Veteran journalist Bertha Henson—who is known for her sharp commentary and dry humour—cuts an indomitable figure around the Bedok neighbourhood where she lives. “I grew up in this town. It’s a familiar place, an extended home that has grown with me throughout the years,” she says.
We catch up with Bertha as she shares what sets the HDB living experience apart, how the heartland has influenced her writing and why, 40-odd years (and a couple of different residences) later, she decided to move back into her first HDB home.
Hello Bertha, you’re back living in your first flat after four decades! Tell us more.
Bertha: I first moved into an HDB flat in Bedok in 1977, when I was about 13 years old. As my family was from a kampung, I remember how different everything was. I missed our big garden and being able to pop by my neighbours’ homes any time. However, I also recall being excited at the novelty of living in an HDB – everything was new to me, including the lifts and high-rise buildings.
My first private residence was in River Valley, where I moved to so I could be closer to work. I later moved to a private condominium in Bedok to be closer to my mother, before eventually moving back into the family home to care for my mother.
When I first moved away, I missed being surrounded by amenities such as coffeeshops, supermarkets and transport nodes. At River Valley, grocery shopping was quite the task as the nearest supermarket was located a distance away.
So, private or public housing?
Bertha: The benefit of public housing, is being taken care of. For instance, HDB has implemented various upgrading projects such as the Home Improvement Project (HIP) and Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programme that cater to the different needs of residents. Residents are also given the opportunity to decide on the type of amenities they think will best benefit their neighbourhood – all of which are not applicable to private housing.
However, there are aspects of private housing that I miss, such as having the swimming pool and gym just a lift ride away. I used to be able to get from my home to the pool in my swimwear – I can’t imagine doing the same now!
Let’s talk about Bedok. Share with us your favourite haunts.
Bertha: To me, Bedok is a “settled” estate. It’s a mature town filled with familiar people, amenities and everything I need. One of my favourite places is the coffee shop in my neighbourhood, which happens to be owned by people from my old kampung. We are very familiar with each other, and that makes my visits all the more comforting. I also visit the more modern establishments such as To-gather Café, it’s a nice place for a cup of latte and the air-conditioning is a plus.
I wouldn’t say this is a haunt, but I do enjoy taking leisurely strolls along the Bedok park connector and I would also occasionally walk to Bedok Reservoir.
You mentioned that you had fewer friends when you first moved into your HDB flat as compared to the kampung days –has that changed?
Bertha: Over the years, everyone got to acquaint ourselves. Some of the residents in my block have lived here since the beginning, and some neighbours own shops in the area. We would greet each other whenever we bump into the lifts and sometimes, strike conversations.
It’s interesting how we are familiar yet are respectful of each other’s space at the same time. For instance, we know where the others live, but don’t visit them in their homes. My mother has stronger relations with the neighbours as she has been living here for forty years. Whenever something needs fixing, she would call on the neighbour upstairs for help – he would head down, get the job done and that was it.
But of course, there are some neighbours we are more familiar with. We still keep in touch with the family who used to live next door to us – whenever they come back to collect their letters, they would drop by to visit my mother. Christmas get-togethers with my former next-door neighbours have also become an annual tradition.
Has your HDB home inspired your writing? How so?
Bertha: Every year, I write a piece dedicated to National Day. There was a particular year when I had writer’s block, so I decided to visit my favourite coffee shop. As I sat there and people watched, I thought to pen down the day-to-day scenarios I witnessed – from the coffee shop auntie weaving in and out of the crowds serving drinks, to the new parents seated nearby attempting to feed their newborn. That piece was surprisingly popular, probably because people could relate to it.
Read Bertha’s stories as an HDB dweller in her ‘Heart in the Heartland’ series, on the MyNiceHome website: