Friday, 15 June 2007

Life in the Void

HDB flats have a consistent design that includes an empty ground floor creating a Void Deck; just pillars, lifts and mail boxes. There are no flats at ground level (which would be unfavourable considering security and disturbance).

This design has extreme utility. The sheltered but open space is used for events (weddings, marriage receptions, funerals, ballots), community facilities (clubs, restaurants, aviaries, pre-schools) and supports a rich and diverse life.

Most have concrete tables, sometimes marked out with a checker board (10 x 10) for games. The chairs are just concrete 'mushrooms' or perhaps a semi-circular bench. Sure they are uncomfortable with no backs but are actually a lovely cool spot for homework, reading the paper or just getting out of the flat. Plus, the whole lot can be regularly jet-washed with the rest of the void deck.

Chinese culture has a rich vein of ancestor worship, most commonly expressed with family altars in living rooms and the burning of papers, hell money, josh sticks, etc on the concrete margins of the void decks. There are BBQ-like braziers for this purpose but are rarely used. Most people have a favourite spot for their daily bonfire which create stained patches that even jet-washing fail to shift. Candles burn down to blobs of hard-to-remove wax. When it rains the fires move a few feet to the shelter of the void deck. I (once) tried putting one of these out and just ended up with dirty shoes. Stupid me.

The communal array of mail boxes is there, surrounded by the litter of junk mail. Even with great care, it's hard to pull the mail out without scattering the little slips like confetti, and who bothers to stoop down to pick up junk mail?

The neat council notice boards with announcements and Dos & Don'ts such as littering, bad parking, danger of falling items and dengue fever management. Chinese go for shock value rather than gentle persuasion so pictures of piles of rubbish and bicycles stored outside 10th-storey windows (roped to the concrete sun shields on each floor) are preferred over a simple list of guidelines like don't kill people with falling items.

Bikes and motorbikes are not allowed parked on the deck but are tolerated. The young guys with nice bikes (or just lots of stickers) do ritual, group cleaning on Sunday morning using the service tap for water (again not allowed but the "key" is not hard to get).

It's sort of the system here: dump whatever you don't want on the void deck. It gets picked over by residents (who take anything useful), then scavengers (for cardboard boxes, cans and other re-cyclable materials), then cats have a look for anything edible, then the whole lot gets cleaned up by the ever-reliable, Indian contract cleaning staff in the morning.

There is now a re-cycling wheelie bin on the void deck. Not all void decks, just a selection but it's a start. I can't figure out how one bin can take cardboard, paper, cans, glass & plastic, but I guess the low labour costs of separation makes it viable.

And that's just the human life on the deck. I'll leave cats, dogs and cockroaches to another time.