My parents spent their childhoods in Dakota Crescent during the 1960s. Dad lived there from age 2 to 15, and mom from around 3 to 17 years of age. Both attended Dunman Secondary School, which was located near the area at that time. Their paths, however, did not cross at any point during those early years (they would meet as young adults). But my mom likes to joke that my dad – as a boy – must have gazed enviously at her playing in open fields, while he was cooped up in his room with his toys. That’s because both of them had led very different lives in that Dakota neighbourhood.
My dad’s ‘ivory tower’ of a childhood home is still around – block 16 of the estate slated for redevelopment at the end of this year; while my mom’s one-bedroom home, which she shared with a few more siblings, had long been torn down.
Dad had a rather sheltered childhood, being driven around in his father’s car and having nice board games and toy soldiers to play with. Mom spent most of her time outdoors, running around the longkang and climbing trees. Till today, she can still recount tales of dangerous exploits her younger brothers pulled off as kids – such as sprinkling powdered glass on their kites to cut down other kids’ kites – and stories of exotic animals her neighbours kept.
These are the stories that I had been exposed to, long before publicity heightened over Dakota. In the time that followed since the announcement of its redevelopment, Dakota had experienced somewhat of a ‘hipster renaissance’. The old provision shop Tian Kee became a quaint cafe serving lattes. Rapper ShiGGa Shay had also held a concert at the estate, as homage to the place.
The ensuing grassroots movement to ‘save Dakota’ and the media glare also spurred in me the interest to visit the place. And I can understand the motivations behind the movement – the unique architecture, the estates’ status as one of the oldest public housing properties, built in pre-independence Singapore in 1958, and, of course, the people who call the place their home.
During my last visit there in December 2015, the place appeared to be emptier – many of the ground floor units have been abandoned and dilapidated. There were a handful of photographers (conservation buffs, perhaps?) who were out and about snapping pictures of the place. There was even a couple taking what I assume was pre-wedding photography at the neighbourhood.
Popular ‘attractions’ like the Tian Kee café – the successor of the titular provision shop – still had a good cult following, serving visitors who do not appear to be residents there. And the Dove playground remained popular with children living nearby and passers-by.
When I shared with my dad about my visit a few days later, I decided to ask him whether he would miss the estate he grew up in. My dad’s reply was a clinical “no” because that period of his life was just “too long ago”. But for younger folks like myself, the appeal of Dakota could be its ‘exoticism’ – a Singapore of yonder years.