Soulless Singapore? It’s a matter of seeing things from a different point of view

Since 2012, The Straits Times has published a weekly feature in print called Street View, which looks into what is happening in different neighbourhoods in Singapore. We have compiled 12 of these stories here, and reporter Melody Zaccheus describes how her explorations of some of these areas have opened an unexpected window into Singapore’s past and present.

As a teenager, I walked by Toa Payoh’s towering “god tree” almost every week - oblivious to its significance and the mystical value devotees and fellow residents had bestowed upon it.

Despite having lived and gone to school in the estate for more than a decade, it was only at the age of 25 - and after a storm had caused the six-storey landmark to topple to the ground last September - that I learned about its existence.

I was sent to the site at Toa Payoh Central to do a story on the shen shu as part of The Straits Times’ weekly series Street View, which focuses on goings-on in neighbourhoods. There, I learned that the century-old ficus tree was home to a Buddhist shrine at its foot and for decades, had bore witness to the prayers and dreams of devotees.

I was intrigued that the unassuming-looking tree had served as a gathering point for my neighbours, favourite hawkers and shopkeepers for decades. It was there that many of them would mumble a few prayers before starting the day at the bustling town centre. It was a slice of life I had never been a part of but was glad I had a chance to glimpse.

Likewise, for the 20 Street View pieces I wrote over the course of a year, I found myself connecting with fellow Singaporeans, learning about the things they hold dear while discovering hidden gems across various estates.

Take for instance the Keramat Bukit Kasita at Bukit Purmei. The compound houses a 19th century Muslim graveyard with 200 or so tombs that have possible links to the descendants of early Singapore’s legendary founder, Sang Nila Utama.

Despite having a graveyard in their backyard, most Bukit Purmei Ville residents I spoke to hardly batted an eyelid. In fact, they waxed lyrical about how it was an unspoiled patch of nature in a modern housing estate. Many allow their young children to wander about the site’s fringe, picking up loose flowers and fallen fruits like hibiscus and mangoes, and taking the opportunity to share with them how kampung life used to be.

I, too, took a moment to take in my surroundings. Tall trees which encircled the compound were like hunching guards - huddling to protect the graves from the jarring sounds and fumes of traffic from nearby roads.

Time came to a standstill as squirrels scampered about trees, lightly brushing past their branches. The heady mixture of damp grass and the comforting scent of old trees, certainly beat plunging my nose into a $30 Yankee Candle manufactured to mimic the scent of the forest.

Then there was St John’s Island. I headed to the southern isle earlier this year with a colleague. We were both fascinated to hear the stories of its caretaker 67-year-old Mohamed Sulih, who was born and bred on the island, and got married there too. On weekends, anglers and fishing enthusiasts from the mainland take a boat in. Spending time away from fellow city-slickers, they catch sotong and the like, with only the soft sounds of waves for company.

This gave me a window into a side of Singapore I had never known. Beyond picturesque respites, I also explored the busier streets of Singapore such as the gentrified Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru and Bukit Pasoh in Chinatown.

In Tiong Bahru, I chanced upon retired hairstylist Annie Cho, 65, who had lived and worked there all her life. Sporting a short red perm, she took me beyond the helvetica fonts and raw industrial finishes of the hipster cafes and shops lining Yong Siak Street. She told me about the street’s grittier past when few Singaporeans wanted to live there. Many of its apartments were home to bar girls and prostitutes in the 1950s.

Books Actually store along Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Sleepy neighbourhoods also threw up interesting surprises. In Seletar, which served as a British Royal Air Force base for about four decades, I was fascinated to chance upon Baker Street - named after a street in the City of Westminister in London, and also the residence of my favourite fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

I learned from members of Seletar Hills Estate Residents’ Association, who had written a book about their neighbourhood, that the colonial government had named roads and roundabouts after places in London to ease servicemen’s homesickness.

Singapore is not the grey and soulless concrete jungle that we sometimes make it out to be. It is rich in culture and heritage that is constantly being shaped by people of the present; we just need a moment or two to take it all in.