Fistful of Colours and Urban Renewal in Singapore: From Frowsy Woman to Sassy Young Lass
A Talk given in the School of African & Oriental Studies, University of London, 28 October 2008
By Suchen Christine Lim
Literature remembers what urban renewal erased. When I was writing Fistful of Colours in the 1980s, Singapore had embarked on a frenzied programme of tear-down and build-up. Landmarks disappeared. Whole communities were uprooted and re-located. I wanted to capture in Fistful of Colours the erased communities and landscapes of the past.
Singapore's urban history is a history of erased places and voices. Place denotes ethnicity in colonial Singapore's history. When Stamford Raffles planned the city of Singapore, he followed the practice of the English empire builders to divide and rule. He marked out on a map where each ethnic community would live: the Malays in Geylang Serai, the Chinese in Chinatown along South Bridge Road, the Indians in Little India along Serangoon Road and the Europeans in Tanglin along Napier Road and the Botanic Garden. Geylang, Little India and Chinatown today are no longer ethnic ghettoes. They are tourist attractions.
I am a child of urban renewal like the majority of Singaporeans, a writer born in northern Malaysia in the shadow of the hills, but lived in Singapore when I was a teenager. I was fourteen and miserable when I first stepped off the train from Malaysia at the railway station in Keppel Road, not far from Chinatown. Singapore in the 1960s was not the smart little red dot and global city that she is today. She was a frowsy woman with unkempt hair infested with lice. An urban, brown sprawl of shophouses. Everywhere I looked, there were houses, and no trees. Decrepit shophouses crowded Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown, cramped with people, spilling out onto the pavements and covered walkways. Mothers and grandmothers with babies and toddlers strapped to their backs, washed, cooked, ate, quarrelled and cursed the world, the government, and each other. The covered walkways of Chinatown were noisy public rooms by day, and dormitories by night when homeless old folks and unmarried males slept on makeshift beds of planks and cardboard. Large brown rats scuttled along the drains, inches away from the feet of diners having supper. Besides the rats, stray cats and dogs, gangsters ruled Chinatown. Each time, my stepfather parked his car there, he had to pay an urchin boy to guard it if he didn't want it vandalised. I didn't feel safe. Singapore was a city of rats and gangsters in my teenage imagination.
The Pagoda Lane described in the novel as 'a leprous gully of four-storey lodging houses with dark warrens of tiny cubicles …with or without windows' still existed then in the early 1960s. If you visit the Chinatown Museum today you will get a taste of what it was like to live as a family in dark windowless cubicles the size of your bathrooms.
My view of Chinatown as a fourteen year old was that of an outsider who saw only the leper's wounds but not the leper herself. Chinatown was a slum, in the 60s but it was also a vibrant close-knit community, culturally rich but money poor. I got to know this community when I followed my mother to worship in one of the temples and followed our family's amah, our traditional Chinese servant, to her cubicle, which she shared with other amahs in one of the lodging houses. When I was 16, I befriended Charlie who worked as a cleaner in the temple. He belonged to a gang. And he protected me. He told me, 'If anyone robs you, just tell him you're Charlie Wong's friend. If he takes anything from you, don't worry. I'll see that it's returned to you.' The gangsters only stole from rich outsiders. Within the community, they operated gambling shops, controlled the temples and organised religious festivals and ceremonies like the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, and ran tontines so that the urban poor could pay for weddings and funerals to honour their ancestors. Charlie Wong is remembered in my second novel, Gift From The Gods. There were all kinds of small temples to various deities in the Chinese pantheon of gods, and associations for cooks, amahs, seamstresses, dance hostesses, waitresses and so on. At night, there were street performances by sellers of traditional herbal cures, performances by erhu and pipa musicians. Along the covered walkways were the stalls of fortunetellers, storytellers and letter writers, and beds of the homeless, and makeshift food stalls and tables for diners. 'Overcrowded', 'dirty', 'chaotic' and 'messy' are the words that non-residents and government housing planners used to describe Chinatown. But it was home to thousands of Chinese Singaporeans.
