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The obsession with Dakota Crescent

SINGAPORE — Rapper Shigga Shay used its dove-shaped playground as a location in the music video for Lion City Boy. Film-maker Royston Tan used it for the backdrop of his upcoming movie, 3688. The Singapore Kindness Movement filmed a moving advertisement along the canal here; while photojournalists and Instagrammers alike prowl the corridors of the 15 blocks, looking for the perfect shot of the denizens and their homes. And now, a new documentary that is part of Discovery Channel’s Singapore Stories series is focusing on this 57-year-old estate.

SINGAPORE — Rapper Shigga Shay used its dove-shaped playground as a location in the music video for Lion City Boy. Film-maker Royston Tan used it for the backdrop of his upcoming movie, 3688. The Singapore Kindness Movement filmed a moving advertisement along the canal here; while photojournalists and Instagrammers alike prowl the corridors of the 15 blocks, looking for the perfect shot of the denizens and their homes. And now, a new documentary that is part of Discovery Channel’s Singapore Stories series is focusing on this 57-year-old estate.

Written by Mark Kwan and directed by Mark Chua, the episode titled Heartland is a love letter to Dakota Crescent, culminating in an estate party in April where residents, businesses and heritage lovers came together to celebrate its community spirit.

“During the process of filming, we met so many Singaporeans who were interested in Dakota Crescent. And many of them and expats came down for the Remembering Dakota Crescent party,” said Kwan. Held at Block 12 of Dakota Crescent, the event saw musicians such as pop-rock band Cashew Chemists and Shigga Shay performing alongside residents who line-danced and sang Chinese opera. And despite a heavy downpour, more than 350 people showed up for the event.

Interest in the area has been fuelled in part by reports last year that Dakota Crescent would be redeveloped, with the residents moving out by the end of 2016. The estate turned into the latest rallying call for conservation efforts and became an attraction for Singaporeans near and far.

DO NOT DESTROY

This sentimentality of sorts is a familiar phenomenon. Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin was saved from redevelopment in 2002 after nature lovers campaigned strongly against that idea and hordes of visitors descended upon its coastal shore. One of Singapore’s earliest housing estate, Queenstown, managed to get three of its historical buildings — the Queenstown library, the former Commonwealth Avenue wet market and Alexandra Hospital — gazetted for conservation in 2011 after civic group My Community and Queenstown’s Citizens’ Consultative Committee submitted a paper to the Urban Redevelopment Authority to protect 18 of the estate’s significant sites.

Even Hua Bee, a coffee shop in Tiong Bahru, became the centre of attention when the owners decided to shutter it in 2013 after having plied their trade there for more than 70 years. New owner and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng heeded the calls of the people and persuaded the original mee pok stall at the coffee shop to remain. It continues to function as a coffee shop in the day while Loh’s yakitori restaurant Bincho (occupying the space at the back of the shop) opens for business at night.

While these cases mostly have happy endings, the fate of Dakota Crescent remains unchanged for now. Chua and Kwan were moved to document Dakota Crescent because they have a somewhat personal connection to the estate.

Kwan lives just across the road at Pine Close and sheepishly admitted that he’s never paid much attention to the estate until its demolition was announced. Chua’s grandparents lived at Block 20 where he spent much of his weekends and school holidays as a kid. The duo acknowledged that the estate had become a hot topic these days and there’s a rush by everyone to embrace it.

“But what’s so bad about it being an attraction? It’s finally recognising that we have something precious and unique — it’s like a castle in our midst,” said Kwan. “Even if Dakota Crescent is just a fad of the year, so be it. We’ve only got less than two years left of it.”

Chua put it down to human nature. “We rush to treasure something when we learn that it will be gone. It’s not just a Singaporean phenomenon but perhaps we feel it more acutely as Singapore is so small and we’re changing so quickly,” he added.

SEEING THROUGHROSE-TINTED GLASSES

Roger Neo, the centre manager of Tung Ling Community Services located at the ground floor of Block 10, revealed that since news of Dakota’s demolishment, he has been approached about 10 times by various organisations such as film crews and schools such as Raffles Girls’ School for his help — whether it’s for interviews with the residents or to learn about the estate.

“We also see a lot of young people such as students taking photographs of the architecture,” said Neo, who has worked at the centre here since it started nine years ago. (He is affectionately known as the “village chief” of Dakota Crescent.)

“There are really two schools of thought in keeping Dakota Crescent,” he said. “Of course, there are the memories here and we should preserve the buildings with the nice architecture, but the elderly residents who stay here do suffer.”

Neo said there have been more incidents of residents falling down the stairs in the last two years as they got older. Another resident who had his leg amputated had to rely on using his arms and buttocks to go up and down the stairs between lift levels (as the lifts here only stop at the third and fifth storeys) before he relocated from the seventh floor to the ground floor.

Security is also an issue: There are empty units and there have been cases of dubious characters breaking into them. Neo reassured us that patrols by the neighbourhood police have since been stepped up. “The residents know it’s better to move to a new place, but what’s holding them back are their memories and the kampung spirit,” Neo said.

Neo does see a middle ground for Dakota Crescent: Perhaps one of the blocks can be turned into a little museum where the memories and artefacts of the estate can be showcased so former residents can visit it and the younger generation can get acquainted with it.

Meanwhile, Chua and Kwan hope their effort in documenting Dakota Crescent will push the subject of conservation of residential neighbourhoods into the national conversation. “It’s not just about Dakota Crescent. Singaporeans want to preserve their heritage and identity and all the places that mean something to them,” said Chua.

Added Kwan: “We always talk about land being a zero-sum game in Singapore, but perhaps it’s time to change the equation.”

Singapore Stories premieres on Discovery Channel tonight at 9pm. The Heartland episode will screen on July 25.

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