I have been in Singapore a little more than two months now. Busy with school and settling in woes – learning the bus routes and finding the shops for food and stuff – I never managed to catch “that spirit” which I always try to find in a city or a place for the first time. This spirit is often derived by going to the places where the locals are – old districts, markets, popular parks or simply put, places where you can see people letting their hair down – where people are more, often than not, in their unguarded moments.
The fact that I stay just opposite PSA Wharves Gate 3 with busy trucks 24/7, I somehow only know the Singapore as the world sees it today – efficiency, prosperity, trade, tidy city, etc. And I also know that Singaporeans are real hardworking people.
T’was fortunate that one afternoon, a friend reminded me that we should check out Chinatown Heritage Centre (in Chinatown) together. Come to think of it, just two days before the end of the school break, I finally found “that spirit” I was looking for. Actually, I could say rather, I felt that Singapore spirit right there in Chinatown.
rows scattered shops and goodies
busy food stalls and restos
running red shirts
old houses in wooden floors
hidden cries of the past
outside the windows
prosperity, vigor, color
history, future, stark contrast
Walking through the dim-lighted corridors of the three-storey shop house, I was transported back in time when Chinese migrants came to Singapore first to seek refuge, then survival and then eventually settle for good. I rephrase a quote from a Chinese of that generation posted on the wall of the museum – ” First we just needed to earn something to earn and send money… then we stayed on to earn more… then more… until going home to China ceased to be an option…”
It was a story of human struggle and survival – pulsating, vibrant, disarmingly colorful and sometimes dark. Migrants disembarking from boats all the way from China, the market places and kopitiam, the cramped shop houses (literally about 2 x 3 meters) where people live and work, the alleys of gamblers, prostitutes, opium smokers and dens, festivities and ceremonies both for the dead and living, etc.
These stories were made more vivid by the interactive exhibits, display, interviews and simulations carefully put together into one impactful presentation. I can almost imagine how it must have been much a soulful journey for the curator who has put these pieces of human stories together. It must have been a challenge yet ironically serves as its own reward. Visiting the Centre gave me the opportunity to experience even a fraction of the same.
As I peek through the pillars of the old windows, I see the busy chaos of the Chinatown area. With its rows and rows of goods from clothes, electronics, food and what not, I observe. The colorful buildings may not have the same double function as the old shop houses, but they are there standing as witnesses to generations of Chinese communities. (The shops, by the way, are more spacious now). But Chinatown of today has the same vibrancy and color, forty years after the first migrants arrived.
Chinatown has that spirit – a pulsating character fashioned by the people inhabiting it. They may be the second or third generation Chinese Singaporeans whom I can say I understand now partially, because of this one Saturday afternoon in Chinatown.
(I didn’t bring my camera that Saturday… photos here courtesy of Kanlapat…)