Place of Interest – Bukit Timah

Bukit Timah, Singapore by Lee Tzu Pheng

This highway I know,

the only way into the city

where the muddy canal goes.

These are the sides of coarse grasses

where the schoolboys stumble in early morning

wet-staining their white shoes.

This is the way the city is fed

men, machines,

flushed out of their short dreams

and suburban holes

to churn down this waiting gullet.

They flow endlessly this way

from dawn, before sky opens,

to the narrow glare of noon

and evening’s slow closing.

Under the steaming morning,

ambition flashes by in a new car:

the reluctant salesman faced

with another day of selling his pride

hunches over the lambretta, swerving

from old farmer with fruit-heavy basket.

The women back from market

remark that this monsoon will be bad

for the price of vegetables:

their loitering children, too small for school,

learn the value of five cents, ten cents,

from hunger and these market days.

All morning the tired buses whine

their monotonous route, drag

from stop to stop,

disgorge schoolchildren, pale-faced clerks,

long-suffering civil servants,

pretty office girls, to feed

the megalopolitan appetite.

This highway I know,

the only way out of the city:

the same highway under the moon,

the same people under the sea-green

of lamps newly turned on at evening.

One day there will be tall buildings

here, where the green trees reach

for the narrow canal.

The holes where the restless sleepers are

will be neat, boxed up in ten-stories.

Life will be orderly, comfortable,

exciting, occasionally, at the new nightclubs.

I wonder what that old farmer would say

if he lived to come this way

Bukit Timah

Located in the central region of Singapore, Bukit Timah district is named after Singapore’s tallest hill which stands at an altitude of 163.63 metres (537 ft.) and is the highest natural point in Singapore. Spanning 25km long, Bukit Timah is the main road linking Singapore to Johor, through the Bukit Timah railway station. Furthermore, the old Ford Factory in Bukit Timah, is where the British surrendered Singapore over to the Japanese, who used the factory as their headquarters during the war. As such, Bukit Timah had witnessed much of the historical war moments.

Bukit Timah was also a granite quarry in the 19th century, surrounded by vast stretches of plantation and rainforest. However after the Japanese Occupation, existing farms and plantations in Bukit Timah evolved into industrialised buildings and high-rise flats. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bukit Timah was a major industrial center. Today, Bukit Timah is better known to be the residency for the wealthy, occupied by luxury estates, making Bukit Timah Singapore’s premier residential district.

 bukittimah railway bukit timah landed property

(From left, Bukit Timah Railway Station in 1900s and Bukit Timah landed property in 2000s)

The poem touches on a theme of conservation along with Singapore’s drive towards urbanization.  Where villages are transforming into industrialized buildings, the poet expresses her personal view of Singapore’s steer towards modernization resulting in the inevitable erasure of past memories as seen from “This is the way the city is fed, men, machines, flushed out of their short dreams”.

In a passive and gentle conversational tone, the poet goes on to describe the frugal lives of Bukit Timah residents before the changes of industrialization, from “their loitering children, too small for school, learn the value of five cents, ten cents, from hunger and these market days”, where the mention of “alcohol” and “nightclubs” in the poem corresponds to the portrayal of the poet’s mental image of the future Singapore.

Overview_BukitTimah

The poet is apprehensive of Singapore’s development into a city, from “disgorge schoolchildren, pale-faced clerks, long-suffering civil servants, pretty office girls, to feed the megapolitan appetite” where she referred the people to be the victims of urbanization. At the same time, she acknowledges the benefits of industrialization, from “The holes where the restless sleepers are, will be neat, boxed up in ten-stories”, shows that people will be better off in the high rise flats. On the other hand, she puts up resistance to the idea as seen from “Life will be orderly, comfortable, exciting, occasionally, at the new nightclubs”, the mention of nightclubs here indicates a sense of unfamiliarity to the poet, as well as uncongenial to the poetic self.  Also, from “I wonder what that old farmer would say / if he lived to come this way” seems to show that she is hesitant and  uncertain about what the future brings, as she verbalized the thoughts of a farmer aloud, of their livelihood being threatened when urbanization transforms the farms into buildings.

References

Chee), Tham (Seong. “Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia.” Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia. http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=h6SOvP6FLskC&pg=PA174&lpg=PA174&dq=reviews+on+lee+tzu+pheng+bukit+timah+poem&source=bl&ots=6rybnDPhGT&sig=4RzYYajud44PFvBGWJj0vI4oAH8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=vgtXUaieFsn-rAe44oGQCQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed March 23, 2013).

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