I have never lived in Chinatown, so my main memories are of rubbing shoulders with the crowds at the market on Lunar New Year’s Eve. This was during my secondary school days, but there are various other episodes from the first years of my working life, when I would shop and eat at Chinatown Complex. Afterwards, I went for a long time without frequenting Chinatown. When I revisited it, it had completely transformed.
《“江山”如此多娇》 Lovely are the “rivers and mountains”
From Hong Lim Park, one can observe a panorama of the new and old living in accord – a vista where a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple coexist peacefully on the same street. Recalling how impoverished and tumultuous the post-independence era was, the idiom ‘lovely are the rivers and mountains’ springs to mind, even though there are no mighty rivers or vast mountains. It is precisely because our society today is stable, with the different races living in harmony, and ample food and housing for all, that I have the leisure to gaze at the landscape below, and contemplate the past and present.
《此景可待成追忆》 This scene can be a form of memory
We have gained a great deal from the labours of the past decades, but we have also sacrificed much. We did not have much of a cultural heritage to begin with, nor a very rich ecosystem, but hopefully, as we throw ourselves into developing the economy, we can also pay more attention to the damage suffered by our culture and natural environment, so as to avoid social problems triggered by a failure to balance economic development with social progress.
In early March, when I passed by Duxton Hill and saw this banner, it felt like the end of an era was approaching. I pressed the camera shutter with some sorrow.
The image we hold has gradually changed from being one of an authoritarian leader to that of a wise elder. The severe laws that foreigners used to disparage has resulted in the highly safe Singapore of today. I have been fined twice for jaywalking, but although we are mocked by foreigners for being a “Fine” city, I have never felt this was unfair. What’s more, I have come to think of the national campaigns of past years – the Keep Singapore Clean Campaign, the National Courtesy Campaign, the Road Safety Campaign, the National Punctuality Drive – as a form of citizenship education. The twin prongs of national campaigns and strict laws have shaped the collective memories of my generation, as well as cultivating our values.
Whatever our island-state has achieved today has been due to the initiative and dedication of leaders, organisations and citizens. These successes were obtained also through the various sacrifices different groups were forced to make (the discarding of Chinese dialects, forced resettlement due to urban redevelopment, etc.). We have reaped richly from the dedication and sacrifices of past generations, but what will we leave the next generation?
《童真》 Childlike innocence
When entering Chinatown in recent years, I always feel a kind of alienation, as if my hometown has become a unfamiliar land. The foreign accents make me feel that perhaps it will take another generation before we can strengthen and consolidate our sense of national identity. Then again, although I understand that commercialisation is inevitable and natural for a market economy, occasionally I feel as disoriented as a tourist.
Chinatown – what cultural legacy can it bequeath to the younger generation? When the future leaders of this nation are adults recollecting their childhood trips to Chinatown, what other memories will they have of it, beyond their elders’ vague stories, lavish displays of souvenirs, and the dazzling lights of various Chinese festivals?
《薪火相传》 Passing the torch
Many activities happen at once in the tiny space of Grassroots Bookshop: bookselling, an exhibition of Billy Mork’s photographs of 1980s Chinatown, as well as the forum, ‘Let literature find a smile through images,’ presented by Dr. Tan Chee Lay. In a nation where Mandarin is diminishing in importance, such events remind me of the unstinting dedication of those who care about the language.
For the sake of their ideals, independent booksellers struggle to survive, yet are also self-reliant. In the commercialised Chinatown of today, the founding of Grassroots is a breath of fresh air.
I came for the photography exhibition and panel discussion. For how long have I been cut off from reading, after years without browsing in bookshops? The scent of books filling the shop evokes memories of my secondary school days, when I used to scurry to the bookshop every Saturday after finishing my extracurricular activities.
As the panel discussion drew to a close, Dr. Tan gave in to popular demand and recited an unpublished poem he had written about Chinatown. Chinatown is the symbol of the Chinese Singaporean population; although I have never experienced living there, this poem still resonates with me.
牛车水 – 陈志锐 2015