Place of Interest – Orchard Road

Orchard Road; Singapore

Orchard Road by Edwin Thumboo
(Taken from Angelia Poon, Philip Holden & Shirley Geok-lin Lin, WRITING SINGAPORE, Page 255) 

Free and easy. He walked as if following

A sentence unfolding in his head.

Perhaps he did, the way he paused, fingered

His chin, puckered brow, turned for second looks,

Chatted with a stranger, refused brochures,

Opened a can of sweating Tiger for a swig,

Then folding the city map, his stride lengthened

Sliding smooth and cool beneath angsanas,

He had reached a junction of sorts, perhaps … a

Semi-colon, no more, no less, keeping grammar

Hungry, ready for enjambments, byes, neat touts,

Undulating clauses, metaphors, branded goods.

The day offered its little comforting intimacies

As he started stitching memories, yet un-named,

Then afternoon sun lit a compassionate face

My sentence stopped. 

Orchard Road is definitely one of the key attractions in Singapore for both tourists as well as for local residents. The Orchard district is well known for having a lively and vibrant atmosphere, continuously bustling with human traffic. Orchard Road itself stretches 2.2 kilometers, however more commonly referred to by local Singaporeans, the term Orchard tends to encompass Orchard Road and its vicinity including locations like Tanglin, Somerset, Dhoby Ghaut with iconic buildings such as the PARAGON, ION Orchard, Ngee Ann City, Plaza Singapura etc.

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A crowded area at Heeren, one of the many popular shopping places in Orchard Road

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A picture displaying the local area map meant for tourists’ navigation. Although only occupying a small land area, Orchard Road is packed with numerous dining and entertainment facilities as well as hotels and shopping boutiques.


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A signage at part of the Orchard Road stretch

Orchard is a bustling street, often packed with both Singaporeans and visitors to the country, where shops are abundant, ranging from traditional small pushcarts to large-scale sophisticated branded boutiques. It is also probably one of the best-known shopping districts in Singapore.

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Couple making a living, setting up a mobile cart selling traditional ice cream and waffles cones

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ION Orchard; one of the newly established malls located in Orchard with levels of luxury brands and boutiques

As seen in Edwin Thumboo’s poem titled Orchard Road where he draws attention to the popularity of the Orchard Road being a tourist attraction. Orchard Road “Free and easy” seems to indicate a particular type of tour that people can opt for, free and easy, at their own time and pace as an alternative to being part of a guided tour group.  “A sentence unfolding in his head” would be a representation of the tourist’s state of mind, somewhat uncertain, yet looking forward to the events unfolding. The anticipative mindset with a tinge of apprehension experienced by an individual in an unfamiliar background while travelling in Singapore, as seen in the lines of “the way he paused, fingered his chin, puckered brow, turned for second looks”.

Thumboo then moves on to describe the scene happening in Orchard Road, with communications between of the tourist and other passersby, “chatted with a stranger, refused brochures”, which are common day-to-day occurrences such as the advertisements after given out in the form of flyers along the streets or presence of tourists sightseeing in Singapore. Friendly greetings are exchanged and affable relations are established between tourist and the locals. As the tourist familiarizes himself with the situation, his courage and inquisitive nature allows him to open up and take in his surroundings. “Folding the city map, his stride lengthened “ “hungry, ready for enjambments, byes, neat touts” indicate his readiness to explore Orchard Road and experience new sights.

As the day progress and the tourist comes across different events, he picks up valuable insights, “Then afternoon sun lit a compassionate face” shows the delight of the traveler has towards his new impending experiences. “Stitching memories, yet un-named” displays the unique memories that one can obtain from his travels, which is difficult for another to experience the exact encounter.

Overall, Thumboo’s representation of Orchard Road in Singapore might be one that is extremely dynamic, in a fast paced environment. The lack of full stops throughout the poem creates a sense of fluidity in reading, bringing out the feeling of continuity and endlessness, similar to the actual occurrences in Orchard Road, Singapore. The encounter experienced each individual from his travel is likely to be truly understood only by himself, as each experience is distinctive. Thumboo’s description of Orchard Road as a location where time stops for no one, where every individual is actively caught up with their activities with no intentions of pausing.


Place of Interest – Singapore River

Singapore River

1Singapore River before the late 1970s where it was highly polluted
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2Singapore River after the clean up from the early 1980s-today
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Singapore River by Lee Tzu Pheng

The operation was massive;

designed to give new life

to the old lady.

We have cleaned out

her arteries, removed

detritus and silt,

created a by-pass

for the old blood.

Now you can hardly tell

her history.

We have become

so health-conscious

the heart

can sometimes be troublesome.

