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Preserving memories of a changing nation

As the Republic turns a year shy of the Big 50, the yearning for the past — accompanied by the desire to preserve the bits and pieces of the way we were — has continued to grow. Just look at the growing number of blogs documenting Singapore’s heritage sites, passionate debates about saving historical sites such as Bukit Brown and the encouraging responses to official initiatives such as irememberSG. A National Heritage Board (NHB) spokesperson said it has observed a growing interest in the nation’s heritage and culture, with Singaporeans finding that our shared heritage can be a rallying point. Tan Shiwei (tanshiwei [at] mediacorp.com.sg) and Paul Lim (paullimbl [at] mediacorp.com.sg) talk to several individuals who are doing their part to ensureslices of the past remain relevant to those living in the present.

As the Republic turns a year shy of the Big 50, the yearning for the past — accompanied by the desire to preserve the bits and pieces of the way we were — has continued to grow. Just look at the growing number of blogs documenting Singapore’s heritage sites, passionate debates about saving historical sites such as Bukit Brown and the encouraging responses to official initiatives such as irememberSG. A National Heritage Board (NHB) spokesperson said it has observed a growing interest in the nation’s heritage and culture, with Singaporeans finding that our shared heritage can be a rallying point. Tan Shiwei (tanshiwei [at] mediacorp.com.sg) and Paul Lim (paullimbl [at] mediacorp.com.sg) talk to several individuals who are doing their part to ensureslices of the past remain relevant to those living in the present.

MyQueenstown

Fuelled by their passion to help Queenstown return to its glory days, two friends have been actively blogging and organising activities to document memories of Singapore’s oldest public housing estate.

Mr Kwek Li Yong and Mr Jasper Tan, both 25, began blogging on MyQueenstown in 2009, but decided to fully migrate to Facebook two years later. Their Facebook page has since received more than 6,000 likes and up to 3,000 views per post. The duo said they were inspired to preserve memories of Queenstown after meeting many residents who expressed a deep love for the estate. Some even declared they loved it with their “heart, mind and soul”.

“We found this place to be very unique. The residents are united and they know their history well. We created the blog because we want to help raise the profile of the estate and correct any wrong impressions of the place,” said Mr Kwek, who is also the president of My Community, a registered civic group that champions community heritage, documents memories and celebrates civic life in Queenstown.

“We really believe that it is only right for us to document the memories. Someone has to start somewhere. You cannot just wait till all the old buildings are demolished or when the pioneers have passed on. It’ll be too late then.”

But the duo did not stop at only documenting the past. They have also organised monthly trails, bi-annual festivals and programmes for schools to educate students about the estate. A book, titled MyQueenstown, is also in the works. Recently, their Facebook page raised more than S$40,000 to build a Queenstown museum, which Mr Kwek hopes can be completed before the older generation passes on. “This shows that people in Queenstown really want to preserve their heritage. Queenstown is a space where residents can pour out their nostalgia,” he said.

For him, the wave of nostalgia that has emerged in recent years “shows how Singaporeans want to have a stake in urban planning in Singapore”.

“It is definitely healthy that Singaporeans are prepared to spur the Government to plan Singapore in such a way that it mutually benefits all the communities. It is definitely a good starting point,” Mr Kwek said.

 

Tiong Bahru Estate

 

For Mr Alvin Yeo, the en-bloc sale of several buildings in River Valley — not too far from his home estate — seven years ago threw into sharp relief how old housing estates were disappearing to make way for brand new developments.

He decided to do something for the place where he grew up and still lives in by setting up a blog, simply titled Tiong Bahru Estate.

Mr Yeo blogs about almost everything he feels is related to Tiong Bahru — from the history of its buildings to the people the roads were named after — in the hope that by informing and educating people about the significance of the estate, they would be inspired to help protect it.

The 42-year-old real estate agent said: “I find that these properties are irreplaceable, because I grew up in this estate. I am more protective of the surroundings. It means something to me because this is where I grew up with my friends, playing marbles and cycling around.”

Since its launch in 2007, Tiong Bahru Estate has garnered more than 63,000 views on its blog and more than 3,000 likes on its Facebook page.

There are about 200 interactions on the Facebook page weekly, with residents posting updates about the estate and its happenings.

Maintaining a blog while keeping his full-time job is no walk in the park for Mr Yeo. He sometimes writes blog posts into the wee hours of the night. At other times, he spends days doing research on a certain topic for the blog — from reading history books in libraries to having lengthy conversations with older residents of the estate.

