The Rochor Centre 梧槽坊, a relic of the monolithic 70s-era stock of Singaporean public housing, was located in the downtown Central Area — right in the built-up heart of the city — at least until mid-2018 when it was systematically dismantled to make way for the LTA’s North-South Corridor expressway project.

The complex was built in 1977 at the behest of the country’s Housing Development Board (HDB) who were at the time, commissioning various high-density developments to reduce the size of the squatter shantytowns that still lingered from the influx of migrant workers to the state at the beginning of the 20th century1. The 1966 Land Acquisition Act gave the government the power of compulsory purchase for private land, and it set about repossessing great swathes of city centre property for the development of the much needed affordable housing stock alongside other public infrastructure (including roads and the eventual MRT network).

Bold, colourful architecture in the heart of Bugis.
Bold, colourful architecture in the heart of Bugis.

Before its acquisition, the land on which the Rochor Centre stood would have been just a small cluster of residential dwellings straddling streets dominated by Pútián 莆田人 and Fúzhōunese 福州人 communities that up to the 1950s were primarily involved in the rickshaw pulling trade centred on Ophir Road (though by the time the land was appropriated I doubt many will have still been in that increasingly obsolete line of work). Where these peoples were relocated when the land was appropriated by the state, isn’t something I’ve been able to ascertain, although from what I can find, the Rochor Centre’s initial residents were mostly from nearby Kampong Bugis — another deprived community based near the former Kallang Gasworks.

Rows of shuttered shops, most now having relocated elsewhere in the city.
Rows of shuttered shops, most now having relocated elsewhere in the city.
A hastily written forwarding address on a former Buddhist art store
A hastily written forwarding address on a former Buddhist art store

Like many of the HDB projects at the time, the Rochor Centre was a melding of residential and commercial space constructed in a ‘Tower and Podium’ style design with 4 towers containing a total of 567 flats, flanking a large 3-storey base which itself secreted an underground car park and nearly 200 shop units. The 4th storey — the top of the ‘podium’ — gave way to large open spaces in the form of a void deck containing seating, exercise equipment, and other communal incentives2 – all very much geared towards ensuring residents came together and interacted with one-another on a regular basis. This is a common feature of Singaporean public housing, and I was surprised to learn that the racial makeup of occupants living in these complexes is micromanaged to an almost absurd degree as a means to the same end, with strict quotas on the permissible percentages of each ethnicity within a given development enshrined in state policy. In the government’s own words this is to promote “social and racial cohesion”, an idea I can see the logic behind — essentially socially engineering a more tolerant and harmonious society by architecturally and politically forcing them together, although the cynic in me can’t help but speculate that the primary goal is actually to stymie any mass gathering or demonstration made easier as a result of segregation — the authorities undoubtedly all-too-aware of what happens when racial tensions boil over.

Peering into the ground floor recesses of one of the towers. The mailboxes still remain, along with some incense sticks rooted to the floor.
Peering into the ground floor recesses of one of the towers. The mailboxes still remain, along with some incense sticks rooted to the floor.

The immediate area surrounding the Rochor Centre seems to have had something of a seedy reputation back in its infancy during 70s/early 80s, being part of the Red Light District centred around Singapore’s infamous ‘Bugis Street’ just over the road — renowned for its raucous transgender cabaret shows and the unlicensed prostitution taking place in the adjoining laneways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this article also briefly mentions gangsters and racketeering being something of a fixture in the centre’s early years — almost certainly another factor contributing towards the introduction of the aforementioned forced integration policy.

Colourful window grating on a former store at the base of the Rochor complex.
Colourful window grating on a former store at the base of the Rochor complex.

Unsurprisingly, despite the initial flavour of the locale (which was cleaned up anyway in the 1980s), from the various accounts of residents I’ve found, life inside the Rochor Centre seems to have been pleasant enough, with most people just getting on with the business of their day-to-day lives — at least up until 2011 when the authorities gave notice of the structure’s imminent demolition and ordered all occupants vacate the premises. Most residents appear to have been offered flats in the brand new waterfront Kallang Trivista development, but businesses weren’t so lucky, and most have been scattered to whatever units they could find within the local area, in the hopes of retaining at least a fraction of their former clientele.

More recently, the primary-coloured towers of the Rochor Centre — painted during a period of building maintenance and improvements in 1994 — have given it an almost iconic status in the local area, and inevitably attracted bands of photographers and filmmakers to make artistic use of the quirky facade as a backdrop for fashion shoots, indie film projects and other creative pursuits.

Pleasingly weathered utility piping clinging to the Rochor Centre's outer walls.
Pleasingly weathered utility piping clinging to the Rochor Centre's outer walls.

By the time I passed through Rochor in late 2017, the whole complex was thoroughly vacant and sealed up tight — not that I had any plans of gaining entry even if by chance an opening presented itself. Singapore does not take trespass lightly (or any crime really for that matter), particularly when it involves state property under which the Rochor Centre now falls. A minor misadventure could make for a fairly miserable few days at the behest of the Singaporean Police, and so I vowed to keep my nose clean and just snuck some shots from around the perimeter.

Looking up at the Red Rochor Tower.
Looking up at the Red Rochor Tower.

As of April 2019, all traces of the Centre are now gone, and what was once home for over 500 people is now just an expansive plot of vacant land ready to be redeveloped into the proposed expressway which has been given a completion date of 2026.

  1. These settlements were often overcrowded, living conditions squalid, and the government apparently thought them a breeding ground for crime, and not to mention a substantial fire risk so it isn’t too difficult to see why the government would want rid of them
  2. These open-plan spaces were also used for other forms of social enterprise: Singapore’s first void deck elderly care home, The Rochore Kongsi Home For The Aged was proposed by then Health minister Toh Chin Chye 杜進才 and opened in the Rochor Centre upon its completion to provide a home for vulnerable elderly residents, and prevent them languishing in social isolation.
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