Growing up in a One-Room Flat

June 16, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Posted in itchy backside | 10 Comments
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Singapore’s public housing agency – Housing and Development Board (HDB) – has recently been awarded the United Nations Public Service Award. The award is in recognition of the Home Ownership Program, which has successfully provided over 80 per cent of Singaporeans with affordable quality flats, of them 95 per cent own these homes.

Indeed, the public housing program in Singapore has come a long way since its inception in the 1960s.

Nowadays, people will not settle for anything less than a spacious and comfortable apartment, preferably one with a view. Can you imagine living in a space that functioned as a living room as well as the bedroom, and worse, with the whole family sharing the same confined space?

A typical floor plan of a 1-room flat, taken from the HDB site

Having came from a humble background, Tisu Boy grew up in one of these rented 1-room flats, spending much of his childhood sharing a single room with his family of four.

1-room flats at Chinatown

A typical double loaded arrangement of the 1-room apartment block.
The long corridor leads us to units facing each other. High-level slits
on the wall provided ventilation for tenants inside. Lights along the
corridor have to be turned on even in the day time…

Otherwise, the unlit corridors look a bit intimidating to walk through

Most of these 1-room flats were built in the 70s to 80s and there are still a few of them left standing in areas like Redhill, Chin Swee Road and Henderson Road (Tisu Boy used to live in Block 68 Redhill Close. The old flat had been pulled down, replaced with a couple of modern high-rise apartments.)

These 1-room flats were known popularly as 一房半厅. Many of these 1-room flats housed extended families of 6-8 occupants. To create some privacy, often plywood planks or a simple drawn curtain would be used to partition the space.

Many families have double-deckered beds to better utilize the limited space. Tisu boy remembered he used to sleep on mattress placed directly on the floor (the screed finished floor was laid with cheap linoleum sheet). Every morning, his mum will store the mattresses away to make space.

A cluttered room with double-deckered bed doubled up as table for
putting things in the day…

A single mattress making room for more living space

Back in those days, doors were not shut like nowadays. Due to the proximity, neighbours knew each other and kids would run along the corridor. Tisu Boy used to run in and out of his neighbours’ units freely, playing with the kids of his own age.

Kids’ doodles on wooden plank

Behind this simple wooden door lived a Chinese family. Like the house in
the last kampong, this used wooden blocks to prevent younger kids from running
out. The door knob had apparently been changed to newer one…

An authentic door knob and key hole with cover from the older days

Like the recent MediaCorps’ Channel 8 drama, Just in Singapore一房半厅一水缸, (literally “One Room, Half a Living Room, and a Water Basin”), there was an interesting mix of people with diverse backgrounds living in the same flat.

Amongst Tisu’s boy’s neighbours were school watchman, carpenter, tuition teacher, hooligans, resident mad woman and professional drunkard :p There was even one unit selling tidbits!

Loan sharks having their way…to choose leaving their mark under the
police’s sign was obviously their way of showing who’s the boss…wow!
This is really what I would call, “No gahmen!” :O

Where pink is no longer an auspicious colour…Getting a pink notice stucked on the door
means having outstanding payment owed to the Government. In this case,
the tenants must had owed quite a substantial amount to be asked to vacate

A Chinese household

An Indian one

And Malay….this house seemed to have difficulty getting alignment right…

Just like Chen Liping in the Channel 8 drama, Tisu boy also had a neighbour acting as a medium to the divinity. There was a altar in his flat where people with problems in life, stricken with illness or even desires for lucky 4D numbers would go to him for advice from the gods. Often, a red packet money token would be offered in return for his effort and safe guarding talisman used to ward off the evils. Tisu boy remembered his unit used to glow with eerie red lights form the candles.

Tisu boy also remembered having seen an old man living a few storeys below who used to crush porcelain bowls with hammers and snipping them into even smaller pieces with big pliers. It was much later that he realized the old man was actually a skilled artisan specializing in decorating Chinese temple roof with porcelain dragons and other ornamental motifs. The ordinary porcelain rice bowls were actually his raw material!

