Chris Picture a concrete apartment tower standing 20 storeys tall. Now imagine the entire tower rising into the air, until it stands one story off the ground. You’re left with a slice of empty space where the ground floor used to be. Now add a few items to this space: structural columns to support the building, tables and chairs and benches made from poured concrete or bolted to the floor. Bicycle racks, mailboxes. Finally, add some people: children playing tag, teenagers hanging out at night or hurrying home from school, adults collecting the mail and carrying their shopping to the nearby elevator, elderly men and women chatting in the shade.
This is no imaginary space. It’s a unique public space at the base of most of Singapore’s public housing blocks that’s called a void deck. Despite its name, however, there is nothing empty about a void deck.
It is a stage for the mundane unfolding of everyday life and a place where some of life’s most important events may occur: first steps, first dates, weddings, holidays, funerals. Indeed, the void deck expands the boundaries of home, providing a safe, breezy space for socializing and play located a quick elevator ride from your residence.
This is Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran. Happy National Day and welcome to Season 2 of this podcast exploring the power and meaning of home in Singapore. In this episode we explore the void deck. In Season One we devoted an episode to the HDB, or Housing Development Board, and its public housing flats that are home to 80% of Singapore’s population. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, titled Happy Dream Blocks, please do. It’s still one of my absolute favorites.
In this episode we return to the topic of the HDB to examine one of its quirkiest features: the void deck. Over the past few years, as I’ve come to learn what home means to my students, they have shared with me some fascinating insights on void decks. They have emphasized how life oftens spills outside the door of the HDB flat and into the void deck In a country where only the wealthy can afford private outdoor living space like a yard, the void deck is playground, backyard, front porch, and community center, all rolled into one. It offers escape from a nagging spouse, or a nosy parent. And it can also be transformed into a wedding hall or a funeral parlor.
I’ve come to see the void deck as Singapore’s version of the Room of Requirement. In the Harry Potter novels, this is a special room that only appears when a student desperately needs it. Then, the room not only appears, but it also becomes precisely the space needed. In this episode of Home on the Dot, we tell you about Singapore’s magical room of requirement: the void deck. On this National Day let’s celebrate the quirky space shared across the country that has the potential to bring us all together.
In this episode Dana, a third year Japanese Studies major, guides us through the void, by examining the history and purpose of the void deck.
Through a conversation with a childhood friend she also reflects on how their friendship was shaped by a void deck, and how the void deck has changed over the years for both her and the nation. She also visits a void deck that is a favorite spot for bird lovers. She learns about the origins of this unique space, and she speaks with some folks who regularly take their pet birds there to sing. Finally, we hear from Prof Robbie Goh, a scholar who has written about the shifting meanings of the void deck in Singapore.
Please stay tuned…
Dana With about 80% of Singapore’s population, or over 3 million people currently residing in HDB flats, their void decks are an integral part of residents’ everyday lives. Yet, this unique space was not always part of the HDB housing blocks. In fact, the first decade of Singapore’s public housing, in the 1960s, saw HDBs with residences on the ground level. Beginning in the 1970s, HDB tried something new: building its new housing blocks without ground floor flats, which left an open space with several public amenities. This became known as the “void deck”, which served as part of HDB’s efforts to create a common shared space for residents to interact and build a communal identity.
Today, void decks serve as gathering places for all residents. Occasionally, the space is transformed into a place of mourning for a loved one who has passed, as is the case for Chinese residents. Or it can be used for celebrations, such as when Indian families light sparklers there during Deepavali, or when Malay families adorn the void deck in colorful drapes and lightings and turn it into a wedding venue.
For many children, the void deck is a spacious covered playground, an intermediary space, between school and home, where we could be ourselves and let our imaginations roam. I remember when I was 7. School ended at 1pm, and I would rush home with my friend Muwei for lunch. She lived nearby. If lunch wasn’t ready, our moms would let us play games at the void deck like “Eagle and the Chicks”, a variation of tag.
