The glow in the dark

5 07 2010

Wandering around in the glow of the Shanghai night, I was reminded of the fascination I have always had for the bright lights of a city. Somehow, wandering around in the warm glow of city lights seems to provide me with a lift, transporting me at the same time into a world that seemingly is one where fairytales would be made of. It is perhaps that same magical feeling one gets in the fairytale world of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, where one somehow becomes immediately immersed in the delightful fantasies that the gardens had contributed to Hans Christian Anderson in the telling of his stories. It is a wonderful feeling that the glow of a city gives, whispering in the language of the hustle and bustle of the streets that seem, as in the words of the Christmas tune “Silver Bells”, to be “dressed in holiday style” by the luminescent neon and incandescent glow.

The lights of Shanghai draw people from all over China ... a tourist waits in the bus in the warm glow of the Shanghai night.

The National Billboard on North Bridge Road (source: Derek Tait)

I suppose my fascination had started all those years back when as a child, Singapore seemed to be awash in the glow of lights. Neon signs seemed to be omnipresent and one could never seem to escape being bathed in the glow of neon. I remember Guillemard Circus being particularly bright – dominated by the huge advertisement billboards that glowed in the dark. Speaking of huge billboards, the mother of all billboards, one that rose some 50 metres above ground and with an area of some 186 square metres, had stood above the National Showroom along North Bridge Road, in between Capitol and the big Bata store, dominating the skyline of the civic district. That billboard stood for some 11 years, having been erected sometime in 1963, before being taken down in 1974 when the National Showroom shifted out to make way for redevelopment. The blocks of flats that I had lived in didn’t escape as well. A huge flashing neon Setron advertisement wrapped around the cylindrical water tank could be seen for miles (Setron was a homegrown maker of TV sets).

The glow of Shanghai on a rainy evening.

The dimming of Singapore started in 1972, when a ban on flashing neon signs came into effect. The oil crisis of 1973 played a part as well, as efforts to save energy came into effect and bright light started losing favour. Further restrictions came into effect in the late 1970s as the use of outdoor advertising and neon signs was discouraged, making it difficult to obtain a license for erecting billboards and neon advertisements, for reasons ranging to the distraction these would have to motorists, to the clutter that it was said to add to the skyline. Still, there were those occasions when Singapore still had a bit of a glow, one of which would be the light-up which put a glow on the evening of National Day. Many buildings in the civic district would be illuminated, and it was during those occasions that it was always nice to wander around the city. The grandest buildings that would be lit up would be the Supreme Court, City Hall, the Victoria Memorial Hall and Empress Place Building, the GPO (now Fullerton Hotel), and the building that housed the school that was to become my alma mater which is now the Singapore Art Museum. One light up that I always looked forward to seeing was the one that involved the filter beds at the corner of Cavenagh Road and Bukit Timah Road, opposite the Japanese Club, where there would be the streams of the fountain dancing in the coloured lights.

The neon glow of Shanghai.

What is nice to see these days is that some of the glow has been regained with a rethink of restrictions that now see areas such as Orchard Road brightened up. It is also nice that many of the wonderful buildings we have are also aglow, and with the first ever F1 night race in Singapore, for three evenings, audiences worldwide are treated to the spectacle of not just of a race under lights, but one that provides the world with a view of the beautifully illuminated edifices in our civic district. Whether I am in Singapore, or in a city like Shanghai, the warm glow of the illuminated cityscape is something that never fails to lure me and it is something that I can’t help but marvel at.

The street circuit, seen during the inaugural F1 night race in 2008, runs through the beautifully lighted iconic structures of down town Singapore.

More photographs of the Shanghai glow:

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