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The Heritage Hustle

Think of “heritage” and what comes to mind?

As Chua Ai Lin, Executive Director of the Singapore Heritage Society commented at the press launch of The Substation’s latest showcase, Cities change. People die. Everything you know goes away:

“Do you just think of old black and white photos of Chinatown and World War II?”

In this exhibition, viewers are prompted to think about the redevelopment of our urban environment and of how the landscape of the city is changing. This showcase is the second of an on-going 3-year curatorial project, in which The Substation seeks to examine aspects of the city of Singapore through the work of artists and field specialists.

Chua who is presently Lead Resident at The Substation urges us to consider the following:

“Can we think of heritage as a kind of  combination of place, people and function?”

Alan Oei, Artistic Director of The Substation explains further:

“For the longest time, Singaporeans bought into the narrative of progress that requires pragmatic and constant redevelopment. The tearing down of the red-bricked old National Library in 2004 created ‘a groundswell of public dissent’ that is symptomatic of the narrative’s fracture with Singaporeans.

In recent years, we’ve seen a wide range of responses, from anger to indifference to nostalgia, which shape discourse about the loss of our cultural markers. These responses may baffle state planners, but they reflect a real and deep-seated anxiety about a city that is constantly in flux.”

The old, and much-loved National Library building, which was demolished to make way for a tunnel Image Credit:

The space left behind by the old National Libary was utilised in the Singapore Biennale 2016 when interdisciplinary art duo Perception3 installed their poetic (and literally, reflective) work There are those who stay / There are those who go:

What remains of the old National Library building – no prizes for guessing what got to stay and what had to go…..

Singapore’s Preservation of Sites and Monuments Board was established decades ago in 1971, becoming an independent statutory board in 1997 under the-then Ministry of Information and the Arts. In 2009, it merged with the National Heritage Board (NHB), which applies the Preservation of Monuments Act, Chapter 239, of Singapore (PMA). While the PMA circumscribes the roles of various government authorities in the procedural aspects of gazetting a space as a historic site or monument, little appears to be publicly said about the qualitative aspects of what renders a space as worthy of “preservation” or designation as a site of historic importance. The NHB simply states that:

“Marked Historic Sites are places of historical significance where important events or personalities are commemorated to serve as reminders of our history. Though the original buildings may not always be retained at these sites, their stories are told through their heritage markers, which contain interesting nuggets of information on the history of the site.”

The Ministry of National Development (MND) on the other hand, which has broader oversight over Singapore’s “land use planning and infrastructural development” with a view to “sustaining Singapore’s economic growth and the social well-being of all Singaporeans,” has this to say in its corporate handbook :

“Buildings are selected for conservation based on historical and architectural significance, rarity in terms of building types and styles and contributions to the overall environment.”

“Colonial and pre-war buildings,” as well as  “significant post-war edifices” are named as examples of structures which might be identified for conservation. For anyone interested in taking a deeper dive, this 2015 essay by  Kevin Blackburn and Alvin Tan offers a fascinating survey into the history of conservation in post-colonial Singapore. 

Heritage as a Living, Fluid Thing?

At the media launch of Cities change. People die. Everything you know goes away, Chua offered the view that the idea of “heritage” should be related to a sense of what people are doing in a particular space, and how that space develops over time. She questions whether relatively “modern” places which have been in existence for say, 40 years in Singapore can have a valid place in the “heritage” of the city.

She’s certainly not alone in these views.

Cultural economist and academic Ruth Towse also makes the observation that many items of built heritage (and indeed, museum collectables) were never created for such hallowed purposes, but rather were a part of everyday life. These items were designated or “consecrated”  as having cultural value, only many years after the fact. Blackburn and Tan refer in their essay to the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) which was founded in the mid-1960s, and which rejected colonial “ideas drawn from Western hegemony over heritage management, with their stress on “grand” old buildings and monuments.”

These were thought to be “inappropriate to the Singapore urban and cultural landscape, which comprised architecturally modest shophouses and equally modest religious buildings.”

