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.
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.
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.