Presenting a multicultural S'pore to tourists over the years, from staged shows to real monuments

Veteran tour guide Jean Wang outside the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, one of the stops on the recreated East Coast tour. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

SINGAPORE - Visitors on tour packages to Singapore were often taken to the Instant Asia Cultural Show in the 1970s, which incorporated the dance and music of the largest racial groups here - the Chinese, Malays and Indians, and sometimes the Eurasians.

The show played into the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board's "Instant Asia" marketing slogan, which conveyed to potential visitors the possibility of experiencing Asia's various cultures in a single destination - Singapore.

In a book chapter published in 2018, tourism expert Joan Henderson said of the show: "Complex cultures appear to have been simplified and reduced to visually and aurally striking and uncontentious representations."

Ms Jean Wang, a veteran tour guide of more than four decades who recalls bringing tourists to these shows, said they were a "canned" attempt to introduce four cultures in 45 minutes. They nonetheless provided photo opportunities for visitors, she noted.

While she cannot recall when the shows fizzled out, the 68-year-old said that the essence of the show - Singapore's multiculturalism - is still something she tries to bring across to tourists today, albeit in a less staged way.

A visit to Telok Ayer Street, for instance, gives her the chance to show tourists several places of worship serving various religious and racial communities that have coexisted for decades - for example, the Chinese Thian Hock Keng Temple; the former Keng Teck Whay Building, a historic Hokkien-style monument; Al-Abrar Mosque; the former Nagore Dargah, a shrine built by Indian Muslims; and the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.

Ms Wang is one of four guides on a panel who will speak about how Singapore's tourism industry has evolved over time, as part of this year's Singapore HeritageFest, which spotlights the nation's tourism and cultural heritage.

She said that over the years, she has had to find ways to help visitors better understand Singapore, especially when put on the spot about the country's laws.

"Sometimes tour leaders want me to introduce Singapore as a 'fine city', which I don't like," said Ms Wang, referencing Singapore's fines for offences such as jaywalking and littering. "So I will find ways to explain the consequences of the offences."

For example, a question on why cigarette butts should not be disposed of in drains gives her an opportunity to speak about Singapore's limited water resources.

Ms Wang said that Singapore's animal-focused parks have always been popular among tourists, in spite of the presence of newer attractions over the years. Jurong Bird Park, for instance, was a draw when it opened and boasts of one of the world's tallest indoor man-made waterfalls, while the Night Safari continues to be a hit for its novel concept.

While the bird park is set to move to Mandai and the Night Safari continues to thrive, other older animal-focused attractions have since closed down.

Ms Wang said the now-defunct Tan Moh Hong Reptile Skin and Crocodile Farm in Upper Serangoon Road was a popular tourist spot on the itinerary of the so-called "East Coast tour" in the 1980s.

With a heavy emphasis on World War II, the tour catered to visitors from Australia and New Zealand, many of whom were keen to find out more about Singapore due to their relatives' involvement in the war.

"Even in the past, the East Coast tours featured a strange combination of temples in Serangoon Road, as well as Changi Village and the Changi Chapel and Museum," she said. "Besides the war history element, we thought the temples could offer participants something exotic."

As part of HeritageFest, Ms Wang - along with other guides from the Society of Tourist Guides (Singapore) - will be hosting a remake of the East Coast tour, which will begin in Farrer Park and end in Tanah Merah.

Participants will learn how Changi Village came about, from the British building up defences prior to the war, she said.

Details on the panel discussion, as well as the tour remakes that are on offer during the festival, are available here.

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