Making Peace With My History: A Tale of Two Cities and Two Avenues

September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Its 8:15pm here in Saigon, Vietnam. Just like in Singapore, my shirt immediately becomes a rag after a 15 minute walk along the heart of this city. Arguably, the main artery of this heart would be the main street Dong Khoi (Uprising) or what used to be known as the rue Catinat.

Top: rue Catinat in the 1950’s courtesy of Saïgon Vietnam

Bottom: Dong Khoi, in 2010

The rue Catinat It got its name from the French: Admiral-Governor de la Grandièrele on February 1st, 1865, in honor of the corvette ‘Catinat’ (Nicholas Catinat was Maréchal of France from 1637 to 1712), which had taken part in the attack of 1856 at Tourane (Da Nang), and 1859 in Saigon.

Along this street, I wanted to retrace Graham Greene’s Saigon of 1955. Much of its world famous hotels seem intact: The Municipal Theatre, the Continental Hotel, the Majestic. The 60’s war-famous relics: the Caravelle, the former haunt of the press corps and site of the daily news briefing during the American War in Vietnam. And the Rex, with its famous rooftop bar, are still there too.

A few things are noticeably missing however: its landmark cafes. The Givral, and Eden Centre building, where Greene wrote The Quiet American, has been boarded up, its fate is to join one of the numerous featureless shopping malls along this famous street. I was told of its French tradition, with fresh pastries, collared waiters and elaborate portions of ice cream.

I shook myself from my poolside lethargy. A gin and tonic down at the Givral Cafe was on my mind. That hospitable old establishment occupies a corner on Lam Son Square just a few doors down from the Continental Hotel and directly opposite the Municipal Theatre. Always a good spot for keeping an eye on downtown doings, the cafe had been one of the chief rumor mills during the war.
-Paul Martin, Land of the ascending dragon: Rediscovering Vietnam

The Brodard Café, too, has been replaced by the Australian coffee chain Gloria Jeans. Maybe it is some consolation that it still exists as its original function of providing light eats and respite from the blazing Saigon sun.

Top: The famous Brodard Cafe in the 1950’s courtesy of Saïgon Vietnam

Bottom: The Brodard Gloria Jeans today

But beyond its façade of buildings, my guess from pictures is that little remains or resembles the Graham Greene Saigon. Indeed, I shouldn’t be using the term “Sai Gon”, since the city’s bureaucrats go by its official name Ho Chi Minh City. HCMC certainly is modernizing fast: its old is under threat and to be replaced by the new. Yet its modernization and pace of revamp can hardly compare to what was once Britain’s crown jewel of the East: Singapore.

Just like Vietnam, here in Singapore, things we need to keep and conserve are not immediately obvious sometimes. Some actually become easy targets for removal and change.

I had a chat with Derek Sivers when he visited Singapore recently, taking in the city’s offerings for a week. During our conversation, he mentions of a major complaint that many Westerners have of Singapore, that he does not share. That Singapore is faceless, cultureless, everything so bland, and metropolis-like.

Derek found it absurd that a young nation like ours should be subject to those claims. Having been to various cities in Brazil recently,he found that the country had a unifying culture. Many of its little cities didn’t have their own “unique culture” either, but shared a common heritage with the nation (and sometimes the continent) as a whole. (read: The Motorcycle Diaries)

Then why should Singapore be any different? If one looks at the bigger picture, you will see that the whole of Southeast Asia has a shared heritage, even if we’re made up of many different nations.

Granted, we’re a nation of our own, independent since 1965, have the most thriving economy in the region, most modern, etc. etc. But if we were to build any lasting heritage and culture of our own, it will take time. Lots of it.

I find it curious though, we’ve done the opposite for our physical heritage. We’ve left very little legacy since the 1960’s. (Not that I’m that old to know…) Has short-sightedness and alternative priorities removed much of it?

Here in Singapore, anything colonial or Peranakan, is easily identified as “for preservation”. Not so obvious are the buildings of our founding years. I still have fond memories of our old National Library at Stamford Road. Its closure and removal for a “Fort Canning Tunnel” was met with anger and sadness for many Singaporeans. Who has the final word on a country’s future physical landscape?

We’re left with a gaudy monstrosity (IMHO) of a building on North Bridge Road instead.

Left: Singapore National Library at Stamford Road in the 1960’s

Right: The new building on North Bridge Road today, courtesy of  xcode

Along with the Bugis Junction “mall”, the new National Library Building sticks out like a sore thumb on this historic street, against the Raffles Hotel, Sultan Mosque, and Chjimes.

The next not-too-obvious historic piece on North Bridge Road I’d like some attention on would be Capitol Theatre, opposite the oldest cathedral in Singapore: St Andrew’s.

Top: Capitol Building in the 1950’s

Bottom Left: Capitol Building today

Bottom Right: Capitol Theatre (behind the Building) today, in limbo

From Infopedia Singapore:

Capitol Theatre, later known as Capitol Cinema, located at the junction of Stamford Road and North Bridge Road, is of neo-classical architecture. It was completed in 1930 and served as a theatre until the 1940s when the Shaw Organisation turned it into a cinema. The adjacent four-storey building was completed in 1933.

Cinema History
Shaw Organisation, a cinema giant of the time, bought over the building for S$3 million in 1946 and the theatre became its flagship. The 1950s saw the introduction of the Capitol Restaurant that housed the Blue Room, a function room which served as a refuge for local bands. An American band led by Danny Danford performed for its opening. The famous zodiac mosaic on the high ceiling of the dome interior was installed in the mid-1960s. The pair of maidens on white unicorns added to the beauty of Capitol Cinema. This became the legendary symbols of the cinema.

Cinema-goers of the time frequented the Capitol Cinema for dates and social gatherings. Apart from catching a movie, they also enjoyed a variety of performances. Foreign and local entertainers often unleashed their performances before movies were screened. At other times, these performances took over the film screenings. The Magnolia Snack Bar was the answer to filmgoers who looked to satisfying their taste buds. Serving tasty milkshakes and delicious set lunches, this café has shared the glory of the old cinema.

What is the fate of the legendary Capitol Theatre then? Let’s hope it doesn’t go the way of Bugis Street.

I would have never looked at North Bridge Road this way, if not for visiting Saigon and tracing down the old rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi. Singapore’s North Bridge Road is cousin to Saigon’s Dong Khoi. Avenues that once was a display of European colonial power, their dominion over the local populace, that now remains with some of the country’s most famous and prominent landmarks. Yet also the target for infinite changes.

What about Orchard Road you say? That as the heart of our city? Never mention Orchard Road, for what we know of it today is symbolic of the Plastic Singapore Lifestyle. All that is false, decadent, fat, and complacent.

Let me indulge in a little mysticism, to say that the recent floods that hit the area is symbolic of the faults of our lifestyles. I love the country, but have full contempt of some elements of our culture.

Yet when I speak of cultural preservation and change, I should really put things into perspective. A country’s culture and tradition is always changing. Man lives 70- 100 years or so, but the history of a civilization can be a few thousand. I might be complaining of losing our physical environment, but what would future generations, say 100 years later, say of today, comparing it to their time?


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