Story By| Aidan Ong Zongren, Guest Writer
Photo By| Aidan Ong Zongren
What do you think of when you hear the word “home”?
Some pine for their families, others for their countries. Perhaps even a cherished keepsake, a delectable dish, or a sappy song is sufficient to invoke a bittersweet longing for one’s abode.
For me, I’m reminded of a collection of pillars, coated in red and decorated with white. Distinct against their landscapes, they highlight a rich and interwoven heritage.
I call them the SG50 Heart Pillars.
In 2015, Singapore celebrated its 50th birthday. As part of the Jubilee festivities, a nationwide project was unveiled that brought together Singaporeans from all walks of life to reflect on the places that best represents home.
And so, the SG Heart Map was born, a compilation of 50 places picked from more than 80,000 personal stories contributed by the public. Heart pillars were subsequently scattered all across the city to memorialize the significance of different places. Each pillar bears the inscription:
“Through the many stories contributed by Singaporeans, SG Heart Map has weaved memorable past places, meaningful present places and aspiration of future places into a collective map of places that define home for us.”
From iconic landmarks such as Sentosa and the Singapore Flyer to parks, public amenities and even ulu (remote) housing estates, these locations form the backdrop upon which the Singapore Story has been performed.
Today, only video recordings and archived news articles documenting the celebrations remain. For the inquisitive explorer, however, the heart pillars that pay homage to this milestone in my country’s history still endure, awaiting rediscovery.
Much of this was initially lost on me when I found my first heart pillar in Ang Mo Kio at the start of 2018. A residential town situated in the Northeast of Singapore, it has been my home for the past 8 years.
At the time, I was more concerned with capturing a unique aesthetic for my new Instagram account, and found the colorful landmark appropriate for highlighting my humble beginnings and hopes for an exciting junior college life.
Over the next four months, I would encounter four more pillars on my various excursions.
- MacRitchie Reservoir – As Singapore’s oldest reservoir, it is a fan favorite amongst nature lovers, boasting boardwalks, forest trails, and the TreeTop Walk, which is a 250 metre suspension bridge.
- National Library Building – A knowledge icon located on Victoria Street, it symbolizes the people’s lifelong passion for knowledge and learning, as evidenced by the students who perpetually occupy its seats.
- Singapore River – Once the centre of commercial activity, it is the site where Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, landed in January 1819. The pillar stands at Cavenagh Bridge, the oldest bridge in Singapore.
- Bukit Timah – A prime residential estate found 10 kilometres from the Central Business District, it is home to many international schools, as well as my alma mater, Hwa Chong Institution.
Amused, I searched online to see where the rest of the pillars were situated. To my surprise, information on them was sparse. Hardly any photos of them existed, only an article or two listing the various places they could be found. My curiosity only intensified as I realized that few of my friends or family could recall ever having seen one.
The call to adventure was impossible to ignore. In this game of life involving rat races and paper chases, uncovering potential pillar places seemed a far more entertaining (albeit frivolous) side quest.
What had at first begun on a whim had become a personal mission to find and photograph all 50 heart pillars — a Pokémon journey of my own design.
It was a path fraught with challenges.
While some of the pillars were visible from a mile away, others were more subtly concealed. Toa Payoh was the first satellite town to be developed by the Housing Development Board; its heart pillar was quietly tucked into an alleyway between two shophouses. East Coast Park dominates Singapore’s southern coastline, with 7.5 million visitors annually; its heart pillar was found inconspicuously bolted to the back of a laser tag centre.
Moreover, the locations they commemorated were sometimes staggeringly large. For instance, Suntec City’s heart pillar resides within its mall, one of the largest in Singapore, with 82,500 square metres of retail space and more than 300 outlets spread across four floors.
Additionally, the maps which I consulted were not entirely accurate. Some of the places which were claimed to house heart pillars ended up being red herrings, while other pillars appeared seemingly out of the blue.
Against such odds, one could always use a helping hand. I was fortunate to have friends that were sympathetic to my cause, and who together helped pinpoint more than a third of the heart pillars which are now in my collection. It must also be acknowledged that many of these pillars were only found on unrelated group outings which others had organized. Without these allies, I would not have come as close as I have to accomplishing my goal, and for that I am truly indebted to them.
Still, the time-consuming and strenuous nature of such expeditions, coupled with my rapidly multiplying commitments, meant that pursuing these elusive and cryptid obelisks became exponentially more difficult. I found only five pillars last year, compared to 25 the year before.
Recently, as I was strolling around my neighborhood, I decided to revisit the Ang Mo Kio pillar for nostalgia’s sake. There, I was confronted with a rude awakening.
The pillar was gone. Only its eroded foundation remained. Alas, this same fate would befall others in my collection. One of them, the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park pillar, was uprooted before I could commit it to photographic memory, its imprint still distinguishable like a chalk outline.
Had a renegade phantom thief swiped them? Then again, government intervention could not be ruled out — maybe they found the monuments obsolete and impeding future urban development. In any case, I was unable to find any conclusive cause, to my dismay.
Contemplating their disappearance was a sobering thought, as it not only meant that my quest was doomed from the start, but that a quirky piece of Singapore’s history would be lost, much like the kampungs of old and the Rediffusion radio sets of the 1950s. It felt like I was witnessing the end of an era.
To think that I had come to find these pillars endearing, too.