Creative Non-fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Figures in Landscape

by Eugene Ong

Group shot of photographers outside Crescent Flats, circa 1960. Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

The black-and-white photographs of the accidental country invited scrutiny and wonder—a strange confluence of factors had led to her political expulsion from the Malayan peninsula in 1965, leaving its people afraid for the future, marooned in a kind of metaphysical nowhere-ness. Though the country's workers and machinists, school teachers and postmen, nurses and laundresses were stilled into a temporary stupor, the photographers were hard at work, dispersing their images in a matrix of silver gelatin and egg white. Albumenisers, they were sometimes called. As long as their cameras were working, these photographers shot the country as unruly orphan, trying to understand its burgeoning identity in images rather than words.

River Valley Swimming Complex, circa 1960s. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

They had tough skin, these feral urchins of the sixties. They used to flood into monsoon drains and fluvial haunts of the island, grinning wet from these leaf-strewn pools. When the first excavations were carried out, they watched curiously from their two-storey shophouses as these scars appeared in the hard-baked earth. In the distance, new skyscraper flats were constructed to alleviate squalor and overcrowding. "A kind of Sisyphean jugglery" was how one colonial urban planner used to call the state of things, though the country was now redefining itself. Portending its sense of space.

When the foundations of the pool were laid, the children were whisked off into safer, chlorinated municipal swimming. It was the simplest of sorceries, this filling of water that changed the topography of the estate and provided respite from the tropical heat. The air glistens with malice, but the water is blessedly cold. They barge through the turnstile even in the evenings when the floodlights emit an otherwise unnatural hum. A new sound for the neighbourhood amidst the clinking of china and crackling of charcoal. Most of the swimmers don't settle into the rhythm of any strokes. There are twinkles of laughter as the boys imagine a tentacled monster at the deep end of the pool. There's the familiar world above, and a new one below the waterline. 

In the afternoons, the occasional bus rattles its way through the smoothened tarmac, its occupants staring at the immodest display of bodies. This was the effect of scarcity, and not just pertaining to the land. Two-meter tall Eugenia hedges were later transplanted for privacy, though the girls still refused to be seen in their bathing suits and requested the authorities for a "girls only" afternoon. There were grumbles but everything remained cordial, despite the sullen heat. 

It was this heat that drove the Englishmen mad, made them cantankerous when they inspected their boils and scars. Having no option of retreating to a cooler hinterland, they contended with it privately, unlike these urchins who dropped like swollen fruit into the water's depths.


First public housing flats along Upper Pickering Street, circa late 1950s, colloquially known as "Death's Leap Flats" in succeeding decades. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Feeling unprotected, the young woman peered nervously from the ninth storey, unable to explain how she had signed the documents that placed her at this new vantage point. Nor could she account for the workers who had ambled in downstairs like a dark squadron of ants. By 1959, more than a quarter of a million were left in public squalor, prompting the government to build more than five thousand units annually. A frenetic number for the besieged authorities. On the ground level, more government vehicles and carts bruised their way through the billowing sand, testimony to the country's capacity for movement and creation. Yet even this whirlwind must have an end, or mercifully even a momentary pause, if only because resources and land are finite.

As the lady uncurled the rolls of linoleum onto her concrete floor, she thought less of these abstractions and focused on filling the room with familiar amenities—the kettle, rattan chairs, new smocks, mother-in-law's tongues next to the conjugal bed, captive to the scene inside and out.

Years later, when the dust had settled, and the workers had packed their bags, the architects would reflect that we were not a species accustomed to living so high up. The high-rise scale was not the human scale, and therefore inauthentic. That there was no meaningful eye contact once we made our nest above the fifth storey. The injunction was clear: "You are not part of the Earth anymore." For the desperate and downtrodden, the height of these prefabricated flats was the means to depart it. For the young woman in her young journey of marriage, this was the admission to a new world of marvels, though she could not have possibly predicted the horror that would accompany it.


Firing Range, West Singapore, circa late 1960s. Image source:


A reminder of the importance of esprit de corps and discipline to the men in khaki uniforms: until 1945, the country endured a brutal and degrading Japanese military occupation. The conquerors were described as "lambs in their own land, but devils inside." The country's youth had prepared wreaths and prayers for their young, meek fathers who could not become devils themselves. Those with soft hands were branded intellectuals, and had their brief lives crossed out.

To prevent the idea of the eternal recurrence, conscription policies were drafted in 1967 by state planners who were themselves haunted by memories of the war, and of Lt. Adnan Saidi's body parts hung from the Malayan cherry tree, and not as it is assumed, the prettier "prunus serrulate," which is native to Oriental Japan. Because cherry trees in this region do not tolerate wetness (much less blood and foreign pathogens), they are subject to crown rot, root rot and bacterial canker—part of the larger tropical malady the Japanese wrought. 

The Askar Melayu (Malay Regiment) to which Lt. Adnan Saidi belonged was an experimental company: Vickers machine gunners with a dedicated signalling section. Even in battles over bitter soil, they gave their anger form and wore their berets which featured two motifs: a pair of tigers perched on top of an oriental crown, and a kris and scabbard with the regimental motto "Ta-at Setia," meaning "Loyal and True." His friend, Ismail Babu, had fought the Japanese maniacally and died alongside the Kajang-born man even as his own daughter barely survived the air-raids in Buona Vista. On the death of his two-month-old daughter whom he had never seen, Adnan had held back his sorrow—"I cannot remember her name."


