Celebrating the common man: The rise of community history in Singapore

Linette Lim Channel NewsAsia 18 Feb 17;

SINGAPORE: Postgraduate student Kwek Li Yong is a familiar face to residents and shopkeepers in Queenstown. Since 2010, the heritage group the 27-year-old co-founded, My Community, has been running free guided tours in the neighbourhood’s estates.

Over the past seven years, the group’s guided tours have benefitted about 3,000 Singapore residents, and its volunteer base has grown to 50 strong. These volunteers include trail guides, resident ambassadors who promote its events, and researchers who go door-to-door to conduct oral history interviews with residents.

“We’ve seen this trend in the last four years. It’s not unique to Singapore,” said Mr Kwek, referring to greater community-driven interest in local heritage and the documentation of memories. “The trend mirrors those in fast-developing cities like Hong Kong, Taipei, where there are more vocal groups coming up to say, we should do something on vernacular heritage.”

When contacted for comment, the National Heritage Board (NHB) confirmed it has seen “a healthy, growing interest in ground-up community-driven projects and initiatives”.

Record levels of community participation in such projects have been accompanied by rising attendance numbers in its signature outreach events like the Singapore HeritageFest, according to NHB, citing an unprecedented 120 partners “contributing programmes and participating as volunteers” at 2016’s HeritageFest.

“This evolvement of the community’s role – from one of passive participant to active contributor – attests to the growing maturity of the heritage scene and (Singapore’s) progress as a nation,” said NHB assistant CEO Alvin Tan.

“There are a lot of pent-up memories that need to be told,” explained volunteer guide Huang Eu Chai, adding that My Community’s activities provided an avenue for residents like him to do something about heritage preservation, in the face of rapid change.

Describing his role guiding on the group’s Commonweath and Holland Village trail, Mr Huang, a lifelong resident of the area said: “I’m not just there to tell people what went on. I’m also there to encourage people who come on this tour to contribute to the story so it’s more of a discussion than a one-way lecture. And it’s turned out that way for most cases.”

Currently, My Community runs three trails, and has begun research on a fourth one, in Bukit Merah. According to Mr Kwek, each trail takes about two years to develop, due to the research, fundraising, and promotion work involved. “We’d also need to acquire rights to use old photographs, and speak to stakeholders to gain access to sites,” he added.

TAPPING ON RICH, LIVED EXPERIENCES

There are other groups in Singapore doing similar work, including non-profit organisations such as Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteers; People’s Association-backed committees such as the Geylang Serai's Integration and Naturalisation Champions Committee, which organises free tours in that area; and commercial outfits like Geylang Adventures, which charges S$30-S$40 a head for a three-hour tour.

NHB, which supports some of these ground-up projects, including My Community’s, said that these efforts “contribute to the richness and diversity of the Singapore story”.

“Singapore’s success does not boil down to one person, one party, or a group of like-minded people. It’s made up of contributions and sacrifices from each and every one in our communities … We try to document these stories, so that we may understand how the common man’s experiences made our country successful,” said Mr Kwek, elaborating on his group’s focus on the history of everyday things.

“It’s a lot of work - asking the right questions to extract the memories, and getting old photos from residents. We need to build rapport and gain the trust of the residents,” admitted Mr Kwek’s co-founder Jasper Tan, adding that he’s fortunate to have the door closed in his face only once or twice, out of more than 7,000 households.

Part of the work also involves convincing the residents that their stories matter and are worth telling, according to the 27-year-old, who has a day job in a voluntary welfare organisation.

One resident who did not need much convincing is 69-year-old retiree Alice Lee, who has been helping out as a resident ambassador since Day one. Her role involves telling the story of her life in Tanglin Halt – spanning 49 years – at a designated stop along the Tanglin Halt and Margaret Drive trail.

“(Alice) actually has a key press, where she’s got various people’s house keys, so that if they happen to be out for example, and they’ve left the window open and it’s about to rain, she can go there can close the windows,” said Mr Huang, who runs a travel business.

“That tells you how tight the community is. And it’s something that comes out, only after you’ve lived in a place for 50 years," Mr Huang added.

MORE THAN NOSTALGIA

But these social bonds and memories are under threat as residents move away or die, or when places get demolished and redeveloped, said Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin, naming Tanglin Halt, Dakota Crescent, and Rochor Centre as examples.

“A place becomes meaningful because we understand what happened there before, the stories that go around it and the people who are connected with it," explained the independent researcher. “Normally people don’t really see (the mundane stories) as important, but in most other countries you don’t face such a rapid pace of change."

Over years of research and advocacy, Ms Chua said she has observed greater willingness on the part of Government agencies to engage community stakeholders, understand different perspectives, and work with them to resolve issues.

“In recent years, NHB has got a whole department dedicated to supporting and encouraging community efforts,” she noted. “There’s a lot of encouragement from Government agencies. And what is encouraging Government interest is because this all (has) to do with national identity, community bonding.”

While thankful for greater government support and civic participation in community history, Mr Kwek is keenly aware of the need to celebrate and honour the past, without romanticising it.

“Nostalgia sells, but at the end of the day, I think if you ask anybody whether they’d want to go back to the kampung period, or to the one- or two-room, very rudimentary flats, I don’t think anyone would,” he said. “Of course there were good memories... but infrastructure has improved; they’re (now) living with better sanitary conditions, better (wheelchair) access.”

Overall, heritage champions like Mr Kwek, Ms Chua and heritage blogger Jerome Lim agree that present attitudes to community heritage and conservation are a far cry from the top-down, “bulldozer approach” seen in the 1960s to 80s.

“There is an element of – we’ve gone so far, so fast, so much so that we left a lot of things behind without having a chance to look back. For me, for example, (it felt as if) I woke up and the places that I was familiar with as a child - they’re all gone,” said Mr Lim.

The 52-year-old naval architect, who also runs the 12,566-strong Facebook group On a little street in Singapore, said that the numbers on his blog and Facebook group have seen a “10-fold increase from two to three years ago”.

“I suppose there was a ready audience,” he said. “People like to remember, talk about bits and pieces of the past that don’t exist anymore. It helps us to cope, reconnect, and identify ourselves with Singapore.”

- CNA/ll

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