Mr Yeo notes that Tiong Bahru Estate mostly attracts participants who are in their mid-30s — an age at which he believes people start to become more nostalgic about their surroundings.

“I think they are starting to become more aware of their roots. Some visual markers of their lives that they can remember during their childhood are slowly disappearing. When you are in your 30s and 40s, it is very tough when you suddenly see everything being erased,” he said.

After seven years, Mr Yeo wants to go a step further with his blog by focusing on the conservation of about three dozen post-war flats built between 1948 and 1954 by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the predecessor of the Housing and Development Board.

He believes that the flats’ unique design — characterised by the use of boxes in the interior space of buildings and having five-foot ways and spiral staircases incorporated into the design of the flats — is something worth preserving for posterity. He hopes a plan can be put in place to ensure these SIT flats will not be demolished.

If Mr Yeo started his blog to allow others to get up close with the housing estate that is Tiong Bahru, Australian entrepreneur Nigel Hembrow launched a club for expatriates like him to get up close and personal with local residents.

The Tiong Bahru Social Club, which has about 420 members, aims to bring the residents of the estate closer by encouraging interaction between locals and foreigners. The club, whose members meet every second Wednesday of the month, has also become a platform where both groups can mingle and share information about Tiong Bahru, including its heritage.

Mr Hembrow, 36, told TODAY that such interactions allow the expats to better understand what they see in the neighbourhood, enabling a stronger connection with the estate.

Some of its members, such as Manila-born copywriter Isabel Servando, have even moved on to become frontline activists to help preserve Tiong Bahru’s heritage. Ms Servando, 42, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for the past seven years, said her love for the estate’s rich heritage prompted her to do her part for the community.

In April last year, she volunteered to become a heritage tour guide and received training from a certified NHB tour guide. Since then, she has led six tours on Tiong Bahru’s heritage trails.

Ms Servando said some of the local participants for the trails found it strange to have a foreigner as their guide. But she often won them over with her knowledge of the area — and her affection for Tiong Bahru.

“It is probably because they saw my sincerity,” she said.

Of the estate, she said: “There is so much to learn about Tiong Bahru. It is like a haven from everything else in Singapore, which has changed so much. Being such a modern city, Singapore is always renovating something, building something new and it is easy for it to look like Taiwan or Hong Kong.

“Conserving Tiong Bahru is one way for Singapore to retain its character and soul, instead of being just another generic modern city.”

The Long and Winding Road

Naval architect Jerome Lim loves — and misses — the old Singapore so much that he began blogging about the nation’s past five years ago. His blog, The Long and Winding Road, gets about 1,000 views daily, with an audience ranging from professionals to students.

“I have a connection with that old Singapore and there are so many pleasant memories. It’s something I thought of documenting, as it helps me collect my thoughts and memories on growing up,” said Mr Lim, 49, who updates his blog almost every other day.

Having grown up in Toa Payoh, Mr Lim said one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates has not only undergone a change in its landscape but also in the way residents there interact.

“Back then, along the common corridors, doors were open and people would stop to say hello. During festivals, people would exchange goodies and greet one another. You don’t see people do that any more. You don’t see people coming together. The doors are now all closed,” said Mr Lim, whose work involves the development of marine vessels. “I think, in Singapore, we’re losing that sense of who we are because of rapid changes, not just in the physical surroundings, but also how Singapore in general is changing — the population, language, lifestyle and space.”

Mr Lim attributed the rising tide of nostalgia here partly to the explosion of social media.

“Maybe Singaporeans feel threatened by the influx of foreign talent. That’s why people start looking back at how things were and say they prefer that kind of life, the good old days,” said Mr Lim, who is now working on a book project on Singapore’s history funded by the Singapore Memory Project.

One of his fondest memories from the past is the Changi Beach of the 1960s/70s, a wonderful place that he could escape to whenever he wanted.

“Along the long stretch of Changi Beach, there were holiday bungalows, makan places, attap shelters. You could even see people renting sampans, and inner-tyre tubes being used as floats. It was a very different world. It’s one of the places I really want to go back to — but can’t anymore,” Mr Lim said.

All things Bukit Brown

A chance meeting with someone who shared her interest in preservation work — during the final train journey marking the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in July 2011 — served as an impetus for former journalist Catherine Lim to do something about Bukit Brown Cemetery. Home to Singapore’s oldest graves, Bukit Brown became the subject of intense debate between conservation/nature groups and the Government after it was reported earlier that year that it would eventually make way for housing.

