Walking the city
From Beach Road to Ophir Road, Singapore
By Vikas Kailankaje, 21 February 2016
BETWEEN THE STUDIO AND THE STREET
Most of us experience the city in a distracted fashion when travelling on foot. And increasingly so. Our walks are often passages along familiar routes between points of arrival and departure. A guided city walk is an opportunity to romance one’s city whilst having a conversation about human conditions, intentions and consequence. The notion of walkers as domestic tourists is perhaps a foreign idea in Singapore as one can traverse the island with relative ease. However, one does turn into a tourist during the course of a walk as one encounters facets of the city one was not attentive to.
HOW DO PEOPLE MOVE IN YOUR CITY
Although every walk by its performative nature is unique, there are features which have come to characterise my walks. As a group activity, my criticism of most walks is that they are lectures on foot. And what of good banter? A colourful rant? Amusing tangents? Irony? Typically a walk is limited to a single neighbourhood but my walks tend to cut across neighbourhoods in a bid to craft a grand narrative of change in the inner city. Often clocking in at three hours, the walks are designed to allow participants to leave or stay as they wish. The walks register both change and absence. I often employ visual metaphors to make the unfamiliar a lot more palatable: a façade can be inspected like a layer cake or industrial lettering compared to sanitary plumbing in both shape and form.
FRAGMENTS: A STROLL FROM BEACH ROAD TO OPHIR ROAD
On a walk from Beach Road to Ophir Road, Mackerel’s Marc photographed fragments of the cityscape that I noticed had a story to tell no matter how small. Join me on a ramble as I cast my lens on Singapore.
The demolition site of Keypoint is as good a starting point as any. Amidst the mangled carcass of a building lie streets that have been shaped and reshaped. Minto Street is still there but it has moved over the decades. The finial of the ‘leaning tower’ of Hajjah Fatimah Mosque is barely visible in the background.
ST JOHNS HEADQUARTERS
The ventilation blocks that line the side of the St John Headquarters, the only relic from the sixties still standing, echo the Maltese cross, a symbol incorporated in the Saint John insignia.
On the front of the building the original sign is still intact. It’s a challenge to read this mosaic of triangular and square tiles but how can you not love its off-kilter alphabet?
FOLK GODS AND RAINBOWS
The steps of Golden Mile Tower are all too familiar to travellers waiting to board coaches en route to Malaysia, but take a side trail and you will discover yet another home to deities and folk gods that reside in leftover spaces. I was inspired in part by photographer Darren Soh’s Facebook album on “carpark gods” and Professor Widodo of NUS (National University of Singapore) to pay attention to denizens that have no permanent home. In Singapore, even gods can be moved.
EXITS, REAL & EXISTENTIAL
Yet another “carpark god” but this time inconveniently sandwiched between a carpark exit and the bin centre! Tua Pek Kong, a cone, and a “No Entry” sign jostle for attention in a city of signs.
Behind the Textile Centre on Jalan Sultan
THE REAL NEON LIGHTS
A rusty fire switch bearing the name “Nanyang Neon Lights Co.” is all that remains of a large neon installation that faced North Bridge Road. We have cleansed this city of large animated neon signs in a bid to clear urban blight while other cities have proudly displayed theirs as a sign of prosperity. In recent years neon lighting has come to be associated with late night eateries or unsavoury establishments but that too is changing as cheaper alternatives in the form of flashing LED signs threaten to displace neon.
This particular corner is a collage of various tiling works carried out since the shophouses that would have fronted Victoria Street were demolished to make way for the mass rapid transit line passing beneath.
Junction of Victoria Street and Jalan Sultan
SPACE AND TIME
Yusof bin Ishak, Singapore’s first President, studied at Kota Raja Malay School (Victoria Bridge School) and that school would have stood at this corner. The site lay barren for years following the school’s demolition and now it’s a mixed-use development. The back of the two-dollar batch of presidential notes* carry an illustration of the school (based on a postcard image). I have scholars Lai Chee Kien and Imran Tajudeen to thank for drawing my attention to this.
*The proper term for the current batch of notes in circulation with Yusof Ishak‘s portrait is “presidential notes“ to distinguish from previous issues.
Junction of Victoria Street and Jalan Sultan
NOT ALL ART IS WORTH YOUR WHILE
It’s ridiculous how this bit of street art gets the media attention that it does, especially since it does nothing to highlight the untold stories of this neighbourhood. No thank you Ernest Zacharevic! Ply your trade elsewhere or expect more taunting!
IN PLAIN SIGHT
A substation dressed as a shophouse like its neighbours. An insult if there ever was one!
OF FRAGMENTS AND FAULT-LINES
Make a clean cut or none at all – that appears to be the case in Singapore but not at this junction between Arab Street and North Bridge Road. Like a torn page from an old jotter book, this shophouse hangs on to a fragment from its demolished neighbour still appended – it serves to conceal the rainwater downpipe as well!
VISIONS OF GRANDEUR
Far East Organization claims that the first bubble lifts in Singapore were introduced at Lucky Plaza in 1978. Here at Golden Landmark Plaza (ironically, built by Far East and originally envisioned as a centre for jewellers), two bubble lifts dance like floating oil lamps that echo the onion dome of the nearby Sultan Mosque. One could argue that the Disney-fication of this neighbourhood is not complete without such public displays of kitsch in an “elevated bazaar”.
A vertical cross-section through soon-to-be-demolished Rochor Centre reveals the mixed-used nature of this podium-cum-tower complex with basement car parking, podium-level shopping and residential slab blocks. A shopping atrium or arcade was not complete in the 1970s and 80s without a cantilevering “dog-leg” staircase hanging over the void. The loss to the neighbourhood in demolishing this estate (to allow a highway to pass through) is the loss of a variety of age groups, especially the elderly in the city centre. Vibrancy should encompass all ages and not just the youth or able-bodied.
A SIGN OF THE TIMES
This hand-painted sign is a fine specimen as it is as fresh as yesterday and still bears the pencil outline which the sign-maker painted over. A “drop shadow” is a ticket for escaping the deceptively flat surface of a shop fascia sign.
THE EVER-CHANGING CITY
From this vantage point, we can experience a slice of the city in the midst of change. The diversion and concealment of Rochor Canal has deeper ramifications for the psyche than one would imagine. In this part of the city, the Rochor and Kallang river systems have long served as geographical boundaries and markers. It‘s a win for traffic engineers if we keep adding more lanes to our roads but at what cost to the city fabric and landscape?
This city needs “softer edges” and a deeper regard for how physical geography shapes our psyche as urban dwellers. A road as wide as this serves to connect in one direction for vehicles while creating a sharp break in the city’s fabric in the perpendicular direction. Oh, the irony!
At the junction of Rochor Road and Jalan Besar
It is crucial that we make a note of both absence and gaps in our urban fabric. These often leave the larger body of personal narratives looking gaunt in contrast to the fattened but monolithic official narrative.
With massive change, especially in the inner city, citizens are often only left with fragments to tell a story.
Vikas Kailankaje is the Principal Designer of STUDIO VBK and a Lecturer in Design Communication at LASALLE College of the Arts. He also leads guided walks around Singapore’s inner city. His most recent is a series of three walks on ‘urban graphics’ for the National Library Board.