Friday, September 29, 2006

Disloyal Tourist

There is a typhoon coming and I am in a city that somehow, intuitively, I always associate with 70s Singapore though I have only quarter-formed memories of 70s Singapore. I step out of a noisy 70s restaurant where there are ash-trays on the tables, take out some tattered notes for a pack of cigs from an old lady peddling them out of a 70s style box, with Wrigleys and some other assortments. Including match-boxes. If this is 70s Singapore, is it like this? Perhaps along Boat Quay?

There is lots of rain, sometimes a fine drizzle, other times, tree-bending storms in the day and in the night. I am staring at this quaint hotel and it reminds me of quite a few Wong Kar Wai movies. It strikes me, perhaps my memories of 70s Singapore, memories I don't possess, is mediated by the 70s noir of WKW's movies. where does this 70s feel come from? In Mee Pok Man, Singapore Dreaming, 15, 4.30, the movie-makers search for this 70s feel; almost invariably at Tiong Bahru with those first generation low HDB flats and their circular stair-wells.

When you search the history books for 1970s, you are told its a period of movements, resettlements and displacements. In Hokkien, they term this period of displacement as "Chu Keok Lai Kuar Chu", which literally means authorities are chasing people out of their houses. In history books, it reads as demolishing squatter settlements and re-settling inhabitants in brand new housing estates. The National Housing Programme.

There is not much more of the 1970s I can remember except perhaps the National Theatre and the National Aquarium inside. It was dark and cold and had very colorful aquariums.

Tonight, I am standing on this little balcony of a Hainanese hotel looking into a drizzling street where there are many motor-cycles, taxis, tricycles and bicycles. Smoking and thinking that this is 70s Singapore when I have no recollection of the 70s. It is really odd. How does it feel in 70s Singapore? Was there greater anticipation, more hope, more belief in opportunities, in the possibility of change? It had to be more noisy, less efficient, less stream-lined, less neat ... but the atmosphere? Is it like this? A slight buzz, something more charged.

It could have been the conversation I had in the afternoon with an old friend. Over a bowl of steaming rice noodles, looking out into a charming wet courtyard. He is a Singaporean and has been here for 15 years. He used to run a very profitable medium sized company in Singapore. Until a GLC squeezed him out of the market. Since then, he has not looked back; he tells me simply : "there are more possibilities here". Singapore is only a place to park money. That’s all. A massive parking lot for money.

He is not even looking for probability. Just possibility. And it drives him, makes him happy, keeps him satisfied. You don't really have to ask him about going back. Its just an unnecessary question.

Wanted to write about LKY and the banning of FEER. But they are old news really in new Singapore. The myth-making of racial marginalisation and the relative merits of Singapore's meritocratic system was systematically addressed and articulately critiqued in Dr Lily Zubaidah's seminal book, The Singapore Dilemma, years back. Publications, whether foreign or local, in Singapore are banned, restricted whenever OB markers are crossed. What is really new in new Singapore? If you are not in the ruling party, anything racial is construed as time-bombs and the racial riot specter is invoked. If you are not in the ruling party, any critical political commentary is deemed interference and treasonous.

Over here in a this city that is not Singapore, where I recall memories of 70s Singapore which I do not possess, I feel a bit elated somehow. Strangely distant from the events in new Singapore. In this constructed and imagined remembrance of old Singapore. A feeling more personal and stirring of things possible and thinking possible. Maybe its the reason why writers used to go to Singapore, downing a few Slings at the Long Bar and start writing their novels. Wonder what has happened now; where do writers go for inspiration, for possibilities.

Why go back and write about old news when there is something intangibly more promising in this imagined Singapore of the 70s where change seems so much more possible even though its a bit noisy, a bit chaotic. Except that I am betraying this city. A disloyal tourist, a disloyal visitor. Recalling the name of a lover you never had, in front of her.

Rain is getting heavier now. The last time they had a typhoon here, over two hundred people died. Preparations seem much better this time round. Most people are fairly sanguine, unpredictability is part of their lives. And it is quite fine.


