Culture Vulture

The dragon playground of my childhood has become a museum piece

Museums may try to replicate memories but the memories will not have the same significance for the young

Remember the dragon playground, that orange mosaic-tiled symbol of a time when Gen-X children sank their feet into sand as they swooshed down cement slides and hopped off wood-planked see-saws?

Despite being firmly of the era of rubber-floored, plastic playgrounds, my four-year-old daughter now also has fond memories of that iconic dragon slide, at least three of which survive in HDB playgrounds across the island.

The trouble is that her dragon is an inflatable replica - akin to that of a bouncy castle - set up during the June holidays on the lawn of the National Museum of Singapore.

From time to time, she swipes restlessly through the images on my smartphone to produce the shot of her queuing to scale this bouncy creature.

In the same breath, she will also recall eating a $4 watermelon and kiwi popsicle, sold from a pop-up stall on the museum's lawn. I remember licking the salty-sweet crumbs of Kaka off my fingers, trying to stretch my 20 cents for a packet of the MSG-laden snack.

In other words, her dragon is not the same as my dragon, and this fact muddies whatever pleasure I may have about my daughter experiencing a little piece of my bygone childhood.

To give some background on recent developments at the country's main history museum, the institution has become very child-friendly with a dedicated space on its third floor for young 'uns. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking you have wandered into a play gym, with shrieking children swarming all over the cloth puppets, kitchen sets and magnetic board of local food products.

Thanks to this set-up, called Play@NMS and open daily with free admission, my daughter Erica thinks that all museums and galleries ought to have play areas and clamours for one whenever we go to an exhibition, which is quite often for the child of an arts editor (myself) and a sometime art collector (my husband).

Of course, it is to be celebrated that museums are no longer the fusty, intimidating institutions of yore.

Purpose-built holding areas such as Play@NMS keep the little ones creatively occupied, giving at least one parent an hour's reprieve to nip over to other parts of the museum and contemplate more serious displays of art and history.

In the process, however, I realise the museum has acquired another role of which I have mixed feelings: that of custodian of my vanished childhood.

Certain elements of its children's programme, ostensibly about packaging history in a fun and immersive way for kids, are really a nod to the adults, giving baby boomers and Gen-Xers nostalgic flashbacks of a past that is already dead and can no longer be recaptured.

I am a big believer in the need to conserve our built heritage.

Over the years, as a journalist, I have written various pieces on the subject, including one on Singapore's spotty conservation record for an upcoming book published by Straits Times Press, 50 Things To Love About Singapore.

Simply put, one reason I write is I do not want my children - Erica and her two-year-old brother - to grow up in a country which has erased all traces of my childhood and youth.

But the gap between Erica's and my experience of the "dragon playground" has given me pause - we drove past one of the surviving "dragons" in Toa Payoh once and I excitedly pointed it out to her, but it did not make an impression.

Yes, I still feel incredulous that the National Theatre and the old National Library - both seminal cultural buildings with a ton of memories for many Singaporeans - were bulldozed in their time.

I would be aghast if one day, all the dragon slides were to disappear off the map, taking with them the simple optimism of an era when HDB designers imagined geometric playground structures as animals and fruits.

I vaguely recall climbing into the curved beak of a pelican - an inverted semi-circle - as a little kid growing up in Marine Parade. I thought I might have dreamt it, until I found on a local heritage blog an actual black-and-white photograph of this Marine Parade pelican playground in the 1980s.

But I am realising that even if such memories are preserved in aspic for the young, they will not have the same significance for them, and it is futile to insist otherwise.

Perhaps decades later, when physical playgrounds have completely given way to virtual play environments and ice cream becomes a freeze-dried entity that keeps better, my daughter and her friends will memorialise the inflatable dragon slide on the museum lawn, as well as the side dish of a fruity ice lolly.

Who knows, but the best we can do is to relay our stories and let them take ownership of the experience.

Over the weekend, my husband and I took our kids to the National Museum for the Little Lit component of the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival. We sat on beanbags on the floor as former Rediffusion broadcasters and a children's performing group vividly recited dialect nursery rhymes - in Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Hainan and Foochow.

My husband knew the Cantonese rhymes, having grown up with the dialect. I had no memory of the Hokkien rhymes but listening to them reminded me of the chatter of my mum and aunts, a background music to my childhood of which I only gleaned fragments.

As for Erica, she was thumbing through an English-language picture book throughout the whole segment. Much later, she told me she liked the "singing" of the child performers. She had no idea what languages the rhymes were in, much less understood them.

She had a grand time at the museum though and when I dragged her away at 5pm, she screamed for the dragon slide.

I explained to her gently that it had been taken down. "Maybe it will be up again next year and we'll come back then," I said, by way of consolation.

"Okay." She brightened up.

clare@sph.com.sg