Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Loving Singapore

When you love a place and leave it, you romanticize it while you're gone. While you were there, you always thought that the food from that vegetarian place was really great, but now that you've been gone a while you're starting to wonder if that was possibly the best food you've ever eaten in your life. The neighborhood you lived in for three years was just okay when you lived in it, but now you can't even think of it without a wave of nostalgia.

But to love Singapore is to love a place that's constantly changing. That was never more obvious to me than on my recent trip back. I returned, eager to see those things I'd been reminiscing about since I left. Only 11 months later, I figured not too much could've changed. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Our neighborhood was almost unrecognizable to me. When Bryan and I moved there four years ago, there was one mall - a slightly outdated (by S'pore standards) place called IMM. By the time we moved away three years later, a fancy new mall had opened up less than a half mile away from IMM. JCube is shiny, new, and crowded. So you can imagine my surprise when I stood on the Jurong East MRT platform last week and saw...ANOTHER mall. Jem is brand spanking new, huge, and seems to have sprouted up from nowhere. From the MRT platform, you can see IMM, Jem, and JCube all at the same time. I don't understand the need for so many malls, but I miss how quiet our neighborhood used to be. It will only get more bustling with the completion of the massive Ng Teng Fong General Hospital in 2014.
Jem - image from http://www.jem.sg

The transformation of our neighborhood was a surprise, but there was a way worse one in store for me. When I found out I was going back to Singapore, one of the first things I said to Bryan was, "I CAN'T WAIT TO EAT NTU FOOD!!!" Now, you might be surprised that, in a country renowned for its cuisine, I was pumped to get my hands on some college cafeteria food. But I have no shame. NTU's canteen B is set up like a regular Singapore hawker center, with an added bonus - the cost of the food is subsidized by the university, so you can get lunch for SG$2. No joke. In addition, it has a vegetarian stall that literally has my favorite food in all of Singapore. It's amazing. They have superb mock meat dishes, and they make this orange spicy chickpea gravy type stuff that's my favorite thing I ate in Singapore. I've never seen it anywhere else, and my Singaporean friends tell me it's an old-fashioned dish that isn't around much anymore. I planned to eat a bucket of it when I got back.

My first day, I ventured to Canteen B, hot, jet-lagged, and ravenously hungry. I was greeted with this sight:

I'm completely serious when I say that I almost cried. Jet-lag makes me fragile. All the stalls were closed, and by that time I was so hungry that I was starting to worry about fainting. After dejectedly staring at the closed food stall for about 5 minutes, I went to the nearest open cafe, which I'd never been  to before. It was American-style. Their only vegetarian option was pizza. For my first meal back in Asia, I had a pizza and a Coke (in Pitchstop's defense, the pizza was delicious).

Confident that the canteen was just closed for school holidays, I returned a few days later. It was still closed. I asked around and found out....Canteen B is closed because it's being remodeled. REALLY remodeled, and it's rumored that the same stalls may not return. The plan is to turn it into more of a food court than a hawker center, thus further homogenizing the food options on campus. All this despite the fact that the same place was just remodeled in 2009.
Totally fine just the way it is

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it represents one of the things that I find really frustrating about Singapore. Change isn't always bad - Singapore has made tons of positive steps over the last few decades, obviously. But so often a perfectly good thing is shut down to make way for something "better." Often the results are, to me, less appealing than the original. Old-fashioned hawker centers are losing a lot of their charm as they're converted into more modern, air-conditioned food courts that look like something you could find in a mall in any American suburb. Bukit Brown Cemetery, a beautiful tribute to local history, is being partially destroyed to become a housing estate (yes, I've complained about this for two posts in a row now). Plans are now under way to disrupt the Central Nature Reserves, the only remaining safe haven for much of Singapore's wildlife, to put it yet another MRT line.

Loving Singapore means that at any time, you could show up to find your treasured place gone, or worse...turned into another mall.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Chinese Heritage Center

I spent a lot of time at Nanyang Technological University when I was in Singapore. When I was employed by NTU, it was our base of operations for monkey research. So I spent hours slaving away in the lab in the Humanities and Social Sciences building. And every time I went there, I admired the adjacent Chinese Heritage Center and thought, "I really ought to go in there sometime." And I never did. So when I went back recently, I dedicated an hour to checking it out.

The outside of the place is decidedly impressive. There's nothing discreet about it. It really stands out from the rest of the more homogenous campus buildings.
Why didn't I visit sooner?!

