by Wong Chee Meng
There is an old joke, that if any major building bears a name to remind us of Singapore’s emergence as a young nation, it would soon be demolished: remember National Theatre at Fort Canning, National Library at Stamford Road, and National Stadium in Kallang.
Looking at the current en bloc sale of Pearl Bank Apartments in Outram, which may well be encouraging owners at People’s Park Complex nearby to follow suit, one fears we are witnessing another round of heritage destruction by numbers. The sad and alarming fact is, both buildings lying within view from the Kreta Ayer area are post-independence landmarks most significant to Singapore’s architectural history.
Modernist architecture is also heritage
The gazetting of Jurong Town Hall, constructed in 1974, as a national monument in 2015, has already demonstrated that the 1970s period is not too recent for architectural merits to be recognised. While Pearl Bank (1976) and People’s Park Complex (1973) are no ‘industrial heritage’, they mark early projects of the Urban Renewal Department formed in 1966; in fact, their modernist aesthetics and innovative design to meet Singapore’s needs of development alone should make them worthy symbols of our modernisation.
The design of People’s Park Complex for one was inspired by ideas of architectural structure analogous to organic growth, as formulated by Japanese architects of the 1960s Metabolism group. Apparently, when its founding group member Fumihiko Maki visited the site during construction, he exclaimed: “We theorised and you people are getting it built!”
These architectural works arguably form part of a continuum of urban development in the long history of the ‘Chinatown’ or Kreta Ayer (Niu Che Shui) area. The touristic imagination of Chinatown here may otherwise remain in the pre-1960s or even pre-1900s period, forever tied to cliches of coolies, rickshaw riders, opium smokers, slums, brothels and gambling dens.
The historical urban landscape here would be poorer with the loss of such modern heritage. As it is, our characterising of the area as ‘Chinatown’ is an oversimplification that ignores the history of Indian and Malay communities on this side of Singapore River, not to mention glossing over the more specific sites of Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka or Hainanese culture in the past.
If we do not make a conscious effort to preserve historical sites that highlight Singapore’s own creativity and unique cultural history, our understanding of Chinatown here may tend towards an eternal image of a migrant or transient population unloaded in the south seas from ‘Tangshan’ – never rooted in a local identity, forever adrift. We may also end up presenting a very bland historical narrative beyond pandering to a western stereotype of Chinatown as static and backwards.
Expanding the Understanding of ‘Chinatown’ in our 200-year history
As Singapore prepares itself for bicentennial celebration of its founding as a British trading post by Stamford Raffles, we need to acknowledge the role of the British administration in laying the foundation for economic development here, without overstating one man’s grand vision in town planning so much, as to attribute the development of Kreta Ayer and all other Chinese enclaves to his decision. While he favoured a Chinese kampong on the southwest of Singapore River to accommodate the ‘peculiar’ and ‘industrious race’, subsequent urban development was more complex and dynamic.
We must not forget the contribution of various business and community leaders in shaping Singapore, or the multi-faceted lifestyle of everyday people in more specific localities developing over time. Whenever the history of a nation is beginning to sound like the story of one or two great men’s achievements, it is always time to pause, explode the myth and consider other perspectives.
There is a great variety of architecture in the Chinatown conservation areas beyond the ubiquitous five-foot-way shophouses, and the familiar religious buildings already gazetted as monuments. This includes various clan associations and clubs, as well as buildings associated with entertainment. Lai Chun Yuen in Smith Street, for a start, was a notable theatre where Cantonese opera used to be staged as early as the late 19th century, before being bombed during World War II.
Along the same road as People’s Park Complex stands the former Great Southern Hotel or Nam Tin, built in 1927, the first hotel catering to a Chinese clientele and the first to feature elevators. Next to it, constructed around the same time, is the former Majestic Theatre with its striking facade, which has seen its glory days as a venue for premiering of popular Chinese movies with live performances, though it is now reduced to mainly a betting centre. The cultural significance of these two buildings cannot be underestimated even if they are not protected as monuments.
This is not to privilege Kreta Ayer as a historical place to represent Chinese culture. There are certainly other places which have been relatively neglected, among them Tanjong Malang and Clarke Quay or Kampong Melaka. If we are speaking of Cantonese enclaves, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (or Sar Kong Temple) in Kallang is a significant 150-year-old temple, tied to the history of brick kilns, and the temple is now also under threat of en bloc development.
Perhaps one may ascribe the overlooking of such heritage protection to an entrenched approach whereby temples and other buildings are assessed based on the ‘authentic’ value of their material substance, in accordance with an idea of heritage protection we inherit from the West, rather than based on more ‘intangible’ social and historical value.
Incidentally, Pearl Hill was also said to be a site of Chinese-owned gambier plantations even before Raffles arrived in Singapore. That should take us back to the topic of Pearl Bank Apartments, which made history for at a height of 113 metres and 38 floors of interlocking maisonettes, it was among the world’s densest apartment blocks and among Asia’s tallest when built in 1976, not just Singapore’s tallest.
As described in Our Modern Past: A Visual Survey of Singapore Architecture 1920s-1970s, a significant volume documenting Singapore’s modernist architectural legacy, the building by architect Tan Cheng Siong has an ‘ingenious form’ like a broken cylinder which serves to capture and mitigate the afternoon sun (Ho, Naidu and Tan, 2015). The building even has a communal deck predating sky gardens of today by three decades, despite neglect by the management, it adds. But now its fate is sealed as the required 80% of residents’ signature for en bloc sale is reached – as opposed to 100% required for conservation.
Singapore may boast the inscription of its botanic gardens as a world heritage site since SG50, but perhaps we are still in want of a broader and more diverse understanding of cultural heritage here.