Reflections on a Field Trip to Jalan Kukoh



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Before my professor announced that our class was to take a field trip to Jalan Kukoh, I didn’t even know that there existed such a place. On the day itself, it had taken me a while to navigate to the assigned meeting point—Jalan Kukoh Food Centre—from Chinatown MRT Station. Armed with Google Maps and the PDF file of directions my professor had emailed to us the night before, the trek took 15 minutes, winding past the stately OG department store and several other kopitiams. When I finally arrived at the food centre, sweating and panting from the humidity and the uphill climb leading from the main road, I found the neighbourhood to be… the same as any other.

We had been told beforehand that this neighbourhood was one of the poorest in Singapore, and perhaps, in my mind’s eye, I had subconsciously pictured the worst. The word “poverty” often elicits images of abject suffering, of protruding ribs and stick-thin limbs and helpless eyes set in grimy faces; a quick search on Google Images would yield similar results.
But I remember gazing up at the blue-and-white HDB blocks, notably well-maintained and clean, and thinking that they looked just like any other housing estate. And standing in the middle of the food centre that morning felt just like being in any other hawker centre: several stores were open to cater to the breakfast crowd, and tables were laden with toast, kopi and conversation. There didn’t seem to be any of the typical depictions of poverty anywhere—not ostensibly, anyway.

Just Like Any Other Neighbourhood… or Not?

A quick briefing later, my class was broken up into small groups to wander around the neighbourhood and into the HDB blocks (with photo-taking prohibited). It didn’t take me long to spot the differences that I anticipated I would find. My group went up to the ninth floor of one of the blocks, and the corridor we found ourselves in was narrower and lower than a regular estate’s, with the ceiling lights switched on at alternate intervals. The doors were shorter and many had some form of religious imagery displayed on the thresholds of their home. Most houses had their doors shut, but when we peered into those that didn’t, we would often find small living spaces cluttered with various knickknacks, usually with only one occupant. At the end of the corridor, the neighbouring block was so near that we could easily peer into the kitchens of all the opposite units. We made sure not to linger for long though: it felt too much like an invasion of privacy for us to stay and stare, however unintentional.

But diverting our eyes from the opposite block yielded fantastic scenery. On the horizon, there was no shortage of towering skyscrapers, glistening in the sunlight—the Central Business District (CBD) in all its glory. Craning my neck even further, I located the Singapore River, Cavenagh Bridge, and the Singapore Flyer—all stark contrasts to the estate we were in.

A Chance Encounter

Later, as we took the lift back down (we had to take the second one we found, because the first one was out of order), it opened its doors for an elderly man in a wheelchair, and we flattened ourselves against the walls of the tiny lift to accommodate him. He pushed himself in with his legs, glanced at us—noting our ages and school supplies—and asked in Mandarin: “Here for work?”

We gave our affirmations, and asked him about his life in Jalan Kukoh. “Glaucoma,” he said at one point, tapping at his eyes, referring to the incurable eye disease that can lead to vision loss and blindness.

When the lift reached the first floor, we hurriedly squeezed past him to wheel him out of the lift, and over the water hose draped along the ground. Two of my group mates offered to help him to the food centre for his coffee, and carefully wheeled him down the winding ramps. When they returned, they told us of what the man had shared with them: he would push himself with his legs, and whenever he encountered a downhill slope, he’d brace himself and let his wheelchair fly down—almost like a roller coaster. Though of course, if there were people around, they would be happy to help him.

Hidden in Plain Sight

In fact, despite the somewhat wheelchair-unfriendly territory, most of Jalan Kukoh’s residents were mobility-impaired elderly. They relied mainly on cheaper personal mobility devices (PMDs) that were often poorly-made and hence fire hazards. Seeing the various elderly residents gathered together for breakfast was almost reminiscent of “the kampong days”, before we started spending our lives chasing time.

To me, that was the strangest thing of all: to find “one of Singapore’s poorest neighbourhoods” nestled quietly in the heart of a prime location and surrounded by upscale hotels, condominiums, and office buildings. I’d been to Chinatown several times before and even travelled past Jalan Kukoh, yet I’d never noticed this neighbourhood tucked away in the midst of it all. 

Many Singaporeans lead hectic, fast-paced lives; we often suffer from tunnel vision, focusing much of our attention on work or school and little else. We chase after success and wealth and achievements, and we are often blinded to those who are left behind in the rat race. In the national narrative of “from third-world to first-world”, it is easy to assume that everyone has reaped equally the benefits of modernisation, or that we do not suffer from the same issues plaguing other countries.

We may be hard-pressed to find these “typical” depictions of poverty in Singapore. Does poverty then not exist in prosperous, thriving Singapore? Look hard enough, and you may find your answer in the most unexpected places. Jalan Kukoh is one such example: lying both plain in sight and hidden from view in the heart of bustling Chinatown, but obscured by shining skyscrapers and tourist attractions. We might overlook those who are struggling silently, in the blind spots of our vision, in the hustle and bustle of our own lives.

Perhaps what we need to do sometimes is to slow down and take a careful look around us in all the nooks and crannies that are normally left unexplored, and rethink our notions of poverty and our perceptions of Singaporean society,