Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A piece of soul - Singapore

Old Singapore
What do we feel when we look at the pictures of a place that we know, when the images date back to when we were not yet born? I can still remember what I felt the first time I saw some old pictures of Singapore. I looked at them, changed angle and read the caption: a comment, a date and the name of a place that I knew but couldn't recognize. My curiosity aroused, I returned to those places, convinced that I had missed something, because of carelessness or bad choice of the point of view. Roads, quarters, squares, bridges, wharves: the names had remained the same, anything else was unrecognizable. I could place myself behind a column, stare at the view for minutes trying to get hold of some half-hidden detail, but there was no way to bringing back to life the foreshortened image of the photo, sometimes not even in part.
It's true that the same thing would happen pretty much everywhere if one looked at a sixty-year-old picture, but in Singapore the concept of restyling has been pushed to a level that might have never been reached anywhere else. Demolitions, renovation and restoration works, planning, experimentations, regulations, standardization, all this with only one goal in mind: the realization of a vision. The one of a hyper-modern, hi-tech, functional, organized, controlled, clean, safe, ordered city. And as none of these qualities has something to do with the past (actually they are all its children, but they don't need it anymore...ungrateful offspring), the heritage of that past has been ignored. Therefore anything that was not an obstacle has been molded and reshaped to meet the new requirements, whereas what was seen as a hindrance was removed outright. As a consequence the city-state has inevitably lost its character, got rid of a piece of soul, thinking perhaps that it could live off the body alone. The aseptic veil and the sophistication are things that you can see not only on buildings, restaurants and streets: you inhale them with the air you breathe, they brush against your face when you turn at a corner or cross a threshold. Singapore could have been a rich and advanced version of Rangoon, Malacca, Goa, Luang Prabang, Phuket town, Penang, Hoian. It decided to become the copy of some city fancied by a science-fiction writer instead. An imperfect copy, as they all are. And it did so without many scruples.
Perhaps the zealous authorities do feel some remorse though, if they love to retrieve these photos and show them in public, or if they organize some nostalgic old postcards exhibitions.
That's why I advise those foreign visitors who arrive to Singapore and are amazed by its organization, cleanliness and order, but most of all by its offer of cutting edge technology, to search for those images, watch them carefully, then turn around and look out, and ask themselves whether it was worth wiping off history in order to offer the tourists this life size scale model and lots of shop-windows filled with electronic trinkets that will arrive to their cities only a couple of months later. 
As for myself, this is one of those moments when I would like one of my favorite dreams to come true: getting hold of a time machine and travel back...years...back...back...decades, to when the photographer took those shots. Even a black and white, vaguely milky world would be fine.

2 comments:

Chuong said...

Hi, I would like to use the photo of the Old Singapore you have posted here and would like to get your permission to do so, if you are the owner of this picture, if not, please let me know who is. Thanks.

Fabio said...

Hi,
Thanks for contacting me.
It's not my picture, it's an old postcard. And you can find in the post itself the link to blog where I found it.
Here it is for your convenience:
http://martinliewphotography.blogspot.com/2009/04/postcards-of-old-singapore.html