Yawning Bread. August 2007

Time travel via our roads




The bus pulled up at the stop. The woman who had flagged it down got on. I didn't think service no. 75 would go where I wanted to go, but on the off chance that it did, I asked the driver anyway. "Do you go to Cathay?"


"Cathay," I repeated.

"Where Cathay?"

"It's a cinema."

"What road?"

For a moment I was stumped. They had rerouted this and that around the place, I no longer knew the name of the short stretch of road in front of the new Cathay building.

"Bras Basah Road," was the closest I could think of.

"No," he said and drove off.

He was about 25 or 30, and from the few words he spoke, he could have been Malaysian. The way he pronounced his English words had a certain hardness that suggested a Chinese dialect background.

Indeed, our bus companies are finding it ever harder to recruit from among Singaporeans; increasingly, foreigners are hired.

The problem this presents is that no foreigner can ever have the same overall familiarity with the city's layout as people who have lived their lives here. Names of landmarks such as "Cathay", "Lido", "Padang" or "Golden Mile" mean nothing to them. They can be taught the precise details of the routes they drive, but even then, it would tend to be about formal road names, not the various colloquial names of points along the way. What more of places that are distant from the routes they've been assigned?

Yet, visitors (and the occasional local like me) depend on bus drivers as a primary contact to find out about how to get anywhere.

"Do you pass Copthorne Waterfront Hotel?" a tourist might ask.

"Cop what?" would be the most likely response.


"What road?" interjects the driver.

"Oh, erm....Havelock Road and Kim Seng Road."

"No, no. Don't go."

"Do you know what bus might go to Havelock Road?"

"Have what?"

* * * * *

The problem with landmarks is that they depend on the company one keeps. Malays might use various mosques as landmarks, for example. And it is possible that "Cathay" betrays my age.

Until its recent metamorphosis, Cathay building and the cinema it held had fallen into disrepair. Its glory days when it was the epicentre of entertainment, was already history by the time I was a teenager. While its afterglow survived longer and the cinema continued to attract patrons whenever a blockbuster film was running, by the mid 1990s and the proliferation of cineplexes all over Singapore, fewer and fewer people went there, blockbuster or not.

It is possible that a whole new generation has grown up with no inkling what or where "Cathay" is. If that's the case, then the bus driver I encountered might have been Singaporean after all, not a foreigner.

Sure enough, another young man underlined the point a week later. He was coming out of Dhoby Ghaut metro station as I was going in.

"Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where is Cathay?"

His accent and that construction, "... where is Cathay?" (rather than the correct "... where Cathay is?") told me he was a true blue Singaporean. At 19 or 20, he had grown up with no idea of what my generation would consider a landmark.

I felt like a beached whale.

* * * * *

How many of my Singaporean readers, I wonder, know where "jub lug lao" (literally, "sixteen storeys") is?

If I am not mistaken, it refers to the cluster of apartment blocks atop a hill at Commonwealth Drive. They were the first blocks of public housing to be built (in the 1960s) to the then-impressive height of 16 floors. Standing on high ground only made them more notable. A generation soon gave them the simple monicker of "jub lub lao".

Technology and the pressure of landspace very quickly made the label obsolete. Before long, 16-storey blocks were commonplace all over Singapore and even taller ones were built. Today you hardly ever hear that term anymore. It stands as a discrete marker not only of place, but also of time, such that coming across it today invariably evokes the colour, smells and background noise of a different age.

* * * * *

Sometimes ages collide with unhappy results.

Just yesterday, I was in a taxi, taking my father and his maid to the nursing home to visit my mother. From my father's home, we'd have to take the Pan-Island Expressway ("PIE"), a route I was not familiar with.

I called the nursing home for directions and they said to take Exit 34 of the expressway. I told the driver that.

"Which way on the PIE?" he asked.

"Go towards Jurong West," my father and I replied. And so we did.

Exit 31 of the Pan-Island Expressway

Some minutes later, I noticed him slipping into the turning lane as we approached Exit 31.

"No, don't turn off here," I said. "Go to Exit 34." Perhaps he had misheard earlier.

"Three-four?" he asked to confirm.

"Yes, three-four," I replied.

"Jurong East or Jurong West?" he asked.

"It's in Jurong West. This is only Jurong East. Don't turn off yet."

Then as we approached Exit 32, he slipped into the turning lane again.

"No, don't turn," I said once more.

"You said Jurong West," he replied, voice rising somewhat. "This is Jurong West."

"I said Exit 34."

"Don't have 34," he said with great certainty.

For a moment, I doubted myself. Did the nursing home give us wrong directions? Were we now on the PIE going further and further from our destination? But I knew where the nursing home was. Even though I had never approached it from the PIE, it certainly wasn't near this part of Jurong West. So I stuck to my guns.

"Just drive straight on and look for Exit 34." 

"Jurong West don't have three-four," he repeated.

The maid was getting a little anxious over the rising tone of voice. She held her bag closer to herself for protection.

Then, like sunshine peeping through the clouds, the sign appeared: "Exit 34".

"Turn left here," I commanded. Two traffic lights later, we reached the nursing home. 

It was only a while later, when I replayed the scene in my head, that I realised what the problem was.

The taxi-driver didn't understand the word "Exit" that I used. Almost surely, he couldn't read the signs along the expressway either, navigating by landmarks and memory. My instruction to use "Exit 34" of the PIE meant nothing to him. Instead, he must have assumed that I was referring to Street 34 of Jurong West, which does not exist. The nearest would be Street 32 of Jurong East, which was why he tried to turn off at Exit 31 -- this leading to Jurong East.

I'm sure you're as flabbergasted as I am that we have a taxi-driver who apparently cannot read English when all our road signs are in this language. And who seems never to have heard of "Exit" even when driving along an expressway must be something he does a few times a day.

Being about 60 and an independent operator, driving a yellow-and-black cab, he clearly comes from a different time and understands the city in a way we do not. As much we travel physically through space, sometimes we also travel through time.

Yawning Bread