Category Archives: photography

Behind Chinatown

Chinatown Complex

When I used to tell people I lived in Singapore’s Chinatown, I usually saw raised eyebrows and heard a confused “Oh.” The four years I spent there provided an education that would be hard to find in the ‘burbs. In Chinatown I experienced a social ecosystem sliced and bound by up to eight lanes of traffic, where the constant and the variable are mashed up into an entity that bears different identities depending on where and when you look.

The sanitised, candy-coloured tourist streets are one thing. But the more ‘hidden’ sides of Chinatown began to fascinate me as I tried to understand and find ways to reconcile with some distressing social situations – particularly homelessness and scavenging among the elderly. Many evenings, closed souvenir stalls would become makeshift beds.

For the communities living in Chinatown’s high-rise housing, the daily grind plays out against the tourist tides and the yearly cycle of festivals. In a way, life for them is partially a spectacle played out in gritty concrete vertical cities.

Badminton atop the podium of the Chinatown Complex:

Badminton at Chinatown Complex

Breakfast (also for the resident podium cat) at the same place:

Chinatown breakfast

The night before lingers at the Chinatown Complex:

Chinatown Complex

The chess corner at Sago Street is inhabited 24 hours a day:

Chinatown chess 2

Chinatown chess 1

Chinatown chess 3

The unofficial recycling station at Spring Street:

Chinatown Recycling Station

Life’s debris. Hopefully it was of use to someone else who needed it:

Life's debris at Chinatown Complex

The food centre in the Chinatown Complex – an important social space:

Chinatown food centre

Between worlds:

Motorcycles, Chinatown

Colonising a laneway:

Chinatown laneway

Fire on the streets for the hungry ghost festival:

Chinatown hungry ghost 2

The street cats have their haunts, and their adoptive parents:

Chinatown cat 1

Chinatown cat 2

In 2009, I walked past a collection of old furniture and recyclables on Jiak Chuan Road. It took me a minute to realise it might have been a person’s home or perhaps a makeshift work station of some kind:

Jiak Chuan Rd 1

Jiak Chuan Rd 2

Jiak Chuan Rd 3

Jiak Chuan Rd 5

Jiak Chuan Rd 4

Conformist and non-conformist gardens

I often wonder about the garden philosophy of Singapore. The ‘garden city’ concept is a way to brand the island, and supports a valuable landscaping industry. It results in a particular image for Singapore, despite many of the prescribed vegetative species being foreign. It makes the expressways more pleasant traffic funnels. But from the perspective of the pedestrian on the footpath, urban planting is also a form of control – a barrier (similar to a fence) rather than an environment to be inhabited.

Singapore’s garden spaces are often less a representation of nature, and more a rationalised formula.

I find myself drawn to the exploration of the island’s various ‘natural’ environments to see how plants really behave in this climate. The photos that follow were taken at the Southern Ridges Forest Walk and the Venus Loop at the MacRitchie Trails. These environments have had various degrees of human intervention. As sites for nature tourism, they also have an economic dimension, as well as some connection to the garden ‘story’ of Singapore that is still being written.

What I enjoy about them is experiencing the spaces and forms that develop in them through natural processes. The photos don’t do justice to the various degrees of enclosure, openness, and light filtration created by these environments, but the ways in which vegetation layers itself is clear. So too is the way boldly shaped tropical plants can create natural focal points.

It could be nice if some day, daily Singaporean urban spaces support other types of gardens – such as food or educational gardens tended by the public. Wouldn’t it be good to grow vegies rather than hedges?

Nature/architecture fusion in Club St laneway

Next time you’re walking down South Bridge Road, Chinatown, take a detour down the laneway that runs parallel and stretches between Mohd Ali Lane and Ann Siang Hill. Your eyes as well as your ears will thank you! An incredible environment has grown at the back of the shophouses. It’s a superb example of the delightful conditions that can arise when things are left alone to mature without interference.

Virile tropical vegetation has plugged into and wrapped around built forms. The fusion provides shelter and supports bird life. It may not be the best thing for the longevity of the architecture, but it’s amazing to see and experience. Here are some photos I took yesterday.