Presenting the Past

Published on 26 April 2016

From Chinatown’s ma jie community to our island’s last living kampong, Singapore HeritageFest 2016 rekindles the past through lesser-known and forgotten stories.

BY PAMELA HO

Did you know that an old seawall and gate marking the former coastline of Singapore still stands at Nallur Road? It’s a reminder of the pre-land reclamation days, when waves lapped lazily on our original shores, and Marine Parade and East Coast Parkway were but figments of someone’s imagination. You could have walked past that historic seawall countless times and not known it.

Or did you know there was a ‘killing field’ not too far away? This World World II massacre site was located at Jalan Puay Poon, a road name that no longer exists today. Where exactly was it?

These little-known facts will be revealed in a guided tour of the Bedok Heritage Trail, a new trail to be launched at this year’s Singapore HeritageFest (SHF), which runs from 29 April to 15 May.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“The SHF has always been about rediscovering our rich and diverse heritage through uncovering lesser-known or forgotten stories,” says Angelita Teo, director of the National Museum of Singapore and festival director of SHF 2016. “This year, we’re focusing on working with the youth.”

The places and spaces may be from a bygone era, but the people involved in re-telling the stories are the second- or third-generation custodians of these stories. For example, on the opening weekend, the National Museum of Singapore celebrates our food heritage with A Taste of Heritage (29-30 April) by recreating a scene from the 1960s, when hawkers used to dot the grounds of the Museum.

Hawker favourites such as Katong Laksa and Hougang 6 Mile handmade muah chee will be served up alongside public performances by local arts groups and musicians. “More than that, visitors can listen to stories about how second- and third-generation ‘hawkerpreneurs’ have sought to preserve family recipes and traditional foodways,” says Teo.

SHF’s food tours are expected to be a hit with both Singaporeans and overseas visitors. Eat your way through the Changi precinct, Kampong Glam and Balestier, or join a Eurasian heritage guided tour that ends with a visit to an authentic Eurasian food stall.

ECHOES OF THE PAST Festival director Angelita Teo invites second- and third-generation custodians of lesser-known stories to retell them and keep them alive at SHF 2016.

CLANS & CELIBATE SERVANTS

Also on opening weekend, Bukit Pasoh in Chinatown will be closed to traffic and the doors of its shophouses opened to the public. “Clan associations such as the Gan Clan and Kong Chow Wui Koon will have storytelling, Cantonese poetry, Chinese calligraphy and film screenings on their premises to give visitors a glimpse into the history and heritage of the area. Visitors can also enjoy dance and music performances along the street,” shares Teo, adding that various restaurants at Bukit Pasoh will also offer special items on their menus inspired by the site’s history and heritage.

Around the bend at Keong Saik Road, writers Lee Kok Leong and Charmaine Leung will be taking visitors on a guided tour with a twist: Lee is the author of Guang Dong Ma Jie, a compelling story of domestic housekeepers from China in the early 20th century; while Leung, whose grandmother was a ma jie, will share stories of racy Chinatown brothels, nightsoil collectors and coolie quarters.

“My grandmother arrived in Singapore from Foshan in Guangdong province in the mid-1930s. Unlike most ma jies who had taken a vow of celibacy and did not marry, she had actually married a man when she was in China, but the marriage was never consummated,” discloses Leung, who grew up in a shophouse along Keong Saik in the ’70s and ’80s. “In order to have her freedom, she supported her husband’s living expenses for 10 years, and also found him another wife before she left!”

Leung hopes that with these insider stories, they can help preserve and pass on what they hold dear about Keong Saik from an era past. “It’s a sensorial tour of sights, smells and sounds — of what it might feel like to have lived in this historic district.”

Again opened to the public this year are National Monuments, including the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery and the Former Command House, where visitors can enjoy guided tours and performances by students from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
of Music.

CLAN-DESTINE MEETINGS The Gan Clan Association and others in Chinatown’s Bukit Pasoh will open their premises for storytelling, Cantonese poetry, Chinese calligraphy and film screenings.

THE ISLAND LIFE

This year’s SHF culminates in a weekend offshore, on an island that’s home to one of the last living kampongs in Singapore. While life on laid-back Pulau Ubin has remained relatively intact, few have had the opportunity to experience the kampong lifestyle.

Come 13-15 May, get a dose of nostalgia by hearing stories from residents of the island or joining the Ubin Experience Tour led by SHF volunteers. “There will also be special guided tours of the Outward Bound School, where you can explore a rugged trail and access sites usually closed off to the public,” shares Ong Shihui, assistant curator at the National Museum of Singapore. “For food lovers, look out for cooking classes held in a 100 year-old kampong house!”

To transport visitors back to a time of outdoor cinema, local film-maker Royston Tan will screen his latest film on Pulau Ubin at the island’s open-air wayang stage. The film was inspired by a conversation Tan had with an elderly couple who used to operate a bumboat that ferried passengers to and from the island. “The film captures personal stories of individuals who share a special connection with the island, and their reasons for coming back each year,” says the award-winning director. “Hopefully, it will shed light on a side of Pulau Ubin few Singaporeans know about.”

“Over the years, we’ve seen the number of individuals and community groups keen to be involved in the festival increase steadily,” says Teo, who is heartened by the response. “This is what SHF is all about — a platform for people to discover the heritage in their backyards, to respond to and draw on this heritage, and to create new things out of old.”

For more information on Singapore HeritageFest 2016, visit www.heritagefest.sg.

KAMPONG VIBES Singapore film-maker Royston Tan will screen his film on Pulau Ubin at the island’s old wayang stage, bringing back the days of outdoor cinema. 

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