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Reclaiming Chinatown's identity
IT is the Chinese New Year. In Chinatown, monkey-themed street lighting and a sea of makeshift vendors touting the delicacies of spring in myriad colours are the visual cues for Singapore's epicentre of Chinese culture and community, just as they have been since the first immigrants arrived from the motherland more than a century ago.
Carmen Low, for one, recalls reunion dinners in her childhood in the 1990s, held in the back alley of her family's Chinese medical hall in Trengganu Street. "Neighbouring families would peek at us, aunties would brush past us with their pineapple tarts, and everyone would be trading tips on the best bargains for Chinese New Year marketing," she says.
The family business is still there, but on surrounding streets such as Keong Saik or Ann Siang, the best gossip isn't about where to buy the best fish maw or whose husband was caught patronising a nearby brothel; rather, it is about which restaurateur has leased this or that shophouse for an obscene amount to open a designer burger joint or small-plates eatery starring yet another newly transplanted chef from Australia or the UK.
In the face of a fading older generation, the displacement of clan associations by rising rentals and modernisation, Ms Low and like-minded heritage enthusiasts have set out to reclaim the soul of Chinatown.
Their battle plan? To rejuvenate unused spaces, jazz up local heritage, and draw a younger, more diverse crowd into the area for more than just chocolate-flavoured craft beer.
Making heritage chic
The 28-year-old has already earned recognition for her efforts in combining heritage with youth culture. A permanent exhibition at the newly revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre documents her work as the co-founder of eatery and events space Lepark, and arts-curation agency Getai Group. Both outfits work with indie local artists and performers to produce events with an East-meets-West vibe.
"I was living in Shanghai for a while, and as much as some places are gentrified, they allow for some spontaneity or serendipity from heritage and community stakeholders," says Ms Low of her inspiration.
Lepark is a spunky alternative space that sits on the open-air roof-top carpark of People's Park Complex, and while it serves ubiquitous beers, it is also a self-styled creative hub which hosts everything from concerts and arts events to craft markets. Most of the events are curated by her agency Getai Group; its latest project, Getai Soul 2016, is a music festival more ambitious than her previous ones. Indie acts such as Charlie Lim and The Steve McQueens will headline the show, but so will traditional groups performing Nanyin music, Cantonese opera and Teochew puppetry.
"People see these genres as different ends of the spectrum, but we want to bring them together and spark curiosity," explains Ms Low. Some numbers will even feature a mashup of contemporary and traditional genres - no mean feat, considering the complexity of combining instruments, styles and beats.
Even the venue is unexpected - Pearl's Hill City Park, a green oasis hidden behind Pearl Bank Apartments.
"We are community driven, and we try to inject contemporary culture with heritage elements so young people will return to Chinatown, instead of just associating the place with older folk," she notes.
Getai Soul kicks off on Feb 20, the same day indie Chinese bookstore Grassroots Book Room launches its own Lunar New Year festival at its Bukit Pasoh location. Spring@Bukit Pasoh is a full day of performances, talks and workshops by neighbouring heritage associations.
Wong Han Juan, the programme co-ordinator at Grassroots who mooted the idea, says: "Chinatown can feel very commercial, and I think there's a void here we are trying to fill - by creating a Chinese New Year programme that is focused more on our own local art and culture."
Grassroots was founded by Cultural Medallionist and triple Singapore Literature Prize winner Yeng Pway Ngon 20 years ago. It was located in North Bridge Centre before it was bought over by ex-journalist and Young Artist Award winner Lim Jen Erh, and two partners.
The bookstore has a regular programme - and a quaint cafe - at its new venue. "Almost every weekend, we host talks, book launches or music sharing sessions," says Ms Wong. The key to staying relevant is drawing diverse crowds with different programmes; apart from storytelling for families, there are musical showcases by the likes of Malaysian singer Yudi Yap - known for crooning jazzy Nanyang oldies - and also the TO Ensemble, which plays Asian fusion music.
Ms Wong, who takes weekly calligraphy lessons at the Lee Clan's premises in Ann Siang Road, adds: "I wonder if I'm still in Chinatown or even Singapore - the place is full of pubs and expatriates having drinks. I feel like an alien. The Lee Clan is one of the few heritage organisations left in that street, and it makes me sad."
However, good intentions can get mired in bureaucracy. Although government bodies such as the National Heritage Board and Singapore Tourism Board have come into the picture with support and grants, it is a different story when other regulators are involved.