Singapore River by Koh Buck Song

there was a time

it could be said

the old subject

stretched its rule

in the empire

of the easel

now, refreshed,

the lady revels

in another reign,

clear, iridescent

fresh winds have carried

the old tang away

and in this revival

a new mirror

re-projects, rules

the new imagery

Singapore River is definitely a place relevant to Singapore’s literature as it has always been a valued location since the founding of the country. Dubbed as the city’s heart in Singapore, the Singapore River plays a very important role in sea routes contributing to the economic prosperity of the country. Singapore River flourished port city, where its trading ports were crowded with heavy human and sea traffic. However, with increased human flow, Singapore River gradually became a dumping ground to traders, street hawkers and passersby alike. Singapore River was massively polluted till the late 1970s.

In the mid 1970s to early 1980s, the Singapore government decided to take action to remove the litter, curbing the pollution issue and improve the standard of living of the citizens. The government implemented better sewage and drainage system cleaning up the highly polluted waters, refurbished riverbank walls, initiated to conserve surrounding architecture, provide a source of leisure (e.g. dining and water activities) and even as a tourist attraction.

The poems by both Lee and Koh highlights the changes made to the river and the effects of the clean up. Both poets personified the Singapore River as a female; an old lady in Lee’s Poem and a lady in Koh’s poem. The message brought across in both poems by enlarge are also parallel; the movement to clean up the river definitely has its benefits, however the transformed Singapore River would lose the uniqueness and perhaps its former lustre as well.

Mentioned previously, in Lee’s poem, she uses an “old lady” as a personification of the Singapore River, where “her” revamp was done so well and thoroughly that Lee pens “now you can hardly tell her history”. It was hard to imagine or picture the initial state of the river; the dumpsite, dirty and congested yet bustling with diverse activities. The overhaul of the river displayed positive effects, especially to improve Singapore’s standard of living and eliminate health problems associated with polluted waters (such as gastrointestinal diseases and malaria etc). Akin to a heart surgery, Lee describes the clean up as the unplugging of the river’s “arteries”, “creating a by-pass for the old blood”.

Similar in Koh’s poem, where he describes the Singapore River clean up, removing clutter and as “the fresh winds have carried the old tang away” appearing to be “clear and iridescent”. This illustration of the old Singapore River where the new waters are clean and glistening after the facelift given to the river, giving “her” a new image and new-found pride.

With a major reforms and change to the existing infrastructure, there will a wave of fresh perspective but irreversible changes will also be made. Lee mentions, “We have become so health-conscious the heart can sometimes be troublesome” possibly indicating her worry that the extremity of changes might pose a threat to the distinctive society and that could be almost entirely absent in Singapore today. Some features, in this case of the old Singapore River will become a matter of the past such as its dynamic liveliness and spirited area, turned into a sophisticated neighbourhood, prim and pristine. In Koh’s words, “a new mirror re-projects, rules the new imagery” indicates a redefined Singapore River, giving a whole new paradigm shift. Similarly mentioned in Singapore Places, Poems, Paintings, many poets and painters are indeed lamenting the loss of vibrancy, personal touch unique to the local culture.

Following are two paintings of artists illustrating the Singapore River too, at different points of time. Lim Tze Peng’s Bygone Bumboats completed in 1982 is likely to be representation of the Singapore River before the movement to stop pollution and the attempt to clean up the area. Hua Chai Yong’s Skyline completed in 1981 most probably represents the state of Singapore River after the revamp.

Lim Tze Peng, Bygone Bumboats (1982)

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An artist illustration of bumboats, traditionally used to ship goods and supplies. The date of drawing could indicate Lim’s reminiscence of the old bumboats before Singapore River was revamped.

Hua Chai Yong. Skyline (1981)


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Hua’s painting could exemplify Singapore after efforts of the clean up was made; less polluted rivers, more ordered waters and a generally more sophisticated Singapore.

In general, from abundance of material, be it in the form of poems or paintings, it could be seen that Singapore River is definitely a place of interest in the literary circle.

Other References:

Place of Interest – Merlion (Esplanade Bridge)

Merlign by Alvin Pang

Even though there are more
websites on you than verses
Even though you evoke
cameras more than pride
postcards more than praise
Even though your titan child
is now terrorising history and
small children on Sentosa

Still you seem to have a face poets love
to woo. There was the old gentleman,
windswept, seablown, wandering home
with a suitcase of dreams, who
treated you like a queen, hoping
to press you for secrets.

And then the lady with the thick glasses,
who thought she saw Ezekiel’s cherubim,
the sign episteme of higher forces
forever barring the way to paradise.

And that young man, himself half lion,
with barbed tale raised, his words coiled
like a fist. Eyes louder than silence.

