Thirty Going On Auntie: Old buildings leaving, soul's got to move

TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE: The Van Kleef Aquarium, as seen in 1991. The writer remembers standing on the building's front steps in her scratchy frilly frock, waiting for her dad to park the car.


    Jul 20, 2015

    Thirty Going On Auntie: Old buildings leaving, soul's got to move

    I SOMETIMES feel the loss of buildings as an ache.

    Occasionally, I drive around the MacPherson area, where I spent part of my childhood, looking for landmarks that no longer exist: Great Eastern Hotel (later renamed Hotel Windsor), with its 1960s future-fantastic curved facade and coffee house where I ate after school with my mum, now gutted and being turned into yet another shopping mall; the attap house where my mother and her eight siblings grew up in a tiny shanty town, where Aljunied Park now stands.

    My father's childhood terraced home next to that - in Happy Avenue East - is still there, sort of, having been remodelled by subsequent owners trying to maximise the plot ratio into a three-storeyed neo-rococo monster. Gone are the mango and durian trees which used to line grandma's garden, the silver free-standing swing and wide concrete driveway us children used to rule.

    I'm not sure what prompts me to go on these night-time recces, except that, as I grow older, there are more places for me to feel nostalgic about.

    Perhaps, growing up and maturing, for me, has also been a kind of splintering, of becoming a succession of different people - the bookish girl, the rebellious teen, the manic mummy, the eccentric auntie - so much so that I try to hold it together by attempting to re-occupy the spaces I once did.




    It's a countrywide phenomenon, actually. Just think of the SG50 memory projects that cover everything from life on our southern islands, kopitiams, childhood games and school crests. A milestone birthday requires us to collectively look back at the selves we have lived through together.

    I recently attended a writing workshop with British author Bernardine Evaristo, part of the Read! Singapore festival, at the library@orchard. For a free-association exercise, Evaristo asked us to each think of something that existed when we were children but is no longer there now. "The old National Library," someone said immediately. "Hotel New World," said another. "Gay World." "King Albert Park McDonald's."

    When it was my turn, I said: "Van Kleef Aquarium." My father, a scuba diver and marine life enthusiast, loved taking us there to look at fishes, and I remember standing on the aquarium's front steps in my scratchy frilly frock, waiting for my dad to park the car.

    It struck me, then, that buildings - erected in stone and concrete, with the tacit assumption that they'll stand forever - occupy a large space in our memories. The premature demolition, or collapse, of some may leave huge holes in our heads, so to speak. And this goes for even the smallest, least historically significant structure.

    I recently had the hare-brained idea that we should start a condominium memory conservation project. An online depository, perhaps, to archive all the condominiums and flats that have been built and torn down in Singapore, faster than you could say "en bloc".

    Yes, even the hideous specimens from the 1980s or the ones with stupid names that everyone tries their best to forget now. It would be a place where people can upload old photos and talk about what their old units looked like. In time, it would grow into a virtual city, a palimpsest, where one could see who occupied an apartment after you left and what they did in it.




    Poking around Facebook at night, I noticed a familiar address on an artist friend's page, showcasing his works: 111, Tampines Road, Yi Mei Gardens - the condominium block I lived in between the ages of seven and 17, which has been torn down to be redeveloped into something called Trilive@Kovan. Curious, I messaged him to ask why he had listed it as his works' address.

    It turned out that he had been living there too, the years overlapping with the time I spent there.

    Strangely enough, we had never met as neighbours or even noticed each other, even though he swam every day in the pool, and I had a room that overlooked the pool.

    We traded memories. The separate fire-escape staircases for even and odd floors, which confused me as a child - why was it that I could never climb from my uncle's unit on the fifth floor to mine on the 10th; what sort of witchcraft was this? The rooftop I never knew existed, but which he often climbed up to, to take photographs. The ping-pong table nobody ever played at, next to the empty and locked management committee office. The banyan tree behind the tennis courts. The security counter in the lobby that was never manned (a bored guard stood at the front gate, raising and lowering a "STOP" barrier on a rope, to all and sundry).

    "Do you remember the caretaker who lived in the garbage hut?"

    His question gave me pause. Slowly, an image of a cheerful old man who would ride around the grounds on his little bicycle returned to me. No, I never knew he lived in the garbage hut.

    As my friend told me how the caretaker had no kin to take care of him (my friend's family used to cook extra food for him and helped take care of his funeral when he died), I felt remiss. I had squirrelled away the details of an edifice, and had failed to notice the person. There was still so much to learn about a place and its inhabitants, long after it was gone. But I also realised it was time to start living in the here and now, to see others and bring their lives into focus, before it is too late.

    A few days later, my friend sent me a photo of the Yi Mei Gardens pool, as a keepsake.