Friday, November 27, 2009

Setting the record straight (the not so mystical 'Chinatown walkabout')

Yu-Mei's previous post about our appearance in the Straits Times prompts me to write a further clarification, largely because my 'mystical Chinatown walkabout' was anything but (which in itself is quite revealing).

However, before anyone leaps in to slam the ST for yet another feeble attempt at 'responsible' journalism, let's be fair. Yu-Mei and I had arranged to meet the paper's very nice journalist at a cafe off Club Street, where the music was a bit loud and the ambiance not exactly conducive to conversation. Both of us were probably also a bit psyched, as we were about to give our first ever book reading. And so as the interview got underway and we started to talk over each other a bit (and at speed), I sensed our friendly reporter was struggling to take it all in, and that what she was getting might not be enough for her story.

Given this, I was grateful we got any coverage at all, even if some of what we were quoted as saying bore only a tangential relationship to what we had actually said or had written.

Which brings me to that 'Chinatown walkabout', during which I mysteriously morphed into Yu-Mei and began to feel the district's 'ancient history' bursting into life around me.

Well, not exactly. As I recall, what I actually tried to get across in our interview was how hard it is to get any sense of Singapore's physical past today.

I'd set off on a solo heritage walk to try and recreate the route of the 'Kreta Ayer martyrs' (see Chapter 18 of Singapore: A Biography) who in 1927 had marched angrily from the Happy Valley amusement park on Anson Road and then attacked the Kreta Ayer police station, where policemen shot them dead in the street. Thanks to road diversions, the destruction of the old Kreta Ayer police station and the lack of accessible period maps, my attempt was a total failure. Yet luckily, I met a friendly old Chinese man selling prints and his own heritage booklets outside the Chinatown Heritage Centre. As he explained to me how the streets had once been laid out and where the old police station had once stood, he seemed pretty gobsmacked that anyone should care about the 'Kreta Ayer martyrs' or want to retrace their route.

The confusion in the ST piece originated with my effort to describe the one time during the writing of Singapore: A Biography when I did feel a very strong sense of the island's past returning to life. This happened, completely to my surprise, when I joined my two year-old daughter's playschool excursion to a fish farm in Chua Chu Kong (in the island's north). I'd tagged along to help out, but on the way over I noticed a sign pointing to the site of the Japanese landings on Singapore during the night of the 9 February 1942. Leaving the little ones to harass the koi, I slipped away for a closer look.

Wandering through the mangroves, I had my first, so far only, and at the time extremely visceral, sense of walking with historical ghosts: the soldiers who had fought on both sides as the whole area went up in flames during the Mandai inferno. I'm not saying I saw actual ghosts, nor heard phantom explosions, shouts of anguish or the like; what I felt, instead, was a powerful inkling that the area still retained a memory of the events that had once defined it. It also stuck me just how close Johor is to Singapore, how little distance the Japanese had to come, and how badly Percival (the British Commander in charge of the defence of Singapore) had got things wrong.

One has to be careful not to become too nostalgic for bygone streets and pathways that one has never walked down, smelled or got mugged in, places that in most cases now exist only in the historical imagination. And, of course, the rational explanation of my experience that morning was that my historical imagination had got the better of me.

Nonetheless, when people complain about the lack of rootedness they feel in Singapore today, not to say the lack of a collective Singaporean identity, I often think that what they are expressing is their deep lack of a sense of place. Obviously, economic development involves urban transformation - in Singapore's case, ceaseless urban transformation. But at the same time, historical buildings and landscapes remain the very essence of what makes a place distinctive and of what, over time, generates a sense of civic pride.

Modern spaces can do this as well, provided they are interesting (or even unintentionally humorous): a big tick for the Esplanade in this respect, a big cross next to the derivative 'woo, please look at us, we're a global metropolis' Singapore Flyer. In a weird way, the sheer 'in your face-ness' of ION Orchard currently does it for me too.

Yet nothing beats walking down a street or along a pathway that still somehow retains a continuity with what made the island distinctive in earlier days and still makes it so today. (Nothing, perhaps, save meeting a helpful old Chinese man for whom the memory of that place is still alive and vivid.)

For me, physical heritage is to a city what the face is to an individual's personality. Wrinkles will appear, the face will inevitably change, and on occasion a facelift and even reconstructive surgery might be deemed necessary to keep things in place or return them to their rightful place. But to destroy this face in an effort to reinvent it, as Singapore's Urban Renewal Authority explicitly set out to do from the mid-1960s (see page 430 of our book), seems to me the civic equivalent of doing a late Michael Jackson.

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