bodiless dragon

The Bodiless Dragon


Landscapes And The Diversity Of Meaning In A Global City

Brenda Yeoh

In the age of globalisation where the restructuring of economic, social and technological domains of life appears to be sweeping all forms of localism aside, the cities of the world are increasingly reshaped along lines of similarity and convergence, in terms of form, function and image. It is sometimes difficult to envisage unique places which distinctively reflect local difference and import and which remain historically rooted. Yet, global forces do not necessarily or totally obliterate local variance and many urban places continue to contain elements of local identity, roots and meaning. People continue to be active participants in the 'becoming' of place or, to put it in the words of local poet Koh Buck Song, the 'poetry of place' is that which 'lets no bulldozer bury, nor crane crucify'. As people draw upon, traverse or interact with places in different ways, a multiplicity of meanings, sometimes contradictory, sometimes reinforcing, are embedded in landscapes.

This essay examines the contradictions of modernity as expressed in the urban landscape in Singapore, a world city associated with images of ‘success’ and ‘progress’. Singapore's rapid metamorphosis from a city of squatters and slums with a serious unemployment problem in the 1950s to a global city of skyscrapers and apartment blocks and a foremost newly industrialisng country with a 'showcase economy' today is well-known. Such a transformation has depended on the country's success in capitalising on its role as an international switching node for goods, capital, finance, knowledge and people. At the same time, it has also entailed a strong element of state direction and control of not just the economy but other spheres such as land use, communications, housing, tourism and heritage. In the process, places from rural kampungs to urban ethnic-based communities have been subject to rapid change, dislocations and displacements, and, sometimes obliteration. The political leadership's vision for Singapore in the 21st century as contained in their blueprint for development The Next Lap unveiled in 1991 envisages even more change in the next few decades: there will be a new downtown for international business as well as shopping, eating, art and recreational activities at Marina South amidst a waterfront setting; four regional centres serving as major commercial and cultural hubs serving the Housing and Development Board heartlands; more business parks located within technology corridors; high quality, mixed density housing with distinctive designs, including marina- and close-to-nature concepts; a world-class transport system; and a widening range of leisure and recreational facilities afforded by incorporating more green spaces and water bodies into the urban fabric as well as more cultural and entertainment centres. In another recently unveiled national scheme billed Tourism 21, 'Vision of a Tourism Capital', the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board intends to transform Singapore into a 'showtime extravanganza' in a bid to market Singapore as the tourist hub of Southeast Asia in the global age of travel. In this vision, places as diverse as Chinatown, Katong and HDB estates will serve as the stage for what has been described as 'big-league, Hollywood-glamour, Broadway spectacles'.

Yet, to plagiarise Marx, landscape is made in the image of capital and the state but this is not its sole image. Even as the landscape is continually being reshaped to fit grand plans in the continuing bid for modernity and economic growth, even as the general impression outsiders have of Singapore is nothing more than 'one huge shopping centre' or 'a city without a soul -- clean and hygienic but dull', there are beneath the sanitised surface a multiplicity of place experiences and diverse scales of meanings to be excavated. This essay takes a look beneath the veneer of grand visions of the Singapore landscape to examine its complex layerings.

