Friday, July 14, 2006

Straits Times : Celebrating the gems in Tiong Bahru, my home

The Straits Times
July 14, 2006

Celebrating the gems in Tiong Bahru, my home

AFTER five years of working in the conservation division of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), executive architect Kelvin Ang has grown accustomed to being accused of being ignorant or plain callous about the city's heritage.

Building owners and private-sector architects come up to us and complain that we don't care, or they question why we are not conserving this or that district or building - just because they see us as government people.

They could not be more wrong about Mr Ang, however. The 34-year-old lives in a conserved pre-World War II flat in Tiong Bahru. At work, he also lives and breathes heritage, researching buildings and districts for their architectural rarity, and importance to the social history and identity of their locality.

In his spare time, he writes articles on heritage for magazines and records the stories of old residents of conserved areas like his own Tiong Bahru estate.

Now, he is rallying newer residents of the 1930s Art Deco-style blocks to run a newsletter and heritage tour of the housing estate.

In the past few months, about 12 of them have had meetings in his flat and things should get off the ground by later this year, says Mr Ang.

They have also been talking to older and some former residents, who are also keen to get involved, he adds.

Mr Ang's own favourite spots will certainly be on the walking tour: the Tiong Bahru market, which was reopened last month after a $16.8 million facelift, and the famed bird corner which is slated to be reinstated after closing in 2000 for redevelopment.

He also hopes to find volunteers to record the oral histories of older residents in the area, because a place is characterised by its community, he says. As a child, he lived in Queensway but made regular visits to his mother's old home in Chinatown.

This architect believes in looking beyond the bricks and mortar, to celebrate 'everyday culture' - the life in the wet markets and community spaces, and of local festivals.

'I get upset when people say there is nothing to see or do in Singapore. We are so blase about our environment, but there is so much diverse culture and history,' says Mr Ang, who spent six years studying architecture in London.

It is the emotional attachment to a place that increasingly mobile Singaporeans need to feel, he notes.

'One can't love a city in the abstract. It's about where you grew up, where you went to school... It's important that we are still able to see it, touch it.

'Putting on his conservation architect hat, Mr Ang sees no conflict between conservation and progress. 'We've always managed to have the best of both or many worlds here.

That conservation issues stir much debate here is a good thing, he says, as he recalls the uproar over the restoration of Chinatown and the demolition of the old red-brick National Library building in Stamford Road.

The debate is over how to do conservation, not whether we should do it at all. When people make noise, it means they care.'

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