In its haste to reach the ranks of developed nations, Singapore had sometimes cast aside buildings, places, fragile traditions and old practices that collectively formed a people’s roots and heritage (Dr Hong Hai, Member of Parliment, quoted in The Straits Times, 18 June 1990)

In 1965, with Singapore’s independence, a new era of development came about. The 1960s saw a kick start to the urban renewal programme that aimed to improve living conditions as well as economic growth for the country. The physical impact on SIngapore’s landscape was dramatic. Entire rows of low-rise shophouses were replaced with single large-footprint high rise mixed use complexes. In its haste to achieve rapid economic and social transformation, the 1960s and 70s saw the demolishment of many buildings and districts with little consideration given to questions of heritage. Many of traditional retail and social activities had no place in modern Singapore, lost together with some of the traditional building forms that housed them. While Singapore was evolving towards it’s appearance as a modern metropolis, it was criticised to be ‘faceless’ and ‘homogenous’ (Keys.P [1981] ‘Conservation as an integral part of urban renewal’, Planews, Journal of the Singapore Institute of Planners, 8, 39-49) and lacking in ‘indigenous identity’.

As such, by the early 1980s, tourism had declined compared to the growth in the 1960s and 70s. As a counter to the decline, there was a strategic shift in Singapore’s development. The Conservation Master Plan was revealed in 1986 and the Master Plan for the Civic and Cultual District in 1988. In September 1988, STB unveiled its $97.5 milllion plan to revitalise Chinatown. It proposed a resource centre, themed streets and five theme gardens following the Chinese elements of fire, earth, water, wood and metal. The main attractions included a Village Theatre, a Chinese temple and even a courtyard for activities such as poetry recitation and Wushu.

Chinatown – 1960s [Taken from]

Chinatown – Present [Taken from]

However, although this development is rationalised as a means to ‘increase local cultural consciousness and to provide a strong sense of place for the local people’ (Pannell, Kerr and Forster 1986 Tourism Development in Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.), many question whether URA has focused too much on its commercial viability, for the purposes of tourism. Although designated as a conservation site, the area was sold to the highest real estate bidder, causing the area to become more expensive and as such many of the original businesses and communities that frequent them relocated to other areas and some even disappeared completely. Mr S.W. Fong, featured in a radio documentary by Reese Erlich in ‘Worlds of a difference’ project by Homelands production, is a fourth generation mat weaver who grew up with a small family business in Chinatown but had to relocate since redevelopment drove up the prices of the buildings.

With its new, commercially viable businesses such as retail shops and handicraft outlets selling tourist souvenirs and novelty items, themed eateries and backpackers inns, the chinatown area illustrates the conflicting interests presented by its redevelopment. In marketing its ‘historic districts’, the planners can be seen to ‘purport to practice something that is distinct from tourism and yet continue to be guided by it’ (D. Medina Lasansky, Blurred Boundaries between tourism and history). As such, who really benefits from such projects? The tourists or the locals? Is this still the Chinatown that the locals identify with?