Text and photography by Alessandro Carboni
Location: 1° 18′ 0″ N, 103° 48′ 0″ E
The southern part of the main island of Singapore is fully urbanised and densely populated. Around the centre of the city however have expanded the so-called “new town” in which lives 86% of the total population. An exploration of Queenstown, the oldest New Town of the City. A urban action of 24 hours in the Food Court, perhaps the only real social space left in the whole area. Here the people of Queenstown, meet, eat, share tables and spend most of their time.
I just arrived at Changi Airport in Singapore. I am on a taxi that is taking me to the centre. The taxi driver asks me if I like the city and I answer that after being in Kuala Lumpur for a week, I was curious to discover the other side of the Malay Peninsula. Although I could barely understand his English, I felt I touched his pride. “In Singapore there are many Indians, Chinese, Malay and even some Westerners. There is no division, we are all united” he says. “Do you know the rojak?” He asks. “I do not know it” I reply. “Well, Singapore is like rojak, a salad very popular around here. The various ingredients, covered by the same peanut sauce, form a distinct whole in which each part is clearly distinguishable. The peanut sauce is the inhabitants of Singapore, the other ingredients are the different cultural traditions”.
Before getting off, he jokingly continued, “Do you know the ‘five Cs’?” (1) Once more I answer I don’t. The driver smiles. “Here everyone wants the ‘five Cs’: car, condominium, credit card, club membership and career. The ‘five Cs’ go beyond ethnicity. Perhaps the fault lies with the Kiasu (2), the fear of failure.” I say good bye to the driver and find myself in the street. I’m about 85km from the equator between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It’s noon, I look at the sky: the sun is at its zenith. Singapore is a small city-state which covers about 642 square kilometer, including the main island and sixty islets. (Photo?) After a few days in the city, I try to piece together the notes, the information and data that I collected (3). I’m sitting in a small Chinese bar on Balesterian Rd, it’s still hot and very humid: it’s a tropical climate. I order another sugar cane juice, my only salvation.
The southern part of the main island of Singapore is completely urbanised and densely populated. Around the centre of the city, however, there are the so-called “new towns” in which approximately 86% of the population lives. In Singapore one can find everything from Indonesian batik to Italian design, from Chinese silk to the most sophisticated Japanese technologies. A multiracial society of immigrants, a mosaic of Asian cultures. Chinese, Malays and Indians who, respectively, make 76%, 15%, and 6.5% of the population. Despite the enormous ethnic diversity, there are no racial tensions. At first glance, Singapore is comfortable and exotic, a perfect place: an extraordinary combination of will, foresight and chance, efficiency and cleanliness. Slowly, it emerges that in reality there is a very strong social control and collective ownership system. Some people I met told me that, for example, there is a list of types of dogs allowed in certain areas of the city. The death penalty is used for drug trafficking and flogging is still used as punishment. In addition, there are fines or other penalties for a wide range of violations including political activity outside the officially registered political parties. While in skim the pages of my notes, I remember the words of Dr. John Allen Chun, one of the scholars of the Asia Research Institute (4). During our meeting, he told me that the logic of Singapore is very simple. “If you do not like the rules here, you can always leave”. After being in China to develop some projects (5) and recently in Malaysia, I began to understand that a major factor in the success of Singapore is the ability to rationalise authoritarianism on the freedom of choice of each individual. A rare opportunity for the countries where human rights are still developing. Any scientist would say that the Singapore experiment has been a success. So I wonder, what is the price to pay for development.
Tired of seeing tourists in sandals and super shopping mall designed by the world’s most famous starchitects, I decide to move away and concentrate on the outskirts of Queenstown, the oldest New Town of the city. During the first days in Singapore, I read on a local newspaper, that this year marks the 50th Anniversary of Public Housing, Singapore council housing. In general, I was interested in the New Towns in Singapore, not only because 86% of the population lives in Public Housing, but also because building a New Town means building a community from scratch. Over the years, the social and urban model of Singapore has become unique in its kind and perhaps throughout the south-east Asia. After 1965 and until early 1970, when Singapore gained its independence from the British, as well as high crime and unemployment, race clashes and communist insurrections, the island had to face serious shortages of housing and infrastructure. The British had done little to integrate the population, essentially they had left every community to itself. The first five years of independence were characterised by a policy of “survival” based on the attraction of foreign investment, infrastructure development, the creation of a disciplined workforce and strict political control. In thirty years Singapore has become a powerful, industrialised city-state: one of the ‘Four Little Dragons’ (6).
The image of the rojak salad suggested by the taxi driver was not entirely inappropriate. New Towns, and in particular Queenstown, were born with the idea of not creating a suburb populated only by a unique and dominant ethnic group. The cultural ties of the people from India, China, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia had to extend well beyond the national borders. These differences had to be replaced by a national identification in which the sense of national and homeland were synonymous with wealth, stability and multiculturalism. Today Queenstown is the poorest and most decadent New Town in Singapore. After some bibliographic research (7) on the history of the Public Housing in Singapore, I contacted Li Yong Kwek (8) a social worker of the Queenstown Community Centre. Friday morning, he took me for a guided tour of the various blocks of Queenstown. In 1947, the Housing Committee of Singapore, highlighting the problem of housing shortage, proposed the decentralisation of the inhabitants of the city in residential areas specially built in the suburbs. Thanks also to the influence of the New Towns built in post-war Britain, Queenstown was chosen as the site for the development of the first Public Housing in Singapore. At the end of 1953 a first preliminary batch of 3 studios was completed. Since then, the entire area has continued to grow rapidly, creating an almost self-sufficient city. Everyone remembers the Town Centre, completed in 1969, the first shopping centre with a three screens cinema, a small theatre, a general store, food market, a small nursery school, a restaurant, a night club, various shops and even a bowling. 1970 was the pinnacle of success for Queenstown. It was considered a model for the construction and development of two other neighbouring districts – Buena Vista Estate and Holland Village. However, since 1980, thanks to a gradual migration of younger generations in other neighbouring New Towns, Queenstown was radically transformed.
