If you asked any Singaporean to name five contributions Singapore has made to the architecture world, they would undoubtedly list iconic landmarks such as the Esplanade and the Marina Bay Sands hotel, or even the ubiquitous HDB flats dotted all around the island. Few might consider the power of empty space, most clearly embodied in the void decks beneath our flats.
Void decks are open spaces that are found on the ground floor of apartment blocks. Each HDB block is built upon its own kelong-like base of support pillars are at least a storey high, and the rectangular space left on the ground floor is known as the void deck. One major benefit of this approach is that it allows people to save time by cutting through blocks instead of circumnavigating them. Another is that one’s never too far from shelter during an unexpected rain shower.
But why stop there? There are many other uses for a HDB void deck—after all, nature abhors a vacuum and land is always in short supply in Singapore. These areas are almost always populated by locals, and it’s quite possible that expatriates, particularly Caucasian ones, would stick out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, the true essence of a void deck is the feeling of community and togetherness, and few things are as heart-warming to the locals as the knowledge that foreigners are making an effort to embrace their culture. If you have the time—and if you already live in a HDB flat, there’s really no excuse for not doing so—why not give some of these activities a go?
In some HDB flats, enterprising storekeepers have set up shop at the void deck, reasoning that they would be the first port of call when occupants find themselves in need of a particular good and yet unwilling to travel further than a few metres away from home. The most common store is of course the convenience store, fondly called the ‘mama shop’ by locals. If you’ve conjured up a maternal image for the store, you should probably take note that ‘mama’ means ‘uncle’ in Tamil, and that these stores are traditionally opened and run by Singapore Indians. These stores sell almost anything that you’d need for day to day living, including food, drinks, newspapers, and household cleaning supplies. Other stores that you may find at the void deck include clinics, bakeries, or hair salons.
Technically, certain sports are frowned upon when done in the void deck, as you can tell from the red and white signs showing the prohibition of void deck football or rollerblading. However, it’s certainly not uncommon to find people doing so anyway. Void deck football is one of the most treasured memories that many people have of their childhood, and most people would sooner turn a blind eye to kids kicking a ball around the space. Some of the safer sports to play in the void deck include badminton, table tennis, or scooter riding. Many people also use the space to do a spot of tai chi, or to do their morning exercises.
However, do note that though many think nothing of playing sports at the void deck, the town council may step in when residents complain about excessive noise, dirtying of the walls or inconvenience at having to circumnavigate the area when the space is being used. In 2016 for instance, barriers were erected within the void deck of a flat at Queenstown to discourage people from using the space for their games. The town council had subsequently received a scathing reaction from the public who lambasted them for the poor handling of the matter, the perceived waste of taxpayer money and the visual reminder of intolerance and lack of community spirit.
Some void decks have community areas which are specially designed for residents to mingle. These void deck areas are a little different from the rest, as they may include vending machines, game cupboards, and many tables or chairs. On special days such as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Christmas, these spaces are especially likely to be used to host small events and serve as a place for neighbours to congregate and socialise.
The rest of the time, void decks are good places to play a round or two of Chinese chess or checkers, as many of installed tables tend to incorporate game boards into the table surface as part of their iconic design. Bird lovers, usually middle-aged ‘uncles’, may also sometimes take shelter from the sun at void decks, while they leave their songbirds in their cages out in the sunlight. They take this opportunity to compare the health, beauty and singing prowess of the birds, and think of it as a good chance to get together with their friends while their pets sun their wings.
Lastly, void decks are frequently used to host religious events, weddings and funerals. During Chinese funerals or festivals such as the Hungry Ghost Festival, it’s not uncommon to find devotees decked out in ceremonial wear as they perform religious rites within the area. Though this may seem somewhat bizarre at first, the low venue rental cost, convenience of the location, availability of parking, and even easy access to incense burners, should joss offerings be necessary, make void decks a good choice of venue. The venue is also used to host Malay weddings, for many of the same reasons. So if you’re invited to attend a Malay neighbour’s wedding, don’t be surprised if it takes place just below your home!08 Nov 2023