Over the years, Muwei and I continued to build our friendship at our shared void deck. Even after we went separate ways to different secondary schools, we continued to meet at the void deck to chat about our school lives, our exam results, our classmates, and our futures. From those early days of playing tag to long conversations about our current university lives, Muwei and I have shared so many significant moments in the void deck.
I recently sat down with her to talk about what the void deck means to us, how we used this precious space over the years, and how void decks may be changing for the next generation. I began by asking Muwei to reflect on the importance of the void deck to her.
Muwei I think we do feel a sense of attachment to the void decks because we used to spend quite a lot of time at the void deck together, right? Yea, so it’s sort of a common memory for us. So…we used to play games together like catching and all those things. So I feel like…sometimes we will also just sit at the void deck to talk after class or during the holidays. So it’s a place that has many shared memories for us.
Dana Because we were both in the same class and…not sure how it happened but we both realized that we stayed just opposite each other and then I was also attending tuition at the childcare downstairs so I was usually at the void decks. Yea and ever since we knew then sometimes we will just ask each other to come down to play if we are free.
Muwei Yea…we would also walk back from school together since we live so close. Then sometimes after school if we reach there a bit earlier we just sit down and talk.
Dana Then we just – yea we just usually talk until one of our parents ask us to come up and just eat already…like “stop spending time-so long there!”
< Laughter >
Dana Despite the void deck’s dull concrete floor and similar looking pillars, its open spaces provide versatility for residents to use it as they wish. Likewise, for me and Muwei, it was a playground we never asked for and later, a comfy spot to talk when we couldn’t afford Starbucks. It was a space outside home yet still strangely familiar. For these 12 years, the void deck has been an irreplaceable spot for us to maintain our friendship.
Chris For Dana and Muwei, the void deck was their room of requirement. It was exactly the space they needed over the years: gradually changing from a place to play, to a place to chat. It was close to home but away from their parents, where they could just hang out when they had nowhere else to go.
The void deck might seem like a random architectural afterthought and not worth taking seriously. But there’s a surprising amount of research on this Singaporean housing quirk. One void deck scholar is Robbie Goh, Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at NUS and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
In a paper cleverly titled “Things to (A)void” he wrote about people who use the void deck because they have no other place to go. People who are not wanted in other places or even in their own homes. I asked him about such people, and how they use the void deck.
Robbie Goh Well I was one of them actually, so that’s how the thing started. When I was a child, we would often, my mother would visit her relatives, and they would sit and gab for hours, as people of their generation of their age must do. And I had absolutely nothing to do. And the HDB flats were often small, already crowded with relatives, so I would hang out in the void deck basically. Sometimes I would get into a friendly soccer game (that was before void decks banned soccer playing, in and around the vicinity.
These days, when I go through certain void decks, I still see a lot of elderly people, and they really look as though they got nothing else to do, but hang out at the void decks. They are hoping to see somebody. They sit there for hours. I would do my errands and I come back, sometimes I see them an hour later, they are still there. They’re waiting, they are just passing time. Sometimes we see, unfortunately teenagers indulging in unhealthy habits as well. You know, they’re all wasting time. They could be doing something more productive, but they hang around there. And one surmises it’s because they have no other place to socialize. Of course, places like Starbucks, McDonald’s are possible hangouts, but they cost money. Void decks are completely free.
Dana The elderly and teenagers may still use the void deck, but Muwei and I wonder if the next generation of kids still uses the void deck as a playground like we did.
Muwei Mmm…I think it’s gotten like, a lot quieter recently. I feel like the children nowadays they don’t really go down to play at the void decks as much? Yeah, or even at the playground for that matter. They spend more time at home now. I mean I think there’s a few reasons. It could be because you know, they have technology and they just like to watch TV or play computer all those…or just play with their phones, iPads. Yeah, so that could be one of the reasons. But I think another reason is maybe that now the adults are now concerned about safety? Yeah so last time I mean, our parents could just let us go down and play that kind…but now I think not many parents still allow their children to do that.
