Exploring Singapore’s history through the lens

Caption: Blk 19, Jalan Sultan: Note the original ventilation blocks for the stairwells of the building, which are now rare in modern designs.)
Caption: Blk 19, Jalan Sultan: Note the original ventilation blocks for the stairwells of the building, which are now rare in modern designs.)

Singapore’s history is often associated with major events like the Japanese occupation, our colonial past and our independence. Many Singaporeans, especially teenagers, having not lived through that period, struggle to connect with these experiences. Hence, it’s common for them to lose interest in the history of our nation. And that’s where local photographer Darren Soh, 37, and writer Melanie Lee, 34, hope to make a difference – through their craft.

The husband-and-wife team says learning about our country’s history should be a personal experience. We can find out a lot about our city-state through the space we live in, such as our immediate surroundings, says Soh, who is an award-winning landscape and architectural photographer.

Through his work and in his free time, Soh explores and documents local life. In particular, he is interested in old buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, many of which are public housing flats. Unlike colonial architecture, such buildings are often lost as many of them are not deemed old or important enough to be conserved, says Soh. He photographs these buildings and their surroundings – these landscapes, he believes, may be current now but will very quickly become a part of our history in fast-changing Singapore.

Although old HDB blocks are commonly overlooked – perhaps due to their simple and functional designs – Soh says they are important cultural artefacts and tell interesting tales of the generations that have lived in them. After all, over 85 per cent of the local population live in these public housing flats.

Soh says while photographing older HDB flats, he noticed differences in architecture when compared with that of the current flats. For example, these flats above feature ventilation at the stairwells – something that’s rare in modern designs.

Dragon playground, Block 28, Toa Payoh Lorong 6: This Dragon Playground of Toa Payoh is the only one of its kind (sand-based) left in Singapore, the other two are laid with rubber mats.
Dragon playground, Block 28, Toa Payoh Lorong 6: This Dragon Playground of Toa Payoh is the only one of its kind (sand-based) left in Singapore, the other two are laid with rubber mats.

The shared memories of HDB estates go beyond the actual blocks. Dragon playgrounds used to be common in HDB estates in Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio. However, many were phased out due to safety concerns after 1993.

Part of Soh’s motivation comes from his desire to keep up with Singapore’s fast-changing landscape.

“It changes on a day-to-day basis,” he says, especially when he returns from overseas trips with Lee. “We just go away for two weeks, and when we come back, why is there this thing that was not here before?”

He warns that if society keeps changing at this rate, the younger generation might have “a very misplaced sense of space” and the physical environment they grew up with “won’t be there when they become adults”.

Thus, he says, now is the time for Singaporeans to take ownership of our own heritage by documenting Singapore in their own ways.

(Left) This is a view of Marina Bay in 1990, from the top of what was then the Westin Stamford (today, the Swissotel The Stamford. Note that there was no Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Flyer, Esplanade, Floating Platform and even Ritz Carlton Hotel. (Right) This is a view of Marina Bay during the 2010 Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix.
(Left) This is a view of Marina Bay in 1990, from the top of what was then the Westin Stamford (today, the Swissotel The Stamford. Note that there was no Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Flyer, Esplanade, Floating Platform and even Ritz Carlton Hotel. (Right) This is a view of Marina Bay during the 2010 Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix.

Lee, Soh’s wife, is a freelance writer who is very interested in Singapore’s heritage and her story. She is a self-confessed “kaypoh” and enjoys learning about the stories and origins behind historical places.

An image of the Sembawang Hot Spring, just a 15 – 20 minutes’ walk from where Soh and Lee live.
An image of the Sembawang Hot Spring, just a 15 – 20 minutes’ walk from where Soh and Lee live.

The couple live in Sembawang and love exploring their neighbourhood. Lee says many Singaporeans might be surprised to know that there’s actually a hot spring in Singapore – the Sembawang Hot Spring. She says she notices many ladies doing their laundry and taking baths there.

Being an active explorer, she did some research and found out that there is talk of the water having healing powers. She shares that there were attempts to start a spa business there in 1967, but it didn’t work out. She also found out that the hot spring was a thermal bath facility for Japanese soldiers during the Japanese occupation, but it was later destroyed by the British.

Another image of the Sembawang Hot Springs, just a 15 – 20 minutes’ walk from where Soh and Lee live.
Another image of the Sembawang Hot Springs, just a 15 – 20 minutes’ walk from where Soh and Lee live.

The adventurous couple say Singapore’s history should be a participative study of the past, and a collective memory built and shaped by many varied personal narratives. Soh cites the social interactions on his Facebook page as an example. When he shares photos of HDB blocks, for instance, many readers leave comments, sharing their experiences of the times when they lived in those buildings. This, Soh explains, makes for a Singapore story that’s interactive and collective, a bottom-up effort one rather than a top-down one.

The couple would like to encourage Singaporeans to be a bit “kaypoh” and to keep an eye out for unusual scenes. Visit heritage blogs, such as the Long and Winding Road, to learn more about our shared history. Curious explorers can also go to the library and access the National Archives of Singapore or the Picture Archives (PICAS).

And to learn some tips from the couple themselves, head to Soh and Lee’s free publica lecture, titled “How to be a Singapore Explorer”. It will be held on May 15, 7.30pm-8.30pm, at the National Museum of Singapore. Admission is free with registration. Please email your contact details to nhb_nm_lectures@nhb.gov.sg for registration.

The lecture is part of Historia SG 2013, an annual series of public programmes which will run from April to August to engage, inspire and encourage Singaporeans to learn more about Singapore’s rich history.

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