A place like home

Sin­ga­pore’s his­tory boils down to water and im­mi­gra­tion

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAOXU zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Like most im­por­tant port cities around the world, Sin­ga­pore’s his­tory largely boils down to two words: water and im­mi­gra­tion. In fact, those words have been cen­tral to this droplet of land since long be­fore it be­came Sin­ga­pore and have con­tin­ued to be so decades since it be­came the gar­den city-state that it is known as to­day.

“De­spite sit­ting on the shore of the ocean, we are a re­source-scarce na­tion when it comes to fresh drinking water,” says Tan Ying Hao, se­nior man­ager from Sin­ga­pore’s Catch­ment & Wa­ter­ways De­part­ment. “Through­out the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Sin­ga­pore im­ported more than 70 per­cent of its fresh water con­sump­tion from Malaysia. The pro­por­tion is now 50 per­cent.”

One place to see the length Sin­ga­pore­ans have gone to to solve the prob­lem is Ma­rina Bay, one of the coun­try’s top sight­see­ing spots. In 2008 a S$226 mil­lion ($126 mil­lion) project turned the Ma­rina Bay and the neigh­bor­ing Kal­lang Basin into anew— and for the mo­ment the only— down­town fresh­wa­ter Ma­rina Reser­voir.

“The sea­wa­ter in the reser­voir had un­der­gone a nat­u­ral de­sali­na­tion process,” Tan said. “It was con­stantly be­ing flushed out into the sea as more rain­wa­ter filled the reser­voir. The whole process went on for about one year and eight months.”

A350-me­ter-long bar­rage sep­a­rates the reser­voir to the north from the sea to its south. “Onone side you see one of the world’s busiest port, with an av­er­age of 900 ocean ship ar­riv­ing in a sin­gle day,” Tan said. “That’s one ev­ery two min­utes. On the other side ex­tends this rip­ple-less, mir­ror-still sur­face of water that’s slightly lighter blue. The catch­ment of the reser­voir is 10,000 hectares, or about one-sixth of Sin­ga­pore’s to­tal land area.”

Point­ing to a gi­ant hoist stand­ing on the eastern shore of the ocean, he said: “Water in the reser­voir is not af­fected by ocean waves and there­fore is con­sid­ered ideal for var­i­ous water sports in­clud­ing kayak­ing, sail­ing and water ski­ing.

“Ships can be lifted from the ocean and moved into the reser­voir when peo­ple on board want to have fun there.”

For ca­sual trav­el­ers, a pic­nic on a nearby rooftop gar­den, against the sooth­ing ocean view, may sum up what you can ex­pect in Sin­ga­pore, but there are many more di­men­sions to the coun­try than that. A pow­er­ful com­po­nent of its vi­tal­ity is its scin­til­lat­ing mix of eth­nic­i­ties, cul­tures and re­li­gions, the re­sult of cen­turies of im­mi­gra­tion.

I stayed at the New Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel in Chi­na­town for the four days while I was in Sin­ga­pore in mid-June. The area, cov­er­ing about 0.9 square km, was where Chi­nese im­mi­grants set­tled from the early 19th cen­tury to the mid-20th cen­tury.

Start­ing from the early 1980s the Gov­ern­ment of Sin­ga­pore be­gan to grad­u­ally ren­o­vate the area, with one of its over­ar­ch­ing con­cerns be­ing to pre­serve lo­cal his­tory. Many age-old houses, in­clud­ing the ho­tel premises, were des­ig­nated con­ser­va­tion build­ings and put un­der pro­tec­tion. To­day the area has an es­ti­mated 1,600 res­i­dents and a to­tal of 1,200 con­ser­va­tion build­ings.

Lyn­del Joyce, the ho­tel’s mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­ec­u­tive, said that any­one in the know will al­ways quickly get a whiff of the his­tory in this part of town.

“Steps away from Bukit Pa­soh Road, where

our ho­tel is lo­cated, is an­other street known in the 1950s and 60s as the ‘mistress street’,” she said. “Also not far way was po­lice quar­ters. There used to be a lot of clans within the Chi­nese com­mu­nity in Sin­ga­pore. Feud­ing some­times took place and re­quired po­lice in­ter­ven­tion.”

All the grit­ti­ness as­so­ci­ated with that his­tory are now mere ves­tiges, many old build­ings that used to house the clan as­so­ci­a­tions now hous­ing de­sign com­pa­nies and art groups.

Down the road from the ho­tel is the Ee Hoe Hean Club (the name means the House of Har­mony) one of the old­est mil­lion­aires’ clubs in Sin­ga­pore. It was at the club, founded in 1895, that rich Chi­nese busi­ness­men net­worked, and it be­came the head­quar­ters of over­seas Chi­nese who pro­vided fi­nan­cial help to re­sis­tance forces dur­ing the Japa- nese in­va­sion of China be­tween 1937 and 1945. Ac­cord­ing to Joyce, the build­ing still func­tions as a gath­er­ing place for the rich.

