Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Sunday Times : In search of Singapore's past

The Sunday Times14th April 2013
By Jennani Durai

Young Singaporeans are responding to the rapid pace of change by documenting lost places and memories

Nostalgia has surged of late in Singapore, if the recent proliferation of heritage projects, stores and eateries harking back to bygone days is anything to go by.

Against a backdrop of the very prominent closure of longstanding landmarks such as the Bukit Brown cemetery and the Tanjong Pagar Railway station, as well as aggressive documentation efforts by the National Heritage Board, a groundswell of nostalgic feelings from Singaporeans has arisen.

Books, films, apps and photo exhibitions documenting the past and chronicling changes in Singapore have flourished. Film-maker Roystan Tan, for example, has released Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), two documentaries recording the sights and recollections of an older time. Heritage blogger Lam Chun See last year compiled several entries from his blog Good Morning Yesterday into a book of the same title.

Meanwhile, stores that evoke the past with their merchandise and decor, such as childhood memorabilia store The Damn Good Shop in Maxwell Road and eatery Old School Delights in Upper Thomson Road, have also popped up and proved popular.

Experts suggest the recent surge in interest may be a reflection of the stage Singapore is in as a society, immediately following a phase of accelerated growth and change.

Mr Alvin Tan, 40, director of the National Heritage Board, says: "Perhaps we have reached a stage of maturity in our national development where we start to feel nostalgic for aspects of our heritage that were eroded or lost during the recent decades."

The recent groundswell of interest in Singapore's heritage could be "attributed to our need for visible and tangible markers, such as landmarks, as well as shared memories and experiences to anchor ourselves in times of change as we attempt to define what makes us Singaporeans", he adds.

Historian Chua Ai Lin agrees, saying that the phenomenon is "a response to the pace of change".

"Much like elderly people who don't want to leave the house anymore because they don't recognise things around them, when things are changing too fast, we want to hang on to a few things we feel comfortable with - and that's what this surge of nostalgia is about," says Dr Chua, who is in her 30s and is vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society.

Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies believes that the recent surge in interest in heritage can be largely attributed to two things.

"Demographically, a generation of Singaporeans who have grown up with Singapore have reached an age where they are more likely to reminisce about the past and feel more keenly the changes that Singapore has undergone," says the academic, who conducts research on cemeteries and Chinese cultural heritage in Singapore.

He and his team are documenting about 5,000 graves at Bukit Brown Cemetery where a road is slated to cut through.

At the same time, the growth of social media platforms has also allowed a discourse of nostalgia to develop further, he adds.

Dr Chua agrees and adds that the emergence of nostalgia blogs and Facebook groups, and more seniors learning how to share pictures and stories over the Internet, have meant that "people inspire one another to share their memories".

"When people see something they recognise from the past online, they think 'I remember that too!' or 'I have a similar photo!'," she says. "This platform for interaction is very, very important. When people share this publicly, they provide an information resource for everyone who didn't live through it."

The proliferation of heritage projects now may also be fuelled by a sense of regret at not having appreciated things that are no longer around, says naval architect and heritage photographer Jerome Lim, 48.

Mr Lim, who was approached by the National Heritage Board to showcase his photographs of the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station before it closed, and who recently launched a series of photographs on Singapore's five-foot-ways, says he began documenting old places as he regrets "not having captured all the things that have changed".

"I was struck by a sense that a lot of places in my memories have vanished," he says. "So now, I feel an urgency to capture these remaining places."

Cafe owner Olivia Teo, 39, who opened eatery Old School Delights with her brother three years ago, says she has been stunned by the overwhelming reaction from customers to the "old-school" interior and details in her cafe.

"We certainly didn't expect customers to get so excited about the five stones, erasers and old card games such as Happy Family, Donkey and Old Maid in our toy boxes which we place at every table in our eatery," she says.

Such nostalgic memorabilia triggers a universal reaction in customers, she adds.

"I never fail to be amazed by the responses and comments we get on our Facebook page whenever we post nostalgic pictures, from an old-fashioned Toyota cab to old school toys, to our heritage buildings such as the Van Cleef Aquarium or the National Theatre," she says. "This just shows how much people reminisce about the past and get sentimental about it."

Dr Hui, 40, says the recent surge in nostalgia "bodes well for Singapore", a nation which turns 48 this year.

