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Audrey Tan
Sunday, Aug 3, 2014

Singapore

The serenity of Monk's Hill

The Straits Times | Audrey Tan | Sunday, Aug 3, 2014

Black-and-white apartments in Monk’s Hill estate. They were built by the British to house civil servants.

Tree-lined and serene, with little of the hustle and bustle of nearby Orchard Road, the Monk's Hill estate lives up to its ascetic name.

While Newton Food Centre may be just a three-minute walk away, and the Orchard Road malls a 20-minute jaunt, those living in the area say the hubbub rarely pervades Monk's Hill's tranquil environment, which even attracts birds.

Madam Angelia Chua, who has been living in Monk's Hill with her husband for 12 years, recalls how a pair of pink-necked green pigeons once built a nest on her balcony, and had their babies there. "They were beautiful... and in urban Newton!" said the 66-year-old housewife. "We've had baby herons, swallowtail moths and snakes come by our apartment too."

But the charm of Monk's Hill goes beyond its peaceful atmosphere.

The surrounding greenery; the rapport between neighbours, and the historical significance of the residential rental blocks are also reasons why the area should be conserved, say residents.

Conservation architect Lim Huck Chin, who has been living in Monk's Hill since 2008, has traced the history of the five blocks of black-and-white apartments there to the 1950s and 1960s, when they were built by the British to house civil servants.

Today, the low-rise blocks lining the junction between Monk's Hill and Winstedt roads are owned by the state.

Now Mr Lim hopes to get in touch with the descendants of the original occupants of the Monk's Hill apartments as part of a personal project to get the blocks preserved for their role in Singapore's residential architectural history.

The 50-year-old said: "Monk's Hill is an estate that people know of only vaguely. Like the Dakota Crescent estate, it is off the radar.

But it is important for it to be preserved for its architecture."

The flats at Monk's Hill are bigger compared with modern-day units, with balconies in every room. Some also still retain their original fittings, such as windows and tiles.

Last month, the Housing Board announced that 17 rental blocks in Dakota Crescent, built in 1958, will make way for developments under Mountbatten's estate renewal plans. Residents of the area, one of Singapore's oldest housing estates, must leave by the end of 2016.

Mr Lim said that Dakota Crescent's fate was not what prompted his project, although learning of it made him "more motivated" to preserve Monk's Hill.

The Monk's Hill apartments sit on land that is designated under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan 2014 as a reserve site - which means a specific use has not been fixed.

Around 120 individual units are rented out, with the lease renewable every two years.

But the rate at which rents have been going up has become a worry for residents.

One of them, who did not want to be named, said the monthly rent for larger units of roughly 2,000 sq ft was less than $2,000 a decade ago.

Today, it is more than $4,000 a month, and about $2,000 for the smaller, 700 sq ft unit.

The Singapore Land Authority said that demand for the Monk's Hill apartments is strong because they are close to the Newton MRT station and supply is limited.

Said a spokesman: "For fairness and transparency, vacant state properties approved for interim residential use are made available through tenders."

Still, most tenants - made up of families with children, retirees, singles and young couples - are there for the long run, said Madam Chua.

"There doesn't seem to be a high turnover, and it's a rather stable community where people know one another."

Briton Garth Chapman and his wife Sheila, parents of two boys aged two and four, even set up a small play area for the children in the neighbourhood last May outside their ground-floor unit.

Said the 44-year-old project manager, who works in construction: "We had a good outdoor space that the kids could run around in, and when other kids in the neighbourhood came, it drew everyone together."

The area is not just about its colonial legacy. It is also a place of education.

"When I think of Monk's Hill, I think of schools - there was Monk's Hill Secondary School in the past and, now, the Anglo-Chinese School (Junior) and LaSalle," said restaurateur Celine Tan.

She owns the Skyve Wine Bistro located at 10 Winstedt Road - which used to house the now defunct Monk's Hill Secondary School.

"Our menus fit the old-school theme, and our seats are customised to look like schoolchairs."

Yet, despite the presence of these schools, residents say the neighbourhood is still an oasis of calm.

And that is how they like it, according to social media manager Yue Tuck Wai, who has been living there for two years.

"We may not have modern-day amenities such as swimming pools and tennis courts, but the residents here are not attracted to the hustle and bustle of the city," said the 44-year-old.

"Instead of cafes, we go to one another's house for coffee."

Those who have stories on Monk's Hill can write in to Mr Lim at huck1964@hotmail.com

This article was published on Aug 1 in The Straits Times.

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