This article was first published on The Only Shaun Ever
Story and photography by Shaun Tan
The playground is packed with bodies but no one is moving, much less playing — at least, not in the manner a playground is built for. A child reclines on the slide, his face lit only by the glow of his phone’s screen. Others swarm and settle on the aqua-green mound on which the slide rests. The space surrounding the playground is not any less crowded. Standing or sitting, there is little room to manoeuvre as I weave my way around the quite literally, man-made obstacle course.
The next thing that hits me is the smell — a potent mix of perspiration and mosquito repellent; a nauseating flashback to any Singaporean son’s time in Pulau Tekong. If Singapore were ever to accept refugees, one could be forgiven for mistaking this as a refugee camp.
Since Pokémon Go’s launch in Singapore in July, rabid gamers have swarmed the various Pokémon hotspots across Singapore in search of the rarest Pokémons. One of the most afflicted areas here is the common area between Blocks 401 and 415 at Hougang Avenue 10, which is home to the aforementioned playground, an open-air auditorium and a kopitiam.
Nicknamed the mecca of Pokémon Go, players inhabit the area throughout the day, with crowds peaking between 7pm and midnight on weekdays, and beginning earlier on weekends. Some of the most dedicated even spend the night there, portable chargers in tow, as they attempt to topple the current “gym owner” or for rare Pokémon to appear.
This photo series focuses on the young residents of Hougang Avenue 10, many of whom are frustrated by the crowds but are unable to do anything but wait and hope for the hype to die down. If it ever does.
Zakiah: I’ve lived here since I was 10. I used to come here to have supper with friends or just meet my boyfriend. The playground used to be our ‘romance romance’ spot because nobody ever comes here… Now even the drink queue at the kopitiam is insane! We’ve avoided the area completely since, seeing as there’s nowhere to chill peacefully.
Kiat Sheng: I used to enjoy seeing the familiar faces at the kopitiam because the people who come here to eat are mostly regulars. Now it’s a bit stressful — in the past you didn’t have to wait long for a table, at most it would be five minutes. Now the ‘Poké’ players hog the tables, eating slowly while playing the game.
Jolene: Just last week, I was driving on the street (behind the auditorium) when the three cars ahead of me suddenly stopped. I was so close to rear-ending the car ahead. When I drove past, I saw that the drivers had stopped to play Pokémon Go.
The police have done a lot because it was a lot worse when the game was first released. Honestly, the game should redistribute the Pokemon to reduce the number of people in the area. It’s ridiculous.
Suzy: I live in a flat in Block 401 and work here (kopitiam under 401). Of course the kopitiam is more crowded now because of Pokémon. I work from 7.00pm to 7.00am, but before in my country (Malaysia) I also work hard, so this is normal.
I like to see everyone so happy; when they make noise it gives us the energy to work. Even with so many people they are never disrespectful, so we leave them alone.
Nicolette: I’ve never come here to play because its so crowded, even though I live at Block 466, which is just behind 401. I used to come here to eat at the kopitiam. Now when I get home at night, the car park is packed. You’ll see a stream of cars coming in and out. My dad used to come here with the car to buy fruits but now it’s so hard to find parking that he gave up and just goes elsewhere.
My parents worry more about my safety because there are so many people always loitering around the blocks at night. I guess the only upside is that Hougang is so uncool, this is the one chance for it to be cool. In the past when you think of Hougang you’ll think of Worker’s Party — now people think of Pokémon Go.
Teck Chye: I do play but only when I pass by the area. It gets quite noisy after 11.00pm, with people shouting about the Pokémon they’ve caught. I live at Block 406 and it definitely affects the residents of 401 and 415 more, but I would rather the hotspot be somewhere else, like Punggol Park. On the bright side, the carrot cake uncle says he’s doing very well, selling 1,000 plates a day. Even the convenience store, which used to close at 10.00pm, now stays open until midnight.
Give it a couple of years
Once the sun sets, the crowds don’t ever seem to dissipate, and even when they do, it’s only for half an hour as they migrate to Punggol Park to catch a rare Pokémon, before returning to their “nests”. Residents can do nothing but tolerate the noise and numbers. Though statistics reveal that the app is haemorrhaging players as the weeks pass, developers Niantic have revealed plans to release new Pokémon ‘generations’ amongst other updates, meaning that residents might be plagued by the game for a couple more years at least.