Dana For us, the void deck was an extension of our living room, a place that compensated for whatever space for play or socializing we lacked at home. It seems kids nowadays, like Muwei’s 11-year-old sister, might be content within the comfort of their own home or happy meeting friends at a shopping mall. Instead of meeting in person, they might also prefer to communicate online.
It also seems more activities that used to take place in void decks are being closely regulated. For instance, there have long been signs at the void decks prohibiting bicycles, ball games, rollerblading, and scooters. Some newer blocks have even installed railings in the middle of these spaces, which make it difficult to play freely.
While well-intentioned, these strict regulations may come at a price, changing what used to be a space of possibility into a more regulated and quieter environment.
Chris I asked Prof Goh about this increased regulation…
Chris So reflecting on her own childhood, our student producer Dana recalls the void deck, as what she calls a space of possibility, where she was free to play. In recent years, she feels the void deck has gotten quieter with fewer children playing there. Is this due to increased regulation of space?
Robbie Goh It is, it is. And it’s necessary, really. Because, as I said in the good old days when I was a kid, there was a kind of a mutual arrangement, a sensible bricolage going on, it was less regulated. It was probably frowned upon still to use the void deck for things like kicking the ball around, or cycling, because it would still get in people’s way.
Chris It could be dangerous
Robbie Goh It could be dangerous, but in those days, everything seemed to be a lot more relaxed. I guess there was the population pressure was less as well. There’s kind of an absolute physical constraint, absolute physical reasons for that as well. Correspondingly, things have gotten alot faster, everything has gotten faster. Even the kids are bigger and faster these days. But mostly it’s because of technology, and devices, so on and so forth. I think the regulation has been really really necessary. But it does mean that the void deck … it’s much more common to see old folks occupying the void deck, plus of course the kind of official reasons that HDB allows, such as holding funerals and those kinds of things. But less the kind of spontaneous play that was characteristic of my childhood…
Dana Despite the crackdown on certain uses of void decks, some activities remain untouched.
Just 5 minutes from my home, dozens of men gather every weekend at a void deck with their birds. Each uncle hangs his bird cages on the rows of poles hanging from the ceiling. This is not a common sight in HDB void decks, and this particular void deck has provided a space for a long-rooted bird-singing tradition to continue. It has given a passionate community of bird owners the space to thrive.
I recently visited the void deck and chatted with the uncles, who were eager to share how these bird singing corners came to be.
Uncle A Actually we started this one about, I think, more than 20 years ago. We started from a very small portion of the place to hang birds. So then a lot of the residents here, they see that we have got the same interest. So my opinion and for most of us, getting together, Malay, Chinese all we mix together. So we built up this place. But request from the, of course, the authority so when they let us do this, we do some collection – we do ourselves.
Dana So you all just like, apply to Town Council? Or you all need to pay money (to request)?
Uncle A No, we just ask permission from Town Council. From the RC or what…so when they give the green light then we forked out. Everyone come out to build this – we call this arena the “bird arena”. Because the other places to hang around like big arena, this one can be considered a big arena, they can contain until 300, like for this mata puteh species ah, until 300 birds. This kind of place there’s only a few in Singapore. One in Bedok, the other one in Ang Mo Kio and Serangoon. People (bird players) come from every corner, some from Bedok, some from Serangoon, anywhere, Ang Mo Kio, Yishun (all) come here. Because your bird – we keep this bird, you cannot play at one place only. You must play, train, we travel around Singapore so that the bird will be very, you know, open to – not scared of people, very fond of singing.
Dana As we stood beneath a ceiling of bird cages the uncles explained how they had collected the money and developed this special bird arena in what was otherwise just another void deck. This place has become deeply meaningful to the men. They brought their treasured pets from across the island to this place, to share time with their friends and listen to birds singing. Just imagine, as many as 300 birds hanging from 300 cages, all providing a joyous soundtrack to a Saturday morning. It was an amazing experience.
