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The Brodard Café, too, has been replaced by the Australian coffee chain Gloria Jeans.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?


Ed Murrow’s Prophecy

December 20, 2009 § 2 Comments

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
-Ed Murrow

I’ve been looking forward to my second screening of George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck. I give credit to Dr Bob Armstrong for screening the story of Edward R Murrow and U.S Senator Joseph McCarthy during Mass Media Theory class. The one thing that stuck on my mind that made me revisit GN, &GL is its central message of media responsibility and its role as the Fourth Estate. That and subsequent views of George explaining the movie on Newseum’s Reel Journalism feature that was hosted by veteran journalist Nick Clooney.

Why the interest on the media as the Fourth Estate? That’s an easy one to answer for me: Because traditional media may never play such a role here in Singapore.  Ed Murrow’s words echo the fundamental truth about the need for media to provide the truth and key issues to its people.  For me, this resonates  loud and clear in the Singapore context.

Here in Singapore, media is always under careful regulation and monitoring by the de-facto ruling party, the PAP. Here in Singapore, the media functions more of a broadcast-and-disseminate tool, as opposed to a check-and-balance function of American media. Yet this doesn’t stop many Singaporeans from hoping for more press freedom.

If you asked Ziqi Koey, circa high school and Army days, he might have told you about a career interest in journalism and media,  for my interest in those fields stem from a desire to learn and master the power of words to convey true messages. I have witnessed how the careful and precise use of this art can cause monumental shifts. Mr Murrow and many journalists of his generation have demonstrated this.

Journalism as a career choice in Singapore has an entirely different meaning though. My enthusiasm of finding a job with the biggest media companies in Singapore (SPH and Mediacorp) was doused, for the fact that media in Singapore never always represent the true hard facts in an objective way. Here in Singapore, the media functions more of a broadcast-and-disseminate tool, as opposed to a check-and-balance function of American media. Quality of television programming in Singapore has degenerated to that of mere profit making, the lack of any real substance and depth.

That is why Good Night And Good Luck struck a chord within me. It was the spirit of journalism that I looked up to.

The opening and ending of Good Night, And Good Luck highlights Ed Murrow’s  speech  to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention.  Highly prophetic  and relevant, Ed Murrow’s words stirred up thoughts within me about:

  • The state of mass media in Singapore today (TV, Radio, Newspapers)
  • Social Media: Its ability to teach, inspire, or become merely part of “wires and lights in a box”
  • Intelligence, maturity, and perceived apathy of the Singaporean with regards to hard issues


Excerpt from Ed Murrow’s  speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago 15th October 1958 ( Article Total Read Time: 12 minutes, Text in Bold, 8 minutes)

This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television.


Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.

One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the coporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex-it doesn’t matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.

To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.


Additional Reading:

Article 19’s report on Freedom of Expression in Singapore

National Geographic: The Singapore Solution

What I Learned About The Long Tail And How I Saw It In Singapore

November 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

photo by You Need Style

I’m very late into reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why The Future Of Business Is Selling Less Of More, and I it’s one of the best (if not the best) I’ve read this year. All through the books were “aha” moments that make so much sense when you look at media and commerce on the Internet, and the physical world.
For those who’ve been preached to death about the Long Tail, please bear with me while I paraphrase Chris’ explanation of The Long Tail. The way I understood it, economies are shifting from domination by hit-based, one size fits all, to the emergence and success of niche goods that make up the true majority of any given market.
Three forces make this possible:

  • Democratized production
  • Democratized distribution
  • Supply and Demand connected

The Long Tail Of Temple Worshipers

As a result of reading the book, I attempted to see long tail effects around me, and voila, saw a mini-long tail story in the local Straits Times yesterday.
For the most part, Buddhists in Singapore head to well-established temples in Singapore, the same way Muslims go to mosques, Christians to their churches, and Indians to the Indian temples.

With Buddhist temples however, Yen Feng and Feng Zengkun realized that many micro-temples are appearing in numbers throughout Singapore’s famous red-light district, Geylang. These have appeared for a number of reasons:

  • Strict zoning laws for institutions registered as temples per se. (Scarcity of physical space) Micro-temples apply for more flexible zoning as associations instead
  • Micro temples cater to the seniors who are unable to climb high temple steps that are a feature of the larger temples. (There is no one-size fits all solution)
  • Having a large body of micro-temples in one area serves the varying needs of the community. (The same way CDBaby and ITunes does this for music fans online)

This shouldn’t be a surprise in the late 2000s, when people are exploring their own unique interests, rejecting the majority / mass media solution of “one-size-fits-all”. Micro-temples are a lot easier to set up as compared to the humongous temples we’ve seen around Singapore. We are seeing transportation getting efficient day-by-day, with the upcoming Circle Line and electronic bus-reporting times at bus stops. Having micro-services in one area adds too convenience too.
Chris Anderson simplifies the rules to creating thriving Long Tail businesses as:

  • Make everything available
  • Help me find it

Which can be expanded into:

Lowering your costs

  • Move inventory way in… or way out
  • Let customers do the work

Thinking niche

  • One distribution doesn’t fit all
  • One product doesn’t fit all
  • One price doesn’t fit all

Losing control

  • Share information
  • Think “and” not “or”
  • Trust the market to do your job
  • Understand the power of free

Will this happen for the other religious groups in Singapore? Micro-churches, mosques and Indian temples?  The use of Facebook, Twitter,, and other social media? We’ve already seen the emergence of churchgoers attending services online, so it might become an emergent trend, probably by word of mouth.

I do think Geylang is Singapore’s most colorful quarter. For friends traveling in Singapore, stop by if you’ve only got one day here.

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