Blog To Express

A blogosphere learning experience to express with blog

My Photo
Location: Singapore, Singapore

A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Aug 17, 2019

If the past is no longer present

Night life at Bugis Street (1980)

Where exactly was the infamous toilet in Bugis Street in the 1980s (photo above)?

Thanks to Icemoon's 2ndshot blog here .

I share my sentiments about heritage memories with Ong Soh Chin who wrote her article "If the past is no longer present" on People and Places at The Straits Times on 9 August, 2006.

[ As I write this National Day essay about the places which make Singapore special to me, bombs are raining down on Beirut and Haifa  and a tsunami has just devastated parts of Java.

As I attempt to root my Singaporeanness in physical entities - such as human beings or addresses - I cannot help but wonder if the Lebanese, Israelis and Javaneses who have lost their homes and loved ones feel any less Lebanese, Israeli or Javanese.

Probably not.  In their circumstances, the traumatic loss of these physical anchors probably makes what is now missing even more vivid and alive - the way a person can still "feel" his freshly amputated arm.

To a very much lesser extent, of course, it is this same lack of permanence that characterises what it means to be Singaporean.  While we have, thankfully, been spared the ravages of nature and warfare for the most part, we have fallen easily under the boot heels of time and progress.

Most of the landmarks of my childhood are now gone or transformed beyond recognition.  For example, the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus is now CHIJmes, its name itself a mutant hybrid of a truncated past and a tinkly music-box present.

Bugis Junction is a souped-up mall where once roadside "zi char" stalls with overpriced drinks used to stand.  I remember on one night in 1984, when parents were less uptight about textbook morality, being taken there for dinner and being enthralled by three dolled-up creatures of the night.

Night scenes at Bugis Street in the 1980s

The archived photos of Bugis Street in the past to share on this blog with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

The following year, the bulldozers pulled in and the transvestites pulled out, taking with them forever the colour and craziness that had once made the street so uniquely Singapore.

The Lido, Orchard and Cathay cinemas of my misspent youth are now spanking new cineplexes teeming with a new generation of youngsters in the process of forming their own memories.

They will never know, however, what it means to sit on a lumpy cinema seat pockmarked with holes or to be interrupted midway through a movie by a stray cat in the dark brushing past their legs.'

Every generation in every country laments the passing of time and yearns for the good old days.

We all recognise sullenly that progress is necessary and inevitable.  And with progress, the old must give way to the new, the inefficient to the ISO-worthy.

Certainly there are parts of the past I am glad not to relive.  Despite my fond memories of the old buses, I am happy we don't have to pack ourselves in like sardines any more and that our sturdy buses today have proper doors, unlike the old rust-bucket models which had a big uncovered holes carved out of one side.

However, with our great progress has come not only ease and comfort, but also a certain mental and spiritual flabbiness and a gaping hole where a sense of national identity should be.  Other countries have the luxury of a long rich history and culture to fall back on when they lose their way.  We just have the Merlion.

At worst, our lack of cultural awareness and maturity manifests itself in a solipsistic arrogance.  Everyone has heard anecdotes about Singaporean businessmen throwing their weight around in China, for example.

Back home, coffeeshop chatter about the foreigners who have decided to make Singapore their home is inevitably negative.  Forgetting that we, too, come from lowly immigrant stock, we constantly speak ill of Chinese study mamas, Vietnamese prostitutes, Filipino and Indonesian maids and Bangladeshi workers.

There is certainly a lot in our tiny nation to be proud of and we should never be ashamed of our many achievements.  But it should not be pride practised in a vacuum.

As former Minsister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself once noted, one must remember the past in order to move ahead meaningfully into the future.  In Singapore with its dramatic and rapid changes, this is especially important.

If we recognise that Singapore has changed dramatically in the last half century - from kampungs to condos, richshaws to MRT, one-way streets to expressways, karang guni to vintage couture - why is it so hard to recognise that there are many people who cannot keep up?

The other day, I visited two friends who had just moved into a rented terrace house in Kuo Chuan Avenue.  Come see it, they exhorted.  You won't believe your eyes, they added.

And they were right.  Tucked away in Katong is a tiny residential street where time appears to have stood still. 

Many of the houses on the street are in their original condition, or, to some Singaporeans, "run-down".  Their wood windows have ventilation slats, their floor is cement, their window grilles are metal twirls, the kind you see in old Hong Kong movies.

The house is filled with shelves, tables, beds, chairs and lamps they have created painstakingly from driftwood and junk thrown out by upgrading Singaporeans.

You could call them recyclers, artists or, simply, hoarders.  But I find what they do touchingly patriotic.  Here are people who don't think of the past as something to be discarded but who, instead, see its beauty and use it meaningfully to forge a better future.

My friends, incidentally are not Singaporean.  One is English and the other Is American.  But they have shown me what I, as a Singaporean, have lost.

A nation with no understanding of the past is like a house of cards, easily toppled by strong winds.  As we hurtle purposefully forward, are we in danger of losing our collective history, simply because we cannot remember it, appreciate it or worse, because we don't even know it?

The future will always be there but the past, once gone from our memories, will be lost forever, like a shelled town.]

Please check out the heritage blog of Bugis Street here .

Juxtaposed photos of the backlane of Bugis Street then and now.  Note the spiral staircases of the same buildings, same location at Bugis Street.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home