Preserving only physical monuments cannot replace a lost heritage
By Grace Chua
ALL of Singapore wants a piece of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway action, it seems.
For weeks, crowds turned up at the now-defunct Tanjong Pagar train station, sweating and jostling. Some nights, there were more trainspotters, shutterbugs and gawkers than passengers, and more joyriders than actual travellers.
Young people want to be part of an organic movement, rather than experience history spoon-fed to them in school. So those who have never taken the train as a traveller, hopped on board for excursions to Johor Baru or Kuala Lumpur, for personal memories.
But amid the outpouring of feeling and flurry of activity, we might ask ourselves: Did we care about the station when trains still ran out of it?
And should the railway land, station and their accoutrements be preserved, for how long will we come back?
The Tanjong Pagar railway station, built in 1932, has been gazetted as a national monument, and the one at Bukit Timah, a conserved building.
But not all the physical components will be preserved. For one thing, the tracks and platform may not be part of the national monument, explained architectural conservator Yeo Kang Shua in a previous interview. He questioned the value of keeping the station without the trappings, arguing they should be taken as a whole. At least keep some vestige of the Tanjong Pagar tracks, he said.
At a photo and video exhibition at the station one night in its last week, after the food stalls had gone, I bumped into architectural historian Lai Chee Kien, of the National University of Singapore. He thought the terminal should be turned into a transport museum.
Will people visit, I asked.
'The physical infrastructure is there, but the software and information are not there yet,' he said, meaning that there should be information panels that go beyond the superficial, and that there must be a public hungry to find out more.
'The teh tarik was legendary.'
Mr Lai has a point.
National monuments - buildings or public places - are just a shell. Heritage involves more than preserving the physical; there is an organic living component to heritage, which is why we preserve oral histories, rituals and cultural knowledge.
A number of national monuments, for example, are churches, temples and mosques. Those who visit St Andrew's Cathedral or the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to join in worship, are not mere tourists, but are participants in the civic life of the place. So long as congregations do not dwindle, those national monuments will go on living.
It may be easy enough to preserve the train station. But intangibles like Mr Hasan's drink stall and the legendary teh tarik are harder to preserve. You can set up another teh tarik stand with the same recipe, but the food is given personality and flavour by the man's personality, by the ambience of a mouldering train station.
Every day for years, people worked at the station and along the railway line; some lived there; others transited there.
But how many of us had an interest in, let alone took a part in, the daily life of the station at Tanjong Pagar before it was about to be made scarce? Singaporeans are notoriously kiasu - imminent scarcity immediately increases value.
Later on, how many will come back?How many will linger long enough at this new monument and once train station to engage with it and converse with its history?
Conservation can coexist with urban renewal. It has worked, for instance, at the Red Dot Traffic building in Maxwell Road, which in colonial times housed the traffic police headquarters and today is home to design firms, offices, restaurants and a design museum.
It has worked at the Old Hill Street Police Station, now the brightly painted headquarters of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
For the Tanjong Pagar train station, perhaps that option remains.
Right now, there is another quiet civic campaign, conducted on Facebook and in letters to the newspapers, to save the sprawling Bukit Brown cemetery off Lornie Road. I would love to see that cemetery kept another hundred years: my great-grandparents are buried there.
At the same time, cities must evolve as needs and land uses change. Some areas with a vivid past that have been redeveloped are now important sites in their own right.
For example, the Five Points slum neighbourhood of Manhattan, immortalised in the film Gangs Of New York, is now the island's civic centre and part of its Chinatown.
Even as we fret over what we might lose tomorrow, we should consider the wonders of today.
All life, in Singapore and elsewhere, is tenuous, yet enduring - as tenuous as that railway station whose life is ebbing away, as tenuous as the old kampungs that made way for soaring Housing Board flats. And yet those same places live on. The old railway station may yet become a hub of new activity; the old kampungs are now teeming HDB estates.
If they remain as mere monuments to memory, spaces and buildings will always be inadequate - only a shell. They come to life only when people colonise the spaces, jostling, sweating, and breathing life into them.
We can be more than tourists or spectators. We can be participants or worshippers. We can inhabit those places that are not yet burdened by the stamp of official heritage and not yet about to disappear.
And to the train tracks, to the teh tarik, to neighbourhood hairdressers and provision shops - to ordinary life as it is lived - we can bear witness and remember.
[Sentiments. Memories. Ideals. Lacking the essential life.]