Indeed, buildings such as Golden Mile Complex, the Pearl Bank Apartments and People’s Park Complex which are now regarded as hopelessly outmoded, were in fact designed at a unique time in Singapore’s history, to accommodate our needs for the demands of (what was then) modern life:

The Golden Mile Complex
The Pearl Bank Apartments with its distinctive horseshoe shape was recently the subject of a collective sale to developers CapitaLand

Heritage as a Form of Control?

The Substation’s latest programme also presents the idea that the notion of “heritage” can be understood as a type of control – that through the official designation of certain buildings and spaces as being worthy of conservation for future generations, governments are able to craft narratives about shared memories.

Oei says, “it’s about making sense of the past so we know what matters in the present and future. To that end, heritage is a contested field to be defined not only by the state and heritage specialists — all of us have to participate in what, why, and how we remember.”

From a related but different perspective, the idea of control is also relevant when considering the alterations made to ownership rights when a physical space is designated as having “heritage” value, or regarded as having the ability to create a sense of national identity while fostering an understanding in the public, of the aesthetic values of the past. Buildings which have been selected for preservation typically have restrictions imposed on them with regard to their use — these can be detailed and onerous, imposing crippling costs on property owners.

The designation of buildings as heritage spaces also creates distributional effects as these acts impose financial burdens on existing generations in order to provide for the assumed demands of future generations. Consider the collective sale of the Pearl Bank Apartments for example (see image above) — have we any right to deny the present shareholders of CapitaLand and the homeowners of the apartment building the fair economic returns generated by their properties? Indeed, vague notions of safeguarding Singapore’s heritage may have little relevance to those struggling with the real and immediate financial demands of life in our expensive city-state.

Does the Art Offer Any Answers?

While Cities change. People die. Everything you know goes away offers a series of programmes spanning the duration of a year, a number of artworks are presently on display at the premises of The Substation.

As a response to the constant upgrading of developments in Singapore, the FaceLift project involves uncovering the building’s past marks instead of just “glossing over” the old until it is unrecognizable:

As part of this aesthetic intervention, artist Hafiz Osman has erected an outhouse (or colloquially, a jamban, which means “toilet” in Malay) outside The Substation building. It is a nod to the Bugis community who used to live in the area, replicated from an original structure in Kampung Bugis (or, the Bugis Village):

Hafiz Osman, Jamban 1956. The artist gamely reminds us of how these facilities are meant to be used.

What do you make of this “resettlement” of the toilet outside The Substation?

Is the artist making a statement on the execrable nature of contemporary art and alternative art spaces in the city? It certainly made us giggle, giving us pause to consider whether such a quotidian and scatological structure as an outhouse should be worthy of conservation. The very naming of the outhouse work as a “jamban” recalls an earthy sense of what it means to be Singaporean, the phrase having successfully worked its way into local parlance, understood by most of us regardless of our official CMIO stamps.

On the exterior walls of The Substation, photographer John Clang offers an ode to the gentrification of old spaces in Singapore:

John Clang, The Land of my Heart

The Land of my Heart features 3 billboards, portraying the heartlands as the “real” Singapore. The work underscores the point that most Singaporeans are “numbed” to the gentrification of their neighbourhoods and that the loss of memory is often no more than an “afterthought.”

A closer look at one of Clang’s billboards

Clang also muses that younger generations of Singaporeans will form new memories of what they see now, such that there can be a kind of “artificiality” when people choose to cling to the past.

The poem The Planners, by Boey Kim Cheng is plastered all over the front of The Substation building. Written in 1992, Boey was a self-described “angry young man,” upset at seeing the places he loved disappearing at an alarming rate. He felt a sense of being an outsider and raged at city planners who he thought were determined to replace his beloved urban markers with a series of anonymous towers and shopping malls.

The Planners

Boey’s poem reminded us a bit of  Lai Kui Fang’s behemoth of an oil painting Construction of Sheares Bridge (1976) presently on display at the National Gallery Singapore:

“They have it all so it will not hurt, so history is new again. The piling will not stop. The drilling goes right through the fossils of last century” — Boey Kim Cheng, The Planners (Image credit: National Gallery Singapore)


So far, so angry.

