Up Your Alley: Yishun, the heartland haven with heart
This is the second of CNA's new series to uncover hidden gems around Singapore. Write in to tell us what makes your neighbourhood special.
SINGAPORE: There’s a saying that goes “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, and perhaps that can be used to describe the development of Yishun so far.
For those who are not residents here, it’s easy to dismiss Yishun as the subject of #OnlyInYishun and “Make Yishun Great Again” jokes after a series of unfortunate or unusual events got it featured in a Netflix trailer for Stranger Things.
The northern town has undergone transformation by leaps and bounds. It was once the site of pig and vegetable farms and once had the image of being infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It later became the first neighbourhood in Singapore to have a cineplex when Yishun 10 opened in 1992.
Yet for people who have lived or still live in Yishun, it’s not the edgy reputation or the constant change that makes them fond of the place. Rather, it is the strong ties between residents and kampung spirit that have withstood the test of time.
One long-time former resident, Alfred Siew, tells CNA: “My former neighbour, she is still here. She hasn't changed except for growing older. The people you know, the people you grow up with. People move out, I’ve moved out - but the links are still there. When I go back, I see my neighbour and my kids greet her as (I did) when I was a kid myself. These things won’t change.”
And Alfred’s not the only one who has expressed this sentiment.
Time and again, people we spoke to in Yishun - from residents to business owners - speak of relationships forged over the years that have kept them from moving elsewhere. This episode of Up Your Alley features some of the places and people that help make Yishun the home that many look to return to:
CHILL OUT AT CHONG PANG CITY
Chong Pang City is the place most Yishun residents refer to when they mention Chong Pang - and it’s a place that embodies the can-do spirit of earlier generations as it was the merchants and shopkeepers who pooled their resources to create that shopping area.
Bounded by Yishun Ave 5, Sembawang Road and Yishun Ring Road, it houses a sprawling hawker centre next to a wet market. From fruit stalls to beauty salons, these shops draw crowds to the foot of four-storey blocks that act as guard walls around the mini maze within that is Chong Pang City.
Many will say the area’s charm is its old-town vibes, while others name-drop it as the place to be to meet friends from all over Yishun.
Sakdiah Abdul Latif, who runs a nasi padang stall at Block 101, can attest to this. A simple stroll through Chong Pang City will see her stop by friends from all parts - a jewellery store owner, her fish supplier from the nearby wet market, the lady tending to a vegetable stall.
“If you’re from Chong Pang, it’s hard to go far from this place. I have one customer who sold their home and moved away, only to move back to Chong Pang in a matter of three years. So you always see the same people,” Mdm Sakdiah said.
And because almost everyone is a familiar face, it is an easy thing to help one another when the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she recounted.
“The market became really quiet. But stall owners helped each other stay afloat by cutting prices where we could, or sometimes even not charging people.”
Not immune to change, Chong Pang City is slated for a major facelift. Plans to rejuvenate the area will see the nearby Chong Pang Community Club and Block 102 turned into a new community centre with features such as swimming pools, a gym and an upgraded hawker centre.
Asked for her thoughts for these new plans, Mdm Sakdiah said: “This means I have to be prepared when plans for the rest of Chong Pang reaches Block 101. People here are excited about the changes, but worry about friends who will have to relocate their businesses.”
Baron Ang, a 29-year-old third-generation fishmonger, chimed in: “It will be interesting to see how the new plans will affect the community spirit we have in Chong Pang right now. Hopefully this kampung spirit will stay, even as some stalls move to the new place.”
S$2.80 LAKSA AT BLOCK 928
First time in Yishun and on the look out for a cheap and savoury meal? This laksa stall at Block 928 Yishun Central comes highly recommended.
Hidden somewhat in the maze of heartland shops next to Northpoint City, this laksa joint is a crowd favourite. Hardly surprising when you find out one bowl of laksa there costs just S$2.80.
While price plays a part in drawing new visitors to the stall, it’s nostalgia that keeps customers coming back for more, said Bina Neo, who heads operations with her sister, Mdm Tan Ngak Siok.
Ms Neo can be said to have watched her customers grow up having operated the business since the 1990s. “I have customers who have eaten this laksa since their primary and secondary school days. So they have memories attached to both the laksa and the shop,” she said.
