Reclaiming My Connection to Chinatown 重拾我和牛车水的情感联系
Chung Hwa Free Clinic—Tension between heritage and redevelopmen
Shophouses seem to be merely pretty things
What it is like to grow old in a rapidly changing landscape in Singapore – particularly in Chinatown?
Men selling second-hand goods on the street remind me of hawkers that used to line the streets of Chinatown
I grew up listening to the sound of construction noise. I grew up to a Singapore that was, and is, constantly changing. So it is perhaps natural that my interest in Chinatown grew out of a search for identity, a desire to see and understand Singapore on a deeper and more meaningful level.
Throughout my engagement with Chinatown, I found myself searching for something elusive, for an “old Chinatown” of sorts, for something more authentic and relatable. Yet I often doubted myself –would such a place mean anything to me? Why is it that I am so interested and protective of the old although I clearly have had no immediate experience of it? Then I realised that it is not about the “old” versus the “new”, but the “authentic” versus the “commodified”. After all, time is like a running stream, and there is no real demarcation between the “old” and the “new”. But I have never really felt whole as a Singaporean, and I’m still looking for my answers to what constitutes the authentic Singaporean experience.
Ultimately, when I think hard about it, I don’t feel an organic sense of attachment to Chinatown. I am so young, and the histories associated with that place do not belong to me. But beneath the immediate feelings of disconnect, confusion and alienation, I think I have come to a quiet appreciation of the place through the people I associate with it, and a cautious hope that it might mean something real to people of my generation.
Picture (1): Chung Hwa Free Clinic—Tension between heritage and redevelopment
图1：中华医院 – 文化遗产保留与重建的拉扯
I felt a deep sense of unease when I took a photo of a cafe located in the former Chung Hwa Free Clinic. The interior was something familiar to me – a hip, modern cafe not unlike those I might visit with my friends. But the exterior stood in stark contrast – the free clinic was established in 1952 to provide medical care for the poor and sick of all ethnic groups. The incongruous interior and exterior reminded me of the tension between heritage and redevelopment, and how the latter seemed to be gaining the upper hand here in Singapore and Chinatown.
Picture (2): Shophouses seem to be merely pretty things
Another photo depicts some well-preserved shophouses opposite Hong Lim Complex. This angle and the colour capture my sense of alienation; Chinatown feels like a place I do not, and perhaps cannot ever, understand fully. I grew up in an age of high-rise flats and air-conditioned buildings. And even if I wanted to try to probe deeper into it, the current preserved shophouses seem to be merely pretty things, while the soul of the place has been eroded by commercial pressures. It seems as though the concept of Chinatown, the area centering around Chinatown MRT at Pagoda Street, Temple Street, Cross Street and South Bridge Road, for someone from my generation, holds a completely different place in our cultural memory. To someone of the previous generation, Chinatown is “gu chia chwee” (“bullock cart water” in Hokkien) with its “da po” ( “greater town” in Mandarin, or area south of the Singapore River) and “xiao po” (“smaller town” in Mandarin, or area north of the Singapore River), and various colloquial names for different streets in dialect – names that I, a non-dialect-speaking eighteen-year-old, can’t even understand.
那些在牛车水地铁站邻近的宝塔街、登婆街、克罗士街和桥南路，对我们这个年代的人来说，成了我们对于”牛车水“的认知，在我们的文化记忆中有着不同的位置。但对于上一代的人来说，牛车水的记忆就真的包含了载着水的牛车，还有 “大坡” 和 “小坡” 的回忆。（前者为新加坡河南端一代，后者为新加坡河北端一代。）此外，还有许多口语化的方言街名，这些都是十八岁的我，一个对方言感到陌生的我，无法理解的。
Picture (3): What it is like to grow old in a rapidly changing landscape in Singapore–particularly in Chinatown?
I took a photo of an old man lying down at a staircase because it depicts a raw slice of life in Chinatown today. The old man is passive and tired, but he’s comfortable with this place. It made me think about the elderly in Chinatown – what it is like to grow old in a rapidly changing landscape in Singapore? For them, Chinatown may be close to the heart but it has been altered greatly to cater to tourists and expatriates. Alongside such scenes of sleeping elderly were others of tourists photographing each other next to sculptures of daily life in a Chinatown long gone. These sculptures in Chinatown make me feel like history has come to a standstill, like the old man in this photo.
我选择拍下这张照片，因为我觉得当中刻画出牛车水的原始面貌。照片中的老伯是疲惫且被动的，但他却仍然如此怡然自得。这让我想到那些在牛车水居住的年长者: 在日新月异的新加坡逐渐成为所谓的“乐龄”人士是什么样的滋味? 尤其居住在在一个如此贴近自己过往生活的牛车水，如今眼看它一步步变成为旅客和白领外籍人士而存在的地方，这当中又夹杂着什么样的感受？一面是老人们在街边熟睡，另一面则是观光客在那些展现早已消失的牛车水生活面貌的雕像旁拍照留念。这些交错的画面，让我仿佛感受到历史进入了静止状态，如同照片中的老伯一样。
Picture (4): Men selling second-hand goods on the street remind me of hawkers that used to line the streets of Chinatown
I took another photo of second-hand goods street vendors, with makeshift stalls at South Bridge Road. One of vendors shared that usually on a Saturday, the whole area would be lined with such stalls. It just so happened that I had come on a day of Lee Kuan Yew’s lying in state, hence there were fewer stalls. As I chatted with them, I recalled the makeshift vendors and hawkers that used to line the streets of Chinatown – a large part of its “original” identity. It was also during this conversation that I realised I could cultivate a personal connection to this place, through my own interactions with the people there. When I think of the meaning Chinatown holds for me, I remember the conversations and walks more than the history books and academic articles. So perhaps the entire character of the place has evolved greatly, but it is still a place that I can reclaim. Younger Singaporeans can continue to stake claim through simple conversations and more mindful experiences of spaces over time. This task seems rather daunting, but I think this is the best and perhaps only way to cultivate a sense of belonging – personal, ground-up experiences.