Ang Mo Kio: A Love Letter

From the opening lines of my poem, Ang Mo Kio, written close to 20 years ago:

I live under a white man’s bridge;
between the heart and minds
of private estates, aching to escape
into my own language, born in
the mouth of strangers but redeemed,
through tea breaks of popiah and kopi

I grew up in Ang Mo Kio, or AMK, for short. It was my home for more than 30 years. After I moved to Tiong Bahru, I only return to visit my parents, who are still there. They came when AMK was still a fresh estate, in 1980. The MRT was still a pipe dream being laid from Yishun to Toa Payoh and AMK Central felt a lot more communal and compact.

I returned recently with my friend Daniel. Armed with our cameras, we spent an afternoon in the sun and rain, experiencing the seasons of AMK, as it were.

For decades, Ang Mo Kio was the gateway town to the north, with the MRT and a comprehensive bus interchange a focal point for travel towards Yishun and Woodlands or out east towards Hougang. Today, the Thomson-East Coast Line adds to commuting options with a station at Marymount and the upcoming Cross Island line promises a lightning-quick way to reach the far east without making an awkward traverse through town. 

Ang Mo Kio is aging into its own rebirth, but not everything has been torn down and reinvented. The town centre still holds fragments from its beginnings in the 1980s. 

I was never a void deck child. I preferred to hang out in libraries and read in my bedroom. Walking around with Daniel as we each find our own story angles, I see familiar businesses and buildings that have been here for forty years, or more.

And the mostly older people that populate these spaces fill me with an odd sense of longing. It isn’t quite nostalgia, because I was never sentimental about life here. It was always a little too functional, almost nondescript. And yet, a semblance of being is furrowed through those times of walking to buy a computer game on floppy disks from J Tech, or queuing up for the famous S11 fish and chips (still there, not so famous now). Or the line that snaked for a few blocks to watch Jurassic Park at New Town/New Crown cinema, which is now the site of Djitsun mall. 

We find the original sign for the estate, nearly denuded of colour, a fitting repose for the past. Across, a field that had always been empty is the site of a new BTO. But the library is where it always has been, so too the mosque and the greasy KFC beside it.

A sudden downpour turns the mood introspective, or maybe it’s the coffee we have at Brew & Co., across from Broadway Plaza. An artisanal coffee joint was unheard of in a heartland estate even a few years ago. Small seeds of change. A new temple has sprouted next to the polyclinic, a convenient site to pray for healing or relief. 

An estate grows, but it doesn’t always decay. 

All photos by Marc Nair and Daniel Tan.