One of the most noticeable changes in the Singapore landscape is the way in and speed with which places such as ethnic enclaves, riverside quays and old streets become ‘heritagised’ and repackaged for the Mickey Mouse world of capital. One main strategy used in (re)packaging cultural landscapes involves the invention and superimposition of a distinct theme as a tool to simplify local lived cultures and make them more legible to visitors. As what Sharon Zukin calls ‘cultural strategies of visual consumption’ in producing ‘landscapes of power’, theming involves compressing, collapsing and disciplining time and place, history and culture into a single organising leitmotif, and weaving new ‘narratives’ into existing socio-cultural spaces. In Tourism 21, the national Tourism Board recommended eleven zones of ‘thematic development’, ranging from ‘Ethnic Singapore’, the ‘Mall of Singapore’ to ‘Rustic Charm’. Chinatown, to take an example, has been re-invented afresh in the late 1980s as an ‘Historic District’ through an ambitious conservation scheme (after more than two decades dominated by a demolish-and-rebuild philosophy) and lately promoted as an ‘Ethnic Quarter’ in ‘Ethnic Singapore’. It is thematised as a place showcasing the quintessential Chinese culture, mainly through meticulous architectural and environmental refurbishment to create visual verisimilitude to the past. Stringent and meticulous attention was paid during the conservation process to architectural details to ensure ‘authenticity’: ornamental plasterwork and intricately moulded motifs of shophouses were restored ‘with great care’; original roof forms, timber doors and casement windows were repaired and retained, and where this was not possible, replaced by the equivalent ‘of similar profile, size and colour’; and street furniture, existing old lamp posts, fire hydrants, ‘authentic’ signboards and lighting, and ‘compatible’ materials for five-foot-ways ‘sensitively selected or designed’. Repackaging Chinatown also involves the introduction of ‘a host of specialised shops, open air cafes and eating places’ to create ‘the right ambience for tourists and locals alike looking for something different’ in place of traditional trades and everyday retail and service outlets. Upmarket pubs, lounges, restaurants as well as hotels of both of the ‘boutique’ and ‘business’ variety are highly visible in Chinatown. Against the spectacularity of the architectural backdrop, new ‘narratives’ or ‘storylines’ have been invented to facilitate rapid consumption of the raw material of local history. Tourist maps designed for Chinatown, for example, envisage that ‘the final product should be able to allow any visitor, whether in a packaged tour or in a free and independent format, to understand how and why Chinatown came to be -- covering for example the Chinese diaspora, Sir Stamford Raffles’ town plan which led to the creation of ethnic zones in Singapore, the trades of yesteryears, present conservation efforts, and future developments’.

In this (re)mapping of Chinatown as an ethnic thematic zone (or what some have likened ‘an ethnic theme park’), the more prosaic elements of lived culture -- the backlane barbers, the coffee shops, street- hawkers and ordinary residents themselves -- have no place. Putting conserved shophouses on the open tender system has inevitably squeezed out the small, traditional businesses who had to make way for more upmarket shops and offices. Temporary structures housing shopkeepers selling shoes and knick-knacks, stalls at shop fronts selling seasonal fruits like mangoes and durians, small family-run businesses selling food and daily necessities and myriad other enterprises which could not afford the post-conservation hike in rentals have faded out. Others which have survived conservation such as small Chinese tea-houses and herbal medicine halls have been upgraded into tim sum (a light Chinese meal comprising assorted dumplings) cum herbal tea restaurants. Conservation and the conversion of shophouses to shops and offices have hastened the outmigration of residents from historic areas such as Chinatown, leaving small remnants of communities in high-rise resettlement blocks.

In (re)packaging landscapes to celebrate historicity and ethnicity, those everyday elements which go into the making of a localised sense of community -- social biographies, affective ties, local referents and daily routines -- are all too quickly overturned or sacrificed to accommodate the needs and images of those more powerful others exterior to the places themselves, be they planners, consultants, entrepreneurs or tourists. However, it must be noted that particularly among those who lay claim to degrees of insideness (either as residents or workers) to historic districts, there are possible counter-readings of landscape ranging from passionate resentment that conservation has erased the old ways of life, more detached critique of inauthenticity, to a distancing from the values which packaged landscapes represent. Thus, beneath the veneer, historic places continues to act as landscape repositories of different and often diverse meanings.

