying to get home – is all part of the experience.
8. Visit a vintage clinic
Rochor Medical Centre, with its black-and-white signs and old walls, has been here since Day One in 1977. We were surprised it was still open today. A staff, Mdm Ho, told us that while it will be moving to Veerasamy Road, it remains open here for Rochor’s residents until it receives notice from the government.
“Some of our visitors have been seeing us since Day One, and some even across generations,” shared Mdm Ho, who also lives in Rochor Centre. “We know their mother, mother-in-law and children even.”
Mdm Ho also told us that the current residents will be relocating to an estate in Kallang.
9. Watch the day go by
This plaza is somewhat like Rochor’s watering hole, where everybody congregates and catches up with friends. Pick a corner, a bench or a spot in the coffee shop, and just people-watch the day away. One of the stores here has even wired speakers out into the square, treating everybody to nostalgic hits.
I’m not kidding – we sat here for some 20 minutes, lazily observing the people of Rochor.
10. Hunt out old-school icons
At 40 years old, Rochor is a trove of vintage Singapore paraphernalia. Every corner secrets a mark of a lost time, some of which we can recall from our younger days.
My favourite was the old-school coin-operated telephones, which local primary school students often used to dial home (in tears, perhaps) during recess. I must admit that when I picked up one of these phones at Rochor, I was surprised to hear a dial tone!
It is a true pity that we must bid goodbye to this indelible icon of Singapore. While the cluster is still up and running now, be sure to visit it and experience the kampong spirit of Rochor before it vanishes.
By Pamela Chow. Photos by Samantha Francis