Why Tiong Bahru?

By Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy

It’s 8am on Sunday 4th April 2010 and an impressive number of local Tiong Bahru residents have turned out for a Walk and Jog event.

Seng Poh Walk

Alas, the rain comes down very hard and the event is cancelled. Despite the disappointment, in contrast to the gloomy grey sky the mood remains very upbeat. We are invited to stay for refreshments and we taste our first yam cake, which is very delicious. We are introduced to a number of local residents and talk about life on the Tiong Bahru estate. Before we leave we are given some free gifts including a reading light, a picnic blanket, a face cloth and a bottle of water. It feels like Civic Life: Tiong Bahru has well and truly begun.

We’ve been in Singapore now for 9 days. Actually, we’ve been in Singapore several times before. The start of the journey for this project began in January 2009 when we presented a number of our Civic Life films in the Golden Village cinema in Tiong Bahru. I think that’s when our real interest in Tiong Bahru began.

A valid question we have been asked is, ‘Why Tiong Bahru?’

We too are continually asking that question. As outsiders – people who don’t have this personal connection to Tiong Bahru – we’re reacting off very different considerations; other reference points. For example, how cinematic the design and architecture of the estate might be under the glare of a camera? Is it the kind of place that allows for interesting interactions to occur – for a sense of community to exist?

We see this visit to Singapore and the launch of the website and the blog as the beginning of a conversation that we would like to have with you, the residents and users of Tiong Bahru, about your feelings, thoughts and experiences of this unique place and the connection you feel you have to the architecture and design of the Tiong Bahru estate and hawker centre. We will regularly post ideas, thoughts, images and reflections on the blog and would like to invite you to join this conversation.

In the various conversations we have had so far we have noticed that people in general, and local residents in specific, are not ambivalent about Tiong Bahru. The estate seems to generate strong reactions. Clearly this has something to do with the fact it occupies a unique historic and architectural position in Singapore but there is obviously more to it than that. Again this makes us feel Tiong Bahru is an intriguing locale. As the Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space, “Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” There are many contradictions here in Tiong Bahru and it feels very much alive.

The most difficult question for us to answer in any of our Civic Life projects has always been where to put the camera. It’s the first question we ask and it’s also the one we spend the rest of the time trying to answer. In fact, since we’ve arrived here in Tiong Bahru we try to ask this question of everyone we meet. Not surprisingly, peoples’ responses differ. Each response seems to be motivated by very personal reflections on the estate. An innocuous grass bank is, for one person, highly significant, as this was the very site of a residential block they lived in many years ago.

Kim Pong Road

Singapore, like all cities or, perhaps more than most cities, is in a constant process of change. Naturally, people are very sensitive to it. Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question of where to point the camera but it’s one of those questions that is misleadingly simple and forces us to think hard about what is, in fact, worth filming. We ourselves have been very much drawn to the Tiong Bahru hawker centre.

Hawker Centre

For lots of obvious reasons – including, let us be honest, the great food – the hawker centre has seemed like a very good place for us to start.

So, we’d like to end by asking the question we pose to people when we meet them, ‘Where would you put the camera if you were making a film here and why?’

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