Growing up in Circuit Road

By : Florence Keh
25 February 2014

My parents’ home was an HDB flat in a 10-storey slab block in MacPherson Estate – a very small estate with a circular road running around it. The road first existed as ‘Persiaran Keliling’ before it was renamed ‘Circuit Road’, the English version of its Malay name.

It was an apt, unassuming name befitting the simple, humble estate of the 1970s where the tallest HDB blocks were often no higher than 12 storeys. Eric Khoo’s “12 Storeys” movie on heartland life must have taken reference from Circuit Road’s indigent appearance. Certainly, it was not much to look at – the housing blocks were simpler in design and boasted none of the fancy trimmings of the newer HDB towns.

Blocks 35 and 36, the tallest HDB blocks along Circuit Road back in the old days.

The very block where I grew up in, in all its present glory.

Revisiting the past: my parents’ corner unit which neighbours had to walk past to reach the staircase at the end of the block. The doors and windows are now kept shut for privacy reasons but back in the 60s and 70s, everyone kept an open door and heart.

• Like all homes in those days, everyone kept an open door, reminiscent of kampong (village) days, and neighbours were often closer than a brother. My mother, the exact opposite of my father in the friendliness department, knew everyone along our corridor as well as the upstairs-downstairs neighbours and those across the road and those along the daily route that she took to go to the wet market. Despite her Chinese language handicap and her strange attire (my mother wore a sarong kebaya), the equivalent, I suppose, of foreigners today in our midst, our neighbours never held that against her or us. Nobody had to preach inclusiveness or tolerance; the community was kind and strong enough to embrace differences.

• Colourful characters populated the estate, which I heard, through people’s whispers, was on the radar of the police criminal department because it was the hiding hole of notable gangsters. My sisters and I were in our teens, but we do not recall having to fear for our lives and safety. We could roam around freely in the estate, day or night. We could trawl the weekly ‘pasar malam’ (night market) to admire the bright trinkets, eat ice-balls and kueh tutu (coconut and rice flour cakes) till late in the evening and not worry about the dangers lurking in the shadows. Most of the low-rise and mid-rise HDB blocks had ground floor flats and the open doors and incandescent light bulbs guided us safely home all the time.

Looking down: the view today from my parent’s flat after upgrading left a more attractive imprint

• In fact, the more colourful characters were our assortment of friendly neighbours. Our next-door neighbour was the most adorable old Cantonese lady whom we called ‘Puo-puo’. Although she was not our grandmother, that term of respect also became a term of endearment. She cared for us, this seemingly strange family of Peranakans (remember, this was the time long before “The Little Nyonya” television series and even before television itself invaded the heartland homes), which she showed in many charming, little ways. Most of all, I learned sacrificial love from her. Though well past 70, she carried her seven-year-old grandson on her brittle back when he had a fall and could not walk for a time. And even when he had recovered, she continued to carry him that way – just in case – loving and stoic to the end.

Yes, there was no doubt about it; life in Circuit Road those days was devoid of material luxury, shabby even for some. Many of its residents were resettled from slums and squatter colonies and my neighbours mostly held humble occupations – bar waitresses and hawkers counted among them. Though occupied with earning a fair living, they still found room in their hearts to embrace life and make something good out of it. Our Puo-puo’s grandson was managing a foodstall in an upmarket shopping centre when I last ran into him, and one of the children of our hairdresser neighbour had qualified as an architect and worked in HDB for a while

.Looking back, though I strained to get out of its small confines, I felt privileged to have grown up in Circuit Road, with all its ugly – and uplifting – sides.

MacPherson Estate, more popularly known as Circuit Road because of the ring road that curves around the estate, in the early years

My lovely neighbourhood now, with a new playground where the car park used to be after upgrading gave it a happier mien

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And if you have pictures and memories of growing up in Circuit Road or any HDB town and estate, email us at or share them on MyNiceHome Facebook.

By Florence Keh
Feb 25, 2014

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