Quote of the Day --

"I am she who asks what walks upon four legs at sunrise, upon two at noon and upon three at evening. And all who cannot answer me, at evening die ... In the morning of life, a young man goes forth as though mounted, because he is carried on the shoulders of his parents. By midday, their support has vanished, and he must walk by himself. In the evening of life, he can hold up his head only because he is supported by the memory of what once he was." -- Latro in the Mist, Gene Wolfe

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

disloyal tourist .... sweet sweet

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"How does it feel in 70s Singapore? Was there greater anticipation, more hope, more belief in opportunities, in the possibility of change? It had to be more noisy, less efficient, less stream-lined, less neat ... but the atmosphere? Is it like this? A slight buzz, something more charged.:How does it feel in 70s Singapore? Was there greater anticipation, more hope, more belief in opportunities, in the possibility of change? It had to be more noisy, less efficient, less stream-lined, less neat ... but the atmosphere? Is it like this? A slight buzz, something more charged."

Yes, it was like what you imagined/described of the 70's and more. The atmosphere is slighly buzzy, more charged & at the same time more laid back too. (now, this is my perception, others may felt it differently)

I came of age in the 70's & still have vivid memories of the old Singapore during this decade. My recall of the 70's is Singapore felt spacious (of course the population back then was perhaps about 2 million); people were friendlier, neighborly and not so materialistic. I like to say that most of the average Singaporeans of that time were in the same economic boat.

I and those of my generation (born after WWII, the 50's & early 60's) were the last ones in Singapore to be growing up surrounded by nature. Growing up in the kampungs with my peers, climbing the guava, rambutan, soursop, chiku, and other trees to steal the fruits, playing and running around barefoot, feeling the hot sand under our feet, pigs squealing, chickens and ducks chirping & quacking, and also walking to the beach in Katong before the govt. started the reclamation. The old Bugis Street, the old Chinatown, and all these old areas are sadly gone and wiped out forever. The rebranding of the new Singapore.

And last but not least, the governmental control was not so in your face like what it is now.

I'm getting nostalgic as I'm typing this. I wonder what the present collective Singaporeans psyche will be if some of the old Singapore remains as is?

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I and those of my generation (born after WWII, the 50's & early 60's) were the last ones in Singapore to be growing up surrounded by nature. Growing up in the kampungs with my peers, climbing the guava, rambutan, soursop, chiku, and other trees to steal the fruits, playing and running around barefoot, feeling the hot sand under our feet, pigs squealing, chickens and ducks chirping & quacking,

I yearn for those days again in Sembawang. The kampongs have been replaced by flats, or have been reclaimed by the forest, waiting to be transformed into Simpang 21 (I bet most have forgotten THAT project eh?)

There was HOPE for a better future. You only needed to use the bucket latrine at home or bathe in public beside a well, and then see a flushing loo and showers in school , to understand why there was HOPE.

Everytime I see a picture of the sky from horizon to horizon, I feel that yearning again. For HOPE for the future. All I see now is concrete in the path of my eyes.

We have reached a peak of modernisation. Can there be anything better than the MRT? Why, LRT and Circle Line, of course. Duh!

The signs are there. We used to be Asia's best work force. Today we aren't. Huh? Deliberate depression of our wages, while commodities and services prices skyrocket. We are going back to Third World living, slowly but surely. Lower your expectations, and lifestyle. Don't grumble. PAPa brought you this far.

But the fact is, PAPa doesn't listen anymore. PAPa cares too much for the neighbour's children instead and calls me 'stupid, lazy, ungrateful, treasonous'.

But don't worry. This time, though, you get to keep your flushing loo.

9:58 AM  
Blogger prettyplace said...

Van Kleef Aquariaum...at the National Theatre....
Euphoric times...with great hope and opportunities.....
tangible beauty all around....optimistically shining...
....people with smiles and neighbourly niceties.....
Cultural fusion in the midst of americanisation.....

where is all that now....did we all grow up too fast....

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi...can I use your articles for a website?

Please email me at toc984@yahoo.com.sg

Thanks, Xeno..

8:13 PM  
Blogger Whispers from the heart said...

Your piece tugs at my heartstrings.

Just visited Chinatown where I spent my childhood days in the 70's.

I felt sad and strangely detached. A feeling that I no longer exist, my being has been erased because there is nothing to remind me of myself. Sure, some buildings are beautifully restored but the spirit of the place is nowhere to be found.

For a long while, I felt like a tourist/intruder at my birthplace. I don't belong there.

Well, it's for the better anyway. It makes my leaving so much easier.

2:51 AM  

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