Between 581.5 km² and 723.2 km²
Let’s take time for a walk.
Time, we can self-select our markers. Do i remember an end or a beginning? Is the inception more important than the formality? Which anniversaries of the self should i collect; where do i lay my milestones? Place, on the other hand, is absolute. There’s no escaping masses of physicality, around which we must orientate our entire selves. Or play Sisyphus confronting it. Plus, you don’t pick your place, the place re-members you. Enter again a place; all of the before floods the self. When the mortar is moved, so are your markers. This is why nations spend time building place.
Time brings change to place. After all, permanence is only in our minds. But this conduit of change is natural only when the relationship remains exclusive between a space and its inhabitants, when we can recognize our face in the mirror of our surroundings. A stubborn seed knows this, germinating only with time in response to a suitable environment. The language of the urban is a persuasive one, and constantly shapes personal and social imagination. Uniquely, ours is a shapeshifting island on speed, and ‘tiny’, ‘ambitious’, and ‘successful’ creates a combination headlines love to laud. One respects the morphing skyline and repavements underfoot as a proud measure of our having become, and still becoming—but there one hangs, becoming what.
The Singaporean thus holds a special susceptibility to anything concrete. Some call it materialism, but i believe this is an effect of negotiating a de- and re- sensitization to the continual destabilising of place and transforming of space—a 24/7 job bearing the weight from generations before and gathering pace and urgency. Ours is
a space given up to another. And again.
A park bench gone may invite a sorry expiry of a romantic memory, but dig up buildings and reroute roads and you toy dangerously with psyche. The urban becomes an insidious whisper. Place becomes doubly precious, and a pawn that we fumble with.
Bukit Brown Cemetery is especially potent. Embracing more than 100,000 markers of the names which represent the vicissitudes of a neophyte nation, Bukit Brown is literally the roots of our nation, and it lies in the shadow of plans for an eight-lane highway. It spans a length of time we have come to believe does not exist in our land. Tombs date back to the Qing dynasty; their calendars revealing alternative worlds that could exist in historical narratives, and contemporaneous realities. The largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, its expanse, nearly matching the size of MacRitchie reservoir, reserves a green belly. Green. A colour that both symbolized our hopeful remaking of a green city, and now ironically its slow ebb. It represents a growth of time into the central catchment that remains a necessary symbiosis feeding our island. Bukit Brown holds a respite for both the dead and for the living stepping off the grid of commerce. It also sits awkwardly in the urbanity. Its quiet and anonymous past does not fit with the singular marketplace of the future. It raises questions; its multiplicity dis-
tracts from the single god we know.
A walk offers more history and heroics that, once re-exposed, would shatter the most stunted Singaporean inferiority often leeched as motivation for the forward drive. The only aspiration hung over us there are giant ferns. And speaking of exposed, graves are still being uncovered every other week, the unknown named, returning another piece to the Singapore story—the organic version. Over the past, individuals have been rediscovered, and reunited with families past and present—terms so fragile in our 1.2 nation.
Far from reflecting obsolescence, Bukit Brown is a living representation of culture, history, and the passions of a civilisation. Several civilisations. For precisely these reasons, Bukit Brown is our last bastion of soul. Our last Eden. If what it ‘offers’ is unquantifiably valuable, consider what could be relinquished forever. We who do not yet know what we could lose, would discover it to be unimaginably devastating.
When the city is imaged by capital solely as spectacle, it can only be consumed passively, rather than actively created by the populace through participation. So as we walk, let’s take eyes off the urban horizon. On this 200ha of the past holds our last claim for the future, and along with it, a reclaim of our selves. To revive our reality of the outside as a legitimate dimension of our existence, i need the help of fellow city-dwellers, to return to our ‘right to the city’, only because we must live it.
“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not
know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies
in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
urban body runs 2 august – 2 september 2012 at the Orange Thimble, in Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s first housing estate. For details and updates, check out the event page on facebook.
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