Former Nan Hwa Girls High School, Adis Road, circa mid 60s. Image source:

It was a disciplined class that brimmed with potential. The girl's teacher, feeling adventuresome, allowed a strand of hair to fall from her perfectly arranged coiffure. She barked at her wards, instructing them to write a composition—a commemoration of the founding of the school in 1917. To write this piece on origins and history, the girl closed her eyes as the sounds of her classmates had driven her to distraction. She pictured the founder internally as a well-meaning soul, a philanthropist from Guangdong, who had braved the hysteria of the South China Sea, arriving alone in the country amidst a new babel of dialects.

The girl reflected on what it meant to be aware of one's roots—of earlier tongues that had instructed and haggled over the building and symmetrical design of the school's compounds, their arguments an essence of what it meant to be faithful to an idea. These were the spacious hallways from which she would step out daily, chittering under a shower of sunshine on Mount Sophia. There would be the sounds of a piano that wafted in from the hallways, or the sound of progress she heard but did not understand as she walked farther away from the premises after lessons. For now, her task meant that she be quiet, above the din of birds and tractors outside the glass-louvered windows, and above the machine of strife from the trade unions far beyond the frame of the surroundings. Yesterday, a representative from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce had addressed her cohort, urging girls like her to support the preservation of the Chinese vernacular. "The language policy changes are detrimental to the Chinese," the man exhorted. His eyes were bloodshot. In the university, there had been student boycotts, sit-ins and vociferous protests. Two men had been bloodied after heated exchanges on the right medium of instruction. These were ungovernable noises darkening the soul.

As a young woman poised on the precipice of change in the country, she sensed the mutiny of voices paring the air. A multitudinous clamouring of campaigns. The school's founder, she later discovered, was a quiet Cantonese man, preferring the solitude of corners to enact his life's work. She herself had wanted to borrow his composure and began to write the first few lines of poetry for her assignment—"安静的世界, 寂寞的频率."

Its subject was silence.

Lim Chu Kang Jetty, date unknown. Courtesy of Koh Kim Chay


The ramshackle pier marked the country's border. Not a land border, but a water border after which nothing else belonged to us. It represented an abrupt terminus, the end of the road, a frontier that was always too close. Land's End—not the utmost westerly point of the Cornish peninsula in England, where the air is stiff with pagan magic, but mere wooden planks stretched into the sea. 

Since the turn of the century, there have been numerous jetties and piers lining the circumference of the island, sticking out like tiny proboscises. Such rural spots were relatively isolated and required some personal ardour to reach—plenty of water for hydration and some endurance for the rickety car journey to reach the world's tip. The jetties were a haven for the few locals who would either fish or sift through the mudflats during low-tide, catching mudskippers and flower crabs. Some migratory birds would stop here for feeding, making their commotion in the mangrove swamps nearby, before resuming their ordained paths on the flyways. A few thousand kilometres south to bountiful breeding grounds. The fishermen would observe these creatures from another ecology enter their lives, watch enviously as they reflected on this flavour of voyage denied to them before they themselves circled back inland like tigers pacing their cages. At the edge of their small world, these were all contemplative recreations, though there have been a few exceptions.

In the early 1970s, a man and his estranged wife had driven a borrowed car off a similar pier at high speed. The man had pulled out at the last moment and escaped, leaving his wife drowned. He was consequently imprisoned for a decade for culpable homicide. The papers had called it an incomprehensible crime of passion, sparked by family problems and infidelity. Perhaps the man had gazed at the horizon, hoping for the fullness or cure of a foreign shore that only he could see. Or perhaps he had wanted to follow the meanderings of his heart out from land, where the sea would claim everything, including his pain. 


Kampong scene, circa early 1960s. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore


The black car ran along the gravel road, sending up streams of dust. When its occupants exited, the children pressed their bodies against the bonnet in excitement. The urban planner unrolled his brown parchments of cadastral maps before these curious faces and surveyed the sun-smothered panorama of hills—acres of grass and lallang as far as the eye could see. In the distance grew the embodiment of the tropics: single-stemmed coastal and Palmyra palms brought in by errant currents, dotting the coastline like thin, straggly immigrants.

The man had just attended a foundation-laying ceremony for a small moth-ball factory in the west. A few days ago, Union Garment factory had started its tentative operations on the outskirts of the fledgling city. He had remembered shaking the hand of a surly Chinese unionist who was persuaded to comply with government regulations. 

"What do you think of this?" the man's colleague interrupted. "All this windswept emptiness?" 

"Fatten her up."

"Say again, sir?"

"Just get the operations going. Functional at all costs. No need to enter any beauty contests for this one."

There was no steel or shipbuilding factory in the horizon, the planner thought. Not yet anyway, and no industrial point of reference for a sustainable export-oriented strategy. He had ideally wanted the inexorable cohesion of capable minds and materials, and had pressurised his human resource team—"Do these new men bend like the wind? They shouldn't crack under pressure." Soon after, the children dispersed and ran after the singing parade of poultry in the compounds. These were free-ranging chickens left to roam the outdoors. When asked how many eggs the kampong collected, they estimated about 30–35 a week. More than enough to even turn a profit. An elder of the village made small conversation with the visitors, adding that it was the workhorse of local cuisine. The man let himself be captivated by how speckled and smooth these brown and white eggs were when the children placed them gently in his hands. How private and self-contained they seemed, how much they promised if employed well enough, with a little kindness and technique. On those car journeys across the length and circumference of the country, he remembered some dim lines from a novel he read as a youth. East Egg. West Egg. The love for the city, like the love for the egg, was a commitment to the tiny, the tender and the unhatched.

ImageEugene Ong is interested in city planning, architectural heritage and photography. His photographs on housing estates have appeared in <<联合早报>>. He has co-authored a book on Singapore's vanished public housing estates and he has taught in School of the Arts, Singapore and the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Visit his website for more information.
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