Making a Home, Who Belongs Here? 成家，属于谁的家？
Generation gap Chinatown—Are the young alienated from the old?
Being part of the humanity near Chinatown Station Exit D’s Chongqing eatery
Old and New immigrants huddled in the buildings of Chinatown–are they all that different?
Visiting Chinatown, a foreign friend observed that Singapore had the widest generation gap among all the countries and cities she had been to. After some reflection, I thought she hit the nail on the head.
Having spent my childhood outside Singapore, there was little in the way of Chinatown’s physicality and architecture that aroused my curiosity. Chinatown was only a place I visited when I wanted to bring foreign friends to a free outdoor tourist attraction. It was only through the social memories, and the meanings Chinatown carries for immigrants that I found resonance with this place – both as a second-generation immigrant and as a young person who sees the nation’s forefathers exhibiting a sense of courage and risk-taking that we have lost. Perhaps this loss is the curse of our nation’s success.
I will often conflate my immigrant status with that of a local, because modern Singapore, after all, is a very recent construct. It is a country that should not exist, according to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew in a 2007 New York Times interview. Before modern Singapore there were Malay dynasties, then waves of immigrants over the centuries, from India, China, Southeast Asia and the British Empire. Many of these immigrants grew to become our current heartlanders. If we stretch our historical imagination far back enough, who can really lay claim to this place, to say who is a true Singaporean?
The more that I learn about Singapore’s past and how our major Chinese, Malay, Indian and other categories came to settle here, the more these lead me to question: who ultimately owns this territory, or nation – especially when ideas about nationalism are a recent Western “export” and that national boundaries constantly evolve? These artificial barriers seem to amount to nothing but social constructs we have created to demarcate that this is mine and that is yours.
Picture (1): Generation gap Chinatown—Are the young alienated from the old?
In the background, you see a scene typical of Chinatown: old men playing chess and in the foreground, a young woman is engaged in a modern form of leisure, fiddling with her mobile phone. What better visual evidence of the local intergenerational gap than this? With every overseas trip, every visiting foreign friend, my previously unquestioning eye has started to notice how the elderly collecting dishes for a living, at hawker centres is Uniquely Singapore. I also started to notice how lonesome it must be, for them, not to know English in a place like this. And it seems like our pioneers that we are so eager to worship in national discourses are both mythologized and victimised at the same time.
As we worship their contributions to the building of this nation, we talk about exporting elderly people to Johor Bahru, because it is too expensive to house them in local nursing homes. We create conditions in which these nation-builders are strangers in their own homes. Hollywood and neoliberal voices have drowned out our dialect tongues.
From an early age, I was educated in China the traditional way, where the idea of learnedness was reciting the Classics. Then I was schooled in Singapore from age 9 till my recent graduation from Nanyang Technological University. Because of this, I can feel the practical ramifications of Singapore’s past choices on my own life. It was through my conversations with Gray (said foreign visitor) that it dawned on me that the ability to cook authentic Hainanese cuisine, to grow my own pandan leaves to flavour Hainanese Chicken Rice, to pack dumplings would be lost on me. In my parents’ rush for me to receive an education and in the collective social acceptance of economic growth as the primary goal, we, the younger generation, have lost sight of culture and traditions – the things that root us in an age of rapid mobilities.
I see a sense of alienation in the photo. A lone, young figure set against a backdrop of numerous, older people.
Picture (2): Being part of the humanity near Chinatown Station Exit D’s Chongqing eatery.
Walking around Chinatown with Gray, we claimed this little Chongqing eatery, in People’s Park Complex, as our favourite hangout. I took this photo because I chose the spicier option, while Gray as the Chongqing native, really ought to be better at taking spices than I. Yet the physical geography that we were born into is not destiny – I find that humans tend to forget about the innate diversity in samples of human populations and assume that all Chinese from the People’s Republic of China are loud, raucous and impolite, for example.
This shop has since become my default dining place in Chinatown, more so than its plethora of other famous local stalls. I find it interesting that Chinatown station Exit A (into Pagoda Street) and Exit D (People’s Park Centre) can be such distinctly different renditions of what my mind registers as one place. Emerging into the street from Exit A, one is greeted with an eye-dazzling array of souvenirs and crowds of European tourists; exit D on the other hand, showcases pockets of Chinese foreign workers sitting around on staircases and has one Chinese eatery lined up after another.
As a second-generation immigrant, I see my mom’s dreams and aspirations in all these new souls pouring into exit D. Northerner or Southerner, skilled or unskilled, they are all inspired by that same timeless, human desire: to forge a better future for themselves and their families. Of course, foreign workers who become indebted just to come here would have it worse, but I can see that same spirit that drove the earliest pioneers into Singapore – as coolie or plantation worker, as rickshaw puller or domestic helper – living on in these new weather-beaten faces – doing work that no local would willingly enter into.
If history has anything to tell us, it is indeed that human nature can stay rather constant through time. The human mind is predisposed to create in-groups and out-groups, and competitive pressures easily hold sway over the greater ideals of humanism.
Might we say that the workers of Little India and the drivers from China that protested are a lot more like Singapore’s forefathers (so predominantly featured in our major discourses) than we are? We, who would consider any enclosed space without air-conditioning a travesty; we, who would expect any customer service agent to respond to our desire to complain within seconds.
My mom’s education was disrupted as a result of China’s Cultural Revolution. While I progressed from primary to secondary school, she switched jobs: from garment factory work, paying piecemeal rates to being a hawker assistant, at the whims of economic restructuring. While I read about productivity and the need to increase capital-labour ratio via automation, she washes dishes with her bare hands at work. She wants to be a citizen. I know that in economic terms she is really more of a liability to this nation than asset, given her age and limited education. Did the majies – Chinese domestic helpers who worked in Singapore between 1930s and 1970s – and samsui women – another group of Chinese immigrants who came to work in construction and industrial sites – of yore face a similar predicament then eventually decided to return to China?
Picture (3): Old and New immigrants huddled in the buildings of Chinatown – are they all that different?
What do we do about making Singapore home, and for whom?
Such is why when a local tenant kindly let us into his apartment in People’s Park Complex, and shared with us about how some owners divided a 5-room flat into 11 “sub-rooms” to rent out, it struck me immediately that our past is not behind us. Previous generations of immigrants lived in overcrowded conditions, across the road, in shophouses in Chinatown because it was all they could afford. Times have changed, the new immigrants may have moved into flats, but they are still seeking better futures and squatting together in cramped conditions, occasionally prone to fires.
Do we say that they deserve no equal treatment because they received the short end of the stick through bad chances at birth? No doubt such was the context under which students, workers and relevant post World War-II Singapore nationalists rebelled.
The photo of flats in Chinatown illustrates the various installations the government has made to promote vibrancy in local built-up communities. But all the hardware in the world can’t function on software that operates as if it is holier-than-thou.
While human nature can stay rather constant through time, it is within this nature of ours to dream of greater things as well. The logic of history demands that the old and the new, the insider and the outsider, find ways of working towards a new equilibrium because we have all been scattered far and wide away at some point. Therein lies my hope.