The middle aged man pointed to the mural at the wall, “oh, so this was actually …” his voice trailed off as I moved further away but I noticed the middle aged woman nod her head in reply and add to the conversation. They carried on looking at the long mural raising their hands at various points to make some points to the other.
These were Singaporeans who were appreciating the little stories about their country.
And I should know, they were my parents.
We were walking behind Telok Ayer Street, having come from Chinatown after trying the Michelin-starred Liao Fan Soya Sauce Chicken, and had come across this long mural just behind the important Thian Hock Keng Hokkien Temple.
Thian Hock Keng is a heritage site that is almost two centuries old. It was built especially for Hokkien immigrants who had just safely arrived at port of Singapore. The perilous journey to Singapore from across the seas was nothing to scoff at. Malnutrition, disease and the scurrilous tides of the ocean meant that the long voyage could easily have a final journey. Survivors who stepped on British Singapore would hence have a vital reason to give thanks – hence the name of the temple translated into English as Heavenly Blessing Temple.
This isn’t the only religious spot on the street. Next to it is a Malay Muslim Mosque as well as a former Indian Muslim Mosque – today a museum (the Nagore Durgha), a distance away at Philips Street is a similar temple built for the Teochew peoples – the Wak Hai Cheng Bio, or Yueh Hai Ching in Mandarin.
Thian Hock Keng is buried behind a whole collection of skyscrapers and a significant distance from the various quays and waterways making the location of real estate a rather odd one (since it was important for the newly arrived to visit).
Only, it wasn’t.
When it was first built, Thian Hock Keng (just like the Raffles Hotel) was a waterfront property. The whole district in front of it was the sea. The capitalist desire for more businesses was built up in phases through land reclamation works that began with the British and went into overdrive under the independent Singapore government*. The Thian Hock Keng faced a water front that curved its way into the Singapore River bound by three quays (pronounced keys, a place with platforms for the loading and unloading of goods).
The Singapore River and boat quay at the side
The three quays have since be re-purposed – Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay are today waterfront nightlife spots. The old warehouses now stock food and kitchens, when the dockside now houses tables for alfresco dining.
Boat Quay in the day
The streets are enlivened not with shouts of labourers but with the latest top hits blasting from hidden speakers, the people who fill the streets are not dressed down but dressed up to charm and attract – the crown in the jewel of what is today one of the cities with the best nightlife in Asia.
Many other ares in Singapore have gone through something similar. The ruling government of 1955 (Labour Front) ordered the reclamation of a whole district called Marine Parade and built the largest park in Singapore – the East Coast Park. These waterfront properties in Singapore became side streets, giving rise to strange observations such as Beach Road, Sea Avenue and Fort Road located inland rather than at the shore. Like Telok Ayer Street and Amoy Street, what was once the centre of life in the city became a side street. Many of these streets were neglected until new tenants came in to revitalise them and give them a completely new image.
Telok Ayer is now part of the hipster revival in the city, home to some of the most inventive and cool establishments in the city. It’s adjacent Amoy Street part of the larger Little Korea district. Beach Road is where the Little Bangkok is currently located and Fort Road is at the core of a new middle class district.
Through it all though, the heritage buildings still sit there. Sweaty, smelly Telok Ayer is now sexy, sensual Telok Ayer and yet while the purpose and reputation of the districts may change, these timeless buildings won’t.
They may have gone from the waterfront to the corner street, but these places still hold the roots of the city, without which we become another shallow, rootless megacity. These are vital links we forget at our own risk.
ON THE MAP
*Independent Singapore’s land reclammation efforts are so aggressive that neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have banned the sale of sand to Singapore, with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad noted as going so far as to say, Singapore is already a headache with its currently size, imagine if we let it grow bigger.