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.