Today, this vibrant, quarrelsome, messy community has been moved out of the heart of Chinatown. In their place are the conserved shophouses and townhouses owned by the gentrified traders and shopkeepers who speak English and Mandarin fluently, but they and their families do not live in Chinatown. Only one street known as Food Street serves hawker food. These hawker stalls are certified clean food stalls selected by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to showcase the best in Chinese hawker fare. There are organised licensed street performances on festive occasions. The former dingy lodging houses have been made over as restaurants, bars, coffeeshops and shops catering to tourists. Only a few shops such as the Chinese traditional medical shops cater to the locals. Literature remembers forgotten aspects in our history. In my novel, Ong Ah Buck visited his clansman who worked for the British colonial authorities in the Jinricksha Station and got into trouble over his rickshaw licence simply because he could not read English. It was a stark reminder of colonial power. The Jinricksha Station is now a pub owned by Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan. Duxton Road, the scene of several rickshaw pullers' riots and protests against the British colonisers has been turned into an entertainment area with pubs and discos that cater to the growing cosmopolitan population of expatriates from China, India and western countries. Urban renewal has erased the memories now found only in Singapore fiction. At the time when I was writing this novel, such riots and protests were not even in our school history books. I hope they are mentioned now.
The real Chinatown is not in Food Street or Pagoda Street any more. It's in the highrise block of shops and apartments next to Sago Lane, formerly known as Dead Men's Row. Sago Street was known for its funeral parlours and houses where the sick and dying poor went to await death. These houses have been torn down. In their place are a car park and a five storey brand new Chinese Buddhist temple, built as a tourist attraction and a place of worship. The real or old Chinatown community lives and shops in the modern (some say nondescript) block of flats and shops behind this temple. This was where I went to buy the traditional wedding gifts for my son's wedding. I will not be able to find them in the traditional-looking gift shops in Pagoda Street.
Chinatown is a clear example of how the physical architectural shell of the past is cleaned up to cater to the nostalgia of the middle class, the tourists and commerce. The new Chinatown, with its brightly painted conserved shophouses and hygienic food stalls, was reshaped by the university-educated civil servants who run the STB and the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority). If the criteria of success are nostalgia, tourist attraction and commerce, then Chinatown is a success, but it is a successful urban renewal project that has ejected the original community and its way of life. Chinatown is a successful commercial tourist attraction wearing the architectural shell of Singapore shophouses built in the early 1900s.
Geylang by contrast is a fine example of the people's resistance to urban renewal and the government's pragmatic neglect, although I doubt this will last. I must clarify that Geylang district is divided into Geylang Serai where the Malays lived and lower Geylang where the Chinese lived. In the novel, there are two different memories of Geylang. Zul the English-educated Malay journalist remembers Geylang Serai that was rural, dotted with kampongs (villages).
Zul's grandfather, "Rahman lived with his family in a kampong in old Geylang, within a maze of thatched huts, attap houses on stilts, and muddy lanes crisscrossed with rotting planks and coconut trunks. Straggly bushes and creepers hugged the shallow ditches of frothy stagnant pools. Scrawny chickens scratched among the rubbish heap of discarded boxes, cartons and rusty tin cans, and ducks with bristly tails poked their beaks into the grey pools for slimy scraps of food. Dirty little urchins brown with the sun, crouched near the ditches, oblivious of the flies and filth, giggling and pointing to the thin curls of turd oozing out of their little brown bottoms! Such kampong scenes have passed away" (Fistful p. 134), Zul, the grandson, noted. "Gone were those familiar landmarks which had given his boyhood a sense of stability because he had once thought they were eternal, suspended in time even though the rest of Singapore was changing. But those totems of his youth, like everything else, had been bulldozed and demolished to make room for the new concrete boxes erected in place of the Flame trees, the angsanas, the lallang patch, the muddy ditch (where he'd caught his first guppy) and the roadside barber's stall under the angsana tree" (Fistful pp. 142 – 143).
The Geylang that Jan's father remembers is the more urban part of Geylang towards Aljunied Road, dominated by the Chinese.
