by Patricia Siswandjo on

She’s found joy in something we all take for granted: our neighbours.

Mabel Woo and her family first moved to the now defunct Rochor Centre when she was only five years old. They’ve spent most of their lives there. “I even went to kindergarten right below my block,” Woo recalled, laughing.

There, she made countless childhood friends – many of whom she stayed in close contact with, even decades later.

However, Woo and her neighbours had to relocate from their home in 2017, when Rochor Centre was demolished under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

“I lived in Rochor Centre from five to 30 years old, and again from 40 to 46 years old,” Woo said. In between, Woo had moved in with her husband’s family.

Although Woo had always enjoyed a close relationship with a handful of her neighbours, she admitted that there was already a ‘culture of silence’ in Rochor Centre – many residents would not bother greeting or chatting with one another.

It was only after the en bloc sale was announced in November 2011 that the neighbours at Rochor Centre began interacting more often with each other.

Woo recalled how she and her group of friends first banded together to sign a petition to prevent the sale from going through, and to appeal for higher valuation prices and lower levies. The naturally outgoing and effusive woman said: “When the en bloc was announced in 2011, the residents at Rochor Centre started a small WhatsApp group consisting of about 10 families, including mine.”

They also created a Facebook group to include all of Rochor Centre’s residents. Woo, 48, said: “We spread the word by chatting with neighbours in the communal lifts, and got many of them to join the Facebook group.”

Although their petition failed, it brought the group closer together.

“After the en bloc sale, the group chat stayed intact,” Woo said. This time, resigned to their fate, they started discussing house renovation plans and deals.

Ex-residents organised big makan parties to get everyone together again

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Image Source: Mabel Woo

Woo moved in to Kallang Trivista in Jan 2017. About half a year later, she was chatting with another ex-resident of Rochor Centre, the elderly Mr Yew Tzu Yen.

The spritely 61-year-old came up with the idea for a huge makan party to get everyone together again, and Woo agreed to help him organise it. “I think he missed getting together with the ex-residents of Rochor Centre,” Woo said.

Woo added animatedly: “We knew that Singaporeans love food, so we decided to make it food-themed – we had a free-for-all buffet!”

Because National Day was coming up, they also decided to make it a National Day-themed party, to make it more meaningful.

Woo and her friends rolled up their sleeves and personally bought, prepared, and cooked items such as fried chicken rings, bee hoon, vegetables and more for the makan party.

“The buffet was catered, but many of us also chipped in to cook or bring food and drinks,” Woo recalled fondly.

On 19 Aug 2017, over 70 ex-residents of Rochor Centre had their very first makan party at Kallang Trivista – the first of many more to come.

Woo recalled how her group of friends quickly settled into respective roles to ensure the party went smoothly: for example, Woo, who collected money to fund the activities, was the chief financial officer.

“Yew was the ‘CEO’ – the chief entertainment officer,” Woo laughed.

With the first makan party a smashing success, the group vowed to host another one sometime soon.

Two years later, on July 27, 2019, they honoured their promise. This time, over 150 ex-residents of Rochor Centre turned up to reconnect with one another.

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Image Source: The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

“The second makan party was just as fun and lively as before,” Woo said. “But now, we have better food and even sponsors, like the Singapore Kindness Movement, who sponsored goodie bags for our party.”

Woo and her friends party ‘like animals’

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Image Source: Mabel Woo

For the past three years, Woo and her neighbours have had casual weekly gatherings, too.

Every Wednesday after work, members from 13 families meet up at Kallang Trivista’s common space for these catch-up sessions. “We call them ‘animal parties’,” Woo said. “It’s like a mini, mid-week catch-up session.”

Woo explained: “It’s called ‘animal party’ because when we get together, we’d drink Tiger beer and Red Horse beer, which is from the Philippines.”

To Woo, aside from buffet parties, there are other benefits of having neighbours as friends. For one, there’s the feeling of safety and security one gets when the entire neighbourhood is watching out for one another.

Woo recalls two instances where having neighbours as friends helped.

“There was a lady who would go around the units at one in the morning to steal people’s shoes,” Woo said. Using footage from the surveillance cameras they installed outside their units, Woo and her friends were able to predict her actions in real time, track and confront her.

Mabel shared: “It turned out the lady had mental health issues and would walk around late at night. After confronting her, we didn’t report her to the police – just shared the information amongst ourselves so we could keep a lookout for her.”

More serious incidents have also been prevented: “There was another time when a resident from Block A witnessed a man from Block B flashing himself,” Woo recalled. “Even though she was in the opposite block at that moment, she was able to alert her friends in Block B over the WhatsApp chat.”

The residents alerted the police, and assisted with investigations until they eventually apprehended the flasher.

Apart from keeping the place safe, it’s also great for the residents at Kallang Trivista that a helping hand is always just a call away.

In August, Woo and her friends were alerted through the WhatsApp group chat about an elderly neighbour. He had suddenly fallen ill and was unable to walk up the stairs to get to his apartment.

Woo’s friends helped carry him up to his apartment, where they discovered he was living alone, with little furniture and food. Woo and her friends tried to contact his children to alert them of his plight. He was eventually sent to a nursing home

Another heartwarming example of her neighbours’ kindness is the lengths they would go to care for the neighbourhood cats.

Woo said: “Many of my neighbours feed and love the cats that live around here. Once, though, one of the cats was injured, and we had to raise funds to pay for its medical bills.

She added that such was the enthusiasm on the part of the neighbours to chip in that her friend’s young daughter even wanted to break open her piggy bank to offer her life’s savings to pay for the cat’s bills.

And it’s not just giving – they band together to share a good deal and to save money, too.

“A lot of us have lobangs (Singlish for ‘good deals’)!” Woo said cheekily.

“For example, one neighbour owns an air conditioner servicing company, and will service the entire block at one go at lower rates,” Woo elaborated, “ Another neighbour, who works for a drinks company, uses his employee discount to buy drinks for everyone.”

Plus, many of Woo’s neighbours also place fresh seafood orders with Woo’s husband, a fishmonger. After clocking off work, Woo’s husband would simply place produce in a cooler box outside their unit, and neighbours would collect their orders.

Woo listed out some of her personal, favourite reasons of having all her friends live near her: “It’s easy to plan a last-minute trip to Malaysia together,” she laughed, “We cram into one seven-seater car, drive up to Malaysia for massages and food, and then drive home.”

Woo and her neighbours have also split the membership cost of an online retailer. “We’ll shop online for bulky necessities like tissue paper, and we’ll ship it to however is at home, so they can collect and store the items for us until we get home,” Woo said.

Their kampung spirit will live on

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Image Source: Mabel Woo

Woo has no plans of relocating anytime soon, and she has vowed that she and her friends would continue their ‘animal parties’, even in their old age. “We’ll come down to drink in motorised wheelchairs,” she joked. “I’ll grow old together with all my friends.”