Just past Stirling Rd, I find myself in front of Block 45, 48 and 49. They are very simple and small housing units, only two or three rooms. Outside the windows there are some wooden poles placed horizontally that resemble spears. The wash is hung there. If we look at the building from below, the hanging clothes resemble flags. After crossing the bridge on the Queensway, the road that divides Queenstown in two, we are first in front of a church then a Hindu temple. Further down a Taoist temple and further more a large mosque. I do not see many people around, the only people I meet are old people. After a few hundred metres go through other blocks of different shapes and sizes. After a few tens of meters we are in front of Tanglin Halt Estate, a tall building of the second generation. We climb up to the 40th floor to see all of Queenstown and much of the city. The urban grid is regular and from above the distribution of flows are clearly visible. The urban space is controlled to the millimetre. The blocks are nestled in the green, but it is an accurately well kept green. I try to decipher every geographical point my eyes can see. The edge of the Island and some islets are visible. The highways draw a dense mesh of signs that intersect at various points of the island. The port is located on the southern tip, the vast industrial areas to the west, and the airport to the east. I ask Kwek Li Yong, where the centre is. There it is! From above it has a compact shape, like a little square. A last look down, I have vertigo. We quickly walk down. To get to the Town Centre we go through other buildings that were once shops and stores. Now, only closed shutters and woods on the windows. The multi-store 38 is closed and also the Medical Centre seems to be. A little later, some kids are having fun in the small skate park in metal sheet and iron, opposite the only shop still open. Still further down, in total decay, the Food Court, perhaps the only real social space left in the whole area. Here the inhabitants of Queenstown, meet, eat, share tables and spend most of their time. While walking, a guy behind a bench selling chicken and rice, looks at me and says: “They are gone, you see?”. Then continues, “since the casino opened (9), people have no more money.”
The Food Court is a chaotic but vibrant space. Shortly later, the Town Centre. Completely abandoned, it still has the shop signs of the cinema and the bowling. I stop and close my eyes. I try to imagine the space when he was alive, in use. I overlap in my mind images of photographs of the 70s I had seen a few days ago in various books on Queenstown. I nearly can see people lined up at the cinema’s box office, I can hear the sound of the fountain near the entrance, I can see and hear the parking cars and the noise of people running because they are late for the show. I try to restore the flows, the presence, the bodies of the Town Centre.
I open my eyes, and in front of me there’s an Indian guy, he’s staring at me with curiosity We keep walking until the last Block 96. Beyond the Town Centre, a very curious surprise was awaiting me. A group of men, sitting in a circle of plastic chairs, silently listening to the chirping of dozens and dozens of small birds in cages. I look at the picture: it is surreal! Each small cage is hanging from the ceiling through numbered iron bars. The space is square and acoustically perfect. I ask Kwek Li Yong for explanations. He tells me that every day, some residents of Queenstown, come here to listen to the birdsong. Kwek Li Yong tells me that probably each of them is also the owner of one or more birds. The chirping is a thick sonic paste in which one can hear small melodic variations. Some of them close their eyes, trying to better listening to the concert and the entire range of frequencies that move rapidly through space. I sit and I also participated in the ritual.
1) The “five C” is a popular saying commonly used in Singapore to indicate a shamelessly materialistic attitude.
2) Kiah su – in Min Nan, Hokkien language of Southern Fujian, China) means “fear of losing.” The word is so widely used in Singapore, that it has been incorporated into the English vocabulary (in the form of Singlish). Kiah su is used to describe the competitive attitude at work, school and in the Southeast Asian society.
3) Singapore is the third stage of the project Overlapping Discrete Boundaries. My collaborators are Dickson Dee, Hong Kong musician and Liang Guo Jian, Chinese calligrapher and documentary filmmaker.
5) What burns never returns project
6) Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore constitute the largest part of the economy in the South-East Asia. Attention has increasingly turned to other Asian economies, which are experiencing a rapid economic transformation, for example Indonesia and the Philippines.
7) Low, Chwee Lye, 10-Stories. Queenstown Through The Years and Outreach Division, National Heritage Board in collaboration with Central Singapore Community Development Council and Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Singapore, 2007.
Li Yong Kwek, tells me that where Queenstown now stands was a large swampy valley. An agricultural area, several rubber plantations and a cemetery also known as Kang Well Boh. In 1942, the area was inhabited by hundreds of Hokkien and Teochew, Fujian ORIGINATING inhabitants.
9) The first Casino in Singapore has been opened inside the World Resort Sentosa (RWS) about a month ago. To enter it, the people of Singapore must pay 100SD (about 50 €). The second Casino in the city will be opened in the coming months.