Singapore's Token Conservation
Ann Hills examines the reconstruction of Singapore's 19th-century buildings to accommodate tourism.
Under the arches of nineteenth-century houses along the Singapore River – only yards from where Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819 and founded the British colony – a barber was shaving a client. He has been in the same spot for thirty years, but within months he will be moved. The houses where generations of traders have lived alongside packed quays are being variously renovated as showpieces or destroyed to make way for developments in a tiny country short of land and with mixed views on preservation.
The riverside statue to Raffles is safe; so too is the nearest building – Empress Place, until recently an office for the immigration department. At a cost of nearly £4 million, the 1860s neo-classical structure with a central hall supported by a double row of Doric columns, is to become a museum of Chinese cultural relics by 1988. This is one of the first steps in creating a Heritage Link (linking sites of historic, notably colonial value). The proposals have the backing of Dr George McDonald, director of the Canadian Museum of Man in Ottawa. Didier Reppellin, leading French architect and official adviser to the government on historic buildings, was also summoned last autumn to advise on specific projects including Empress Place, and will monitor renovation.
The most famous of all the Singaporean buildings – the Raffles Hotel, which celebrated its centenary in 1986 – is likely to be restored to its original appearance enhancing its reputation, endorsed by the famous: Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Rudyard Kipling. More recently it was a setting in the wartime Tenko series. Visitors soon learn its history, including the hotel's role in providing shelter to people rescued from internment camps after liberation in 1945; the saga of the tiger shot under the billiard table, the origins of the Singapore Sling, and how the silver roast beef trolley was hidden from the Japanese, buried in the garden. A centenary brochure has been published.
Forty years after the war, the world's tallest hotel, the seventy- three storey high Westin Stamford has risen a stone's throw away on the Raffles City complex. It occupies the site of the Raffles Institution, founded in 1823. Ironically, too, the Archives Department and Oral History Department with a total of forty-two staff, is cataloguing a changing world as fast as possible. A few weeks ago, as houses and shops were being bulldozed in the street outside, a party inside marked the opening of Singapore lifeline: the river and its people – a photographic exhibition and book. Tapes are being made on vanishing trades, the cultural diversity, on the river-life that passes. I listened to the recording of a British survivor describing the sinking of the war- ships Repulse and Prince of Wales.
The river has been tidied up: that entailed removing all the bum boats, clearing store rooms, resurfacing quays and taking anti-pollution measures. Next September a fortnight of celebrations with fireworks and cruises will mark a decade of renovation. Gone from the vicinity are pig and duck rearing, boat yards, squatter colonies and hawkers. What do exist, are modern hawker centres where independent food traders are allocated space to serve meals and fresh fruit drinks through the day.
Nearby, Chinatown is still flourishing, even though newer buildings dwarf the bustling streets where families peer from shuttered balconies above crowded shops. The future of Chinatown is being- debated by a national steering committee whose members are said to be sensitive to traditional skills from medicine making, to specialist food stalls, calligraphy and fortune telling. But the government refuses to comment yet on steps being taken to amend rent acts, which have depressed the cost of living for tenants and restrained capital investment by owners in the past decades.
The old Indian sector retains its hectic oriental atmosphere, but rows of old houses are being torn down in side streets off Serangoon Road. Temples have better chances of lasting – like the extraordinary statue- studded 1844 Hindu temple called Sri Mariamman.
Some colonial buildings retain their functions: Victoria Hall is the concert hall, and across the road is the Cricket Club at one end of the sward with a backdrop of skyscrapers housing banks, offices and hotels. Modernisation continues in a country noted for its financial empire, vast expansion of hotels and emphasis on education under the rule of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Another area of investment is transport. Within a year or two the 2.6 million Singaporeans will have their own subway- the Mass Rapid Transit system, entailing massive excavations, tunnelling and raised routes.
History has to take a back-seat, allocated to the realms of tourism. Fort Canning Park, on a hilly, central site, is being developed with a 'historical zone' containing relics of an old Christian cemetary, the grave of the last ruler of ancient Singapura, Sultan Iskandar Shah with bunkers from the Second World War, and the site of Raffles' house.
Haw Par Villa, one of three; built by the Aw brothers for private residences, is being redeveloped at a cost of £10 million to offer visitors a sophisticated introduction to Chinese history, myths, legends and traditions with a mythological theme park, including 'encounters' with the spirit world through a ride in the dark, and incorporating the latest in laser and holographic technology.
Beyond the town centre, out in the diminishing countryside, the last of the Malay kampungs – tropical jungle villages – are threatened with the incursion of satellite towns with numerous blocks ten storeys high. A model kampung will be recreated in Geylang Serai, a still predominantly Malay-populated district, combining cultural and commercial activities from bird-singing contests to kite marking. The buildings, including prayer hall or 'surau', will be clustered and linked with covered walk- ways.
Second hand, nostalgic experiences may have to suffice for the visitor in future; such is the price of progress. Destruction is rampant – a fact the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board would prefer to turn a blind eye towards as they present packages for future conservation.
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