21 September 2005

Vanishing Scenes of Singapore - Part 1

If you read my previous posts, you will know that I like to reminisce. My next few posts will be about vanishing scenes in Singapore. An integral part of the ever-changing landscape in Singapore must be the renewal of its old buildings. As we are a small and young nation undergoing rapid development, many old buildings have to be torn down to make way for new ones. Some buildings are demolished for justifiable reasons while others have to go solely because of commercial considerations.

That's the protagonists' point of view. On the other hand, the antagonists would argue that it is precisely because Singapore is a small and young nation that its history is so short and hence its historical relics so precious and few. Therefore old buildings with unique architecture are invaluable artefacts which ought to be preserved. Thankfully, this job of deciding whether a building is justified to be preserved rather than demolished rests in the hands of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Singapore. It identifies and recommends buildings of historical, architectural and cultural merits for conservation.

One good example is the National Theatre which used to stand near the junction of River Valley Road and Clemenceau Avenue. Officially opened on 8 August 1963, the theatre was built to commemorate the attainment of Singapore's self-government in 1959.

If this old memory of mine serves me right, in the late 1970s I attended a concert by the pop group America in the theatre. My recollection is that a resplendent fountain (by 1960s standard) stood at the front of the theatre. At the back, the distinctive feature of the building was its cantilever roof which provided spectators some form of shelter from the sun and the rain. It was however quite useless during heavy downpours as some rain could still get in. Being open at the back also meant that there was no air-con – a minus point which most 1960s folks didn't seem to mind. (There weren't many places with air-con then anyway. Even public buses were cooled by natural breezes from their open windows.) Besides, being a 'semi-open air' theatre somehow meant that people need not bother to dress up for the shows – they could come as they were, in their singlets, shorts and char kiaks (wooden clogs). The gate keepers (don't remember there were any ushers as it was free-seating), would never stop you because you were not properly attired so long as you did not over expose yourself. Yet another great advantage was that if the tickets for any show were sold out, you could still catch a free glimpse of the performance by standing on the hill slope (Fort Canning) which was overlooking the back of the theatre. It was even better if you had brought along a pair of binoculars.

When I think of the National Theatre, memories of the Van Kleef Aquarium just next to it comes flooding back. This aquarium was nowhere near the standard or the size of today's Underwater World in Sentosa but for a mere S$2 entrance fee, one could gawk at the 2 crocodiles (in an enclosure, of course) at the entrance before entering the aquarium to view the marine fishes. In contrast, today's entrance fee to Underwater World is more than S$10 and that's not counting the admission fee to Sentosa Island itself. (That's why people say that SENTOSA stands for So Expensive, Nothing TO See Anyway, haha.)

Then there was the River Valley swimming pool nearby too. I had a few swims there before it also had to make way for redevelopment. I guess it must be too expensive to maintain a swimming pool in the heart of the city. (This area is within Singapore Central Business District or CBD.) The land is just worth too much there, not to mention the water. Clarke Quay (see earlier post) was just opposite the swimming pool.

Many Singaporeans were deeply saddened when the National Theatre had to be demolished in 1986 due to structural reasons. (I think it was because the cantilever roof was structurally unstable, meaning that it might fall down anytime.) I was one of the sad people. Now we have the spanking new Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, also affectionately known to locals as 'the Durians' because of its thorny roof structure. (Actually the roof was designed that way to resemble a microphone – a supposedly clever and relevant reference to the activities to be staged inside the theatres.) But no matter how well-designed and acoustically-sound (pun intended) the Durians are, they could never evoke the nostalgia which many people have of the old National Theatre... sob, sob.

Update on 7 Aug 2008:

Here is another shot of the National Theatre. It is one of several other photos of old Singapore, probably from old postcards, that was emailed to me by a friend recently. This one has the resplendent fountain that I was talking about in this article. It was probably taken at a later date than the first one.

06 September 2005

Being Positive For A Change

I promised Chris and myself that I will make a conscious effort to be more positive in my posts. Otherwise, my blog would be quite dreary for anyone to read and yes, even for me to review too. So this post is about being more positive in our outlook. I don't think anyone can be born positive or an optimist. On the contrary, I believe that one must make a conscious effort to stay positive, at least at the beginning. As with all things, if one has enough practice, being optimistic then becomes second nature. I must confess that I am still a long way off.

