Artists built this city, too, you know


WAY back in 1990, the MRT engineers were going to tunnel right through the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus on Victoria Street.

When it comes to creative destruction, far-out imagination and sheer impact on our cityscape, artists pale before urban planners

A hundred-plus years of neo-Gothic stained glass and convent girls, about to go kaput.

I remember signing a petition to save it.

It was aesthetics; it was heritage.

The fact that a pretty ex-CHIJ girl was circulating the name list had nothing to do with it.

Point is: Church was saved, but look at Chijmes now.

Where would you China Jump fans be without us arty types, huh?

Artists practically built this city.


How else would Chinatown opium-dens morph into salmon-pink walk-up studios and Taiwanese tea-houses?

Who but a playwright would make students symbolically climb to higher degrees on those steep NUS hillsides, or stage landlocked Braddell Heights as a sea-side town?

Only a screenwriter's devious imagination could have let the Information and the Arts Ministry regulate the Internet, and let the police license theatre.

There's got to be a poet in office somewhere - Singapore probably has the highest number of national metaphors per capita of any modern state.

At last count, we have Singapore the MNC, best home, marathon, stock market, the air-conditioned, wafer fab, Disneyland, and of course, the boat (as in, don't rock it).

And who says we don't have a rich mythical tradition?

Why, the last time I visited the Merlion at Sentosa, I learnt all about our founding legend.

How the island of Temasek used to be this small fishing village, when the mother of monsoons broke out and threatened to hit ''delete'' on the villagers all at one go. Until this half-lion, half-fish creature, taller than Godzilla, rose from the ocean and calmed the stormy waves with one blast from its laser-beam eyes.

So that's why the Merlion stands today, proudly staring and spitting into space, a monument to our ancient guardian monster.

It's also how Singapore the Lion City got its name, according to the Sentosa website.

And there I was, thinking all along that the Merlion was a tourist icon dreamed up by the Tourism Board in the Sixties.

Why didn't they ever tell us these things in National Education?

Of course, I'm not the first writer to have encountered the cross-bred beast which - for better or worse - is an apt symbol for our hybrid city.

But it struck me as still the best illustration of how, when it comes to creative destruction, far-out imagination and sheer impact on our cityscape, artists pale before urban planners.

No sculptor had a say on the sweep and arch of Sheares Bridge.

No painter sketched that breathtaking aerial map you get from 3,000 metres up in a Boeing 747.

They don't consult literary historians when building the next condo, mall or parking lot.

Most Singaporeans think of the arts as, at best, an unnecessary complication in their lives.

Why go to all that trouble for something that no one appreciates and which doesn't pay very well, and risk getting arrested or worse?

But art in the city is more than just flypaper for disaffected intellectuals.

Pioneering architect Tay Kheng Soon considers a city's structures to be the expressions of a society's psyche.

Through fields such as architecture, design and music, aesthetic sensibilities (or the lack thereof), which have a direct bearing on the way we live, work and play, and on the names and places we call our own.

Should a signpost say ''Zhu Jiao'' or ''Tekka''? Plant bougainvillea on those ugly ERP gantries?

Paint a lion or an orchid across Block 47?

These are real aesthetic decisions city-builders have to make everyday.

And there are signs that ordinary citizens do care about these choices.

Which is why the National Library on Stamford Road is more than just bricks and mortar, or a convenient flashpoint for civic debate.

And why folks speak out on the side of parks or against golf-courses.

To be fair, urban planners are paying more attention to their craft. Marine Parade Community Club, for instance, was purpose-built with a black-box theatre, library, Starbucks and odd cubist designs on its exterior facade.

City-making could be our true national artform, as no less a craftsman than Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has alluded.

He recently referred to Singapore as his work ''on a small frame of an island'', relative to the ''wide canvas'' other leaders got to work with.

Well, that canvas - our city - has been handed over to us, his apprentices.

We can either trample all over it not knowing any better, or have a care how each stroke and daub is applied.

After all, artists are judged by the result of their work.

So tell us the next time you see something that's out of place, the wrong colour, or manages to take your breath away.

The artists need to know.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl