Longing for the good old days

Coleman Bridge and the Hill Street Police Station. Photo: National Heritage Board

Cathay Building, circa 1955-56. Photo: CATHAY ORGANISATION

Three months ago, behind closed doors, participants at an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) event had a discussion with members of the Government’s much-vaunted machinery to anticipate wild cards and black swans — the latter a buzz phrase among civil servants these days, referring to unpredictable and rare occurrences that nevertheless have great impact.

On the agenda were sousveillance — or the watching of the Government by the general population — and the impact of automation on jobs. But the group was also trying to dissect and make sense of another trend: A longing for the good old days.

“The sense of nostalgia among Singaporeans seems to have become more pervasive ... Singaporeans are finding new ways to build the community ties that characterised kampung life and mobilising to preserve green spaces and heritage buildings that provide a link to the past,” read the synopsis for the IPS session, organised for its corporate associates and featuring some members of the Government’s Strategic Futures Network.

Nostalgia: A force for good, but a double-edged sword?

One expert calls it the “sweet imagination of the past when the present is found wanting”, while others describe it as a “warm fuzzy feeling” or a “hipster heritage impulse”.

Whatever one calls the wave of nostalgia that has swept across the island, this phenomenon, which has been accentuated by the social media explosion, is unlikely to go away any time soon. And there are implications for policymakers beyond the clamour for buildings and areas to be preserved, such as the rise of socio-cultural clashes, the experts noted

“Nostalgia is the gentle narcotic for a bruised soul. It can be canned and sold. Look at the National Museum’s replicating of childhood games — there is an audience and market for it,” said Dr Terence Chong, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “There is a fetish for nostalgia out there.”

Town of firsts contemplates modernity
Mdm Rahman who lives at Block 161, Stirling Road. Photo: Ernest Chua

Block 161 Stirling Road. Photo: Ernest Chua

HDB flats next to MDIS at Stirling Road. Photo: Ernest Chua

Old flats next to the MDIS campus on Stirling Road. Elderly while the afternoon away at void decks, steps away from students decked out in the latest trends. Photo: Ernest Chua

Queenstown Public Libary at Margaret Drive. Photo: Ernest Chua

The old polyclinic at Queenstown is now a dormitory at Margaret Drive. Photo: Ernest Chua

The old polyclinic at Queenstown is now a dormitory at Margaret Drive. Photo: Ernest Chua
The 'Fisherman of Christ' Fellowship at Queenstown. Photo: Ernest Chua

Old and the new HDB blocks at Tanglin Halt. Photo: Ernest Chua

HDB housing at Tanglin Halt. Photo: Ernest Chua

Call it the king of firsts — Queenstown, which comprises seven districts, holds the bragging rights of being home to many of Singapore’s firsts. The country’s first satellite estate is also home to the first public housing flats, polyclinic, sports complex and branch library.

The laundry list of firsts does not stop there. Queenstown, which turned 60 last year, is also home to Singapore’s first point blocks — flats with four units on each floor and no corridor — and its first fire station, prison and driving centre outside of town.

In fact, it is also in Queenstown where the xinyao scene — pioneered by local musician and Queenstown homeboy Liang Wern Fook in the 1980s — took off.

Balestier’s vintage shops hold on to fading trade
Mr Lim Seah Seng, owner of Lim Kay Khee Optical Shop along Balestier Road in his optician’s office. Photo: Alfred Chua

Mr Jimmy Chin, owner of Chop Wah Hin Sheet Metal Works, at his metalsmith workshop along Balestier Road. Photo: Alfred Chua

Hoping to scare off an eager buyer, Mr Lim Seah Seng once demanded S$5 million for the 1,600sqf space occupied by his optical shop along Balestier Road.

To his surprise, the buyer readily agreed to the price. Still, Mr Lim rejected the offer out of hand. “My late father said, ‘no selling’, and so as his children, we listen,” said the 59-year-old boss of Lim Kay Khee Optical Shop.

With its vintage floor tiles, stools and ceiling fans, Mr Lim’s Balestier shop — he owns another one in Peninsula Plaza, which has a more modern feel — appears to be stuck in a time warp. The shop has been a part of his life for almost half a century, going back to the days when he helped his father with the business after school.