The CHC was founded in 1995, and serves as a library, research center, and museum. The best part is that admission to the museum is free. You just have to be willing to haul yourself all the way over to the extreme west side of the island to get there!

As soon as I walked into the lobby, after noting the impressive interior architecture, I noticed something that really amused me. China is kind of known for copyright infringement (think of all those Chinese knockoffs, like Gocci or Addidas), so I found it funny when the first thing I saw upon crossing the threshold of the museum was the illegal usage of a copyrighted photo. Someone had made a cute little zongzi, or rice dumpling, with a face. But if you look closely at the eyes, you can see the watermark that indicates that the image of the face is copyrighted and should have been purchased for use. Pretty silly.
Check out the words on the left eye

Anyway, the interior of the building was impressive enough to tear me away from the copyright-infringing dumpling in only a few seconds. From the lobby, you can see straight up to the third floor.
Not a bad view!

When I was there, there were two main exhibitions. The Nantah Pictorial Exhibition opened in 2000, and covers the history of Nantah University, which existed from 1956 to 1980. During its short lifespan, it was the only Chinese-language university outside of mainland China. In 1980 Nantah University merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, which went on to become one of the top universities in Asia. In 1981, NTU opened on the former grounds of Nantah University. The exhibition covers a lot of this history, and includes 130 photographs from the time period. Although it wasn't all that long ago, the photographs kind of seemed like ancient history to me. They're a strong reminder of how far Singapore has come in such as short time. The artifacts were pretty neat too.

The most interesting set of artifacts included original roof tiles from Nantah University and a replica of Nantah Arch, which once marked the entrance to Nantah University. Apparently the original arch still stands at Jurong West Ave 93, and there is a replica in Yunnan Garden (opposite the CHC) at NTU. I've seen the replica before, but didn't understand its significance until visiting the exhibition.
Artifacts are a rare commodity in rapidly-evolving S'pore!

Before moving on to the next exhibition, I poked out onto the second floor balcony, which had a great view of the HSS building where I'd worked.
It's way prettier from the outside than from inside a stuffy office!

From the other side, there was a lovely view of Yunnan Garden.
Luckily the haze wasn't so bad that day!

The other exhibition was called "Chinese More or Less," and focused on the various, heterogeneous identities of mainland Chinese people, and how those identities were maintained abroad. I found this exhibit really fascinating. I've heard a lot of talk in Singapore about what it really means to be "Singaporean." National identity seems tricky when there's such a hodgepodge of cultures existing together in a small place that's always changing. But I haven't given much thought about Chinese Singaporeans and how they identify as Chinese, and how they're "Chinese-ness" differs from that of mainland Chinese, Chinese Americans, or Chinese people living in the UK, or Thailand, or Vietnam. This exhibit covered those issues around the world and across time.

There are seven galleries, and each one has a different focus. Throughout was a discussion of what it meant to be Chinese while away from China, and how cultural identities were maintained and transformed in new locations. The galleries focused on questions like "How Chinese am I?" and "What does it mean to be Chinese?"

One gallery focused on outsider perceptions of Chinese people. It was interesting to see racist interpretations of Chinese just around the corner from displays of cultural pride. The most intriguing image was an American caricature from the 1800's, depicting a greedy Chinese merchant. It was a commentary on the Chinese monopolization of trade goods production. I have thought of Chinese production as something that has only recently started to bother Americans, and was surprised to see that it was a point of contention 200 years ago.
Racism at its weirdest

The history of Chinese abroad created some strange juxtapositions - the workers at labor camps were just around the corner from the fancy colonial family.
Sidenote: Wax colonial family made me think that
CHC might make a good setting for a horror movie
about wax figures coming to life.

I poked around the CHC until about 10 minutes past closing time, when there were still no signs of the place shutting down. I went up to the third floor, which I don't recommend, since I don't think I was supposed to be there. But I was happy to see that there were lots of people around, taking in the exhibits, shopping in the gift shop, and taking pictures. It's good to see that a place like CHC generates some interest.

I think the CHC is a great way to preserve some of the history of Chinese people in Singapore and abroad, but I think more efforts should be made to protect actual local historical sites. The CHC has a short history - it's only 18 years old. Places like Bukit Brown have a long, rich cultural history but are not being afforded the proper respect, as historical preservation takes a backseat to constant "progress."