Another new month, another commissioned project! Next in line from our commissioned series Drawn From Memory is an excellent photo essay on our beloved playgrounds by Justin Zhuang, Wee Ho Gai and Zakaria Zainal. Yeong Chong speaks with Justin Zhuang on the exclusive scoop of HDB playground blueprints, scoring an interview with the enigmatic playground designer Mr Khor Ean Gee, and the state of play in Singapore.
Yeong Chong (YC): Mosaic Memories is actually your third piece on the subject of playgrounds in Singapore. For Mosaic Memories, the approach is evidently biographical (as opposed to historical in the pieces in CNNGO and FIVEFOOTWAY), exploring individual stories behind the interviewees’ own encounter with the playgrounds. How did you come to decide on who to include?
Although I was fascinated first and foremost by the playground designs, it was Singaporeans’ memories of playing in them that made them part of our culture and history.
Justin Zhuang (JZ): Over the years spent researching on Singapore’s playgrounds, I met many people whom shown an interest in them and had fond memories of these spaces. All the interviewees except the designer of the playgrounds, Mr Khor, had written to me to share their memories of playgrounds after reading my pieces. This made me realise that although I was fascinated first and foremost by the playground designs, it was Singaporeans’ memories of playing in them that made them part of our culture and history.
When I was approached to create an e-book on playgrounds, I decided to show this other half of the story. I wrote back to these people whom I had already befriended online, and it was the perfect excuse to meet up in person and reminisce about old playgrounds!
JZ: Zakaria is an old friend from school and I’ve always wanted to work with him because he is a talented photographer. This was a great opportunity for our first collaboration.
The story with Ho Gai is interesting. Around the same time I started on this book, this young designer wrote to me separately to seek my opinions on Singapore’s design identity for his final-year project. He pointed me to his website which contained his experimental designs of Singapore’s identity. One of them was inspired by the mosaic tiles of old playgrounds. Once I saw it, I knew I had to get him involved somehow.
YC: Tell us more about the Google map of old playgrounds. What prompted you to start it? Do you have a favourite playground among these?
JZ: When I started my research on playgrounds, I was frustrated at how difficult it was to find them. The details of their location was all around the Internet and I spent a lot of time finding them. I figured a Google Map would be useful when I was out on the field and also for others who wanted to find these playgrounds. This would also help more people discover these old playgrounds and hopefully raise awareness about them.
My favourite has to be the Dragon playground. It’s iconic and there is an interesting history behind it as you’ll find out from my story about Mr Khor.
YC: The book includes never-seen-before of plans and models of the playgrounds from the archives of the Housing Development Board and playground designer Khor Ean Gee’s own collection. How was it like seeing some of these gems for the first time? Were there particular details that struck you as fascinating?
Mr Khor was designing playgrounds as systems that incorporated various modes of play in one space, instead of designing individual pieces. He literally created various sets of playgrounds for HDB architects to pick and choose for each estate.
JZ: It was like striking 4-D! (Although I’ve never struck before). From a design history perspective, these are very important raw materials not only prove when these playgrounds were created but how they are constructed.
The plans also showed that Mr Khor was designing playgrounds as systems that incorporated various modes of play in one space, instead of designing individual pieces. He literally created various sets of playgrounds for HDB architects to pick and choose for each estate.
YC: “Despite the dragon’s near extinction, Mr Khor is not bothered, saying his design has served its time and purpose.” How do you reconcile the utilitarian sentiment Mr Khor has for the playgrounds he designed, with the romanticism of the rest of your interviewees?
Singaporeans today are no longer just about pragmatism but are willing to give space for memory and identity, intangible things that make us that more human.
JZ: It shows a shift in a generation’s mindset. The rest of my interviewees grew up in these playgrounds so it’s deeply embedded in their personal history. That they hope it can be preserved shows how Singaporeans today are no longer just about pragmatism but are willing to give space for memory and identity, intangible things that make us that more human, I feel.
On another level, it shows how design is not just about aesthetics but also human relationships. The designer may have certain intentions or styles, but the users often add their own narrative to it. It’s just like the old National Library building. When it was first built, people didn’t think highly of its architecture, but when it was to be torn down, everything wanted it to be preserved.
YC: In an age where the concept of play has changed since the first of these playgrounds, how can one make a case for the preservation of some of these sites?
JZ: How kids play today may have changed, but the fundamental fascination of playing using imagination remains, and I think these old playgrounds still have it in them.
Moreover, many children nowadays don’t seem to spend enough time outdoors, so these playgrounds become even more important sites of learning through play — as you’ll find out in my stories about Mr Lim Chee Peng, Miss Antoinette Wong and Mr Fong Qi Wei!
Design and Photography: Ho Wee Gai & Zakaria Zinal, respectively.
Singapore Memory Project