Tiong Bahru: A hip and miss affair
P.S Cafe at Guan Chuan Street, Tiong Bahru. Photo: DON WONG
Chinese wooden medicine cabinets at The Dispensary, a cafe at Tiong Bahru Road. Photo: DON WONG

Drawn to its heritage and reputation as a foodie heaven, several cafes have sprouted up in Tiong Bahru in the past four years or so, prompting some to lament the invasion that has driven rents up and inexplicably pushed out the old-time favourites.

Leading the influx is Forty Hands, one of the first cafes in the area, which opened in May 2010.

Its owner, Mr Harry Grover, had been visiting Tiong Bahru regularly for years before deciding to partner with Spa Esprit Group to open the cafe. The Perth native said he was drawn to the estate’s quaintness and traditional architecture, and felt that the area was “unusual, perfect for a cafe”.
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Preserving memories of a changing nation
A photo taken in 1970 of Jerome Lim at Mata Ikan, a village by the sea at the end of Somapah Road, which lined with government holiday bungalows. Photo: Jerome Lim

Jerome Lim when he was two years old, riding on his tricycle at Plymouth Bungalow near Ayer Gemuroh which overlooked the sea at Tanah Merah close to where David Marshall had his once famous house by the sea. Photo: Jerome Lim

Mr Jasper Tan (left) and Mr Kwek Li Yong want to help Queenstown return to its glory days. foto:DON WONG

Real estate agent Alvin Yeo, who runs the blog Tiong Bahru Estate. Photo: DON WONG

As the Republic turns a year shy of the Big 50, the yearning for the past — accompanied by the desire to preserve the bits and pieces of the way we were — has continued to grow. Just look at the growing number of blogs documenting Singapore’s heritage sites, passionate debates about saving historical sites such as Bukit Brown and the encouraging responses to official initiatives such as irememberSG. A National Heritage Board (NHB) spokesperson said it has observed a growing interest in the nation’s heritage and culture, with Singaporeans finding that our shared heritage can be a rallying point. Tan Shiwei and Paul Lim talk to several individuals who are doing their part to ensureslices of the past remain relevant to those living in the present.

MyQueenstown - Fuelled by their passion to help Queenstown return to its glory days, two friends have been actively blogging and organising activities to document memories of Singapore’s oldest public housing estate. Mr Kwek Li Yong and Mr Jasper Tan, both 25, began blogging on MyQueenstown in 2009, but decided to fully migrate to Facebook two years later. Their Facebook page has since received more than 6,000 likes and up to 3,000 views per post. The duo said they were inspired to preserve memories of Queenstown after meeting many residents who expressed a deep love for the estate. Some even declared they loved it with their “heart, mind and soul”.

“We found this place to be very unique. The residents are united and they know their history well. We created the blog because we want to help raise the profile of the estate and correct any wrong impressions of the place,” said Mr Kwek, who is also the president of My Community, a registered civic group that champions community heritage, documents memories and celebrates civic life in Queenstown.

Shops, museums in Katong seek to preserve Peranakan culture
Mr Peter Wee, a fourth-generation Baba who owns Katong Antique House. Photo: Don Wong

Mr Alvin Yapp, founder and owner of The Intan, a Peranakan museum located at Joo Chiat. Photo: Don Wong

Mention Joo Chiat or Katong and Peranakan culture springs to mind for many. And while the culture evokes memories of the island’s storied past among the older generation, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant to modern Singapore — but not if people such as Mr Edmond Wong can help it.

The 31-year-old and his two brothers run Kim Choo Kueh Chang, a family business selling Nyonya rice dumplings at outlets in Joo Chiat Place and East Coast Road. Since Mr Wong rejoined the business in 2009, they have expanded it by opening a boutique gallery, giving talks, conducting in-house guided tours and collaborating with the arts community to produce Peranakan-inspired plays and art productions.

Mr Wong said his passion for Peranakan culture had begun when he was 12 years old and studying in Australia. Then, a Korean friend had asked him what Singaporean culture was about and he could not answer satisfactorily. “My friend was able to share everything about his culture, but I could offer only one or two details about mine,” he recounted.

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