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An agreeable anarchy

Eddie Goh (second from left), 54, is the owner of Go Sports Skate Shop. He saw potential in the unused void deck beyond his shopfront and converted it into a mini skate park. Photo by SAM KANG LI

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WITH neighbouring apartments ascending more than 30 storeys, block 6C of Margaret Drive is but a dwarf. It rises to only 16 storeys and the paint on its walls crumbles off like dead skin, revealing cracked lines as wrinkles.

Built in 1969, it has seen more glorious days as part of Singapore’s first public housing model scheme constructed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Now, unchanged for 40 years, the block stands quietly forlorn.

But take a closer look. A bunch of about 15 teenagers has gathered at the outdoor void deck, attempting stunts with their skateboards. “This is our ground,” skateboarder Raynie Mokhtar establishes even before he introduces himself.

Skateboarding obstacles – consisting of a rail, ramp and some wooden boxes – transform this void deck into a caravan of youth. They are glossed with layers of graffiti spray-painted over the years, invigorating the block from its aged facade.

“This is like home, we can even get naked here,” says 21-year-old Mokhtar.

The transformation of this landscape, now dominated by skateboarding activities, did not happen by chance. Back in the 1980s, Margaret Drive began losing its lustre when many residents moved to newer HDB flats that doubled in space and facilities.

It was not a time for nostalgia in the eyes of labourer-turned-businessman Eddie Goh who, in 1988, took advantage of the cheap rent to open Go Sports, a shop that sells skateboarding and extreme sports products.

“These days, where else can you rent a shop at $1,200 a month?” he asks.

The trump card for Eddie was the outdoor void deck space beyond his shopfront – a barren plot half the size of a basketball court. The 54-year-old had a wild thought of revitalising it into a skate park.

“During the Japanese occupation, when people wanted to conquer an area, they bordered it and it became theirs,” he laughs and points at the ringers he had put around the area. “That was what I tried to do here.”

Eddie’s territorial gain is the residents’ loss. After all, void decks are planned for communal use, such as for weddings and funerals, senior citizens’ corners and child care centres. This also means that they are usually open and minimalistic in design.

Yet this layout becomes a problem, says cultural analyst Robbie Goh from the National University of Singapore. The author of Contours of Culture, a book that explores the country’s built environment, notes that while the design of void decks are kept simple to accommodate the diverse racial and social activities, this spacious and free-for-all nature eventually invites other uses that are not always wanted.

When the skate park first took flight, complaints of noise and safety concerns followed. Shamsul Rizal, 30, recalls that five years ago, the police were constantly patrolling the area, noting down skateboarders’ names and checking if they had previously commited any juvenile crimes. “They would also confiscate our skateboards,” he says.

On the estates’ walls, ‘No Rollerblading’ signs hang as reminders. But the skateboarders see it as a joke. “We’re not rollerblading what!” one says.

“The notion of skateboarding as the domain of rebellious slacker youths is reinforced by movies, short films and video bloopers,” says Prof Goh. It’s a problem everywhere in the world, and this perception of skateboarders means that they are often not welcomed in public spaces.

Eddie thought otherwise. The shop owner met up with the neighbourhood’s police and the principal of nearby Queenstown Secondary School to explain that the skateboarders weren’t doing anything illegal.

To the skateboarders, he said, “You don’t take over people’s space and be high and mighty about it, it doesn’t work that way.”

Back at Margaret Drive, he translated the complaints into rules, plastering A4 posters on the walls of his shop with printed text that read:

NO SKATING AFTER 6PM

NO PLAYING WITH FIRE AND SPARKLERS

NO BREAKING OF GLASS BOTTLES

Besides these rules, skateboarding obstacles remain mobile and removable in case others need to use the space. “At the end of the day, I tell the skaters that it’s their privilege to skate here and every right of the residents to stop them,” says Eddie.

It took a good 20 years, but many who live at Margaret Drive now recognise the skateboarders activity as a sport, rather than an act of rebellion.

“They used to be all over the place so it was hard for other shopkeepers to transport their goods,” says Chua, the boss of a frame-making stall. “But they’ve managed to keep to a boundary so that has not happened anymore,” he adds.

Prof Goh terms the skateboarders and Eddie as “bricoleurs” or do-it-yourself people. “A bricoleur doesn’t expect the system to change or cater to his needs. Rather, he’s someone who finds a way through or around the existing system,” he explains.

And such bottom-up initiatives allow spaces to cope with the varying needs of people, says urban planning expert Ooi Giok Ling, author of Future of Space that examines urban planning policies in Singapore.

The researcher sees block 6C as an example of how “central planning cannot always provide for the diverse needs of every resident, so decentralised planning within neighbourhoods is essential.”

Today, the police have grown accustomed to the skaterboarders’ presence. “It’s okay to skate in the vicinity, as long as they don’t cause disturbance, hit the glass of shops, harm pedestrians or violate any laws,” says a representative from the Queenstown Neighbourhood Police Centre. The Tanjong Pagar Town Council, which manages the void deck space at Margaret Drive, confirms that there have been no recent complaints from residents regarding nuisance caused by the skateboarders.

The liveliness of the area has even attracted the attention of parents. Theresa Soikkeli, a mother of two, discovered the skating ground two years ago and saw it as “a very good idea, very naturally-evolved and not man-made”. She now sends her sons Nicholas, 10, and Alex, seven, to Margaret Drive for weekly skateboarding lessons.

With the estate slated for redevelopment in 2010, half of block 6C’s residents have moved out and the youths are now like “security guards” for the estate, says Eddie. “Otherwise this place would be dangerously empty. Without the kids, it’s a ghost town.” 

Read how they journey through the cityscape 
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2 Comments

  1. nice story about Pham, Hope he can find his own comfortable Phamland, but I think the cops are part of the fun for him. Every Luke needs a Darth.

    Also hope eddie can reclaim his shop. He reminds me this big brother figure that exist at places where youth sub-cultures thrive. Someting like uncles who run jam studio who will give bands extra time in the studio.

    good job guys.

  2. this is really good.im a skater myself.and sometimes i find it hard to even move ard and have a good place to skate.but now,society have opened up it’s minds abt skateboarding,as long as they see it as a sport.well,hope there’s a event in this in the Y.O.G!

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