Spaces I knew

A friend posted about old spaces in Singapore, old playgrounds that were no more, and I felt a keen sense of loss.

It brought me back again to the memory of the one thing I wished the powers-that-be had relented about, and retained. Our National Library at Stamford Road.

That was not to be. A gaping black hole lies in its place. A tunnel to save motorists 5 minutes, or something banal like that. And so history makes way for efficiency. Has always been that way, will always be. Or so the jaded say.

Of course there are some “historic buildings” that are earmarked for conservation. But my old dame of a National Library didn’t make the cut. It failed on looks, it failed on age (too young), it failed on significance. Not as if the surrender of Singapore was signed within its staid red-brick walls, was it?

Rationality says that there must be strict criteria to be adhered to. Otherwise, constant cacaphonies of sentimental whines would impede progress, and how can we allow that?

I took, and still take, a different view. The tearing down of our National Library was a costly error in nation-building.

So much effort is put into fostering a sense of belonging. Songs are commissioned, displays of military might are staged every year. But so much more is lost by turning away from the cries of a people to retain a building that matters to them. That holds their memories. That means something to go back to.

For some reason, I don’t feel the same way about Bukit Brown. Many do, I know. But to me, I never knew it existed, and to be frank, if it were razed over without any announcement, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to me. It does seem strange to care only after it got onto the news. Sure, I understand it has historic graves that say a lot about our history. But urm, why not care a bit more about Lim Chu Kang whilst it still exists?

The library was different. To so many, for whom it was a part of their lives, for so many years.

As were the pelican playgrounds. The Toa Payoh dragon has fortunately been earmarked for conservation. But I only found out belatedly that all the pelicans are no more. They were everywhere, when I was growing up. I spent hours, it seemed, lying in the curve of its beak, staring at the random graffiti on its roof. The more daring kids would climb on top of its roof, throwing caution (and parental threats advice) to the wind. Those were innocent days. (Mostly innocent of “enrichment classes” and *horrors* tests to get in the former.)

I had complacently assumed that they were too many to eradicate. Surely in some corner an ancient Pelican still stands?

Well, I discovered recently that the last pelican playground was demolished in 2012. Two whole years ago. Thankfully, a friend’s photographer husband immortalised it (and many other sites) in a book, before the last pelican was coldly pulverised to extinction.

Love this photo – there’s something other-worldly, magical, almost ethereal
about these weather-beaten old play structures (turtle!!), when seen in this light, from this angle.
Darren Soh’s photobook ($25) – get a copy now by contacting him
and support the worthy twentyfifteen project, to which all proceeds go.

The book is poignantly titled “For my son”.

Yes, it is for our children that we seek to preserve memories. To preserve photographs of the Singapore that we grew up in. It is not mere maudlin sentimentality. The spaces that we lived in, matter in inculcating a sense of belonging. Take all that away, and you take away a country that a person feels he knows. Year after year, the land gets more and more foreign.

So I bought the book. For my own daughters. To pore through each photo. To speak of days of my own childhood. To give them a glimpse into the spaces and structures of my youth. To show them that we were not always a land of shiny hard skyscrapers. Or swathes of foliage that are continually being denuded for yet another souless, money-churning condominium with a tacky name.

Darren says in the book that he has a ‘particular obsession with vernacular architecture that is deemed too banal or too insignificant to be conserved’. Yes, there is beauty in the vernacular. As with Singlish. But that is another conversation for another day.

I suppose we wouldn’t be able to keep all those cookie-cutter HDB blocks, but perhaps a sampling of each era could be preserved? Little enclaves ala Tiong Bahru, where old need not mean decrepit?

We all agree that there is room for a certain amount of change. We know we can’t have EVERYTHING stay the same all the time.

But surely, as we lunge forward, helter-skelter, as a nation, surely we can, we must, still give pause. To seek to protect, to treasure, the things that matter to our national psyche.

May our nation not be so constantly, so drastically, and almost mindlessly altered, that one day, none of us will be able to identify it as home.

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  4 comments for “Spaces I knew

  1. imp
    March 12, 2014 at 6:26 am

    I’m the opposite! I don’t feel nostalgic about the playgrounds because I wasn’t allowed there and don’t have memories of it. I only kinda like the old design of the playgrounds. Whereas I grew up running the paths of Bukit Brown and liking the green and quiet of it. Most of all, I love cemeteries. Heh. But yes, the National Library. Tearing it down is just a reminder why I hold very little affection for ongoing spatial changes in this city. Every childhood memory is intangible now.

    • March 12, 2014 at 7:20 am

      Yes, what we spent time with is what becomes dear to us. And what forms a part of our history.

      Even with the vanishing of a fast food outlet (first East Coast – dear to me, then KAP dear to many friends) makes us feel like our past is being systematically eroded, if not erased.

      So we cling to old photographs. And join the ranks of generations that go, when I was little…

  2. March 13, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Yes, the National Library. I can still remember the smell of the books. I will never understand why it was necessary to tear it down. And now I’ve got to go say goodbye to KAP.

    • March 13, 2014 at 5:15 am

      I guess that’s why our parents’ eyes mist over with nostalgia when they visit a Malaysian town. It’s the Singapore of their youth.

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