Our Homes of the Past: Chan Wai Lim’s ’70s Childhood in Jalan Kemuning

In the second of a series of stories about Singapore homes through the years, we talk to industrial designer Chan Wai Lim, who has designed a range of products inspired by her memories in her '70s kampung in Jalan Kemuning.

Updated on June 12, 2017 11:06 am

Michelle Ong


To Chan Wai Lim, her childhood in her kampung home wasn't just a time of happy innocence, it was a time when she felt she could be fearlessly creative. "I think that was my most creative time. When you are a kid, there's no stress, but as you grow older, you tend to overthink. (Back then,) if you want to jump into the pond, you just jump," she says.

It is still that period of creative energy that Wai Lim still draws inspiration from. Despite staying there for just the first five years of her life, she still fondly recalls memories from this special time and is excited to share them. "It's funny because I still remember many things," she enthuses. These include moments like waking up to catch toads that had made into her way into her living room, falling into a lake filled with huge, scary looking iguanas, and experimenting with morning glory to create loud sounds for amusement.

Jalan Kenuming: A Kampung to Call Home

The kampung Wai Lim lived in was situated in Jalan Kemuning, which was conveniently situated near her grandfather's workplace, Sembawang Shipyard. The rental for the land was just $5 per month and came with an electric point for light. With the help of a neighbour who worked as a constructor, Wai Lim’s grandfather built the house using materials like wooden planks, cement, and corrugated zinc that were bought with his own savings. This was the place where their large family of 12, which consisted of her grandparents, parents, brother, three aunties and two uncles, and a cousin, would call home.

The layout of her home according to Wai Lim. She says the kitchen was in another house across the road.

As it was a friendly kampung, no neighbour was a stranger. The main entrance to Wai Lim’s home was always opened so that it was common for people to come into their home uninvited, but welcomed. Neighbours would come in the evenings to watch TV with Wai Lim’s family since many did not have their own television set. Everybody knew one another and even Wai Lim’s parents were neighbours before they got married.

Outside the house, the family had an area to do some farming, rearing animals like chickens, ducks, and even a few pigs, which Wai Lim herself played a part in taking care of. She says, “My dad taught me to dig for earthworms to feed the chickens. So every day, I followed my dad’s routine.”

The Living Room: A Multipurpose Haven

The living room in Wai Lim's home was more than a place for people to watch TV; it was also a place for the grandchildren to sleep. The bedroom was reserved for the adults, while the rest of the family had to make do with sleeping on a mattress in the living room. Even though space was a luxury they did not have, she never felt like the space was overcrowded. "I thought everything was fun, there was company. Even when I was alone, I could chase dogs and cats," she says. She also fondly recalls how one of her earliest memories was of catching toads in the living room the moment she woke up.

Image source: www.storyofbing.com

Most of their furniture pieces such as television set, chairs, coffee table, and dining table were bought at a nearby marketplace called “Chong Pang Village,” about 1 kilometre away from Jalan Kemuning. Wai Lim says the store keeper would even deliver the furniture to their home.

More Gems from the Family Home:

General Electric fridge and Sharp TV

Their General Electric refrigerator was bought at $450. A brick was used at the base of the fridge to ensure that the fridge didn’t come in contact with water.

There was also a television set from Sharp that cost $500. Other electronics in her home included a radio from popular Japanese brand National (known as Panasonic today) that came in silver colour and had a big knob and a long analog displaying the channel.

Telephone from Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS)

Wai Lim’s father worked for TAS (known as Singtel today) as a technician for more than 30 years. Thanks to that, Wai Lim’s family owned two sets of telephones, despite many homes not even owning phones during the ‘70s. Wai Lim says the telephone came free when you subscribed to the telephone service.

Flying Man Sewing Machine

Many families owned a sewing machine to save on having to buy clothes for their huge families. For Wai Lim’s mother, this Flying Man sewing machine was her modus operandi for creating additional income to support the family. This cost $140 when it was bought in 1971 and was operated with a step paddle. Today, the machine is still working, but one slight modification has been made: the motorised pedal has been changed to a wooden compartment due to wearing.


Besides serving as an altar for many Chinese homes, the cabinet also served as a place to showcase gifts. The cabinet in Wai Lim’s living room came with glass shelving which was great for showing off items like her parents wedding gifta Japanese doll figurine encased in a cylinder acrylic casing, as well as a Chinese poem engraved on a whale bonea gift from a family friend.

Cupboard for Clothes

Purchased in 1971, this cost $20 and despite its simple appearance has managed to last some 44 years. Today, Wai Lim’s family uses it to store hardware tools.


Forget fluffy goose-feather pillows. Back in the day, rock hard porcelain pillows were the thing to have. Wai Lim says the piece was brought over from China by her grandfather and is probably at least 90 years old now.

Rattan Chair

“This rattan chair is uniquely Singaporean, every family had a piece”, says Wai Lim.

Icons of Sembawang

Inspired by these experiences, she created the "Icons of Sembawang," a collection of children’s rocking furniture pieces, which she designed in collaboration with Samko Timber company. 

Showcased at SingaPlural last March, this range of eco-friendly wood outdoor furniture came shaped like three animals commonly seen in her kampung: a dog, a cat, and a pig. It is Wai Lim’s hope that through these pieces, she can bring a smile to people’s faces, while reminding young children that there’s fun beyond today’s popular gadgets.

Wai Lim describes the chairs as a “kid magnet” and says, “I wanted to bring this memory to my nephew. (To remind him not to) always play iPad when he’s out.”

Uniquely Singaporean

While many local designers may not think that a distinctive Singaporean design style exists, Wai Lim thinks it’s entirely possible for one to materialise, thanks to Singapore’s diverse, multicultural background and ever-changing environment.

It may not be long before a distinctive Singaporean style happens too, as efforts by the Little Thoughts group, a local design collective which Wai Lim is part of, contributes to telling the Singapore story through practical design. The group showcases local designers’ creations that come with a unique Singaporean flavour at its exhibitions, which are held once every two years.

Wai Lim herself hopes to create more pieces like "Icons of Sembawang" in the future that translate her Singaporean memories into practical design, and one can’t help but anticipate her next project.

To find out more about Wai Lim and The Little Thoughts group, visit www.littlethoughts.org.

Photos courtesy of Chan Wai Lim

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You can also visit our interactive microsite featuring Singaporean homes in the past five decades. 


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