TwentyFifteen Interview 18/20: Nicky Loh speaks to Leonard Goh

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Since you are so fond of it, tell us what you know about about Zhup Lao.

Zhup Lao (十楼 or ‘ten floors’ in Teochew or Hokkien) is a nickname given to the iconic ten-storey HDB blocks in the Commonwealth Drive neighbourhood. If you’re taking a taxi here, just say Zhup Lao and any older taxi driver will know exactly where you want to go. To younger taxi drivers, you have to say Tanglin Halt, which is the name of the street around the Zhup Lao blocks in the Commonwealth area.

There are many interesting facts about Zhup Lao. First, it’s one of the oldest surviving HDB estates in Singapore that was built in the 1960s. The ten-storey blocks were so popular that they were featured on the back of the Singapore one-dollar note in the ‘orchid’ series (issued in 1967).

Second, this is the area where the old KTM trains from Kuala Lumpur used to pass by. I believe it’s the only HDB estate in Singapore where the train tracks were just 50 metres away from the blocks. The flat where I used to live was in that very block near the tracks. At first it was bloody noisy, but gradually I found the sound very comforting.

Also, I do not know how true this is, but my aunties told me that a lot of drug addicts lived in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. They were staying in the affordable one-room flats.

Now that you are older and know that many of the earlier HDB estates such as Circuit Road were also referred to as Zhup Lao, what do you think is so different about your Zhup Lao?

The distinction is not so much physical but emotional. It’s the soul of the estate, the people and the stories that have already happened that make the Commonwealth Zhup Lao unique. The people whom I have gotten to know inadvertently became my friends and part of my life. This cannot be replicated elsewhere for me.

You could have probably chosen to live anywhere in Singapore when it came time to buy your own place, yet you chose to stay in the same place you grew up in. So you don’t believe in upgrading or changing your environment?

I grew up in Margaret Drive, which is nearby but not exactly the same area. My dad’s business was hit badly during the 1997 financial crisis and he had to sell our house to pay his debts, so we were staying in rented places for a long time. When I finally started working, I always dreamed of having a place we could call our own.

I was working in Taiwan when my sister told me about the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) project happening in Zhup Lao and said that a young family was willing to sell their flat because they wanted to move elsewhere. Even though we had to fork out $50,000 cash over valuation, we bought the flat for our dad because it was time that he had a stable home. Five years later, when the new flats were ready, we moved into the new blocks right in front of Zhup Lao.

I did another photo series documenting my neighbours moving to the new flats. Despite the nostalgia I feel for the old Zhup Lao flats, they were really getting very run-down. So in a sense, it was really a nice gesture by HDB to give a brand new flat with a fresh 99-year lease, to people who had lived here for almost 50 years.

Why are young people your age so sentimental and nostalgic?

Because everything is changing so fast in Singapore and people in their 30s like me find it very hard to recall what our childhood was like. That’s why we try to preserve every memory that we can hold on too. The sand pit playgrounds and the mamak shops where I would spend a day contemplating how to spend my 50 cents – they are all gone. Even the same haw flakes that I enjoyed when I was young taste different now.

Then again, this nostalgia is probably a phenomenon every generation goes through.

All things being the same, would you choose to stay put in this neighbourhood?

I love the kampung spirit in this area. My wife says I’m like the unofficial MP here because I always start waving at the different shop owners when I walk by. Last week, I asked for permission from one of the old shop owners if I could do a fashion shoot for a magazine, and he said, ‘别人不可以, 只有你可以.’ (‘Others can’t, but you can.’) That really touched me.

If you read some of the quotes in this book, you’ll find that really, everyone knows everyone here and they are willing to help their neighbours out. There’s a lot of good food here too!

Are you actually trying to convince us that it’s nicer to shop in one of those old shops than to browse at ION Orchard?

Shopping centres all follow a certain template now in Singapore. Every mall has a Uniqlo or H&M and definitely a G2000 with god-awful clothes. It’s really boring and I only go to malls out of necessity.

I urge everyone to take a walk around Zhup Lao if they ever have the chance. Call me and I’ll gladly show you around too!

Which is your favourite shop and why?

Chin Hin Eating House, a kopitiam at block 75, Commonwealth Drive. It was legendary with taxi drivers because of its quality and affordable kopi and teh that was served in traditional white cups and saucers. The place also had the cheapest mixed vegetable rice you could find in Singapore. I would go there to hang out for a cup of tea before or after shoots, to de-stress.

I’ve asked the boss Francis if he would consider reopening the place, but he wants to take a break because he’s been making coffee and tea for 20-over years. I think he deserves a break too.

Where have you moved to and how is the new place different?

My family and I have moved to the new blocks right in front of the Zhup Lao blocks. I still see the old blocks every day and reminisce about my favourite kopitiam and old flat. There are still many things to shoot and tons of stories to tell, so I’m focusing on getting as much done as I can before it all goes.

Do you think you will stay in touch with your former neighbours?

I still do, with a family I shot for the living room series. It’s an old Malay couple who used to live on the ninth floor. Last year, I did a family portrait for them in their new flat and gladly got paid with curry puffs! I also see my former next-door neighbour every now and then at the market, and we’ll stop and chat for quite a while.

Back in the old blocks, you could say I was very kaypoh because I would peek inside every living room I passed along the corridor on my way to my unit, which was at the end. I was more curious than anything about what their lives were like and the stories they had to tell. So the best way to get them to open up was to make friends with them.

How do you approach your subjects for this project?

During the first phase, I emotionally blackmailed them by saying, ‘Auntie, it’s my birthday leh, can let me take a picture please?’ The other thing about these shop owners is that they are actually quite media-savvy. The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and Channel NewsAsia have all taken their pictures a hundred times, so it was not that difficult to talk to them too.

That said, what made the difference was that unlike the media, I returned on a separate day with a printed copy of their portraits to give to them as a present. This paved the way for other shop owners to be more receptive to me taking their pictures because they could tell that I was interested in building a relationship with them, not just ‘using’ them to take photographs.

Okay, now confess: which neighbourhood gang did you belong to?

I was once asked by someone in secondary school to join a local gang but no, of course, I didn’t join any. I was more into girls and basketball.

How did a Zhup Lao Boy become a famous photographer?

I’m not quite sure if I’m famous, but I am definitely indebted to people who have guided me and given me enough trust to let me do the work I want to do. I think knowing your photography fundamentals is just as important as having your voice.

Fifty years down the road, people looking at this series by Nicky Loh will say …

‘What kind of place is this?’ or ‘Retro siah!’

Imagine yourself a scriptwriter, tell us the movie you would want to make about Commonwealth Drive.

A love story about a jobless, compulsive-gambler uncle and the auntie in the 4D booth beside the Econ Minimart (a lot of people buy 4D from there because it has a high success rate). The gambler is completely enchanted by her, but feels that he’s only worthy of asking her out when he has struck 4D. He buys from her everyday but refuses to say a word to her. When he has finally struck 4D, alas, the auntie has passed away from cancer and his money is worthless. He then decides to take on the job of selling 4D to make an honest living.

What is photography to you?

A way to preserve the memories of things I love.

The portrait of Nicky Loh was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who anchors all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Common Wealth by Nicky Loh, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/common-wealth-by-nicky-loh