Keen to get a bite? Be prepared to wait for at least 30 minutes during peak periods like lunch time.
LOWER SELETAR RESERVOIR
Lower Seletar Reservoir is the first sight that greets commuters on the MRT as they travel down from Yio Chu Kang into Yishun. The reservoir came into being when a dam was built at the mouth of the Seletar River in 1983.
Beneath the train tracks lies one of three legal fishing spots around the reservoir. (The other two areas are the fishing deck along Yishun Ave 1 and the new Rower’s Bay Park, closer to Yishun Dam.) And this is where anglers like Rob Chang can be seen nonchalantly casting their fishing rods into the water and waiting patiently for a tug on the line - usually by a peacock bass, snakehead or tilapia.
Mr Chang, who lives 10 minutes away by bicycle, spends three days a week fishing at this reservoir. As a long-time regular at the reservoir, he also notes a change in the profile of anglers at the fishing spot: “It used to be just me and other hobbyists along the banks. Now I see more school-going kids taking up fishing.”
He added: “It's nice to see that they know about the fishing spots and are enjoying nature and the outdoors in our urban city.”
These fishing enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who enjoy going to the reservoir.
Visitors can soak in the sights and learn about its history from information boards at the reservoir’s Heritage Bridge. And come dusk, the water-play area springs into life as parents bring their children out for some fun.
Khatib Central is hard to miss, with blocks coloured brightly red, green and blue along with recognisable icons of pineapples, trees, and a fish - designs meant to help people with dementia navigate their way around.
Yishun is, after all, one of the first dementia-friendly towns in Singapore.
Eye-catching designs aside, Khatib Central’s three supermarkets and rows of coffeeshops lining thoroughfares in the area mean it is abuzz with activities well into the night.
Shereen Lee, 35, who has lived in Yishun all her life, tells CNA that in the late afternoons you can see people sitting in one coffeeshop gesturing and calling out to friends parked in another opposite them.
Then there are cushier options like the two-storey McDonald’s that is an institution for residents like Ms Lee, especially for students who have spent nights studying or just shooting the breeze with friends.
Meanwhile, small-time retailers who open pop-up shops in shopfront yellow boxes can also depend on the steady stream of people flowing through Khatib Central for sales everyday.
Yuliana Yulia, who has opened one such shop selling Indonesian snacks and wellness products, said: “Even though I live relatively far away, I would still try to secure a space here to do business. Because there is always a crowd.”
Arguably the best spot to catch the sunset in Yishun is at Yishun Dam. From there, one can glimpse Malaysia when facing out to the sea or take in the view of Lower Seletar Reservoir when facing inland.
Those who grew up in Yishun, like Alfred, will attest to the dam’s popularity as a hangout spot on Friday nights and over the weekend. Motorists would park their vehicles by the roadside and pitch up along the concrete path, listening to music booming from their souped-up cars.
Linger long enough and you might catch the wafting smells from an impromptu barbecue.
However, the once-remote road leading to Yishun Dam has been upgraded to facilitate traffic to Seletar Aerospace Park and Seletar Expressway. This has brought improved road connectivity in and out of Yishun, but at the expense of some tranquility at the dam.
Of the trade-off, Mr Siew said: “We get used to it. Some things are an improvement; this expressway helps a lot of people. So we live with it, we accept it and thankfully the people living here have not changed that much.”
Indeed, many are still seen heading to Yishun Dam to soak in the views, a testament to how as things change, things remain the same.
For long-time resident Shereen, the dam is a place to unwind or take refuge from a bad day because “it is so peaceful here”. Other times, she’d visit with friends and chat away with food and drinks by their side.
She also has this to say of Yishun: “When you talk about Singapore, you (tend to) talk about Orchard Road, the CBD area, the modern part of Singapore. But a lot of times, (people) have not explored the suburbs of Singapore. So Yishun, to some of them, may be ulu (remote) but to me, it’s my so-called home town, the place where I grew up, the place where all my memories were formed.
“Yishun is the epitome of heartland.”
Now it's your turn. We'd like you to tell us what's Up Your Alley. What is it that makes your neighbourhood unique? What are the places visitors may not notice at first glance, but are a unique and intrinsic part of the estate you know and love?
We look forward to hearing from you!
(Additional reporting: Kenneth Choy)