Yawning Bread. September 2007

Rock, jazz and songbirds silenced




John Malathronas' new book Singapore Swing has a rather disconcerting tale about the loss of the bird-singing corner of Tiong Bahru. He had found the place on his first visit and thought it very charming. Page 97:

I knew that bird singing contests were common in South East Asia, but nothing had prepared me for the scale of the spectacle in the Bird Arena Café: a roof of railings with hooks on which dozens of identical 20-inch round bamboo cages were hanging, one bird per cage; competitors, almost exclusively male, sitting in a row of chairs parallel to the line of cages above, sipping a mug of coffee; waiters bringing drinks, collecting dishes and taking orders; judges walking around making notes; and spectators sitting at tables...


But my overwhelming memory is of the aural tapestry by the birds themselves -- seemingly shamas on my Sunday -- caressing my eardrums and imprinting their love songs into my unconscious. 

On his second visit slightly over a year later, page 159:

Yes, one of the first things I did is return to the Bird Arena early on my first Sunday morning, before the nightlife devoured me, as is its wont. This time, I knew something about the suburb itself: it was the first public housing project in Singapore, the brainchild of the Singapore Improvement Trust which operated until 1960 when the Housing and Development Board, the HDB, took over. Despite the lack of maintenance, there is something earthy and liveable in those three- and four-storey houses that still stand -- most noticeably in Seng Poh Road and Eng Hoon Street -- compared with the later Gotham City tower blocks of the HDB. The pavements may be cracking and the smell of mold spores might permeate the air, but the curves, the lines and the dimensions are more agreeable and convivial.


I stop and look at my map. Was it here? Yes, it was, but --

The old cafe is no more. A high fence informs us of 'Danger/Keep out/Bahaya Jangan dekat' and in a few more alphabets I can't interpret. The block of flats next to it has been covered with green netting as if ready-wrapped for a take-away. I know where to look: up, where a wiry old signboard is only just discernible: 'Tiong Bahru Bird Arena - Mata Puteh'. I shake my head. It cant' be! Tourist leaflets are still advertising the song contests! They just can't demolish it!

They most certainly did. And so another bit of Singapore is thrown away. The blocks nearby have been converted to a new hotel.


It's possible that the bird corner has merely been relocated -- perhaps some readers might know the answer? -- but it's doubtful if one can recover the ambiance of old in a brand new location.

Living in a city that is always on the go has its price. Everything competes for space; sentiment has to fight relentlessly with utility. 

We are doing a reasonable job of marking out and preserving some old buildings, but our choices tend to be influenced by our politics. We choose to preserve our grand buildings, especially those of governmental significance; governments generally have a high opinion of themselves. Particularly in Singapore's case, with our foundational narrative lauding the British colonisers, grand colonial buildings get first-class treatment. The other politically-influenced aspect comes from our tendency to see race and religion as building blocks of society. Thus temples and buildings of communal significance are also valued. It's funny how some of these are quite obscure, yet are elevated into national monuments.

We seem not to be able to grasp the significance of places that are of popular significance: places that ordinary people have grown accustomed to having around, and which connect them to a sense of home.

The old National Library was torn down to make way for a pointless little road tunnel. The National Stadium was recently terminated with extreme prejudice. Years earlier, the National Theatre was also razed -- in its place today stands an empty field. You'd notice they were all called "National" this and that. Didn't save them at all. What chance did the un-national Bird Arena have?

* * * * *

I had the same Huh? moment (actually, it was more like What the fuck?) as Malathronas did when I was at the Esplanade theatres some weeks ago. The outdoor ampitheatre was gone! Smashed, drilled apart, carted away. The spot returfed into a boring field.

Ngak and Eric -- that night, Eric was replaced by Clement -- doing a gig at the outdoor theatre

Do you remember it? The one by the bayside with a retractable canvas roof? For years, it hosted free concerts every Friday and Saturday night -- rock, jazz, world music and such. I walked by many times and always it was full. People loved the spontaneity of the place, not to mention its glorious location with the skyline across the bay.

What stupid reason did they have to demolish it? I want to know. There is a signboard at the spot saying something about building a new one starting late 2007. But it doesn't say what was wrong with the old one -- it was barely 5 years old! -- that it had to be demolished. What a waste.


Another fixture in our city that's now gone is the Scotts building which used to house Picnic, the first airconditioned food court in Singapore. The site is being redeveloped into a new apartment building, bigger, taller, in other words, more revenue potential. 

On the right is a picture I took a few years ago while walking towards it from Marriot Hotel. It had a prominent advertising billboard on its side facing the pedestrians -- that junction is always very busy -- and the L'Oreal ad that evening was particularly eye-catching. I think that ad was there for quite a while and I'm sure seeing it again will bring flashbacks to many readers.

I am not suggesting that the Scotts building deserved any preservation order; we can't afford to keep everything. But we've all walked past it so many times over the last 30 years or so, it's still a pity that it's now gone.

© Yawning Bread 


Singapore swing, by John Malathronas, is one of the most readable travelogues you'll find about Singapore.

He spent some weeks here entirely on his own (read: not sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board, not carted around by any official handlers to the usual tourist spots, no interviews with government officials arranged) finding his own interesting corners of Singapore and making friends (and lovers) of his choice.

He has a sharp eye for detail and an engaging way with his self-deprecating wit.

I was particularly impressed at the research he did into Singapore's history. He knows more about Stamford Raffles, the Johore-Riau sultans and the 1964 riots than 99.9% of Singaporeans.

There's an interesting bit about Raffles and slavery which I will bring up in another essay.

Yes, I got a mention in his book -- actually a whole chapter -- but I assure you, he has some other characters in there far more interesting than me.