03 March 2010

Changing Landscape Of Singapore (2)

Singapore's landscape has been changing rapidly since its independence. Time and again, there have been calls by concerned people for the pace of change to slow down. Some even wrote letters to local newspapers appealing to the authorities to consider saving what is left of our past. If the authorities had heeded these calls, some of which came decades ago, we might not have needed the Integrated Resorts to bring in the tourists.

Today, I reproduce one such letter published in the Straits Times of 15 June 1985 and bring you some old photos which evoke the memories conjured up by the letter writer, aptly called by the pseudonym "well-wisher". To the best of my knowledge, the letter remains unanswered, up till now.

Time to think about saving what's left

I have lived in Singapore for many years and I suppose it goes without saying that I like it here. I admire this country and I defend its policies. But there is one policy which puzzles me because it seems to be self-defeating. We are concerned at the reduced level of tourism, yet we are systematically removing many of the features that tourists love. I am speaking of the older colourful parts of our town.

I am frequently involved in taking out visitors and amongst those who know anything about Singapore, there is hardly a single one who fails to ask to be taken to places such as the Orchard Road car park (long gone), Bugis Street (going), Albert Street and Fatty's (going soon), Raffles Hotel (hanging on), and the Chinatown night market (gone).

My visitors lament when they learn that these pieces of original Singapore are gone or going. They are, of course, impressed by our new hotels, shopping complexes and skyscrapers. Singapore has been outstanding in these developments and they marvel at such obvious progress. However, there is a boring sameness about such structures; from Hongkong to Houston they are similar and unlikely to be of sustaining interest to tourists.

And when it comes to local colour, tourists prefer the real thing, not artificial copies. Visitors want to experience Singaporean life rather than something concocted specifically for tourists - like themselves.

After we have eliminated the last street market, the last eating stall, the last wayang, the life of the streets will be extinct and it will not be possible to recreate that atmosphere ever again.

Presently the pressure to provide land for redevelopment has eased - one might say expired. We probably have enough office space, hotel rooms, shopping complexes, warehouses to last us for some years to come. Could we not use this breathing space to rethink policies and perhaps to save some little of what we have left?

Singapore 1128

Orchard Road carpark, before the hawkers (and the bulldozers) moved in. Could you see the hand pointing "this a-way" to the carpark for those who had lost their way? Only kidding, of course. It is actually a Federal Motors signboard advertising the sale of Austin cars and trucks.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: P's Collection)

The hawkers queueing up on Orchard Road before moving into the carpark. Did you notice the topless man? Would you dare to buy your food from such a hawker today? And I wonder if he would have managed to obtain even a "D" grading from the NEA if he were to serve food in that outfit now.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: P's Collection)

The hawkers have taken up their strategic positions now. Soon comes nightfall and this carpark will be teeming with hungry customers. The pointing finger is still there but the advertising signboard on the left has different pictures from the first photo above. And now we know that the concrete road divider was the first thing to go.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: P's Collection)

Similarly, the day scene in Bugis Street will be transformed into a very different one at night...
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

What did I tell you? Bugis Street at night - another food haven to rival the one at Orchard Road carpark.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

And for beef kway teow lovers, there are not one but two stalls located opposite each other in Malabar Street to whet their appetite. Hmm... yummy! Simply haven... er, I mean heaven! Aiyah, whatever lah! Just give me my beef.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

Night market in New Bridge Road near Chinatown.
(Circa 1962. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

Night market. The stall on the left is selling fireworks and fire crackers. The stall on the right is selling sweet Swatow Mandarin oranges at only 60 or 70 cents a KATI. Wah, so cheap! But still, look at who has more customers. Ahh, those were the days, my friend.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

Undated postcard showing Raffles Hotel in the daytime many decades ago.

Recent photo of Raffles Hotel at night. Raffles Hotel was gazetted as a National Monument on 6 March 1987 and 3 June 1995. Hmm... I wonder why it had to be gazetted 2 times? To be doubly sure or what?
(Photo credit: Victor Koo)


ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

"The life of the streets will be extinct and it will not be possible to recreate that atmosphere ever again..." Is this statement true Victor?

Go to Bugis Street, Chinatown and the heartlands of our HDB apartments. The street vendors are back, the crowd is back, the noise and grime of the pasar is back.

Not that I agree to beautiful buildings being demolished; the people create the atmosphere too.

Uncle Phil said...

I sincerely hope that even the most enthusiatic supporters of turning our beloved island home into the most sleek and modern city in Asia find themselves grazing at these old photos and entertaining a peculiarily true blue Singaporean suspicion that prosperity may be a curse in a place that once offered so many riches that money could not buy.

peter said...

Heritage should not be just about buildings. If there are no buildings, photos and memories are just enough.

Some of our Singapore buildings have been left to 'rot" because of the unintended impact of the Tenancy Law which was put into place when the PAP came into power in 1959. The tenancy laws were meant to prevent unscrupulous landlords from chasing out tenants who otherwise would not have a place called home. Owners affected by the tenancy law felt it not business viable to maintain the buildings because the rents collected were "peanuts".

This is a difficult situation for any government. You need to balance social needs with business objectives. So the government went about in land/building acquisiton and land reclamation. So what the government did in those days was perfectly sound. If not how could you find Shenton Way skyline in the 1970s?

However enbloc sale which is very popular now is another matter.

Philip Chew said...

