Good old days

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am

Walking through downtown Singapore, it is hard to image how very different the city was just a few decades ago. Looking at old photos of Orchard Road, the street was lined with beautiful trees (hence its name), while the riverside was a sea of junks, buzzing with activity.

Over the years, the city state has banished the sweat, grit and dirt, replacing it with a squeaky-clean image that some residents and visitors alike complain is almost too aseptic. Although there are a few modern monstrosities - the result of high pressure to expand quickly and cheaply early on - the conservation efforts of the authorities are to be lauded. Many little gems have been preserved in areas such as Chinatown, Emerald Hill and the Civic quarter. Only recently, the old parliament regained a new lease of life, having been converted into a beautiful multidisciplinary arts and heritage centre. Located next to the Empress Palace (the immigration department's old headquarters) - which has itself been transformed into the Asian Civilisation Museum - it proves that the authorities can think out of the box and offer an innovative reinterpretation of old buildings.

However, sometimes the wind of nostalgia blows in the wrong direction and while intentions are good, the results are not always up to expectations. The strong sanitary approach with many projects has transformed once-vibrant areas into lifeless quarters. This has not gone unnoticed, and the authorities have been trying to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, re-engineering what was once there is proving quite difficult.

The latest example is Gluttons Square, the restaging of a once extremely popular alfresco hawker dining spot in what, by day, was a car park along Orchard Road. Three decades ago, its popularity had given it its nickname, but due to health and environmental reasons, the government restricted the vendors to permanent hawker centres. For this month only, the alfresco diner has reopened, with more than 10 food stalls serving perennial dinner-cum-supper delights under festive coloured lights.

This is not the first time that the authorities have tried to rekindle the ambiance from the old hawker centres. But while their efforts in Smith Street (Chinatown) have not really succeeded, Gluttons Square is proving a magnet once again, even though some Singaporeans still complain that it does not compare with the old days.

Why Gluttons Square has been a success when Smith Street has not is a mystery. Maybe it is the one-month-only opportunity (although there is now talk of leaving it there permanently). But there must be lessons to be learned, especially if the authorities plan to continue this nostalgia trip, and avoid making it too much of a theme park.