I grew up walking past this bird arena, but I didn’t realize it was organised, funded and built by the nearby residents. I also didn’t realize that it attracted bird lovers from all around the island. I thought it was just a place for locals. I learned that this void deck was an ideal location due to many nearby car-parks, a coffeeshop and a public toilet. Bird owners want to expose their pets to different environments on a regular basis, and this void deck is one of the several places these men take their pets. This void deck has even helped some users cross paths with old friends. For instance, the uncle I spoke to and his friends were once childhood friends, and were brought together again after many years because of this spot.
Uncle A Some of us are childhood friends. We started from the age of 12, 13…we started playing birds already.
Dana So since around 12, you all have been living around here? Like living in the same area.
Uncle Sometimes no. Actually, some of us stay at different places. So when we shift to around here, then we contact each other to meet.
Dana During my fieldwork, I spoke with another uncle who felt that the place helped him in other ways.
Dana 就是从早上开始吗？ (So you all have been here since morning?)
Uncle B 早上开始。早上到差不多。。。有两点啦。(Yes, since morning till about 2pm.)
Dana 有到两点？就是谈到两点这样。(2pm?? So you all will just chit chat until then?)
Uncle B 谈谈到两点。有些人没有做工就四点也可以嘛。这边是公开的嘛。不要紧的，这个。讲讲，去喝咖啡，回来再讲。是这样的嘛。这样联络朋友啊。讲话啊。这样啦。(Talk talk until 2pm. For those who do not have to work, they can even stay till 4pm mah..This is a public space, nevermind one, this one. Just talk, go drink a cup of coffee, and then come back to talk again. It’s been like that, just keeping in touch with friends, chatting…)
Uncle B 啊。。。这样就没有问题了咯。不然你去赌，你去玩那种赌啦，也没什么用的啦。。。也不好咯。就玩鸟咯。(Ah… like that no problem liao lor. if not u go gamble also no use, also not good. then end up play with birds.)
Dana For this uncle, this hobby and this place have helped him avoid bad habits like gambling. One of the highlights of my day was seeing some uncles spontaneously dancing. It reminded me of a house with a big family, all related, not in blood but in bond.
Void decks have continually evolved over the years. With the increased housing demand and limited space in Singapore, newer public housing models are built taller and less wide. This means void decks are also shrinking, relocated or even removed. In some newer HDB blocks, the void deck has been elevated and transformed into an environmental deck. The best known example of the elimination of a void deck on the ground floor of a HDB is the Pinnacle@Duxton HDB complex, which won two prestigious international design competitions. Instead of a void deck on the ground floor, it has a skybridge on the 26th floor which links across all seven blocks. This elevated space also includes facilities like an outdoor gym, a playground and even a residents’ committee centre. However, non-residents cannot enter, which has turned the previous public space of the void deck into a more exclusive one.
While residents of newer HDB blocks have many amenities built for their convenience, they don’t have the blank slate, the open space in which they can create something uniquely theirs.
From a child’s playground to a bird lover’s escape, the void deck can be nearly anything to anyone. I cherish my memories of my own void deck, particularly the friendship I made and the freedom I had to play creatively.
As I look back on my exploration of Singapore’s void decks, I realize that despite the emptiness of the void deck, residents of all ages have been making something out of nothing in this malleable space. Hooray for the void.
Chris I couldn’t agree more, Dana. Hooray for the void! On this National Day 2019, let’s take a moment to celebrate this architectural oddity and its incredible flexibility. When we think about home, we tend to think first about our residence. But home often spills out the front door, into the shared spaces around us, encompassing the spaces and people in our neighborhoods. Taking some time to appreciate and nurture those shared spaces can help us reconceptualize home as something far more inclusive than just our residence. It can bring home out into the void.
This episode was produced by Dana Lee, with sound design by Johann Tan and David Chew.
Special thanks to Professor Robbie Goh, Dana’s friend Muwei, and the uncles who welcomed Dana at the Jurong West bird singing corner. Check out our blog to access transcripts for all our episodes and links to news and academic articles on every topic. You can also find photos of different void decks around Singapore, as well as profiles of our student producers. We are located at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot/
Thank you for listening.