twenty-three. more musings.
on the surface of things what has been the least physically ‘challenging’ of my cities is also the most exhausting -- I can’t put my finger on it. the hostel environment and its late-night noises (can’t afford anything but a dorm bed here)? the readily-available cell-phone / skype /internet connectivity that leaves me neither here-nor-there? the heavy humidity which, although sticky, is nothing compared to Bangkok’s sweltering heat? or the total comfort of it all? when I sit down to draw & record my routes I feel uptight and tense, afraid to make mistakes or interpret too much off the map. I feel as if travel fatigue, or something about the city, is rubbing off on me.
I admit to being uneasy in this most orderly of urban organisms: sitting on the patio, in the boutique neighborhood of Kampong Glam (once the Arab quarter), everything around is so pristine and calm I can feel my own restlessness. the juvenile urge to spit, to chew gum, rises– it’s been so long since I’ve been this aware of being physically controlled (although this does happen to us everyday in the most mundane of ways, crosswalks and the like). the number of incentives that influence daily behavior here is astounding; riding the bus can get a free soya milk; an MRT (metro) ticket includes a $1 refundable deposit when the ticket is later returned (litter reduction); napkins do not exist, except at Starbucks (which are copious)…not all behaviors are so small, either. owning and using a private auto burdens one not only with a hefty auto tax but with Electronic Road Pricing in the downtown area, every weekday. this makes auto ownership the privilege of the relatively well-to-do (who exist in no small numbers), and rusty, aged cars are nowhere to be seen.
I am also schizophrenic here: I go from feeling as if this place is frightening, to feeling as if it’s amazing, in the same breath. it is both. how can one complain when there is so much here to celebrate? the fact that every single sign is written in no less than 4 languages (in order: English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil), the fact that 80% of the population owns state-provided real estate, the fact that environmental standards are high enough for reclaimed sewage water to be usable for computer chip manufacturing…the diversity, the standard of living, the foresight are on most liberal-minded city’s wish-lists, and are cause for wonder and respect.
in the newspaper two days ago there was an article entitled “Spruce up Little India but keep its charm.” the desire to ‘spruce up’ means different things to different Little India residents – for some it simply means more trashcans and cleaner sidewalks, for others it means renovating and transforming the heritage buildings into pedestrian malls. I have seen this strategy employed elsewhere and it involves 1. renovating historic shop-houses 2. filling them with high-end retail 3. covering the street with a climate-controlled glass canopy. an historic pedestrian shopping arcade is born (Bugis Junction, once a seedy transvestite hang-out, and Far East Square, on the edge of Chinatown, are two such examples). by no means are such places unpleasant or even poorly designed; they simply lack contestation. the story of place becomes solidified in font and preserved on a poster, and then turned into high-end consumption, which can support the cost of real-estate, heritage renovation & maintenance. with this as a working model, however, what keeps a city’s public places from becoming gentrified museum displays in which ‘history’ is constantly ‘spruced up’ before it is ever allowed to simply happen?
at the Urban Redevelopment Authority the other day, I was astonished by three models: one, a 25’x 12’ 1:5000 model of the entire island, with every existing and future building in place; two, a 1:1000 model of the downtown area; and three, a 1:400 model of the CBD and immediate surrounds. also at the URA was every city plan from 1958 onwards, transparently displayed for perusal and research in weighty binders. URA sponsored publications include a volume entitled Singapore 1:1, in reference to what has been heralded as Singapore’s full-scale correlation with its planned model. the introduction read something to the effect of “walking through the streets the buildings are perfect implementations of the urban plan…” nothing is unaccounted for. every 10 years an island-wide comprehensive ‘Concept Plan’ is re-formulated. new housing projects are planned in coordination with transit nodes and advertised for early bid in the halls of the MRT, offering a “total living environment” for live, work, & play.
in a country that has, and continues, to generate its evolving coastline from massive infill projects (approx. 60km² to date and growing), the ability to structure other environmental elements (such as infrastructure and housing) seems to follow naturally. in fact, the Housing Development Board is one of 3 agencies responsible for land reclamation. I’ve walked & ridden around the city looking for pockets of…contention? rebellion? signals that not everyone has exactly what they need in the way of the “five C’s” (career, credit, car, cash, condo)…I have seen young skateboarders in an underground walkway with a ‘no skateboarding’ sign, and a handful of men who sleep on the floor of the arcade here on the Bussorah Street pedestrian mall, where the two-storey scale, the lack of road, and the tranquility make it an likely nighttime refuge for the city’s few homeless. the renegade political dissidence, about which I have read in Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements, remains invisible.
