Yesterday we went to the old church together, “for old times’ sake”, just because it’ll be two weeks before the entire building gets torn down. We weren’t alone in this attachment to an otherwise soul-less concrete structure; around us were people taking photos of the stained glass, of rooms, of areas that held some sort of significance for them. Perhaps (and perhaps rightly so) a place of worship holds a deeper spiritual significance to people than an outright altar to consumerism like a shopping centre…although I would be very upset if they ever decide to tear Parkway down or to close Chatuchak. But I digress.
I had expected intellectually that saying goodbye to a building to which I went to weekly for the 1st 25 years of my life would be more significantly emotional but as I posed for pictures and tried to work myself into some sort of reminiscent state of mind, it felt at once forced and contrived. I could see my 4-year-old self singing in the kindergarten room with its white louvered folding doors and artwork, could see my primary-school aged friends in our basement hideout under the old stage, could see the teenaged me in various groups and meetings and weddings, but that failed to evoke any sense of nostalgia. Sure, I had some good memories about that place, but in Singapore, where our need for social upgrading and expansion is manifested to a large extent in our need to renovate and rebuild our buildings, I guess I have become numb to the almost-transient nature of the spaces we live, work and worship in, perhaps a cautionary reaction to the dangers of forming deep emotional ties to any particular physical structure, for fear that it too will be torn down in the name of development and upgrading. Down the years, I might find myself caught in a conversation that sought to validate a collective social memory– to recall where the library was, or where the toilet cubicle on the 3rd floor was– and I might even indulge the listener with a fond memory or two beginning with “Yes, I really loved XYZ place…” but really the present reaction to the demolition of this building is a distant, pragmatic one, one that is more concerned with the logistics of the move and the building; how long it will take, what it will involve.
Also, the building itself has gone through enough renovations over the years for me not to hold any real attachment to it. The old library and the basement hideout disappeared during one such extensive renovation years ago, as did the stage upon which I danced as a fairy during my kindergarten concert. The old playground with its creaky wooden bridge which we tirelessly reenacted The Three Billy Goats Gruff on week after week was replaced by a set of plastic blocks about 15 years back. The kindly lady who I went to for copious amounts of coffee and tea on Sunday mornings passed away some months ago. Bit by bit the building had already died for me, and what remains is just a shadow of what it had been, too new to mourn, still somewhat foreign and strange in comparison to what it had been in my childhood memories.
Maybe one’s thoughts about a particular building is really tied in closely with the fore-mentioned collective social memory. I keenly feel the loss of my school’s pre-war building, even before it is torn down in 2 years’ time, because of all the stories I’ve heard and read about the various rooms. I look at pictures of the old National Theatre and the Van Cleef Aquarium with a sense of loss even though I have no distinct memories of either place. I look with fondness at Katong Shopping Centre and various Katong landmarks largely from stories my parents tell me.
Strangely enough though, a residual effect of living in an urban landscape that is in a constant state of flux is the sense of pride one seems to have in remembering where a building was and what used to be on a certain plot of land. It’s a mark of authentic citizenship to a particular area if you can accurately recall where a certain shop was and what the area used to look like. Remember Jackies Bowl? Remember Seaview Hotel? Remember Rose Garden? Remember the old Siglap Market? Ah, you must have grown up in the East during the 1980s. One’s memories of places and buildings (or food stalls) past serve as a social marker in urban landscapes; it wouldn’t be the case if we lived amid 300- year- old stone castles and churches and old wooden barns that get abandoned, but never demolished and developed.
What social markers then, do people in rural areas use to validate their sense of place and belonging? Weather patterns perhaps? (e.g. Do you remember the drought of ’63?) or human relations? (e.g. Remember when old Mrs H from down the street ran away with the milkman?) Perhaps our urban landscape city lifestyles have all but reduced weather to an inconvenience rather than a force of nature from which our harvest and livestock are dependant on and have so alienated us from each other that buildings, rather than people or nature, become our social reference points in our memories. But then again, what we feel toward buildings is really a hybrid of the memories of human relationships forged within its walls and of good food eaten, along with particular memories of the architecture itself because of the impossibility of divorcing the meaning attributed to an object or building from the thing itself.