Back in the early 80s, Singapore still had a considerable number of pig farms. Many of the 1-room flat owners would leave their table scraps outside their house for the pig farmers to collect. These leftover food would be recycled as slop to be given to the pigs. At the end of the year the framers will repay the occupants with a dozen or so eggs produced by their own chicken.

Another memorable feature of such older flats are the lifts. The lifts would only stop at certain floors (usually just 3, eg 1st, 5th and 10th storey). The cars were small and breakdowns were frequent. Sometimes the lift cars would stop “prematurely” and the doors opening up between 2 storeys!

The staircase in the middle served units on both sides of the corridor.
Each side had about eight facing units, which made each floor a total of 16 units!
There was some upgrading work going on in this flat at Chin Swee Road

Tisu Boy said he used to play games with his neighbours’ kids by jumping down
flight of stairs like these…wow he monkey or what?!? 😀

Nowadays’ 1-room flat had mostly been upgraded with floor-to-floor lifts.

Upgrading work had been disturbing the little one’s sleep…

An old fashion gate littered with a lone flyer

Closeup of the gate…you hardly see these anymore

An old fashion unit number; the older ones usually have a combination
of numbers and alphabets, like 110E, 110F etc

Danger zone! Keep out! Was that a warning to curious passerby like us or
an invitation to peep into the eye piece?

Beware of dog! Enter at own risk!

See anything unusual?

PM Lee!

When we last visited these 1- room flats at Chin Swee Road and Chinatown, I took a peek into some units whose door were left opened. Indeed they looked very small and cramp, especially so after fitting in furniture. Most also looked dark and gloomy. Some looked like they just moved in, with little if any furnitures or belongings, but in actual fact that was all they had…

Many had stuff placed outside their units due to limited living space,
without realising that these would be potential fire hazards

A simple study table in this almost empty unit

This unit looked self sufficient with its simple set up

The entire wardrobe hung on the wall…

While 1-room flats in the past used to house mainly families, most of them are now occupied by lonely old people who are either single, lost their spouse or whose children had moved out after marriage. Being old and some with chronic illness, obviously keeping the house clean and spunky would be the least important concern for these poor folks. So it was not surprising to pass by many units that had a musky smell.

Elderlys living alone were under the watchful eyes of social welfare groups

Help is always available…as long as one wishes to be helped

Packed food left at the door

The 1-room flats had fulfilled their intended mission of providing affordable housing for hundreds of thousands of Singaporean. Sadly the remnant few are fast disappearing. The collective memories of a generation of young Singaporean born in the 60s and 70s or up to the 80s who spent their childhood in these 1-room flat would also fade away slowly with their obliteration…

Also see related posts:
> Secret Garden in the Last Kampong
> Balek Kampong – A Return to Village Dwelling



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  1. Hey, I am currently looking for a one room flat for an independent film shoot. Actual filming will probably start in October. Do let me know if you have know of anyone who is willing to rent out their house for a couple of days. You may email me at for more details

  2. A film on one room flat? The latest one I watched was “Truth Be Told”. I do not know anyone currently staying in a one room flat. But I think you probably can put up some posters at the void decks of those flats asking for help, of course, with a token money for the inconvenience caused. 🙂 Thanks for popping by Itchyfingers. Do drop by from time to time.

  3. Can i know where you got the floor plan for 1-room flat? Can’t seem to find it. Provide me the link?

  4. Here:

  5. Thank you! This will help in my project as i was doing a research on people living in a room flat. BTW can i use the info? do let me know as it would be impolite to just take…

    • Hello…

      Glad you find Itchyfingers useful for your research. You may quote Itchyfingers if you want, but is it possible to send us a copy after it is done? :p

  6. nice article. i got to know a bit more about your country. ^^
    singapore seems to be doing a good job in housing.

  7. Good article. good to educate younger sgs. an eye-opener. am glad a number of the apartments do look clean, tho i guess some would not be and hope people will offer them some practical help to clean up if they are willing to allow people to do so.

  8. Hi, i am looking for a block to organize rice distribution can you provide me more info of the place u went to ?


    • Hi Yolly,

      We went to the ones at Redhill and Chinatown. Can’t remember offhand what are the block no now. The one at Chinatown is next to the food centre.

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