4.11 Tampines & Pulau Ubin thrill: I found myself in a 20’ long bumboat bound for the heavily forested island of Pulau Ubin, a stone’s throw from Malaysia in the Straits of Johor. this is the northwest edge of Singapore, and it is eerie and beautiful. the water in the Straits is a deep emerald green, in part reflecting the color of the constantly overcast sky. from Changi Village, which is really just a small confluence of services for the Changi military base and scattered beaches, there are two ferry services: one for this island, and one for Malaysia. the boats to Pulau Ubin leave “when there are 12 passengers,” but nonetheless the operator gave in and went with the four of us: myself, a German couple, and a jovial, sailor-mouthed Pulau Ubin resident who was hauling over a box of goods and a fake fiberglass rock, such as you’d find in a putt-putt golf course.
the crossing takes 10 minutes. leaving behind Changi Village a monstrous oil rig off the coast of Singapore reveals itself to the east (Singapore holds a huge segment of the world's rig manufacturing market), beyond that the endless rows of block housing in Punggol, and across the strait, the dense and silent green of Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong, and the Malaysian shoreline. both Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong are planned for massive future reclamation projects (approx. 35% increase) to house Singapore’s population, which according to a recent Wall St. Journal article, the government wants to increase (http://users2.wsj.com/lmda/do/checkLogin?mg=evo-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fsetup2.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB117608056066163678.html%3Fmod%3Dtodays_asia_page_one). off the coast of Pulau Ubin are small fishing boats and dilapidated offshore stilt houses. moving like noiseless beasts through the straits of Johor are, in addition to these small cross-strait bumboats, gargantuan cargo ships. the one slightly ahead and to the east is “Panama” bound, as stated on its massive hull. our bumboat and this cargo ship are headed for the same point in the middle of the strait, and I realize with amusement, and then with alarm, that our driver is not about to slow down to give right of way to this ship, 50 times our size. in retrospect, I think he was trying to beat the ship, but 50 ft. from the hull and already fully in its 4’ wake, he fortunately decided to put on the brakes. the shiphands, whose faces were close enough to be memorable, watched in amusement while the couple and I held our breaths with incredulity. global almost meets local (albeit performed for tourists) in an unforgettable encounter.
but, to back up…Tampines, the UN-award-winning Newtown in eastern Singapore, commercial & retail node, residential enclave of 280,000, and business-park, is also a transit node. spilling off the MRT lands one first, directly into a food court and outdoor shopping arcade, which in turn spill directly into the bus-station which services not only the immediate town of Tampines (via Citylink buses) but also more distant parts of the island. thus I chose the Changi Village bus, lively and full of conversation, which winds through Tampines, with her rainbow-colored housing projects, each purportedly boasting a distinct architectural ‘character’ in the way of decorative surface appliqué and the occasional massing diversion from the horizontal block typology. Tampines, like other New towns, has the means to be self-sustaining, replete with her own schools, shopping centers, hospitals, businesses. the green space that winds through the town find its collecting pool right at the MRT station itself, resulting in an expanse of empty verdant flatness right in the town center, a stone’s throw from the shopping and business blocks. this happens often along the E-W MRT New towns; riding the mostly-elevated railline past endless seas of block houses and the occasional perfectly uniform swarm of single family homes, I watched people truck across these wide fields of land to get from the residential developments to the stations. are these fields reserved for future station-side development, or do they express an idea about ‘green space’ in its most vacant, semantically literal, form?
joggers and golden retrievers are in abundance on the sidewalks of Tampines, and I find myself thinking again about the dogs I have encountered along my travels. this seems self-evident but the health of a pet population says a lot about human standards of living, and whether it has the resources to invest in life beyond daily survival. notwithstanding the unsuccessful attempts to give these public housing projects a character deeper than paint, I found myself thinking that at least this manifestation of planned Singapore might work better than LC’s Chandigarh. despite the architectural superiority of Fry, Drew, and Jeanneret’s residential projects in Chandigarh, Singapore is a walkable, tight-knit city, nestled beneath the most gorgeous urban trees imaginable, and with plans to create an island-wide green-belt connector.
of course Honk Kong comes to mind as well; the New town model of high-density residences coordinate with transit line layout, and the ubiquitous marriage of retail and station, is echoed in both cities. but the two have a vastly different relationship to topography, and thus, strategy for dealing with density. Singapore was razed, her hills becoming, like in San Fran, the land of her new coast. Hong Kong retains its elevations, its developable land so paltry in comparison to her population. Singapore’s building footprints are large and her towers mostly horizontal. both cities, however, colonize the underground, Singapore even more actively in the sense of not just employing the basement, but of building entire shopping complexes beneath parks and roads, the only evidence of the mall’s existence a lightwell, or entry / exit stairwell lobby. unlike Hong Kong, Singapore doesn’t boast a mid-level city; the elevated pedestrian zone that leaves road and sidewalk untouched does not exist here. in Singapore, too, the seam between mall and station is readable, sometimes even requiring full exit from the station before re-entry into the adjacent mall (more akin to Bangkok). the urban ground thus becomes populated with footprints and not just motor-traffic.