I am glad that the hawkers at Orchard Road carpark had been resited to a hygienic location. Previously, they not only caused traffic obstruction when pushing their carts to the site but also used the canal (now covered up) as a dumping ground.

Icemoon said...

Who is this 'P' man? Somebody who insists on anonymity? Heehee.

fr said...

Victor, I share your sentiments about these places. However, I feel change is inevitable.

Take Chinatown for example. Say the authorities did not intervene or had any plan for it. The older folks would leave and the younger ones would not want to take over the trades. As we progress, some habits and practices would not be allowed because of health or other reasons and ... Chinatown would loose its charms. If we had left it to its own fate, it might turn into a slum.

peter said...

I can't explain for Hong Kong which has in many downtown places not destroy its cultural uniqueness. And Hong Kong is a modern cosmopolitan city at the same time.

When you take a walk down one of Wanchai Streets - Des Voux Road, Hennessey Road - you walk through wet markets right in the middle of the street. You see wet markets inside the ground floor shops and upstairs are homes. You see the butcher hangs his slaughtered pigs on steel hooks. You see light bulbs switched on although it's a bright morning. You see fowls slaughtered and feathers thrown on the road-side. You see plenty of "Suk Suk" sipping tea and spitting. Then around the corner you see a G2000 shop.

Is there something that Hong Kong has that Singapore can learn?

fr said...

Peter, the wet markets are thriving because a lot of people patronize them. I think HK does not have mega-supermarkets with a wet market within. Those normal supermarkets I have been to are quite small with some meat and vegetable at one section.

I would say Temple Street in HK has lost much of its cultural charm. Now it is more like a big pasar malam. At one end dozens of fortune tellers, occultists, etc line both sides of the street. They tell your future not only in Chinese but also in other languages.

At the other end you see groups of tourists gobbling down food at the roadside seafood stalls with beer girls serving beer.

Last time there were no beer-girls, only a few cantonese-speaking fortune-tellers and several groups singing cantonese opera songs at the roadside. There were also several chinese opera teahouses. I think most of them have closed down or converted to ktv, majong or games parlours.

Thimbuktu said...

For my "kopitiam ah pek" met last week for a reunion get-together (not on CNY eve though), we wonder what topic should be talkcock.

My Hokkien buddy nicknamed "Ong Thor" (aka "Ong Thor kong kor" of the Rediffusion story-teller days).

As some of them are now lurking the website as I recommended, they said, "hey, Victor Koo has a hot issue on Changing Landscape of
Singapore (2) at the "Taking Up The Challenge" blog.

"Jialat, Ong Thor", I told him. "Why this type of topic on "Time to think saving what's left" by Well-Wisher in the Straits Times letter on 15 Jun,

Tough...and I can't think well and drink. Even drink cannot drive, harder still for me to think and drink.

Ok then, just let Ong Thor talk, I just listen. Lets see what he has to say on this controversial debate since raised 26 years ago. How can we debate about pulling down memorable buildings and places, eg Orchard Road Carpark, Bugis St., etc mentioned by Victor.

Ong Thor goes on to "kong kor"...so I told him better keep it short, please.

"Boh huat thor ah",,,40 yrs when his former terrace house inherited by his father. The furniture of every rosewood teak antique, old-fashioned period style in the home. After his father died, Ong Thor changed everything refurnished and auctioned off the antique stuff. The design was the
1960s fashion.

Ong Thor retired, passed him the house to his son 5 yrs ago, threw away the old furniture and the latest design, color scheme and all. So, what's left of his Beatles record, casette players, etc changed to digitised home entertainment. So, all Ong Thor's memorable stuff are gone.
So, what's left....

Singapore is a cosmopolitan city like all of New York, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Shanghai blah, blah. New generation wants new thingy, new lifestyle, new design for dwelling...so old-fashioned stuff could not fit in to the surrounding, physical environment as antique.

On occasional holidays, Ong Thor recommend go to Ipoh and other small towns in Malaysia where time stood still...like the 1960s days.
What's left could be found to relive everything else intact...the kampong rustic slow-paced we all loved. What's left is for the future, not the past. Some heritage conservative buildings could be left for tourists of whatever artificial. But tourists at home also have their future generation to be left.

I was a little drunk and just dozed off. "Ong Thor Kong Kor" has the last words.

Spencer said...

50 years ago when you asked the people, "DO YOU WANT CHANGES??!!" and they replied "YES!!"

So for 50 years the government embarked on a changing landscape on the island. Those that are filthy, un-organised and no promising income for the government was removed from the scene. New buildings started to erect like Lego.

Now..by the end of 2010. Singapore will be the greatest playground for the rich tourist. Casino, Theme Parks, high end dining in the sky etc.


Ahem...what will happen to the average or low end income Singaporean? How are they going to handle this fast raging development? Are we building playground for the rich and the poor can only salivate? Are you going to work and work so that you can retired with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck?

Well... I guess the answer is clear. The gov had mentioned, if you need to survive on this island, you have to work and keep up with the pace. And if you miss the old Singapore, go to the museum or somewhere else.

Er... can someone tell me how can I retire in Singapore in the future. Is there a quiet tranquil place? Or do I have to be like my Dad...slowly rot and die in the apartment because it was developing too fast for him to step out.

Now we think a little harder. Do we still want development? "YES" Do we want the old Singapore "YES but wait long long or maybe not"
So I guess the answer is clear...All what is left are great photos and memories from this Blog. There is no turning back the clock.