Even as the redevelopment jaggernaut, followed later by the demands of urban conservation and tourism, reconfigure the landscape to fit broader visions, the result is in no way a seamless fabric. Interstices remain as liminal spaces where marginalised communities have gained a foothold for their own purposes, albeit still locked within the grids defined by more powerful others. As Saskia Sassen has noted, world cities produced by the processes of globalisation and international migration such as Singapore are thus not only characterised by the concentration of corporate activities, producer services as well as highly skilled international ‘denizens’ but also focal points for the gathering of migrants of a lower level of skill such as entertainers, waiters, prostitutes, maids and chauffeurs’ who ‘service the needs of the rich in personal services and in the hotel, catering and entertainment industry’. In Singapore, this has created a multifarious but segmented ‘ethnoscape’ (Arjun Appadurai’s term for ‘landscape of [moving] persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live’), the suffix ‘scape’ indicating that such a landscape is not objectively constituted but a ‘deeply perspectival construct’ which varies with the angle of vision. Singapore’s ‘ethnoscape’ comprises an important core of expatriates of the professional and managerial class but also a large influx of guest-workers, including construction and other manual workers as well as domestic maids. The so-called ‘weekend enclaves’, places which draw large numbers of foreign workers of any one nationality on Sundays, have attracted considerable media attention. Lucky Plaza, a shopping centre in Orchard Road, Singapore's downtown shopping belt, is well-known as ‘Little Manila’, a gathering place for Filipino workers, while Zhujiao Market, a food-cum-shopping complex in Little India is identified with Indian and Sri Lankan workers and the Golden Mile Complex with Thai workers. Starting off as accessible public meeting points, these places gradually grew to cater to the cultural and economic needs of specific groups. In Lucky Plaza, for example, ‘a new subculture has grown up around [Filipino] workers -- remittance companies where the Filipinos can send money home, snack bars serving Filipino food, and IDD card phones from which they can make regular calls home’. Indeed, an air of the carnivalesque prevails as Lucky Plaza and its environs are transformed to something akin to a Filipino festive ground. On a typical Sunday, about 2,000 Filipina maids, normally unseen in public space and limited to the confines of the home for the rest of the week, stream into the shopping complex after 10 a.m, mostly after church service. By noon, they have packed the six-storey complex, colonising every nook and cranny. Most are found in the lobby waiting for friends, chatting unrestrainedly in Tagalog, Taglish (a hybrid of Tagalog and English) or some other provincial tongue, laughing, taking snapshots of one another, or simply resting. Snack-bars, such as Barrio Fiesta and Kentucky Fried Chicken are fully packed by Filipinos. Others are shopping or window-shopping, packing boutiques, remittance centres, hairdressing salons and other shops as well as the ladies' toilets, passageways, steps and balconies. In an open patch of greenery behind the Orchard Road Mass Rapid Transit station opposite Lucky Plaza, groups of Filipinas can be seen sitting or lying on the grass with bags of belongings strewn around and their shoes taken off. Many engage in conversation, laughing and making comments in their mother tongue; a few quietly read books or magazines; while others sing to the strumming of a guitar. Some relax under palm trees along the grass verge while others are busy making phone calls at the public telephone booths or clicking their cameras.

Indeed, as Robin Cohen has indicated, ‘a perverse feature of globalization at the cultural level’ is that it has brought about ‘the fragmentation and multiplication of identities’ as well as countered global tendencies by ‘a return to the local and the familiar’. It is paradoxical that in a global city such as Singapore characterised by high-speed, technologically advanced communications and encounters, there are still pockets of face-to-face communities right in the heart of the city, albeit constituted by guestworkers on a transient basis and bounded by the rules of host society. The existence of these liminal spaces illustrate what Stuart Hall calls the ‘reconstruction of imaginary, knowable places in the face of the global postmodern’.

Beyond heritagised landscapes and migrant ethnoscapes, among the most ubiquitous of urban landscapes in Singapore are Housing and Development Board New Towns, comprising high-rise, high density housing grouped around amenities based on the principles of self-containment. Indeed, not only has Singapore’s housing programme been commended for excellence in management and improving the quality of life for Singaporeans (over 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in Housing Board flats), these housing landscapes are often depicted as quintessentially Singaporean ‘heartlands’, microcosms of everyday life in the city. The everyday negotiations over space, the social and affective ties which bind people together, as well as the cultural diversity and ethnic tensions which divide them belie the image that this is a landscape cast in concrete, ‘fixed’ and monolithic. While levels of interaction between people are somewhat diminished compared to the spirit of earlier kampung settings central to imaginings of what ‘community’ is all about, observations of writers such as Lai Ah Eng who have delved into the meanings of living in a multi-ethnic situation at the local, day-to-day level as well as recent TV comedies drawing on local themes such as the popular Under One Roof have clearly shown that beneath the surface, life in the raw in at least the more mature New Towns demonstrate a whole new biosphere of evolving give-and-take attitudes with a local Singaporean flavour.

The view here is that of a restless landscape, a landscape of many embedded meanings partially buried by but always struggling against the logic of modernity. In each and every one of the landscapes mentioned -- heritage sites, foreigner enclaves and Singaporean heartlands -- it is clear that homogenising forces in the form of commercial moves or planned forces are at work. Equally clear, however, local forces are present to confront and oppose, with varying degrees of success, the anonymous, rational, progressive and universalising tendencies of globalisation. The richness and restlessness of Singapore’s urban landscapes stem from the way mutiple layers of meaning - from the surface veneer to the subterranean -- interweave in complex ways.

Inventing cultural heritage in Singapore by Lily Kong

Landscapes And The Diversity Of Meaning In A Global City by Brenda Yeoh

Displacing Singapore by Peter Schoppert

Time, Landscape and Desire in Singapore by Lee Weng Choy

Conversations in a Taxi by Lai Chee Kien

The Book