May Leong, 33, co-founder of non-profit arts group Hyphen, would know. Her current art exhibition PPC: A Public Living Room is housed at Lepark. It was supposed to occupy the floor below, but as she could not get the relevant permits, she had to scramble to move everything upstairs to Lepark's space.
She cites another example of red tape: "At our earlier art-jamming project Off the Rails at the Rail Corridor, the land there belongs to the Singapore Land Authority, so we had to deal with them. But up the hill, it was the HDB's. This segmentation of land makes it hard for people who are looking to innovate."
There is also the question of upsetting surrounding businesses. For instance, larger events may require road closures to amp up the atmosphere, which would hit F&B establishments.
Grassroots Book Room co-owner Lim Jen Erh says: "From the perspective of the restaurants, closing the road is not convenient for diners, who need to find parking. We still have to take care of our neighbours - it's part of the community spirit."
Still, some F&B operators are open to having road closures. Bill Ho, 39, chef owner of Eight Cafe & Bar on Bukit Pasoh, says: "If we want to do it, we should make it a big event so our street becomes a real dining and heritage destination."
Pang Hian Tee, 48, owner of Lolla's on Ann Siang Road, points out: "So far, the road closure here has largely attracted rowdy bar hoppers looking for cheap drinks, and they aren't our customers anyway. If the heritage programming is done right on our street, we can attract the right people - a more refined crowd."
A communal effort
The efforts of these new players has won support from the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), which has begun collaborating with them. Hyphen's Ms Leong, for one, has hosted SHS's roving photographic exhibition Picturing Chinatown, apart from other heritage-themed events such as a 1960s tea dance, and walking tours of buildings in the historic district. She is also the sole local representative at VoiceMap, an app which allows users to record and play audio walking tours. She has been nudging community experts who are working with Hyphen - like Johannes Widodo of NUS Architecture, and Victor Yue of SHS - to record VoiceMap tours of heritage neighbourhoods.
Mr Yue says: "I find these events very refreshing. Carmen Low's Getai Electronica was the first time I'd seen so many young people in one place in Chinatown! And at a most unknown and certainly un-utilised place."
He adds: "In the old days, the Chinese shop owners were the local community leaders and they worked closely with clan leaders and grassroots organisations; today, I believe the ecosystem is still here."
Mr Yue stresses that less-glamorous occupations are part of Chinatown's heritage too: "More festivities would mean opportunities for the smaller businesses in Chinatown, including the hawkers and wet-market proprietors. These changes will not be instant, but I believe we are moving in the right direction."
Step by step is how Carine Lim is taking it as far as her Teochew Opera troupe, Lao Sai Tao Yuan - possibly the oldest troupe around - is concerned. In the old days, the troupe performed frequently at Hong Lim Park, where it was based, but it has since turned nomadic. Performers now rehearse on an ad hoc basis at members' homes. As a business, it is difficult just breaking even, given that contracts doled out by temples are few and far between.
But the 40-year-old opera singer and daughter of the troupe's manager Khoh Ah Ba is determined to preserve the dying art. "I explained to my dad that we have to be more open and also perform outside of the temples. As time goes on, he has become more comfortable with the idea," says Ms Lim, who also owns indie multi-label boutique Panmar.
Her own journey towards Teochew opera was fairly dramatic. When she found out that she was adopted four years ago, she started a six-month search for her biological father, said to be a wayang musician.
Like the heroine in some Korean drama, Ms Lim - a Catholic - canvassed opera performances during religious festivities at Chinese temples in search of her roots. In the process, she found not only him, but also her singing voice.
Although she is fluent in Teochew, she found it tough mastering opera. She notes: "The gestures and movements are very important, and the script is in Chinese characters, so I have to transcribe the Teochew pronunciations; the language used in opera is poetic and different from spoken Teochew."
She adds: "This opera trade does not just belong to our troupe, it belongs to the whole of Singapore. It's our collective tradition and heritage; one day, it might become extinct, and I hope there are ways for people to remember it."
Given the combination of these activists' efforts and a growing interest in heritage, there is hope that while the face of Chinatown may change, the strong sense of identity it represents will always remain.
PPC: A Public Living Room ends on Saturday. Held on the sixth floor of People's Park Complex, it is on from 7pm until late.
Lao Sai Tao Yuan will perform at Chui Huay Lim Club, 190 Keng Lee Road, at noon and 7pm on Saturday.
Getai Soul is on from Feb 20 to 21 at Pearl's Hill City Park. Visit www.getaigroup.com for updates.
Spring@Bukit Pasoh is on Feb 20 at Bukit Pasoh Road. Visit www.grassrootsbookroom.com for updates