I remember this movie some time ago called 'Paying It Forward'. Although I have not seen the show myself, I believe the message of the show is to encourage everyone to do a good deed to someone. The recipient of the good deed would in turn do another good deed to another person, who in turn does another good deed to yet another person, and so on. As the saying goes, 'one good deed deserves another'. The good deeds will then propagate, if not in geometric progression then at least in arithmetic progression.

If everyone strives to do as exhorted by the movie, I believe that this world will be a much better place to live in. Pain and suffering, as mentioned by Chris in his recent post, will however still be around - no amount of human good deeds will ever avert the disasters which the heavens choose to inflict upon us nor the accidents which we mortal humans cannot avoid. This fact is borne out by the recent disasters brought on by the Katrina hurricane and the Medan air crash. Perhaps, (trying to be positive now) this our Creator's ironical way of showing us joy and pleasure because without knowing pain and suffering, how can anyone claim that he or she truly knows joy and pleasure? A good analogy would be: it is difficult for a person born with a silver spoon in his mouth to understand what poverty is like.

For a start, I would like to reflect on the good deeds that others have so kindly done for me. These are good deeds for which I am eternally grateful:

I have my lost wallet returned with its cash and documents intact on two separate occasions. One of the good Samaritans even came personally to my flat to hand me the wallet after finding out my address from my Identity Card in the wallet. He did it within minutes after I have dropped it in my car park, even before I realised that my wallet was missing. It was raining cats and dogs at that time too. I was extremely grateful to him and thanked him profusely. Returning someone's money and not expecting to be rewarded is, I feel, a true test of one's honesty. (Not that I was not prepared to reward him but I didn't offer him because I doubted that he would accept it. I was also afraid that he might even see a reward offer as an insult.) Although it was not a test of honesty that I deliberately put them through, these two good Samaritans had passed the test with flying colours.

But then maybe I am just being lucky. (Here I go again being negative.) I believe many people would be tempted by the cash and perhaps return only the documents, that is, if they still have some conscience in them. Otherwise they would not think twice to take the cash, throw the documents away and let some other people who pick them up do the returning. The worst people are those who take your money and still use your IC to borrow from Ah Long (illegal loan sharks) or use your credit card to buy the Rolex watch which they have pined for so long. Haven't we read these horror stories in the media often enough? However, to be fair, even if I have the misfortune to meet such people, I can't really put all the blame on them - after all it is, in a way, human nature which is prompted by my own carelessness. Dishonest people live by the motto 'finders keepers'. My elder son had lost a handphone which was never returned. Somehow, finders of handphones don't believe in returning handphones and owners don't expect them to be returned. Therefore I was very pleasantly surprised that two complete strangers would go out of their way to return my wallet. What incredible luck I had! They completely restored my faith in humanity.

I also have lesser good deeds done unto me which I will also remember no less. Like the time when a lady who bought something at an NTUC supermarket offered me to claim her rebate points since she was not a member and I was. Or the occasion when the wanton (noodles) lady offered me extra wantons at no extra cost, much to the envy of Chris.

I have paid it forward too - I once returned a pouch that I found near the door of my neighbour who stayed one floor directly below me. I didn't know how much money or valuables were inside, if any, because I didn't open it. I just knocked on the door and asked if the pouch belonged to the neighbour. The neighbour said "Yes", took the pouch and then thanked me with a smile. Now when I think back about the incident, the negative side of me asks: Oh dear, what happens if the pouch didn't really belong to my neighbour? Maybe I should have checked its contents and then asked the neighbour to name some of the contents just to verify that she was the rightful owner of the pouch? I am not doubting my neighbour's honesty but there are all sorts of people in this world and you just can't be too careful. (No, I must think positive now. It is already too late to be negative. No doubt, I will be more careful in the future.)

Then there was this occasion when it was also raining heavily. I was at my flat's void deck when I was approached by a blind man. It must be either that he was only partially blind or it was the noise of the opening of my letter box that betrayed my presence to him. He told me that he was in the vicinity to sell socks to earn a living. (What a way to earn a meagre living!) He wanted to go home to Eunos Crescent as he was not feeling well. He requested me to hail a taxi for him. Call me softhearted but this kind of request always tucks at my heartstrings. Therefore I very gladly obliged. I asked him to wait in the void deck while I went out to the roadside with an umbrella to hail a cab for him. When the taxi came, I gave the blind man $5 as cab fare which should be enough to take him home. This time, I was careful enough to tell the taxi driver that I had given the blind man the requisite cab fare, just in case the blind man tried to evoke a second round of sympathy from the taxi driver, hehe. Sigh, it is really difficult to suppress the negative and suspicious side of me. I will still try though.