The living streets of Shanghai and the less Singaporean Singapore that we have become

29 06 2010

One of the things that struck me when I was wandering through some of the streets of Shanghai was that many of the streets were “living”, despite the modernisation that has engulfed much of the city. It is much the same in many of the cities of Asia where there is an interesting mix of old and new, of tradition and modernity, where old trades are often found amidst the office blocks and shopping malls that have sprouted up alongside the older buildings where people are living as well as making a living very much in the same way they may have done half a century ago. It is always nice to see that in a city, it is the living streets, each one different from the other, that often give a city its character.

Singapore has an absence of street life which can still be found in many of the modern Asian cities.

It's always nice to see vendors on the streets that cater to the day-to-day needs of the people who live in the cities rather than to the tourists.

In Singapore, we have unfortunately lost all that. Wandering around the streets of Chinatown one morning, it felt as if I was in an empty amusement park before opening time. It was empty, devoid of all life. Not the Chinatown that made Chinatown, Chinatown. This is a sad reflection of what we have become. We had wonderful living streets, some that never slept, where people lived their lives on, where colourful food stalls lined the streets, stalls selling produce in the mornings, dried sundries, clothes and whatever one needed all day, and brightly lit food stalls serving a delicious choice of street fare that somehow seemed to taste that much better off the streets. There would be the crowds that throng the streets all day, housewives doing their marketing in the mornings, shoppers looking for a bargain in the afternoons and the multitudes out on the streets in search for a sumptuous feast. We now have lost all that to the glitzy shopping malls, office blocks and the giant amusement park that Singapore has become. A reader Greg, lamented about our lost buildings around the Raffles Place and Collyer Quay area – yes there were certainly some magnificent examples of colonial architecture that we have lost, replaced by towering masses of glass and steel. Not only we have lost that, we have lost the soul of what Singapore was. Even in areas where attempts are made to conserve some of the beautiful edifices, the structures stand without a heart and soul, as it is in Chinatown. Where we once saw people going about their day to day lives, we now see hordes of tourists fooled into thinking it is the genuine Chinatown they have been brought to. Where traditional trades supporting the day-to-day needs of people living around had once thrived, the buildings now are saturated with businesses that give the tourists what they think they want at a price that is set by the profits that the landlords and business owners so crave.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The same corner today ... where tourist shops being rented at high prices have replaced what were shops catering to the day-to-day needs of the people around.

The streets of Chinatown today are quiet and without the soul that made Chinatown what it once was.

The streets of Chinatown are no longer coloured by life on the streets, but by symbols that fool people into thinking that the Chinatown they see is authentic.

Where traditional businesses once thrived, shops selling expensive suggestions of what we would like tourists to see Chinatown as.

Street markets of the tourist kind - nothing like the atmosphere found in the street markets of old.

Much of the effort to modernise Singapore took place when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, when many were moved out of the streets of the city and the villages in the rural areas into the housing estates that lack the character that the older streets and villages had. I suppose some may argue that that is the price of progress that we must pay and that we should be thankful for improved conditions in which many of us now live in with comfortable housing units, clean water and proper sanitisation. But, we have paid a price in that we have in sanitising Singapore, also sanitised the richness and diversity that could only be found in Singapore. In modernising Singapore and in attempting to selectively retain what makes us Asian, we have also discarded not just the street life, but also the many unique sub-cultures that were very much a part of what made Singapore, Singapore. We have become less of the unique Singapore that the tourist board might have many believe, but a Singapore that bears very little of the microcosm of Asia it once was.

The streets of Shanghai each have a unique character that is lacking in much of Singapore.

Where you can still find people plying trades that were once a common sight on the streets of Singapore.

The streets of Singapore used to be filled with vendors selling wares and produce that cater to the needs of the ordinary folk on the street.

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21 responses

29 06 2010
David Leong

Yup – as we are ageing or at our twilight zones we seem often trying to link the past & the present… perhaps also imagine what it will be in future too… hahaha.

Whenever I walk around in Singapore modern shopping centres I always try to remind my family those olden days.

Thanks for sharing!

1 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Yes, it is always good to remind our younger generation of the way things were. :)

30 06 2010
Daily SG: 30 Jun 2010 « The Singapore Daily

[…] Life, the universe and everything – The Long and Winding Road: The living streets of Shanghai and the less Singaporean Singapore that we have become […]

30 06 2010
Heng

The unsanitized part of china will very much want to exchange the life for ours. Put it this way, holding a pen to earn a living is much much better than selling vegetables,for miserable returns, on a dirty street with no proper stand or a well equipped stall.
To inject the kind of ‘live’ or trade you longed to go back to, we need to be poor and non progressive.
Fortunately, you are a dying breed who can’t see that ‘live’ is very much kicking in orchard road or your local supermarket.
That said, we can still breathe new life into Chinatown if we are prepared to make changes that suit the current generation.
Just don’t expect them to slaughter live monkeys for your entertainment.

