Gone Home by Ng Yi-Sheng
My father grew up in Tiong Bahru, but you won’t see his neighbourhood in this film. Folks as poor as him in the ‘50s and ‘60s rarely ventured into the posh centre of the district, where they’ve preserved all those art deco shophouses and vintage flats.
No, he lived with his widowed mother in one of those zinc-roofed huts in the overcrowded farming village of Kampong Henderson. Their home was next to a pigsty. It smelt so bad, houseguests couldn’t swallow anything for 24 hours till they got used to the stench.
It was a dump, but it wasn’t such a bad place to be a kid. He spent afternoons with the neighbours’ children, playing hide-and-seek and goli and some game called kererek. At night, his gang would visit the farmer who lived on the edge of the kampong, stealing the doraimi fish from his water hyacinth ditch into their rattan baskets.
Once, he tells me, he was climbing a tree in the cemetery to steal a baby bird from its nest. He let go of a branch and landed feet-first on the ground, breaking through the loose soil into someone’s buried coffin.
Stories like that fascinate me. You see, they’re records of a Singapore that no longer exists. Kampong Henderson is gone: it was bulldozed in 1970, all its residents shifted into the Housing Development Board’s high-rise flats. The cemetery, like so many cemeteries here, was exhumed to make way for the living.
My father’s generation has seen Singapore transform from a filthy colonial post-war ghetto island into a sparkling 21st century metropolis. They’ll tell you how proud they are of the progress we’ve made, but they’ll also confess that sometimes, they’re haunted by nostalgia.
They visit their old neighbourhoods. They find their landmarks erased, replaced by shopping malls and condominiums and expressways. They justify their sacrifice to themselves as the logical cost of development.
And as time wears on, they become strangers in their own homeland. They are exiles from a vanished Singapore.
A hell of a lot’s been said about Singapore’s crisis of heritage. In the words of our intellectuals and artists, we are a city of forgetting; we are cultural orphans with a history of amnesia. It’s almost become a cliché for us to deplore our rootlessness, our lack of a genuine sense of the past.
One of the most dramatic proofs of this dislocation is the way we’ve demolished our physical landscape. Many a concerned citizen will give you a litany of our lost, iconic buildings, now blasted into rubble: the old National Theatre, the old National Library, the old Drama Centre, the Van Kleef Aquarium, the 7th Storey Hotel, the National Stadium, and of course endless cinemas, schools, shophouse rows and kampungs.
The past, of course, was not a paradise. Most of us were poor, and everything stank. As a young writer, I used to grow impatient with old poets who mourned the loss of a Singapore River that was still polluted and littered with used condoms, or a Change Alley boasting the finest imitation branded goods, name your price and we’ll bargain down.
But then I watched in dismay as my own landmarks began to vanish. A disused fountain at Clementi town centre, a patch of grass above the tunnel in Orchard Road, where Filipina domestic workers used to gather on their days off. My own primary school. A part of you dies when the architecture of your memories no longer exists.
I’ve started to accept that this is one of the key themes of Singapore culture, inasmuch as we’ve been able to build a culture in our fiftyish years of nationhood. We’re a people defined by change, for whom transmutation is tradition: our national bird is the construction crane and our national sport is played with a wrecking ball.
And yet even change changes. In the last twelve years, a state-sanctioned movement has arisen championing our heritage, arguing for its preservation. This is why the Urban Redevelopment Authority has been able to declare certain places Heritage Districts, where the architecture of the ages must not be altered: spots like Chinatown, Little India, Katong and Tiong Bahru. A few old places must remain, after all, if only to look good for tourists.
This is also why we’re experiencing a surfeit of museums, with the National Heritage Board gussying up our oldest buildings and turning them into gorgeous, air-conditioned cultural centres. The Singapore Art Museum occupies the campuses of the old Tao Nan School and St Joseph’s Institution; the Arts House sits in the old Parliament House; the Malay Heritage Centre invaded the old Sultan’s palace at Kampong Glam.
It’s a mind-bending experience, passing through one of these preserved buildings, at once grateful that it wasn’t destroyed and aghast at the sheer hyperreality or perverseness of the scenes. There’s the fully restored Baba House on Neil Road, recreating the living conditions of a wealthy Peranakan family of the 1920s, down to the stray magazines left on the tables. Then there’s the old Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, turned into a centre for boutique restaurants and drinking holes.
I shouldn’t be ungrateful. It’s easier, I’ve realised, to pin memories to a place when its façade still exists, never mind if it’s altered beyond recognition. For instance, I recently visited my own childhood home in Pearl Bank, once the tallest condo in Southeast Asia when it was built in the ‘70s.
Now it’s painted beige and amber rather than stately (if boring) grey, the reception area’s full of ornamental plants, the lifts are no longer clunking boxes of stale cigarette-scented air, and the mama shop downstairs doesn’t sell Kaka chicken-flavoured crisps anymore.
But it’s there, the concrete tower. The shadow child is still standing on the 37th floor, experimenting with gravity by dropping his plastic toys down the stairwell. I count my blessings. In a shifting city, you can’t take anywhere for granted.
Joe and Christine have done a ton of historical research into Tiong Bahru. They’ve talked to the residents, and they know all about the demolished school, the condo on the site of the World War II massacre, the apartments where towkays used to hide their mistresses from their wives, the disused bomb shelter and the last Samsui woman, living alone in her one-room flat.
However, they’ve decided to put none of this into their finished film: not one factoid nor ghost story. Instead, they’ve concentrated on telling a story of the present, only dropping hints about how the past shapes us, whether it’s via nostalgia for an old home, or a desire to break away from a family tradition of selling drinks.
It’s been a surprise to many of us involved in the wider TIONG BAHRU project, since so many of us have seized the opportunity to blog about family history and the strangeness of cultural memory or simply to attest to the sorrow of change: how even the renaming of a place generates a sense of loss.
Yet in retrospect, I think Molloy and Lawlor’s decision is a good thing. Blinded by the past, we too often forget to be fascinated with the contemporary. We devalue living history in favour of the dead or dying; we fall in love at last sight without realizing how much we’ll miss the 2010s as soon as they’re gone – especially if the coming decades bring not further development, but decline.
Thus, the following is my philosophy for living in Singapore. Stop, every now and then, and realise that the vista before your eyes is impermanent.
Imagine yourself in the future, remembering this moment in the present. Savour it. Survey the landscape that surrounds you. It may be one of those overcrowded, tastelessly opulent places that everyone loves to hate: Orchard Ion, Iluma, Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World, the renovated Chinatown. In that case, love the overcrowding, love the tastelessness, love the opulence.
Remember: we are not only exiles of the past, but refugees of the present. We try to live normal lives till we’re thrown out again into another unrecognizable country.
So, open your eyes. Try as hard as you can to love your homeland.
A day will come very soon when it will leave you.
This essay features in the booklet accompanying the DVD of TIONG BAHRU, available from all NLB branches.