"As we approach 50 in a couple of years, it is important to ask and know who we are," he says. "This national soul-searching will strengthen us as a people and help us to stand on the global stage not only as an economic entity, but also as a cultural entity."

Do you have memories of old Singapore you wish to share? Write to

Tiong Bahru
Virtual tours of forgotten places
Mr Lester Lai (left), director of Smap Agency, a company which creates Google virtual tours, at the air raid shelter at Block 78 Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mr Lester Lai first noticed that Tiong Bahru was changing on his regular strolls around his neighbourhood, known for its pre- and post-war conservation flats.

"When I moved in four years ago, there were a lot of old shops," says Mr Lai, 34, chief executive of an agency that creates Google-linked virtual tours for businesses.

"I used to walk around and got to know the shopkeepers. Then it started to become hip and the old shop owners got bought out, and it lost a lot of its charm."

He then started to understand "why so many of us feel like we are losing the feel of 'home'."

With that in mind, when he launched his company Smap Agency this year, which uses Google's Street View technology and high-definition still photographs to create its 360-degree tours, he added a heritage arm to it.

The agency launched a virtual tour of the Army Market in Beach Road. Last month, it started to map the Tiong Bahru air raid shelters and Thieves' Market in Sungei Road for new virtual maps.

Mr Lai says that capturing vanishing places was one of the first things on his mind when he got hold of Google's technology. The National Heritage Board collaborated with his agency to create the heritage virtual tours.

He feels strongly about documenting places like these because of what he saw happen in his own neighbourhood, and the direction he feels the country is heading in.

"The resurgence of nostalgia is because everything is so new, so there's a craving for the old," he says. "When it gets too new, you lose your identity.

People who grew up here lose a lot of their childhood. They can't visit places they used to go to."

The high-definition virtual maps his company creates enable panoramic and interactive tours of locations. Like the Army Market tour, those of heritage sites will be free to view. "We'll soon have them on our website and people can search for them, share them and put them on their Facebook pages," he says.

The former investment banker, who lived in Toronto for 15 years after national service because his family had moved there, says he returned seven years ago because he missed Singapore and felt it was more vibrant.

"I've been lucky here and made a lot of good friends," says Mr Lai, who is married to a Japanese housewife and has two children, a two-year-old son and a nine- month-old daughter.

"That's what will keep me here but the constant change and demolition of places is sad. It's just sad to see things go."
His playgrounds are gone
When writer Justin Zhuang's map of old playgrounds in Singapore became a viral hit three years ago, he was shocked by the positive response.

"I didn't expect it to get so many views," he says. "I think the subject matter resonated with people."

The map of 19 retro playgrounds across the island, posted online in February 2010, has since received nearly 80,000 views.

Last year, Zhuang was commissioned by the National Heritage Board to put together a free e-book, Mosaic Memories, on the history of Singapore's old playgrounds. It is available on the Singapore Memory Project's website.

Now, the 29-year-old has embarked on a new project, similarly related to childhood - an e-book on the history of about 100 school crests in Singapore. It is slated to be published later this year.

Zhuang, who owns writing studio In Plain Words and is one of the editors of visual culture publication The Design Society Journal, says he was able to interview the creators of more than 300 school crests through the Ministry of Education Heritage Centre, which had contacted him after seeing Mosaic Memories.

His interest in school crests was born out of a natural curiosity about the tales behind visuals, he says. "School crests, to me, tell stories by themselves and are often doorways to more stories."

He came up with a classification system for the crests, grouping them into three categories: Colonial Heraldry, Chinese schools and Modern.

Schools that took their crests from historical coats of arms, such as Raffles Institution, fell into the first category, while schools with traditionally Chinese insignia or symbols were grouped into the second.

"All the Chinese school crests feature triangle shapes in some way, for a reason I haven't been able to pin down yet. So it's still a fascinating process of exploration," he says.

Modern school crests, the category all the other schools fall into, typically incorporate the school's initials in some way and include pictures that symbolise progress or the future.

"If you see a globe in a crest, that school started in the 2000s," says Zhuang, who has spent six months researching and writing the book so far.

One school, Evergreen Primary, even has a CD-Rom on its crest, he says with a smile. "But you can't blame them. In the 1990s, when that school started, a CD- Rom must have seemed revolutionary."

