Cities are born, many grow and flourish, some endure in one form or another, others decline, some die. Once material prosperity and wealth creation is in place, what are the intangibles that bind people together in today’s world of shifting populations ?
Why do some cities, like London and Paris whose histories span centuries, continue to remain attractive, viable and current, while others like Venice and Genoa become fading memories of past glories, or even worse, mere tourist attractions ? According to the President & CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, Dr. Carl Schramm, who on a recent visit spoke about Global Cities, Singapore is a ‘practical laboratory’ for the world, one that may provide many of the answers.
He may well be right. The experiment is ongoing – and we are living the experiment – but the jury is out, and without doubt time will show that the deliberations must include considerations that rise above mere economics.
But first, the definition, the concept of a city : what is it ?
In a nutshell, it is the best place to be, geographically, socially and economically.
Dr. Schramm outlined the basic process : when like-minded people happen to come together at a particular point in time, there occurs the coincidence of ‘brains colliding, colluding and conspiring’, the result of which is a melding of aspirations, energies, ideas and thoughts. Ergo, enterprise, the whole creation-development-growth cycle that attracts more people, and still more people to a particular location. And ergo again, you have a city. Evidently, its continued survival depends on economic paradigms like entrepreneurship, immigration, innovation and intellectual capital.
However, there has to be more than production, distribution and consumption. We are here either by destiny or choice. A significant part of the population comprises immigrants and professional mercenaries, the terms interchangeable depending on whether the motive is to ‘make money’ or to ‘make memories’. Inevitably, both are necessary, pocket and heart, so a city that also feeds the soul will undoubtedly grow its pockets as well.
It has four national languages and streets names that reflect a diverse ethnic heritage. It has the glitz and oomph of glass and steel, bumboats and shophouses that echo bygone times, egrets among the traffic and parrots in the skies, Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street alongside Formula One and a smorgasbord of world cuisines.
So, will Singapore become a London or Paris of the East ?
Many ‘softer’ intangibles make a city and here are three that transcend time and geography.
Memories, and continuity in change
A city has to reside in memory; it has to speak to the heart of particular places and times. Memory needs continuity, and this depends on how well a city can be both fixed and fluid. This might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is about the ability to yield to the present without losing touch with the past.
The most obvious measure of continuity is a city’s physical construct, its architecture and spaces and how these have been treasured, restored, manipulated. Modern cities all over the world have found new ways of keeping old spaces. A 12th century palace and fortress is today one of the world’s most famous museums, the Louvre in Paris; a disused London power station is the hugely popular Tate Modern.
With ingenuity and focus, any building – church, shop, hotel, prison, airport, police or railway station – can meet a host of 21st century needs and in the process, forge collective memory; the place or the space anchoring personal recollections of a particular times in our lives and hearts.
Singapore has its own gems : Chijmes, (the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus) is now a deluxe F&B destination; the former Bukit Timah Fire Station an arts and lifestyle hub and the erstwhile SAF Central Manpower Base in Dempsey is a glittering array of bars, spas, restaurants, art galleries and antique shops. The newest jewel in the crown is the Art Deco Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, circa 1932, with its marble sculptures and vaulted ceilings. How will it be remembered ?
In a sentient city, theatre, music, dance, drama – these expressions of the self – will be recognized as much as experiences of glittering theatres and visiting superstars as familiar, regular occurrences everywhere – on the streets, by rivers, in atria or MRT stations. A recent article by Singaporean poet and playwright Ng Yi-Sheng suggests bringing people together as ‘… members of a small community, a village rather than a city, defined not by its concrete slabs but by the human contact within it’ through theatre, specifically, outdoor theatre festivals (The Straits Times, 16th September).
A city pulses to the heartbeats of communities within the community – the groups of people who bond over a passion, an interest, talents, a belief.
… and argot
And what of accent and the vernacular ? How can a city not embrace this single most delectable idiom that defines it and its people ? Singapore has Singlish, that quirky, concise, chopped-up-mixed-up language, spare and sardonic in its brevity, simple to the extreme, powerful in meaning. A cheerful ex-marine engineer turned taxi driver explained why he loved his city, very preserved, so nature, so wonderful what ?
Indeed. Precisely so. No elaboration required, and beautifully put.
Nothing stops in Singapore, the skylines that framed the first and third Formula 1 Races are markedly different, the city is awash in clubs, restaurants and hotels, Hollywood is here (Universal Studios); the two integrated resorts and casinos have transformed the visitor … yet the hawker stalls and wet markets continue their history and tradition amongst the contrasts : old and new, hard spaces and green spaces, heritage and transformation.
Perhaps its essence, its soul, can be discovered in Mr. Taxi Driver’s free flow, cannot own the whole world what or ask for the moon, must be content. Western is already saturated town. Must learn other culture to survive. Learn to twist and turn your tongue. Singapore very good, if you willing to work there is job, very good country to stay. Safe 24 hours, very hygiene, systematic, no cock up anywhere, no conflict on nation or religion, one big family, all necessary for good living whether rich or poor.
Photographs by Anita Thomas