1 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Maybe I was misunderstood. It is certainly good that we have a wonderful clean and modern city, but along with cleaning it up, we have also wiped away what actually made Singapore, Singapore. We certainly must be thankful for the relative prosperity that we are blessed with, but at the same time, we are poorer for the lack of identity that this has brought. While it is good to push paper in a comfortable office and chill out at s Starbucks in Orchard Road, we have to ask what differentiates from the Londoner, Parisian or New Yorker doing the same. At least in London, Paris or New York, they have their living streets and street markets right next to their Selfridges, Galeries Lafayette, or Macy’s.

1 07 2010
Heng

You make a statement that we lack identity which puzzles me. Let me explain. You seem to be looking at someone’s identity and lament we should be like them or go back to what we were before. But is that feasible and a good thing?
On the one hand, there are people among us who would want to take total control of our national identity. Yet there are those who feel that we should allow things to evolve naturally.
I think so long as we are clear of our fundamentals of what constitute a society, the rest will fall into place.
And if that should translate to a preference for quality product and services at the demise of our type of pasar malam, so be it.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not against “pasar malam” per se . In NY,Sydney,London etc, their weekend markets are vibrant and even attract tourists.
The difference between their market places and ours is that they ply arts & crafts(from their talented people), brilliant home cooked food and antiques(or quality second hand home furnishing)etc and we on the other hand sell cheap tooth picks and pirated softwares.
Aparently, our bazaars and street markets have not keep up with the time.
And therein lies our problem isn’t it?

1 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

I think we have the answers of who we want to think we are in what you say. Sadly, this does not make us what Singapore should truly be. It is not about controlling who we are, but being what we are about. It is not the tourist markets that make a place, but the vibrant streets where people are going about their everyday business, where you meet the man on the street buying vegetables in Soho or in North End Road, and not a foreigner selling what is being masked as local to another foreigner. Progress does not have to come with a price of losing who we are.

1 07 2010
Heng

On the contrary, progress dictates we embrace the spirit of the market place. We can’t stop people for wanting an apple product or gravitating towards a more liberal society.
What they eventually consume defines who they are or what they want to be. Can we stop that?
I don’t think so.
The fact that you look at your neighbors and desire what they have already affirm your lost of identity or that you have made a valued decision after their product and services.
Though we want the charm of their market places but our people are far from being charming.

1 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

I don’t think progress dictates that we lose our identity. There is no doubt that identity does need to evolve, but evolving is one thing and wiping the slate clean is another. Again there is a misunderstanding – the point being made is not about looking and desiring at what our neighbours have – it is about trying to understand what makes them who they are.

1 07 2010
Heng

Isn’t it a generalization that we have wiped our slate clean? There are certain fundamental characteristics we can’t wipe off such as, inherent race and even culture.

I think there is a very fine line drawn between emulating our neighbors and wondering what makes them tick.

Have you consider that 70 to 80% of what we are today have been imported from leading global cities?

Recently, I was in Sydney. What struck me in the heart of the city center was the sheer number of young Asian( mostly china chinese) dominating the streets. Most of them are better dressed than their local whites. I don’t see that many young trendy foreigners flooding our streets, do you?

Maybe is the weather there but could also due to everything western that makes them more attractive to the young and trendy.

Perhaps western culture is more desirable and who they are, their identity, sells better which goes back to what we consume defines who we want to be?

2 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

I think it isn’t so much a generalisation but what we have done to many aspects of who we were, culture as in the roots of the word means to cultivate and while we retain many facets of the characteristics of our forefathers, there is one important part that we are now missing: the part that we have cultivated living in the environment that has allowed us to absorb the many influences and stimuli of not just the culture of our forefathers but also of those around us. Again, it isn’t about emulating neighbours or wondering what makes them tick so much so as trying to understand what makes them different and what makes us less so. It is certainly great that you recognise that we have many influences beyond our shores … but we have that for the last few generations as well that we have lost. The question is what made us who we are and not what we want to make ourselves out to be. It is sad that this is the case even with our National identity, where many do not even know how the words of the National Anthem is pronounced, let alone know what they mean.

4 07 2010
Weekly Roundup: Week 27 « The Singapore Daily

[…] have more progressive attitudes towards dating than Singaporean women – The Long and Winding Road: The living streets of Shanghai and the less Singaporean Singapore that we have become – thegreatsze: “Singaporean Men Cannot Make It One Lah” – Small steps for Social PR: […]

4 07 2010
gregLIM

I really enjoyed what you wrote about the ‘ today’s ‘ Spore Chinatown… As I remembered it, ‘ Tai Paw ‘ or Gow Chair Sioa ( Bull Cart Water ) was not what it was when I was young.. I used to walk around Sago Lane and watched the ‘ scary ‘ funeral rituals taking place around the ‘Death Houses ‘ , the talented craftsmen making multi coloured paper houses, cars, drivers, servants etc to be burned for the after Life.. Story Tellers, Kung Fu ‘ promoters ‘ ( cantonese ) selling their Chinese medications, banging their gongs to attract the crowds….there was also an another person translating in Hokien / Teochew.. and of course the food stalls… etc.. Sadly, they ( + their skills ) have disappeared… the next generation probably would not be able to comprehend what I am talking about..
Whenever I visit Spore, I would spend one day at the Asian Civilisations Museum ( an excellent exhibition of past Spore ) to remind me of my childhood days n my Spore ‘ roots ‘. I think every Parents in Spore should take their kids there and explain to them what Spore was during their Parents / grandparents time….n how we progressed to Present Spore…..n what makes us what we are today.. ( unfortunately more Westernised…. forgotten all our Dialects ) Can anyone pl tell me why Spore kids are so ‘pro-western ‘ ???? I have lived o/ seas for 40 yrs + I think I am more Asian than the Spore kids ??? maybe, I ‘missed’ being Asian in a Western Country ??

