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The HDB Lift: Where Awkward Conversations Turn Neighbours Into Friends

The HDB Lift: Where Awkward Conversations Turn Neighbours Into Friends

  • Culture
  • Life

Top Image: Zack C / ZACKHEDELIC


The elevator grinds to a halt. Its doors slowly open to the landing on the thirteenth floor, revealing an elderly lady whom I neither remember nor recognise.

The same however, cannot be said for her. Crossing the threshold, the woman surveys me for a moment before exclaiming:

“Wah, so big already! So handsome!”

Startled by the stranger’s sudden outburst of affection, nine-year-old me responds by seeking refuge amidst the large folds of my mother’s skirt. Unfortunately for me, I soon find out that my retreat is hugely disrespectful. In a matter of seconds, I’m duly chided for my cowardice and failure for not thanking the stranger for her compliment.

Mumbling a nervous apology in the direction of my shoes, I eavesdrop on the two women discussing everything from laundry detergent to the great bok choy price hike of 1998. Their conversation lasts until the lift reaches the ground floor. After a quick ruffle of my hair, the elderly lady waves goodbye.

It’s been almost twenty years since that hair-ruffle. It was also the last time that I bumped into that ah-ma on the thirteenth floor. All the same, I’d still like to thank her. Not for the kind albeit undeserved compliment, but for showing me that the space inside an elevator is so much more than just a means of transportation.

(Image: HDB)
For better or worse, ever since that day, what I once saw as a fascinating feat of mechanical engineering became for me a 0.5m by 0.5m by 2.2m zone of social interaction.

As an extremely shy kid, I dreaded the potential ambushes by unfamiliar grown-ups commenting on my appearance, or the slew of personal questions I was constantly too timid to answer.

But when your legs have the musculature of limp noodles, traversing sixteen flights of stairs multiple times a day times sounds inconceivable. And so I sucked it up and hatched a plan to  mentally prepare myself for the forced interactions from which there was no escape. Nine-year-old me imagined myself a spy on a reconnaissance mission, gathering intel on the comings and goings of these strangers.

I started studying my fellow passengers and keeping an eye on which button lit up after someone new entered. I earnestly watched the overhead display, observing which floors the lift stopped most frequently at. I even remember once jostling my way to the front just to get a better look at the latest addition to our void deck landing party.

Gradually, patterns started emerging. At 6:35am sharp, the pinafore-d sisters living on the fourteenth floor would excitedly enter the lift, followed by the muscular SJI boy on the ninth. Every morning, the same scene would play out in front of me like clockwork, and I’d diligently note any anomaly. It must’ve taken me a solid year or two to memorise the routines of all my neighbours. But when I was a kid, it was a far better use of my time when the alternative was doing math homework.

Eventually, the self-appointed elevator attendant of block 138 was able to instantly recognise familiar faces, and knew when to brace for either a coddling and/or an interrogation should the lift shudder to a halt on a particular floor.

Looking back, the lift actually helped me get over my fear of strangers. It sounds corny as hell, but hear me out.

Through the eyes of any child, the world is filled with odd and confusing people. And I had always been terrified of them. Accordingly, the many occasions of being imprisoned together in that metal box enabled me to discern friend from foe. I knew who had reason to be in the building and who didn’t. Whenever I shared the lift with someone who made me feel uneasy, I’d quickly push the button for the nearest floor and get off.

As I got older, I became less distrustful towards anyone I couldn’t immediately identify, and even began to be friendly towards those I could.

(Image: Wikiwand)
As my thinking matured with age, I started to understand that the mollycoddling came from the folks who, thanks to the shared elevator, had inadvertently watched me grow up. From being carried around in my mother’s arms, to the top of my head only coming up to their knees and gradually even surpassing them in stature, my neighbours had been spectators to it all.  

Perhaps it was the remnants of the “kampung spirit” in the older generation that made them feel as if I was as much their son as I was my parents’.

Observing how my close friends’ parents treated me also opened my eyes to this. They were always extremely welcoming and it was as if I was an extended member of their family whenever I popped by. I then decided to apply the same logic to the people living around me.

With a changed mindset, I soon realised that my neighbours were genuinely concerned about my well-being. This meant that I no longer stared at the floor and pretended to be invisible whenever a neighbour enquired about where I was headed to or how my day was. Instead, I’d make eye contact and reply like a normal human being.

Much to their surprise, I’d also take the initiative and greet them whenever we happened to share the couple of minutes in the lift. With time, the casual greetings turned into proper conversation.

Although these bits of chit-chat were organic and well-meaning, we never talked about anything serious. Most of the conversations were just variations of “are you still studying?” and “Have you eaten Uncle/Auntie?”.

But while we might’ve never discussed issues pertinent to Singaporean society, we were unconsciously forging a mini society of our own. The unassuming lift had allowed everyone living in the block to kinda-sorta know everyone else. The consequent, inevitable sense of community became undeniable.

This was especially apparent whenever the source of our unity—the lift itself—broke down. Remember: technology back then was a far cry from what we have now, and mobile phones didn’t exist. Short of frantically bearing down on the alarm button while praying that a cable didn’t snap, there was precious little trapped occupants could do.

In those moments, residents who might’ve had nothing in common except a postal code banded together for a common good. All because of an elevator.

(Image: loobee26)
By now, it must be pretty clear that I might be over-romanticising the humble lift, but it’s only because many people don’t seem to fully realise their significance.

The beauty of the elevator is that it’s a private yet public area. A small, enclosed space in which anonymity and intimacy blur into each other in awkward silence. But if you really take the time to think about it, you’ll find that that metal box suspended only by cables and a counterweight, is the real core of any apartment block.

After all, four walls and a roof might make a house. But it’s the people that make it a home, even when it’s the ones who live in your block, not your flat.

Objects of Affection is a column centred around the things and spaces that serve as hallmarks of our relationships, from the personal to the professional, and everything in between.

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Justin Vanderstraaten Staff writer