Monday, February 20, 2012

In search of old Rochore

Feb 19, 2012

In a bid to trace the missing 'e', a far more important 'e' issue surfaced: the elderly
By Toh Yong Chuan

Rochor was thrust into the news recently when Dr Toh Chin Chye, the ward's former Member of Parliament, died. Three months ago, Rochor Centre came under the spotlight when the Land Transport Authority announced that it will have to make way for a new expressway in 2016.

Rochor used to be spelt Rochore - with an 'e'. Today, the 'e' has disappeared.

The missing 'e' bothered me since I grew up in the Rochor area, so I went looking for it.

I was 10 years old when my family moved into a three-room HDB flat across the road from Rochor Centre in 1979. Dr Toh was still the MP and Bugis Street was lined with street hawkers, not with the cutesy carts in the air-conditioned, dressed-up indoor street in Bugis Junction.

My first stop was Parliament records. When Dr Toh retired from politics just before the 1988 General Election, his Rochore constituency was cut up, and absorbed by a Group Representative Constituency.

The disappearance of the Rochore constituency in 1988 did not erase it from Parliament records until 2000. In March that year, there was a record of 'Rochore Centre' being mentioned during the Budget debate. That was the last trace of the old name.

A search among newspapers' archives also drew a blank on when the 'e' was dropped. Also, old street directories or maps that could pinpoint the change of name were not readily available.

But as I got more preoccupied with finding the 'e', the more I found myself digging into my memories of Rochor.

Even until the mid-1980s, Rochor was dotted with shophouses that were prone to fire and open drains that overflowed during downpours.

There were three things that Rochor was known for - the transvestite brothels in Johore Road; the street hawkers in Bugis Street; and the bus terminal where SBS bus no. 170 and taxis ply between Singapore and Malaysia.

The bus terminal is still there, but most of the rest are gone. The brothels have made way for a carpark, Bugis Street hawkers were cleared out in 1985 and the shophouses razed for Bugis Junction to be built.

And it was not just the sight, but also the smell.

My neighbourhood stinks, I used to tell my friends as I dissuaded them from visiting. The daylong stench came from the nightsoil treatment centre opposite Rochor Centre.

Daily, the nightsoil trucks with their distinctive 32 door panels would deposit buckets of human waste at the centre. The smell got intolerable during hot afternoons. The nightsoil trucks, also called honey wagons, made their last run in the mid-1980s, the centre closed, and Albert Complex with its OG department store stands at the site today.

The stench of the nightsoil in the day was matched by the odour of urine and vomit in the numerous backlanes and alleys at night. I would hold my breath and cover my mouth when I had to take shortcuts through them.

The worst smell was the whiff of death, at least in my head. I would try to avoid a row of coffin shops and funeral parlours along Rochor Road, but yet find the occasional nerve to peep into the shops as I hurried past.

But not all the smells were unpleasant. On my way to school, I would pass by a bread shop and a coffee powder shop next to it. The aromal of freshly baked bread and coffee beans being roasted, when combined, is divine.

The smells - both pleasant and unpleasant - are also gone today, together with the shophouses and forgotten streets such as Noordin Lane that were wiped off the map. The missing 'e' is not found in my memories of the old Rochor.

And as my frustration grew, I took a slow walk and found myself standing at the fourth-floor void deck of Rochor Centre. There it was, right in front of me - Rochore Kongsi Home for the Aged - the first trace of the old 'Rochore' name. The 'e' has not vanished completely.

It was Singapore's first HDB void deck old folks' home.

In a speech at the home's opening in 1977, Dr Toh explained why he picked the void deck for the pilot project: 'The aged no longer need to feel that just because they are in the autumn of their lives, they will be put away in an institution, alienated from and forgotten by the rest of the world.'

After Rochor, several old folks' homes went on to be built at other void decks in Singapore.

That was well before 'ageing in place' became a policy buzzword.

For more than three decades, the Rochore home has been a shelter for countless old and destitute people. Thirteen of them still live there today.

And as I chatted with the elderly residents in the home and others in the neighbourhood, my mind was cast back to a peculiar character of old Rochor - the colourful people.

An old doctor who has been practising - and still practises - in the Rochor area since 1963 remembers the Hainanese, Henghwa and Hockchia enclaves, each protective of their turf.

He also remembers treating pickpockets and gangsters.

Thankfully, my two brushes with gangsters were not life-threatening. Once, halfway through a haircut, someone came to collect protection money from my barber and he hastily finished the job, leaving me with a bad hairdo.

The other time, I was walking home one evening when someone shouted 'sio pa, zao ah!' (Hokkien for 'there's a fight, run!').

I sprinted home in one breath.

Rough and colourful old Rochor may be, the older folk's place in it was never in doubt. The Rochore Kongsi home was set up so that the trishaw riders, samsui women and amahs did not have to live on the streets or die alone.

Sadly, there are now those who do not want facilities for the elderly in their neighbourhoods.

When we turn our backs on the elderly, where would we want them to go?

Pulau Ubin? Maybe Johor?

After searching for a week, I did not find the missing 'e' in Rochor. It remains lost, but it is no big deal.

The bigger deal is another 'e' - the elderly, and how we feel about and care for them.

That, we cannot lose.

Just the "e" in Rochore? How about the change from Tampenis to Tampines?

In this SG Parliamentary Report, at 12.09PM, the member for Ponggol-Tampenis rose to speak.

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