Director's Note (Oct–Dec) 2014
How does one convey the idea of a city?
In her exuberant account of 19th-century Singapore, Isabella Bird wrote of a city that was full of character, thanks to the varying skin tones of its Oriental inhabitants and their exotic multi-hued costumes while deploring the pallid and detached European residents whose primary obsession was to faithfully send mail home each week. Truly, a tale of two cities depending on which side of the divide you stand.
Lee Meiyu’s review of Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan’s description of Singapore, almost half a millennium earlier in the 14th century, was similarly of a city straddling two divergent parts – a rich ruling royalty ensconced at Fort Canning Hill and a more depraved pirate lair that perhaps gave Singapore its infamous early reputation of crime and danger.
The destiny of early Singapore was shaped by the rock-solid faith investors had in the colony. When Raffles Hotel faced imminent bankruptcy in 1933, Gretchen Liu reminds us of the sanguine official who mustered up support from the hotel’s shareholders by proclaiming: “I can only put it to you this way, that the measure of your faith in the shares which you hold in Raffles Hotel must be the measure of your faith in the colony.”
The portrayal of Singapore as a city of promise is similarly conspicuous in 19th-century accounts of Singapore by Westerners. Nor Afidah Abd Rahman describes landscape paintings of early Singapore as almost “visual propaganda” – the island’s richness often depicted from vantage points of hills and elevated points so that the distant squalor and mangrove swamps were scarcely seen.
Perhaps the most truthful representation of a city is seen in the work of its faithful and tireless documenters. In “Lee Kip Lin: Kampung Boy Conservateur”, Bonny Tan highlights the life of architect and lecturer Lee Kip Lin, who fastidiously documented Singapore’s changing landscape from the 1950s into the 80s. The resulting 17,000 slides and negatives of modern Singapore along with maps and rare photographs were generously donated to the National Library in 2009.
This time last year, I was in Hong Kong delivering a speech on preserving a nation’s memories. Even as many of the Hong Kongers I met were deploring the relentless pace of development in their city, it suddenly struck me that Hong Kong has the unmistakable aura of a consummate city. Each time I walk through the streets of Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui or Mong Kok, the distinct waft of old Hong Kong and the sounds and chatter of Cantonese make it impossible for me to think I am anywhere else in the world except Hong Kong.
In that light, I read Lim Tin Seng’s tracing of Singapore’s fast-changing landscape through planning instruments such as master and concept plans. The 1958 Ring Plan of satellite towns separated by green spaces, the waterways in the Green Blue Plan of the 1991 Concept Plan and the core of the city centre as envisioned in the original 1823 Raffles Town Plan – in each generation of planning, we see an emergent trait that eventually became dominant in our cityscape.
The idea of a place, city or otherwise, that is constantly shifting course and transforming itself is what travel writer Desiree Koh encountered in every Southeast Asian destination she has visited since the 1980s – lovingly remembered in her article on “Exploring My Own Backyard”.
Director, National Library