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This is where it began for me. Well, as far as I could remember. I spent my first years in the care of a nanny. I had four older siblings then - three brothers and a sister. They were all very distinct personalities. I’d compare the uniqueness of their traits to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so you’d understand, but personally, I’d use the more obscure analogy of them being different members of Ultraman’s family.
The Mutant Turtles were a import from the West; from the anglicised, second chapter of my life. I started out with Ultraman. I don’t even remember what language the TV episodes were in.
Hokkien was the language I used back then.
Rochor Centre was this labyrinth of corridors and staircases. Little pipes and wire casements were always running above you, or on the side of the walls, probably because planners didn’t factor these things in when they designed the place.
I was reminded of Rochor when I watched the movie Judge Dredd. The megacities were these huge monolithic blocks that towered over everything, and within was dark and dank. I smiled when I watched the movie. Where most people reacted to the decrepit living environment being portrayed, I felt this warm nostalgia.
The feeling of home.
There was a distinct smell whenever we headed home. Staircase 5 was right next to the main rubbish collection point and also near some old coffee shops that were always deep frying ngoh hiang or some other assorted tidbit. So you’d experience a mashup of the two smells that rocked your senses, but like everything, you got used to it. And over time the smell no longer carried sensations like pleasure or repulsion - they carried memories and meaning. They carried a time and a place. They still do.
Being the one tall structure in the neighbourhood at the time made looking down a favourite pastime. You would always find yourself in the middle of a story: people braving certain death as they dashed across the main road in front of on-rushing cars; or loud funeral processions that went round and round the block, travelling with music on loudspeakers as relatives bid their last goodbyes; or the yellow taxis that picked up passengers going across the border to Malaysia.
For every child living in Rochor Centre, the 4th floor provided refuge. A wide open expanse, this was where we learned the most important things in life: how to run, where to hide, how to kick a ball, how to ride a bike.
Impotent “no football” signs hang on walls pelted with a thousand ball prints from dirty footballs - goals that were scored over the years. Every pillar provided a goal post, every poor child that had the misfortune of standing before the wall, a goal keeper.
The ground was always peppered with pigeon droppings. I remember clearly the slight panic in the neighbourhood when a newspaper article spoke about the diseases spread by pigeon droppings. We all went “oh no”, then headed downstairs to play.
Some years ago, they painted all the blocks in these gaudy colours in an effort to downplay the age of the housing estate. To the uninitiated the colours add vibrancy and youth, but if you’ve lived there when Rochor Centre was young, the paint job was like way too much make up on your mother. You felt embarrassed, and kinda missed the original old lady.
Then you looked across at another estate down the road.
Ok, maybe a new paint job isn’t that bad an idea.
They announced that they’d be tearing down the old dame in 2016.
My Rochor. For all the dirt and grime and smelliness, she was mine. My childhood. Me, before all this internet and English-speaking, and church-going. Before all this westernisation, there was 刘文正 and 天空小飞侠. We woke up for midnight snacks and played with plastic toy soldiers who couldn’t move a limb. We put all our toys in a large plastic bucket and pretended we were cooking up a storm.
Everything is now just going to smell of silicon now, isn’t it?
I don’t want to lose all of this, but I am told in the name of progression we must.
Is it naive to want to hold on to these things for fear we irrevocably lose part of ourselves when they are gone?