COVID-19 SPECIAL: Commentary

S'pore's phase 2 reopening: Homecoming of sorts as a city reunites with its residents

A smell here, a sound there - it's the strangest thing to be reintroduced to your city

The ordinary now feels exceptional. To just sit in PS. Cafe in Paragon yesterday, interact with a smiling waiter, consider a hard-copy menu and be delivered food that isn't in a cardboard box is victory. At the next table, a baby wails and it's how I feel. Alive.

Friday is reunion day, a city and its residents reunited. For me, going back to Orchard Road is akin to a sailor returning to a favourite bar. It's not quite the same as Homer's hero, Odysseus, returning to Ithaca after 20 years, but after 73 days since I was last here, it feels like a long voyage.

It's the strangest thing being reintroduced to your city after a while because you forget the little things. A smell here, a sound there. In Wisma Atria, a seductive old scent hits the nostrils. Fresh doughnuts. Outside Ngee Ann City, two girls giggle in the sunlight: "What's wrong with you, dude?" No, they are not talking to me.

The first thing I notice as I get on the train at Yio Chu Kang at just past 10am is the people. Small girl in Thailand T-shirt. Tall man in yellow socks and slippers. Old man yelling on the phone. When a city opens, it reveals again its characters.

Normality is what we all seek, or at least a version of it. We might be going to buy things, but we're also there to be reassured by the sight of one another. An automated voice in the station says we shouldn't talk to each other, but that's fine. Presence is adequate comfort.

I walk up and down Orchard Road and in and out of shops for over three hours and the pleasure found in this simple meandering would have pleased an ancient Roman. "What then is freedom?" asked Cicero the statesman. "The power to live as one wishes."

Last time I came here the circuit breaker had begun and silence wrapped the stone but this is markedly different. Bustling humans fill the emptiness with sound and bring colour to the granite. The only unhappy customers are the pigeons and they preen and pout like sulky landlords.

Windows are being polished and neon shop signs beckon. A city is like a show and now the lights have come on again. Metro is an oasis of order and at Robinsons an old lady helps me look for a frying pan. The width of her smile can't be obscured by a mere mask.

The frying pan is a symbol of the simple things we haven't been able to always do: to go, look, touch, choose. It's human to take these things for granted and yet now I remember to enjoy them because it's a little freedom which can be lost again if we're not careful.

It's the first day but the mood in the shops is one of gratefulness and eagerness. To work is to earn and survive and live the dignified life and nothing is as profound. In Kinokuniya, a salesperson says, "thank you for supporting us", and it is, to be honest, quite moving.

It is a morning of queues and QR codes and, as the day lengthens, so do the lines. Freedom is contagious. Outside Kinokuniya, 40 to 50 people mill around waiting for it to open, all of them fellow inhalers of ink. Touching a new book has a thrill that defies translation.

The city came alive again yesterday, the first day of phase two of Singapore's reopening. (From top) People thronging the streets of Orchard Road, albeit wearing face masks; shoppers leaving Tangs department store with their purchases; and customers
The city came alive again yesterday, the first day of phase two of Singapore's reopening. People thronging the streets of Orchard Road, albeit wearing face masks (above); shoppers leaving Tangs department store with their purchases; and customers waiting in line to dine at Genki Sushi restaurant at Ngee Ann City. ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI, GAVIN FOO

Early in the day a woman on the bus, an over-eager bus-pass tapper, brushes against me and I flinch. We're a species oversensitive to touch now. On the escalators, I meet one or two excitable overtakers, but everyone else is quite orderly. Patience is our armour and civility our weapon as we negotiate this new world.

The city came alive again yesterday, the first day of phase two of Singapore's reopening. (From top) People thronging the streets of Orchard Road, albeit wearing face masks; shoppers leaving Tangs department store with their purchases; and customers
The city came alive again yesterday, the first day of phase two of Singapore's reopening. People thronging the streets of Orchard Road, albeit wearing face masks; shoppers leaving Tangs department store with their purchases (above); and customers waiting in line to dine at Genki Sushi restaurant at Ngee Ann City. ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI, GAVIN FOO

As crowds thicken, distance will become a dilemma because we're not walking around with personal tape measures. Today will bring a more choking crowd and we're going to have to learn about respecting space. Still, when two women meet at lunch and fall into a hug, it's quite beautiful. Love always breaks rules.

The city came alive again yesterday, the first day of phase two of Singapore's reopening. (From top) People thronging the streets of Orchard Road, albeit wearing face masks; shoppers leaving Tangs department store with their purchases; and customers
The city came alive again yesterday, the first day of phase two of Singapore's reopening. People thronging the streets of Orchard Road, albeit wearing face masks; shoppers leaving Tangs department store with their purchases; and customers waiting in line to dine at Genki Sushi restaurant at Ngee Ann City (above). ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI, GAVIN FOO

 
 
 

At the corner of Orchard Road, outside Takashimaya, under a familiar red umbrella marked Uncle Chieng, an old gentleman sells ice cream. It's reassuring to see him and yet when I look later he's gone. Nothing is permanent any more, nothing fully normal.

It's been a sweet day, sweeping away the dust of isolation, and yet all joy must be tempered. On April 7, in front of Ngee Ann City, I met Ms Helen Foo, 70, at the 7-Eleven but yesterday the shop was closed and quiet, and I wonder how she is. Across the road, in another mall, the closed shutters of a few shops tell a distressing tale. Even as we find our city again, some things might forever be lost.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2020, with the headline 'Homecoming of sorts as a city reunites with its residents'. Subscribe