Is There a Middle Ground?

At a Roundtable discussion on Asia’s Heritage Challenges at this year’s Asian Studies Association of Australia Conference, Dr Vinod Daniel, Chairman of AusHeritage made the astute observation that “heritage” is a concept which is always in flux:

“Each generation creates their own heritage. It would be nice to be able to conserve everything but it’s just not possible.”

He offers the following blueprint for conservation:

“What governments can do is create incentives that drive sustainable heritage. Communities have to be able to benefit from conservation.”

One example cited was that of heritage hotels, which preserve important old buildings, while enabling communities to turn a profit from such structures.

The extent to which preservation of this kind skirts the boundaries of tasteless commodification is, of course, a pertinent consideration. Perhaps some middle ground can be found in the National Trust model adopted by the United Kingdom which is a private, non-profit membership organisation that buys and renovates historic properties with a view to opening them up to the public and providing visitor services. It is financed by membership fees, entrance fees and the various activities of trade carried out on the premises of the properties (for example, restaurants, the rental of space for events, shops and publishing). It is worth noting however that attempts to set up a Singaporean  version of the National Trust in the years post-independence, appear to have failed as the purchase of its first building, the Thong Chai Medical Institution, turned out to be a “financial disaster.” (See Blackburn and Tan, at page 353 onwards).

Another key issue has to do with the age-old conundrum of who defines the use of our public spaces. A “heritage” building to some segments of the population may well be an eyesore to others. One has only to look at the comments on online platforms to get a sense of how divided opinions can be:

People’s Park Complex, with its unmistakably yellow facade, has been described as “dingy,” “a monstrosity,” and has even made it to a Quora poll on what “Singapore’s ugliest building” should be

The long arm of technology has also extended into the sphere of heritage and conservation. With the leaps and bounds made in virtual reality knowhow, is there even a need to preserve whole buildings? Certainly, there is a romance associated with the physical heft of a built structure. Nonetheless, on a tiny island like Singapore, could virtual imaginings offer an effective compromise between spatial needs and the desire to retain a sense of the country’s history and identity?

There are no straightforward answers, but the dizzying cornucopia of events presented in conjunction with The Substation’s present exhibition will be certain to provoke deeper thought into the subject.

A comprehensive list of updates can be found here but for now, here are some brief highlights:

The HandJob

No really, that’s what this section is called

As with all Substation programmes, one can always count on a bit of cheeky fun to supplement the institution’s hard-hitting socio-political commentary  – with its HandJob segment, The Substation will play host to a year-long printmaking initiative whereby 7 associate printmakers will respond to different facets of heritage through the means of printmaking. Viewers can join in the fun by assembling their very own prints:

Getting into the thick of things
Our very own Plural Art Mag print, with images designed by artist Mojoko

The Film Festival

From Friday 27 July to Sunday 29 July, The Substation will present On the Block: The Substation’s Film Fest Weekend. Four films from Brazil, Colombia, Germany and China will be screened, including a 9-hour long “opus” by Wang Bing, West of the Tracks. Tickets are available here.

The SAD Parties

An unfortunate acronym for the “Substation After Dark”part of the building’s basement turns into the “SAD Bar” on selected evenings:

Opening night saw lots of hijinks and shenanigans, topped off with an appearance by the always  – spectacular Becca D’Bus:

Becca, schooling us on gender fluidity, female power and the commodification of icons of Singapore identity, such as the SQ Girl

The next edition sees a tribute to the Golden Mile Complex and its special brand of Thai culture, with the SAD Bar transforming into a Thai Disco featuring Thai music and video installations.

The Thai Disco nights will take place immediately following film screenings on Friday 27 July and Saturday 28 July. (Approximately 10:15 PM on Fri July 27 and 6:45 PM and 9:15 PM on Sat 28 July). More SAD events are currently slated for September, October and November, so be sure to check out The Substation’s website, or follow its Facebook Page.
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