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Olivia Wang|National University of Singapore
Fast growing and ever bustling, Singapore and Hong Kong are the two iconic cities in Asia that happened to share very similar routes of development. The story Singapore versus Hong Kong never fails to catch the attention of people in this region.
Nevertheless, this time, I would attempt to tell it from a different perspective: the Singapore River and the Victoria Harbor. The changing landscapes of these two critical port areas led the changing fate of the cities.
Generations have passed and transformations have been witnessed. Yet, what has been the significance of these ancient yet ever lively ports towards the respective lives of Singaporeans and Hong Kongners? Are our social memories and historical identities dissolving in these changing landscapes?
The histories of the Singapore River and the Victoria Harbor constitute the uniqueness of the two cities.
The Singapore River has well been the life-blood of the island throughout the history. Standing at the confluence of various civilizations, Singapore has gradually made her transformation from a tiny port called “Temasak” to today’s regional and international hub of trade, finance, technology and culture.
Singapore River Through Time
Wooden Boats at Singapore, 1885; photo credit to Alfred Hind Robinson, Getty Images
Coolies at work along the Singapore River, 1916; photo credit to the National Archives of Singapore
Singapore River today, 2012; photo credit to Bryn Pinzgauer, Flickr
Similarly, the Victoria Harbor, being a natural landform harbor strategically located between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has assumed instrumental roles in both military and trade throughout history. Its records can be traced all the way back to the sailing maps of Zheng He in the 15th century. Depicted in details on the marine charts for the East India Company, lived through the British Colonization and witnessed the vicissitudes of the city, the Victoria Harbor is still the city’s throbbing heart, pulses with life, with ships and ferries coming and going.
Victoria Harbor Through Time
Victoria Harbour, 1860-1890; photo credit to New York Times
Sampans in Victoria Harbour, 1963; photo credit to 1960s Mike Cussans’s photos
Victoria Harbour, 2015; photo credit to IQRemix, Flickr
However, the fast changing landscapes are gradually erasing the sense of history from the coastlines. Now, most of the younger generations view the river and the harbor from a tourist perspective, while the elder generations are overwhelmed by their new appearances, finding themselves lost in this rapidly developing world. It is afraid that the historical identities are being lost.
Back to the time when there were still bustling trade activities taking place on the Singapore River, people had their lives closely tied to the river. Most of them were migrants from the region, attracted by the reputation of Singapore as a promising port-city. Hong Kong has a similar past.
From the readings and visual resources of the past, we can feel for the coolies on their resentment and helplessness in having little choice but to withstand the impoverished environment for living; and the eagerness of the merchants, who viewed the cities as the “land of wealth”.
However, by walking along today’s Singapore River and Victoria Harbor, one could hardly be reminded of the situations and emotions of the people back in history. Although some of the traditional housings are preserved and repainted, and there are the presences of memorial statues along the coastlines, these are far from enough in conveying the history. Most people regard them as man-made scenes instead of preserved heritages, as they could hardly find any detailed explanations of these representatives of the past.
Traditional Houses along Singapore River; photo credit to Bernard Tey, Flickr
The governments have been successful in transforming the once polluted and congested water bodies into today’s life-style and recreation destinations. The clusters of warehouses and dilapidated residence along the coastlines were replaced with high-raised and well-designed buildings, housings for international financial institutions and sites for entertainments. The governments were trying to create an image of the places of being world-class, vibrant and hip.
It is, to the corporate employees, businessmen and the youth who congregate the coastlines, a hallmark of a wealthy city. However, how much can they associate today’s coastlines to the stories of the past? These people who are closely related to the Singapore River and the Victoria Harbor today may perceive the places as if they have been in their present landscapes throughout the history. The heartrending experiences and painstaking efforts the pioneers went through were easily taken for granted and gone with the wind.
One of the few historical remainings that one can find on the Singapore River today is the Elgin Bridge. It reminds us the darkest times of Singapore - the Japanese Occupation.
However, when I asked around, few of the younger Singaporeans know about it’s painful past.
They regard it as simple as a decoration on the River. Looking around, I could hardly find any explanatory board, except a tiny white signboard showing the year of the bridge’s completion. Those historical sites that are lucky enough to be preserved till today were taken light-heartedly by the people.
However, what I find intriguing was that while it is true that the social memories and historical identities are dissolving in the changing landscapes, but to what extent does it affect the affection of the people towards these fast-changing and culturally-diversified country, as there are always new memories and identities associated with changes?
It is expected that changes may lead to senses of void and nostalgia, as people often find their sense of rootedness and identity by recalling the past. This is especially true for the elder generation who has witnessed the process of transformation. However, I feel that despite coming from the history, the sense of belonging may as well be established in the changing environment. Younger generation’s affection towards the cities grow among its artistic and tranquil environment, fashionable life-style and rapid pace of advancement.
The Singapore River and the Victoria Harbor have well been the arteries of the cities throughout the history, but the impacts of the changing landscapes of the Singapore River and the Victoria Harbor vary for different generations of Singaporean and Hong Kongers. I believe that with all the efforts we have put in across generations, they will continue to lineage the social memories and historical identities in one way or another to the eternity.