Monday, September 4, 2006

He wants to put Tiong Bahru on world map

S'porean says small-town charm makes it valuable, like Great Wall and Angkor Wat
By Ng Tze Yong September 03, 2006

THINK 'Tiong Bahru'. What comes to mind?Probably 'sleepy old estate'. Or great food.

But if Dr Kevin Tan has his way, Tiong Bahru will become Singapore's next top tourist attraction, on par with places like the Great Wall of China and Angkor Wat.
The president of the Singapore Heritage Society wants Tiong Bahru's pre-war flats and shophouses to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is an agency that conserves sites of world cultural and natural heritage.

Unesco's world heritage sites around the world range from national parks like Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia to cities such as Bath and Edinburgh in the UK.

Said Dr Tan: 'While Tiong Bahru may not be as grand as the Great Wall of China, that doesn't mean that it is not as valuable.

'You cannot compare places of heritage. There is only one Great Wall, and there is only one Tiong Bahru.'

A Unesco world heritage site must be 'of outstanding universal value' and meet at least one out of 10 criteria.

One of these is to be 'an outstanding example of a type of building... which illustrates a significant stage in human history'.

Long before the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was formed in 1960, Tiong Bahru was one of Singapore's first experiments in public housing.
'At a time when Singaporeans lived in kampungs, shophouses and attap houses, the Tiong Bahru flats had proper sanitation, electricity, street lighting and proper urban planning,' said Dr Tan.

Public housing is a field in which Singapore now enjoys international recognition.
'Tiong Bahru was an important step in the history of public housing,' he said.

In the old days, Tiong Bahru was known as the 'Hollywood of Singapore'.
'When it was built, it was the only place where Singaporeans could see flats, other than in the movies,' said Madam Geraldene Lowe-Ismail, a heritage guide.

Later on, Tiong Bahru acquired a seedier reputation. Towkays from nearby Chinatown started keeping their mistresses there, and cabaret dancers moved in.

'The nights used to be punctuated by the ruckus of angry wives raiding the flats, looking for their husbands,' said Mr Peter Lim, 68, a writer and media consultant who has lived there since he was 3.

Unlike your usual lego-like HDB blocks, the Tiong Bahru flats were built in the Art Deco style of the 1930s, which emphasised sensuous curves and bold lines.

Corner kopitiams with old marble slab tables and mosaic floor tiles have survived here.
Window grilles with meticulous geometric designs complement the original lime green window panes.

In the evenings, neighbours shout to each other by name from the windows to ask them down for tea.

'Tiong Bahru is a world of its own,' said heritage guide Diana Chua.

Built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) between the 1930s and 1950s, the Tiong Bahru flats were modelled after British towns like Harlow, Stevenage and Crawley.

Among the 20 blocks of flats and 36 units of shophouses, the tallest are only five stories high.
Although they look the same from the outside, the buildings actually contain apartments of various sizes.

This made Tiong Bahru a community of families of different sizes and social classes.

The URA has gazetted the pre-war SIT flats as a conservation area.

This means that the flats will not be redeveloped and any renovations that change their exterior is disallowed.

Living in Tiong Bahru is charming, certainly. But there is a downside too.

There are no lifts and waste disposal systems here.

'The ceiling leaks and there are cockroaches and rats everywhere,' said Mr Chen, a 60-year-old resident who has lived there all his life.

'I would actually be ashamed of taking a foreign visitor here because it is so messy nowadays,' said Mr Lim.

Indeed, at the heart of the Tiong Bahru debate is the direction of conservation and tourism in Singapore.

Said Dr Tan: 'Tourists are becoming more sophisticated nowadays. They don't come here for attractions like VolcanoLand and Tang Dynasty Village any more.'

Both attractions were multi-million dollar projects that eventually went out of business.

'Tourists are more interested in seeing the true Singaporean way of life,' said Madam Lowe-Ismail.

Like Madam Chua, she supports Dr Tan's dream.

But tourism based on conservation brings with it tough questions.

Doesn't the very act of conserving change a building's character? How much of the old should be kept?

For the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), conservation is a tough balancing act.

Said a URA spokesman: 'The general public who visits a heritage area may find it intrinsically beautiful and not want it to be changed.

'But the local community often wants a better living and a more pro-business working environment.'

While the URA recognises the value of Tiong Bahru, it feels that further study is needed to see how it meets Unesco's criteria.

After all, Tiong Bahru isn't the only option.

Mr Joseph Lo Kean-Kim, the culture and development coordinator at the United Nations Development Programme, believes that Singapore's strength lies more in its multi-ethnic culture.

The Singaporean said: 'A Unesco World Heritage Site does not necessarily have to be a physical site. It can be intangible things like performances and folklore.'

Madam Lowe-Ismail has seen many a Western tourist fall in love with Tiong Bahru at first sight.

'For them, it's like stepping back into old Singapore,' she said.

Added Dr Tan: 'We don't always need to travel to Europe to see history and culture. We have got our own here in our backyard.'
Not part of Unesco, so S'pore can't vote on heritage sites
THERE are 191 countries in Unesco.

Singapore is not one of them, so it cannot nominate any places for a World Heritage Site listing.

In 1986, Singapore left Unesco amidst controversy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Unesco had called for a 'New World Information Order' to counter what it saw as a growing commercialisation of the mass media and unequal access to information.

But its move was condemned by the US, UK and Singapore as an attempt to destroy the freedom of the press instead.

In 1984, the US withdrew from Unesco in protest. The UK followed suit in 1985, and Singapore a year later.

Unesco underwent reforms in the following years. The UK rejoined in 1997 and the US in 2003.

Singapore has had Observer Status for the past two years, which means it can participate in Unesco activities.

'Observer Status is a way for a country to decide if it wants to be a member state of Unesco,'
Mr Richard Engelharte, the Unesco regional adviser for culture in Asia and the Pacific, told The New Paper in a telephone interview from Bhutan.

'When we talk about intellectual contribution, size does not matter,' he said. 'Singapore is a powerhouse in generating ideas.'

Singapore may consider reapplying for membership at the next UN General Assembly meeting in October next year.

Said Mr Engelharte: 'Singapore has been participating very actively in our workshops and events. The signs of it rejoining Unesco are good.'

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