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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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.

A walk down the Bund

22 06 2010

The Bund in Shanghai has been a place that I have, for a long time, wanted to visit. It wasn’t because of reading so much about it and its association with two unpleasant chapters in the history of China, or beacuse of watching the Steven Spielberg movie based on the semi-autobiographical novel written by J. G. Ballard, “Empire of the Sun”, but strange as it may sound, because of its rather odd sounding name, which seems out of place for a city in China. That the Bund features many magnificent and excellent examples of European styled architecture over the one mile stretch of Shanghai on the west bank of the Huangpo River, is in itself, a reflection of the strangeness of this. There are reasons for this oddity, one of historical significance, one that had for many years, been a sore point for many Chinese. It is an oddity that speaks of the attempts by the European powers to dominate a once weak China. The name is derived from the Hindi word for an embankment, and was said to have been brought over by the family of the very successful Baghdadi Jewish hotel owner and businessman, Victor Sasson. Sasson once owned one of the buildings that dominates the Bund, the copper roofed Cathay, now the Peace Hotel.

The Bund by night offers a breathtaking view of the mile long stretch of buildings and the contrast that Shanghai offers

The buildings which feature styles of architecture providing a glimpse into a Shanghai of a time when European powers attempted to dominate China, are beautifully illuminated at night.

I can now say that I have finally done what I had longed to do, managing to take a stroll down the Bund, as many in the crowd that one can never escape from on the streets of Shanghai had gathered to do on the cool and foggy midsummer’s evening, and taking in the magnificence of the view on offer. The view of the mile stretch is even more breathtaking by night, the glowing green roof of the Peace Hotel featuring prominently in the row of beautifully illuminated buildings that revel in the attention that a wealthy China can now give, that having been built in the lavish styles that only money made from the exploitation of the concessions that were made by a once crumbling China, they could only have only previously begged for. It is a sight that having for so long wanted to see, will certainly long remember.

Architecture that speaks of the money that the business that thrived from the concessions.

The former McBain Building at No. 1 marks the beginning of the one mile stretch.

No. 2, the former Shanghai Club.

No.3 (left), the former Union Assurance Building, and No. 5, the former NKK Building.

No. 6, the former Commercial Bank of China Building.

No. 7, the former Great Northern Telegramme Company Building (now Bangkok Bank).

No. 9, the former China Merchants Steam Navigation Company Building.

No. 12, the former HSBC Building, now the Pudong Development Bank.

No 13 (far right), the Customs House.

No 14, The former Bank of Communications Building.

No 15, the former Russo-Asiatic Bank Building.

No. 16, the former Bank of Taiwan Building.

No. 17, the former North China Daily News Building (now AIA Building).

No. 18, the former Chartered Bank Building.

No. 19 (left), the former Palace Hotel, now the Swatch Peace Hotel.

No. 20, the green roofed former Cathay Hotel owned by Victor Sasson, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel.

Another view of the former Cathay Hotel.

No. 23, the Bank of China Building.

No. 24, the former Yokohama Specie Bank Building, now the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Building.

No. 27, the former Jardine Matheson and Company Building, now the Foreign Trade Corporation Building.

No. 28, the former Glen Line Steamship Building, now the People's Broadcasting Station.

No. 29, the former Banque de l'Indochine Building, now the Everbright Bank Building.

European high fashion on the former European High Street of the Far East.

The Signal Tower on the Bund.

Another view of the Bund by night.


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