6 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Greg, thanks for your feedback and sharing your experiences of the Chinatown of old. Unfortunately for me, most of the interesting parts of Chinatown had been cleaned up by the time I got to see it for myself in my teens. My parents did have a lot of interesting tales of what Chinatown was like. There were still however, the many businesses that served the day-to-day needs of people, along with some of the remaining trades and crafts, and the street hawkers, and of course, the red-light area around Keong Saik Road. Most of the resettlement happened in the mid 1980s – as was the case in many parts of urban Singapore, and with that, much of the soul of Chinatown that did remain went, leaving only the silent buildings behind. Interestingly, there was an article in the Sunday Times about the “buzz” that has returned to Chinatown which quoting it has it that asking Singaporeans about their impressions of Chinatown would probably elicit a “tired response” about it being an “over-commercialised tourist trap”. Although the article does go on to say that the many Chinese immigrants that have set up businesses in the area have put the “China” back in it, it is still far from the Chinatown that you describe.

15 07 2010
peter

I am not sure what tourists expect and want of Chinatown today. Similar conditions to the 1960s – messy streets, wet floors, live slaughtering of birds, reptiles and sea animals? Pasar malams with perverts and pickpokets? Clogged drains, cubicles filled with people, left-over perishables thrown into the drains, backlane restaurants and plates washed next to a drain, bucket system? I rather not live with that just to call ours Chinatown. Of course foreigners enjoy seeing that because that reflects how bad shape we Asians were then. How come they never complain about Hong Kong of today? Take a walk down Lockhart Road, Jaffne Road and Mongkok.. That’s as bad as Singapore’s Chinatown of yesterday.

16 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Oops Peter, I think the point I was trying to make has been lost in the comparison I made with Shanghai. While there were the negative aspects of life in what was the Chinatown of old, there was a living culture that was evolving and it was that, and not so much the filth and undesirables that I was making a reference to. It is not so much what tourists expect, but what we want the tourists to see that often gets in the way of having an appreciation of who we really are. Culture is something that is alive and evolving and not something we read about or visit a museum or areas with edifices intact, but without heart and soul. The effort in cleaning up the streets is good, but it may have been better if the streets are not turned over to businesses which are no more than tourist traps. We should take pride in ourselves and in our identity and not do things because it brings the tourist bucks in. It is not really about foreigners enjoying seeing Asians in bad shape … I think the world has moved beyond that.

15 07 2010
peter

I was in HK in 2009 and witnessed fowls slaughtered the old fashion way, pig meat chopped and hung on skewers on 5-foot-ways, water dripping from flower pots on the extended verandah of the 2nd/3rd or what floor, spitting,,,swear words like “Hey yau chi…..lay ke mahter……”, drains filled with left-overs from the wet market. That’s Chinatown of the east. But I cant say the same of Chinatowns in the west. I can share pics with anybody interested.

2 08 2011
Wendy Marsden

I would love to see your pictures please Peter.

15 07 2010
peter

I can share pics with anybody interested. I was in HK in 2009 and witnessed fowls slaughtered the old fashion way, pig meat chopped and hung on skewers on 5-foot-ways, water dripping from flower pots on the extended verandah of the 2nd/3rd or what floor, spitting,,,swear words like “Hey yau chi…..lay ke mahter……”, drains filled with left-overs from the wet market. That’s Chinatown of the east. But I cant say the same of Chinatowns in the west.

2 08 2011
Wendy Marsden

For those of us who are old enough to remember the Old Singapore of the 1960’s. As a forces wife and I think I can speak for many, the two years living there were the best of our lives. We fondly remember Singers as a country which was basic without the trapping of the Western World. The simplicity of it all was wonderful. Food always tasty and fresh. Yes in parts it was dirty and smelly but we got used to it fairly quickly. Never in those two years did I ever suffer with colds, flu, stomach upsets etc yet we ate as the locals did sitting on a little metal stool a small table in a backstreet somewhere! Yes, Singapore has lost its character of yesteryear, but it’s identity is alive and kicking. The world has moved on and we have come a long way in a short time. Nothing stays the same anywhere in the world, it’s called progress. Maybe those of us with those wonderful memories of days gone by should embrace them, treasure them and be grateful that we experienced them when we did and can tell the tales. I have seen the old and new Singapore, both views are wonderful in their ways.

11 09 2011
Thimbuktu

Nice blog with the juxtaposition of photos in Shanghai today and weaves in the now world famous corner of Smith and Trengganu Street in Chinatown, Singapore. How does it feel like to be transported in person from one place to another country, another time…surreal isn’t it?

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