About 100 me­ters fur­ther down the road and across the street is a self-branded store sell­ing hand- made­made bags us­ing au­then­tic croc­o­dile or os­trich leather. I peeked through the win­dow for sev­eral nights run­ning as I walked past the shop to the ho­tel. For those who are in­ter­ested, the shop opens late and closes early.

If the de­sign com­pa­nies and fash­ion bou­tiques are any in­di­ca­tor, this area is fast gen­tri­fy­ing. How­ever, walk­ing for no more than 15 min­utes, past an­tique shops sell­ing jade­ware and tra­di­tional Chi­nese doc­tors’ clin­ics, you ar­rive at the heart of the old Chi­na­town, marked by the three-story Chi­na­town Com­plex.

The base­ment of the com­plex is filled with lit­tle stalls sell­ing veg­eta­bles and sea pro­duce, in­clud­ing a type of hard-shelled crab — so hard that when it came in red curry the night be­fore I left Sin­ga­pore, I had to use a pair of pin­cers.

The se­cond and top floor is re­served for hawk­ers of street food whoare not al­lowed to spill out onto the coun­try’s pris­tine streets. (That’s why Sin­ga­pore has many hawker cen­ters.) The fish balls, hand pounded, tight and spongy, are not to be missed.

Ac­cord­ing to Chu King Fong, my tour guide and a se­cond-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese im­mi­grant, these days Chi­nese ac­count for 74.3 per­cent of Sin­ga­pore’s pop­u­la­tion, with Malays mak­ing up an­other 13.3 per­cent. “An­other 9.1 per­cent goes to the In­di­ans. And then there’s the Eurasians— peo­ple born from mar­riages be­tween Asians and Euro­peans,” Chu said.

“Raf­fles, who turned Sin­ga­pore into a Bri­tish colony in the early 19th cen­tury, adopted a pol­icy of seg­re­ga­tion when it came to town plan­ning,” she said, re­fer­ring to Sir Thomas Stam­ford Raf­fles (17811826), a Bri­tish states­man and con­queror whom some credit with the found­ing of mod­ern Sin­ga­pore.

In 1822, three years af­ter Raf­fles ar­rived in Sin­ga­pore, he im­ple­mented the Raf­fles Town Plan to tackle grow­ing dis­or­der­li­ness in the colony. Un­der the plan, eth­nic res­i­den­tial ar­eas were sub­di­vided into four ar­eas. The Euro­pean Town had res­i­dents made up of Euro­pean traders, Eurasians and rich Asians, while the eth­nic Chi­nese were lo­cated in present-day Chi­na­town and south­east of the Sin­ga­pore River. Eth­nic In­di­ans resided at Chu­lia Kam­pong north of Chi­na­town, and Kam­pong Glam con­sisted of Mus­lims, eth­nic Malays and Arabs who had im­mi­grated to Sin­ga­pore.

“Since the found­ing of Sin­ga­pore in 1965, the gov­ern­ment has taken ag­gres­sive mea­sures to build a mul­ti­eth­nic so­ci­ety with a high level of in­clu­sion for all groups,” Chu says. The pol­icy is best il­lus­trated by the coun­try’s pub­lic hous­ing sys­tem: apart­ments from one build­ing must be al­lo­cated to ap­pli­cants from dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups ac­cord­ing to a cer­tain per­cent­age.

Steps away from where I stayed, the New Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel, is Sin­ga­pore’s tallest pub­lic hous­ing project, The Pin­na­cle@Dux­ton. While its tow­er­ing height — there are 50 sto­ries in to­tal — and ul­tra­mod­ern de­sign may give the im­pres­sion of a deluxe res­i­den­tial build­ing, it is in fact for wage-earn­ers. One day I walked past its foot un­der the canopy of night, at the end of an­other day of in­ter­views, and looked up. Soft light em­anated from each win­dow.

For me that was the mo­ment that Sin­ga­pore, the ul­tr­a­clean gar­den citys­tate, ceased be­ing a world fi­nan­cial cen­ter and started be­ing a place that makes me think about home.


Clock­wise from top left: Cen­tral Fire Sta­tion; China Town at night; Ma­rina Bar­rage; Ma­rina Bay; Sri Then­dayutha­pani Tem­ple; Ar­me­nian Apos­tolic Church of St Gre­gory the Il­lu­mi­na­tor; Bud­dha Tooth Relic Tem­ple.


Sir Thomas Raf­fles, memo­ri­al­ized with a statue, was a Bri­tish states­man whom some credit with the found­ing of mod­ern Sin­ga­pore.

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