Ms Lim and her new acquaintance, Ms Claire Leow, who works in corporate communications, started discussing plans to help preserve Bukit Brown, which is known for its rich biodiversity, cultural traditions and the unique architecture of its tombs.

The cemetery, which began operating in 1922, was also the final resting place for many of Singapore’s pioneers, such as businessmen Chew Joo Chiat and Chew Boon Lay, as well as Lim Loh, father of war hero Lim Bo Seng.

In 2012, the two women created a blog, all things Bukit Brown, to provide a platform for people to share memories of the area as well as to raise awareness of the walks they were planning there. Since then, the blog has garnered more than 550,000 views and more than 4,000 members on its Facebook page.

With the help of 40 volunteers called Brownies, the two women have also guided more than 11,000 people on their Bukit Brown heritage trails.

“This shows we made the right move and have won the hearts and minds of the public,” said Ms Lim, now a freelancer in broadcast media. She attributed the positive response to the blog and heritage trails to more than just nostalgia. “It’s a much deeper meaning — a yearning, post- sickness, when old places have to move for new ones.”

Ms Lim added: “The growing interest in heritage is a sign of a maturing society, that Singaporeans are thinking beyond economic development and reflecting more on the values from the past that are important to bring to the present and into our future, and they want to be engaged in this process.

“It can no longer be heritage versus development, but about making heritage part of development.”

Since 2012, all things Bukit Brown has also added a unique twist to the National Day celebrations: While others get ready for the National Day Parade, its members have their own National Deceased Parade. This year, they plan to go on a heritage trail in Bukit Brown to commemorate Singapore’s pioneers for their resilience, contributions to and sacrifices for the country.

 

Support for heritage initiatives

 

The desire to keep memories of the past alive — and preserve as much of it as possible — has not only inspired individuals such as Mr Yeo, Mr Lim, Mr Kwek and Ms Lim, but also resulted in better responses to various initiatives by government agencies.

The NHB launched its blog, Yesterday.sg, in March 2006 with the aim of providing a platform to connect Singaporeans to their heritage and build a community of people keen to share their heritage, museum experiences and stories. Two years later, it noticed increased activity on social media channels, leading it to further its efforts on platforms such as the I Love Museums Facebook page, which has more than 31,000 fans to date.

“In general, we have observed growing interest among Singaporeans in our museums as well as in Singapore’s heritage and culture. With the advent of our nation’s 50th birthday, Singaporeans are also engaging in dialogues on the significance of Singapore heritage and finding our shared heritage (is a) rallying point,” said an NHB spokesperson.

The board has also introduced various engagement efforts to encourage ground-up initiatives, such as the Heritage Grant Scheme, a fund to help individuals and groups develop heritage-related projects. Since it started in July last year, the scheme has funded more than 80 projects, worth more than S$2 million, ranging from publications documenting traditional food to a heritage short film competition.

NHB group director (programmes) Tan Boon Hui noted the interest in heritage preservation is most prevalent among those in the under-40 age group.

“I think what is most different for them is that they were born and grew up after the nation’s independence. All they have experienced is the urban, cosmopolitan city. Singapore has reached that juncture whereby it is our jubilee next year — and 50 years is a very long time. There are questions like where we came from and who we are. Thus, I can sense that they are increasingly fervent in finding their identity and their roots,” Mr Tan told TODAY.

“Taking part in heritage initiatives is a learning and discovery experience for them. Even though they are not experts in the field, they are gripped by passion and conviction and believe that preserving our heritage is very important.”

Other official initiatives related to the past that have been well received include the Singapore Memory Project’s online portal and its official companion blog, irememberSG. The irememberSG Facebook page, managed by the National Library Board (NLB), has more than 116,000 fans, with 60 per cent of them aged between 18 and 34.

The nostalgia bug that has bitten many Singaporeans has enabled the Singapore Memory Project to collect more than a million contributions since its August 2011 launch. It aims to collect five million personal memories and published materials by next year.

The project currently involves 196 partners and 195 Memory Corps, volunteers who serve various roles, such as helping individuals who have difficulty documenting their memories.

“I think it would be a mistake for us to just focus on keeping a physical structure and think that is Singapore’s heritage. At the end of the day, that’s just a shell,” said Mr Wan Wee Pin, NLB’s deputy director of engagement.

“Through the Singapore Memory Project, we realise it is not the shell that actually touches the hearts of people, but the stories and memories behind the shell that give real meaning.”

Read more stories in our National Day Special:

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