He also spoke to art teachers past and present, as they were usually the ones tasked with designing their school's crest, to find out what they represented.
He says his interest in untold stories began in 2008, after returning from a six-month exchange stint in the United States as an undergraduate in communication studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

He says: "In the US, I started feeling very displaced among people who had no idea where I came from. As I struggled to tell people what Singapore is, I realised that maybe I didn't know either."

Upon returning home, he began going on heritage tours organised by various groups, including the Singapore Heritage Society. "I was introduced to social, personal and family histories not taught in school and I realised there were stories there. Searching for underlying histories made Singapore interesting to me," he says.

He agrees that heritage has become a buzzword of sorts of late, with the National Museum and National Heritage Board aggressively launching initiatives to capture the public's interest.

"I think many people my age have a nostalgia for a past we have never lived through, in the 1960s and 1970s," he says. "A lot of it is trendy but it is also because we grew up in a city where things are changing too fast."

He adds: "I'm not that old, but the playgrounds I grew up with don't exist any more."


App for heritage trails
Mr Kwek Li Yong (right), founder of MyCommunity, and Mr Jasper Tan, vice-president of MyCommunity, a group of young people who are developing heritage mobile apps for various housing estates. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
They do not live in the neighbourhood, but a pair of undergraduates have made it their mission to document Queenstown's heritage.

Mr Kwek Li Yong lives in Jurong and Mr Jasper Tan in Sengkang. They spearheaded the creation of the MyQueenstown mobile app.

Launched two months ago, the app guides users along six heritage trails in the estate. It has hundreds of photographs and audio-visual material relating to the memories of the estate's long-time residents.

The duo, both 24, have worked painstakingly to piece together the neighbourhood's history and are putting together a book to commemorate the estate's 60th anniversary this year. It will be published by The Straits Times Press in September.

They also plan to launch similar projects in two other neighbourhoods: Bukit Merah and Tampines.

Six years ago, Mr Kwek visited some elderly folk in Queenstown while doing community service and became intrigued with the area.

"While older people tend to talk about themselves or their families, the people I visited in Queenstown kept talking about their estate and its history," says Mr Kwek, a final year economics student at the National University of Singapore.

"They were clearly very proud of it."

He had met Mr Tan while they were serving their national service, and approached him about working together to collect stories from Queenstown folk to feature on a blog (, which is no longer actively updated.

"At first, it was just fun to hear stories from residents. Then we started to realise that their personal and collective histories were very much linked," says Mr Tan, a final year economics management student at the Singapore Institute of Management. "Many of them tell the same stories."

For example, many of the residents spoke of an old kampung called Bo Beh Kang (literally "no tail river" in Hokkien) which Queenstown grew out of, and where Mei Ling Street is located now, says Mr Tan.

"I managed to find some of the original residents from the kampung and realised they knew one another because their memories were so similar. They hadn't been in contact with one another for decades."

The pair founded MyCommunity, an informal grassroots group which they registered as a society, to begin documenting the history of Queenstown. It now comprises a dozen other heritage buffs.

Mr Kwek recalls the first time they went to a market in the neighbourhood and told an egg-seller about their project.

"She immediately called the whole market to come and help us," says Mr Kwek with a laugh. "It's this kind of community spirit that I don't see elsewhere."

The two bachelors say they are expanding the scope of the project to include more estates as they feel that Singaporeans are slowly forgetting the ways in which their lives have changed.

Bukit Merah will mark a natural transition as it is "an old estate with a similar demographic" to Queenstown, says Mr Kwek.

"There is a large elderly population and many old housing blocks. Many of the residents have lived there for 50 to 60 years."

As for Tampines, the MyCommunity group is still in the preliminary stages of their research into the town's history. "It's a younger estate that has been shifting eastwards but there's still a lot of history there, including old fish farms and quarries most people don't know about," says Mr Kwek.
While the positive feedback they have received from projects has whetted their appetite for more, both of them will not be documenting their own estates any time soon.

Mr Tan thinks his neighbourhood is too new to document. Conversely, Mr Kwek feels recording his, Jurong, will prove too mammoth a task for now.

"I marvel at countries such as China and the United States and how they manage to document their history so well," says Mr Kwek.

"The onus is on Singaporeans, not just those in Queenstown, to capture their own memories."

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