Life

Neighbors Come Together To Decorate This Community Every Christmas

For a decade now, residents in this Singapore neighborhood have been showing up with old unwanted items and lots of good ol’ “kampung”  spirit to spread Christmas cheer.
Residents unite to decorate Blk 702 on Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore.
Sandy Goh Siew Hua, who calls herself the“kaypoh auntie of Bedok Reservoir,” is an active member of the neighborhood who helps out with its annual Christmas parties. Photo: Courtesy of Sandy Goh

In a little corner of Singapore, Christmas is taken to a new level every year. Quietly sitting at Blk 702 of Bedok Reservoir is a Christmas garden, featuring sparkling trees, an assortment of ornaments, and a decorative fireplace—all made out of unwanted materials donated and crafted by residents in the area.

Spearheading the Christmas campaign is Sandy Goh Siew Hua, who calls herself the “kaypoh (‘busybody’ in Singlish) auntie of Bedok Reservoir.” 

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The 54-year-old, who works as a project coordinator and clerk at a tent rental company, is a key figure at Bedok Reservoir, where she lives. Known endearingly to the neighborhood as Sister Hua, Goh puts her self-professed nosiness to good use.

Residents unite to decorate Blk 702 on Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore.

Residents unite to decorate Blk 702 on Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore. Photo: Sandy Goh

She started putting up Christmas decorations in her building by herself in 2010, in a cozy little space on the first floor. The following year, she received a small second-hand Christmas tree from another resident. Since then, the Christmas decorations have only gotten bigger and better.

“Slowly, we shifted it out to the open space so that more people will get the chance to enjoy, to view our decoration,” she told VICE.

What started out as a gathering of just a few families soon grew into a full-fledged public event. In Singapore, where, besides obvious commercial hotspots, Christmas decorations are relatively tame and lackluster, the imposing parade of festivity at Bedok Reservoir is a sight to behold. 

As more people and local media caught on to the annual Christmas happenings in the neighborhood, Bedok Reservoir also came to boast one of the most spectacular residential Christmas exhibits in the city-state.

Christmas decorations at Blk 702 Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore.

The Christmas decorations light up at night. Collage: VICE / Images: Sandy Goh

As it turns out, Goh’s enthusiasm for community projects is an attempt to recreate her fond childhood memories living in one of Singapore’s old villages.

As villages gave way to housing estates and urbanization beginning in the 1960s, the humble sense of community—also known as the kampung (village) spirit—that characterized these Singaporean villages have also faded. 

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Reminiscing about her childhood days in a kampung—when she could visit her neighbors whenever she wanted, houses were never locked, and food was always shared—Goh called herself a “kampung lady.” 

“This feeling has been lost, but luckily we have it down here,” she said. “I try to bring back the feel, the closeness between neighbors.”

The residents of Bedok Reservoir now organize 13 parties every year, including Children’s Day, National Day, Diwali, and Lunar New Year. Committees composed of residents are formed around each event, and about 50 to 100 volunteers pitch in however they can.

A display of neighborly solidarity, every party sticks to a potluck concept: Everyone brings a little something to the party, be it homemade cookies, chicken wings, an inflatable swimming pool, or a household popcorn machine.

“Every festival is my party time,” said Goh, adding that these parties sometimes run from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. as attendees indulge in games and conversations. 

The past two Christmases in Goh’s neighborhood have been quieter than previous years because of the pandemic. Though the spread of COVID-19 was managed early on, Singapore battled a surge in cases in September. But as infection numbers wane, the country now finds itself grappling with emerging cases of the Omicron variant.

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For Goh and her team of resident volunteers, this means that the progress of the yearly Christmas setup has slowed significantly. Working around COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, residents have to work according to shifts to limit the number of people sharing the area. Displays that would have taken about 10 days to assemble in the past, now require three weeks to be completed, said Goh.

Since the pandemic started, Goh started organizing food drives to help residents whose incomes have run dry.

“(Blk) 702 itself, we actually try to assist our friends and neighbors around as much as we can, in all ways,” she said.

But even as COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on the scale of this year’s Christmas party, Bedok residents are still gearing up to put their best decorations on display. In fact, they often approach Goh to ask about decoration plans before she even sends out the announcement.

This year, like in the past, the Bedok Reservoir’s Christmas setup features materials like old towels, curtains, cardboard boxes, and window grills. Goh said they have limited funds for these events but residents chip in whatever materials they can. 

People are also free to hang their own things on the trees, and often fashion their own DIY ornaments—like a small snowman made out of foam mesh fruit wrappers, and a big one made out of donated yoga balls.

The final display is a creative product of recycled items donated and crafted entirely by the residents.

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Christmas decorations at Blk 702 Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore.

(L) A snowman ornament made out of foam fruit wrappers. (R) A big snowman made of painted yoga balls. Collage: VICE / Images: Sandy Goh

Christmas decorations at Blk 702 Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore.

(L) A fake fireplace with “fire” made out of red and yellow plastic bags. (R) Snowflakes carved out of styrofoam. Collage: VICE / Images: Sandy Goh

While Goh joked that her role each Christmas is “scolding and ordering around,” she’s actually the one mobilizing the community for the event and getting approval from local authorities for the Christmas display. She is especially passionate about engaging more elderly residents in these events, often encouraging them to craft their own DIY ornaments or help with decorating the display corner.

Meanwhile, her husband, Cheah Kok Hwa, helps to weld and craft larger decorations.

“I want them to be proud of what they are, what they have, what they think,” said Goh about her efforts to rally residents for community projects. “I want them to be happy.”

Christmas decorations at Blk 702 Bedok Reservoir Road, Singapore.

A cozy fireplace nestled in a tent. Collage: VICE / Images: Sandy Goh

Since moving to Bedok in 2006, Goh has been actively cultivating a community space. And her efforts have paid off. Over the years, the jovial auntie has helped elevate the scale of these residential parties, as well as foster a tight-knit community among residents that harken back to the neighborly spirit that she misses from her childhood kampung.

Goh is often found hanging around the void deck, where she helps elderly residents interpret English letters and chit-chats with passersby.

While the kampung spirit seems to have disappeared in most parts of Singapore, Goh and her fellow residents in Bedok Reservoir have managed to recreate that neighborly love where they live. Beyond the parties, they offer their expertise to one another through events like haircutting courses, free tutoring, and sharing resources like outdoor gym equipment.

“With a supportive neighborhood, no matter what happens, it’ll be easier to resolve problems,” she said.

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