On the symbiosis of culture and landscape
By Toh Hsien Min
Recently I was asked by the national broadsheet to write a poem celebrating some part of Singapore. I had about a month, which was a reasonably generous time, I thought. As it turned out, this was expended in the following manner. Agonising on what to write about: four weeks. Actually writing the poem: two days. Newfound appreciation for Singapore's landscape: timeless. No, not really. Nothing in this constantly self-reinventing city really is.
My original choice had been Yan Kit Pool, behind Tanjong Pagar, where I had learned to swim. Unfortunately, it had long been closed to the public, and while a schoolboy self would have found a gap in the fence the older and more foolish me would not. Round the corner from there, the heavy cranes were lifting heavy steel structures onto the tallest public housing blocks on the island. These are arising where the first public housing built by Lee Kuan Yew used to stand. I wonder if they had not been worth conserving just for that, although I have a recollection of the stairs in Block 2 and what the view from the common corridor down to the carpark looked like. For my poem, I eventually settled on showflats, because they were generic and constantly being erected and taken down all over the island.
It seemed to me telling that a poem written to celebrate Singapore should seek out the generic rather than the particular. The truth of the matter is, the difficulty seemed to come about because our landscape is one to which very little public meaning attaches. It's Teflon-coated. It's pretty architecture without context. Take one of the newest malls on Orchard Road, the slightly optimistically named Orchard Central. If you could make the shops disappear, on account of their really not being a compelling mix, the building itself would be beautiful - two shafts of all-glass elevators, long gallery walkways, themed floors - like an art gallery. But with or without the shops, it's a shell. Nobody would mourn it if tomorrow Orchard Road woke up to see the open-air carpark it used to be. We have cantilever bridges that mimic Calatrava, we have a new National Library that seems to my inexpert eye to be dripping modern European, but we have yet to write the stories around them. What does the Esplanade symbolise at this point? Nothing. It may represent a young nation's impetus, even commitment, to artistic accomplishment, but it has as yet no symbolic value whatsoever. The closest thing in the vicinity with any symbolic value is the Merlion, which perhaps appropriately enough, has no truth about it. It is a fiction, made up by tourism board authorities as concrete synecdoche for Singapore. What makes it effective is that it has attained broader recognition outside of Singapore, which is a way of saying it has put on the ring of truth.
The message there is that culture needs wide adoption for the physical to resonate with meaning. Consider Paris, a city whose twenty arrondissements and the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes would fit snugly inside Singapore. Yet almost every person on the planet with a perspective outside of his own village would have an image of Paris: a romantic Paris, an intellectual Paris, a delicious Paris. Even those who have not been to Paris would have done so in their imagination.
The reason is that its boulevards and side streets have a line of sight to its history, to people and events and stories that are known and significant to many. You could stop by 58 rue de Cardinet and see the plaque in front saying "Dans cette maison habitait Claude Debussy quand le 30 Avril 1902 Pelléas et Mélisande fut créé à l'Opéra Comique". In the Quartier Latin, you can sit in the same café where Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness and the Chemins de la Liberté novels. By the time he got to his first plays, he was so well known as a habitué there he had to seek refuge in the Café Pont-Royal in the 7th. Or else heading north from Les Halles, you might come upon the surprise of a lovely Gothic church, the Église Saint-Eustache, flying buttresses and rose windows looking a little bit off the pace of the Ventre de Paris. This turn of architecture and mood inspired Émile Zola to write in one of his bound exercise books: "Rue des Prouvaires, choked: wine merchants, coal merchants, etc.; one can see beyond the Halles, a porch of Saint-Eustache, two rows of windows at the level of the arch, surmounted by a rose window. Flying arches on both sides." Exactly the same view is available today, the same view that Zola's protagonist Florent sees as he looks past the "gigantic pavilions whose roofs, superimposed on each other, seemed to him to grow, to stretch out, to lose themselves in a hazy dust of glimmering light" and to "the luminous face of Saint-Eustache".
History is an agglomeration of significance, and significance grows with time. It grows from highly personal responses and associations, much like Sartre going every day to the same café. It grows when the culture seeps into the popular imagination. It grows with cultural landmarks that can be attached to physical landmarks. Culture and landscape are so intertwined that neither can survive on its own. In many ways the nurturing of these mutually dependent abstracts is like, to borrow from recent statements from Temasek Holdings, investing for the long term. There are no shortcuts, which implies that the constant flow of redevelopment in the city keeps cutting short any cultural capital that can arise as surely as running a lawnmower over the grass to keep it neat. Meanwhile that sustained, directed investment in culture may not show results for years and years. But then a future poet might for the same project as mine take hours instead of weeks.
Curiously enough, we have another comparison of France and Singapore in this issue, namely Gwee Li Sui's essay giving the cultural context to a parliamentary citation of Voltaire. There are poems that do cite Singapore landscapes, and I think some of the poetic architecture in this issue is unusual and worth some close consideration. Among the short stories, one by Nazry Bahrawi examines some of the issues I've sketched out above through the lens of fiction. We also have our first ever audio recording of a poetry reading on QLRS thanks to Bani Haykal, some of my urban photographs of Seoul at night that Cyril and Wei Chian were kind enough to use, and an Acid Tongue with a pop culture angle. Happy reading!QLRS Vol. 8 No. 3 Jul 2009