Void Deck by Alfian Bin Sa’at
Where the neighbourhood wives,
After a morning at the wet market,
Sit facing the breeze
To trade snatches of gossip
About leery shopkeepers,
The local louts,
(Like that fella who’s always drilling his walls –
Gives me migraine)
And that mad woman
Who throws things from her window.
With careful put-downs they
Fashion boasts, about stubborn sons,
Lazy daughters, who by some miracle or mistake
Always score well in class.
When words falter,
Gestures take over: pursed lips, rolling eyes,
Animated hands adorned by bangles of
Gold, jade, steel, string.
And children orbit around them
Laugh without diction –
Their games of tag a reassurance
That there has been no hothousing
Of who is unclean, unwashed,
Untouchable. When they break out
Into some kindergarten song,
One almost believes in a generation
Cleansed of skin-deep suspicions,
And free from the superstitions of the tongue –
And old folks sit like sages
To deploy chess pieces with ancient strategies.
In a corner, a caged bird bursts
With the song of its master’s pride
And wrinkled women breathe, through
Tai-chi-tuned windpipes, the operatic melody of the air…
All a wanton fantasy.
Eyes reveal a meeting-point
For loners and loiterers:
A sense of things reduced-
Conversations that trickle through
Brief noddings at lift landings,
Teenage rhetoric scrawled, in liquid paper,
On the stone-table chessboard,
(Where the king used to sit)
The grandiose house-selling dreams of residents
Compacted in anonymous letterboxes;
As an afterthought, an old man pees
Under a public phone.
A place to be avoided, this,
How in its vastness it devours hours.
Little wonder then,
Why residents rush through void decks
Back to the cramped comforts of home
As if in fear of what such open space might do
To cosy minds.
(An early HDB flat in Toa Payoh where the ground floor was occupied with residential units instead of a void deck in 1968)
During the 1960s, the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) priority was to provide sufficient and affordable housing for the local population. Consequently, many of the HDB blocks built during that period were filled with either residential or shop units. Around the 1970s, HDB has been freeing up ground level spaces and the term “void decks” was introduced in local newspapers. According to a report in The Straits Times, the oldest void deck in Singapore was built in 1963 at Block 26 in Jalan Klinik.
Void decks are known to be a shared common space for leisure, recreational and cultural activities, so as to create opportunities for residents to interact and bond. They are found under the HDB block on the ground level consisting of historical and heritage significance that holds many different types of memories, thoughts, and happenings for different Singaporeans.
The poem establishes a Singaporean identity by mentioning “stone-table chessboard”, “letterboxes” and “public phone” and evoking a familiar sight of a typical void deck in the past. The poet introduces the many uses of void deck for the different age groups of Singaporeans. From “…children orbit around them/ Laugh without diction –Their games of tag a reassurance”, we can see that void decks serve as a sheltered playground for kids, where kindergartens or childcare centers are usually located at void decks too.
Also from “…old folks sit like sages/ To deploy chess pieces with ancient strategies” brings to mind that the elder men usually engage in Chinese chess on “stone-table chessboard”, or bird enthusiasts would bring their bird for singing competitions “in a corner, a caged bird bursts/ with the song of its master’s pride” at the bird singing corners of the void deck, which is more commonly found in areas of Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Jurong West, Woodlands and Yishun.
Today, the void deck no longer confines to the few uses of hosting weddings or solemn affairs, but towards holding of social and communal gatherings and activities, for example, art exhibitions, bazaars and book fairs. Appeared in the 1980s, painted pillars and walls showcased artworks and convey educational messages.
However, in 1990s, the launch of Design and Build Scheme resulted in less spacious void deck layouts, one of the reasons lies in the acceptance of Community Children’s Libraries (CCLs) in the early 2000s. Communities are segregating and people no longer use the void deck to engage in bonding activities, and resulting in the misuse of the properties such as vandalizing the tables instead of playing chess, “Teenage rhetoric scrawled, in liquid paper, On the stone-table chessboard”, and “As an afterthought, an old man pees/ Under a public phone” portrays the public phone to be abandoned with the increasing use of mobile phones.
Thus in the recent years, the newer and modern HDB flats are differently designed and constructed, where void decks are becoming smaller than before. As a result, people use less of the common shared space and being held up at home in their activities. “Little wonder then, Why residents rush through void decks/Back to the cramped comforts of home/As if in fear of what such open space might do/To cosy minds” thereby shows that as people have less interactions, they break away from social communities that used to form when people engage in like-minded activities at the void deck.
National Heritage Board. COMMUNITY HERITAGE SERIES III: VOID DECKS. 2013. http://www.nhb.gov.sg/NHBPortal/content/conn/ucmnhb/path/Contribution%20Folders/NHBPortal/Contents/Education/E-Books/NHB_eBook_Void_Decks.pdf (accessed March 27, 2013).