The two Geylangs described in the novel are seldom mentioned in the mass media. What is featured in the newspapers is the Geylang of sleazy bars. I believe that the civil servants in the URA have not bulldozed the sleazy bars away because they realise that this Geylang serves a primordial need. Immigrant workers in Singapore away from their families need the solace of sex. The current population is 4.8 million of which 1 million are immigrant workers on work permits and professional passes. This part of Geylang is allowed to retain its air of sleaze, cheap hotels, karaoke bars, and massage parlours. By day it is a place of cheap eateries that cater to the Chinese crowd and the adventurous backpacker. By night, at around 10 pm, certain side lanes are lined with beautifully made up women from China who stand like models along the sidewalks. I am told these women charge more and they cater to the local men and the professionals. In another lane are the more poorly dressed Southeast Asian women from the Philippines, Thailand or Malaysia who cater to a poorer clientele. This is also the place where retired Singapore men affectionately called 'Uncle' and 'Ah Pek' go and spend their retirement funds. On weekends the male population along the roads increases significantly. The shops are open till 3 am. Yet Geylang is also a place where families go for its delicious cheap food, and stalls that sell Singapore's favourite fruit, the durian. This is the Geylang that the mass media and some tourist guidebooks rave about. For some reason, it has not entered into Singapore fiction yet.
But it will not be long before this part of Geylang is gentrified. Several landmarks have already been erased and built over. It is inevitable. The constant demand for space has caused the erasure of place and with it our collective memories of the city. Gopal Baratham, Singapore's foremost short story writer, called Singapore 'the City of Forgetting.' The constant tearing down of the old reveals an attitude towards land as investment, and our history as dispensable. The Geylang Serai experienced by Zul in Fistful when he was a boy and later as a wistful young man no longer exists. For Zul, Geylang is a place that registers loss and drastic social change. It no longer holds memories of his childhood. Place is no longer memory and ethnicity in Singapore except in her fiction and poetry. We are a people who live in the perpetual newness of the present.
THE SINGAPORE RIVER & KALLANG BASIN
In Fistful of Colours, Nica Sivalingam, the Indian artist, recalls a painful racist incident in 1966 when she walked with her Chinese boyfriend at Boat Quay along the Singapore River. Since 1819, Chinese traders, boatmen, coolies and their families had dominated that riverfront. In 1977, a massive urban renewal project initiated by the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had transformed the river.
I rate this as our most far-sighted and successful urban renewal project, one that took a strong political will, massive relocation of industries and people, pain and sacrifice on the part of ordinary citizens, and one decade to complete. Lee Kuan Yew had put Lee Ek Tieng, a civil engineer and head of the Anti-Pollution Unit in charge. To give you an idea of how massive that project was and what pain it caused the ordinary person, I will quote a page from LKY's book, From Third World to First (pp. 206 – 207):
Fish returned to the river, and the yield of potable water rose to 120 million gallons per day. This was an immeasurable benefit for a nation that had to buy water from Malaysia. The Singapore riverfront was developed into an entertainment district. Lee Ek Tieng, the civil engineer, was given a gold medal and appointed head of the civil service. Meanwhile my neighbour in my apartment block, a resettled farmer and his family, withered away. Every morning he was crouched among his few pots of plants along the common corridor. A thin silent reed. His wife told my mother that her husband could not eat or sleep, and often came home drunk. One night, his family called in a Chinese medium of the Monkey God to exorcise the evil spirits haunting him. But he was never fully cured. His wife said he had lost the will to live. People like me did not pay the price for the urban renewal of Singapore. Someone else like my former neighbour did. And I don't even know his name. This story of my dislocated and alienated neighbour was not featured in the mass media, and not in fiction yet, because until the publication of Lee's memoirs, few fiction writers knew about it. Some day my neighbour's story will be fictionalised. Some day. Fiction writers have a role to play in re-imagining the ignored and forgotten past.
Because of urban renewal, Singapore today is not the frowsy woman I saw when I was fourteen. Today she is a sassy young lass adorned with highrise apartment blocks and towers of steel and glass with little memory of her past, except selected bits which are preserved as tourist attractions. She is a cosmopolitan city of shallow memories, eager to wear the mantle of the global city as her destiny, and not everyone is comfortable with it. I will end with a quote from Contesting Singapore's Urban Future (2006) by William Lim, a Singapore architect whose voice is seldom heard in this city.
Often I feel it's not mine these days.
A house, a road, or a town changes with the passing of each day and each year. In most instances, these changes are so slow and incremental that the essential character of a place remains recognizable for many years. This incremental change, however, does not describe how a place changes in Singapore. Our island nation most probably leads the world in the erasure of physical and linguistic landscapes, and with them, our collective memory, that inner terrain which is part of society's intra-psychic landscape. Fiction and poetry can reclaim and re-create some of that inner terrain.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 1 Jan 2009