Still others, perplexed
as much by your blank stare
as their maddening need to know,
burden you with the fret
of lost causes and years of waiting

Become now the need
to apostrophise what is rock
to make it bear weight.
How we wallow in metaphors!

As a child I walked through a garden
to gawk at the back of a giant too tall
for a child’s mind
to wrap around. Risking the simplest
of pleasures: a closer glance, a furtive stroke,
Pitting heights with the dwarf twin, long since gone.
Reaching for scale and contact,

And now, as a man, forever measuring shadows.

No need to go on with this pretense,
these riddles and voices. This is a heap
of fashioned stone, too light to carry souls.

Rough beast, you are neither idol nor ideal.
Your heart is hollow, cold, and open
for admission, but we have nowhere else
to hide our dreams. Take what names
we have to give, and hold our secrets well
Keep what matters and what counts
The rest you can spit as spray.

(Taken from

 The Merlion is a mythical creature that represents a Singaporean identity. ‘Mer’ means ‘sea’ in French, hence Merlion literally refers to sea-lion. This explains the creature with lion head with a body of a fish, or mermaid.  The lion is a reference to a tale whereby Sang Nila Utama reportedly encountered a lion when he first stepped on the shores of this island, leading him to name it Singapura. The fish body reflects Singapore as a port city dependent on the maritime trade. In addition, it also represents the origin of Singapore as a fishing village.

The Merlion was designed in 1964 by Fraser Brunner for the Singapore Tourist Board (STB) and functioned as its corporate logo from 1966 to 1997. The Merlion was a popular symbol for tourist souvenirs. There are five Merlion statues in Singapore, with the most popular ones located at the Merlion Park, adjacent to One Fullerton at the Marina Bay waterfront. One of them stands at 8m tall, weighing 70 tonnes. The other stands at 2m tall, weighing 3 tonnes. However, with the completion of Esplanade Bridge in 1997, the statues were relocated to a new pier on another side of the Esplanade Bridge, as they could no longer be seen clearly from the waterfront.  The Merlion statue faces east, which is believed to be a direction that brings prosperity as dictated by the guidelines of Chinese geomancy.

Unfortunately, on 28 February 2009, the larger statue was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm, causing a crack in the Merlion’s mane, and a hole at the base of the statue due to falling debris. The statue was repaired and restored for public viewing by 18 March 2009.

The Merlion tower at Sentosa is completed in 1995. on a hill 23m above sea level and stands at a height of 37m. It is an 11-storey building, excluding the uppermost observation deck, which allows visitors to enjoy commanding views of the Singapore skyline. Made of cement, the tower is also externally reinforced with a thin shell of concrete fitted with 16, 000 lights that, when switched on after dark, trace the outline of the statue. The eyes of the Merlion are also installed with equipment that enables them to project multi-coloured laser beams.

Another Merlion statue is located outside STB’s office at Tourism Court, standing at 3m tall. A similar statue can be found on Faber Point at Mount Faber. It is owned by the National Parks Board and was installed in 1998, following the redevelopment of the park.


Merlion at the Merlion Park
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Merlion after relocation at esplanade bridge
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Merlion at Sentosa
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Merlion at Sentosa at night
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Alvin Pang wrote ‘Merlign’ which plays a pun on the word Merlion as they have the same pronunciation. He started this poem with ‘there are more /websites on you than verses’ and added on with it evoking more ‘cameras more than pride’ and ‘postcards more than praise’. This seems to highlight the superficiality of the Merlion as a representation of Singapore, and a Singaporean identity. When one mentions the Merlion, one think of Singapore. However, do Singaporeans really associate themselves with the Merlion as an identity? The first stanza thus questions the significance of the Merlion to Singaporeans. Alvin seems to point out that the Merlion creates more attraction towards the tourists rather than the locals.

Towards the end of Merlign,  ‘No need to go on with this pretense, /these riddles and voices. This is a heap /of fashioned stone, too light to carry souls’ seems to imply the lifelessness of the Merlion. This points out that the Merlion is merely a statue, without any life given to it. In my interpretation, Alvin seems to imply that the Merlion is just an inanimate object with not much significance attached to it, to the Singaporeans. Furthermore, he calls it a ‘Rough beast’ and thinks it is ‘neither idol nor ideal’. This implies the redundancy of it as a Singapore icon. Lastly, Alvin also wrote that ‘Your heart is hollow, cold, and open/ for admission’, again implying the superficiality of the statue as an icon and place of interest and attraction. The ‘coldness’ implies the lack of bond between the locals and this icon.

Thus, Alvin seems to question the Merlion being an icon of Singapore. He feels that it is merely a statue to boost the Singapore tourism, rather than having the Singaporeans feel themselves linked to the Merlion identity.

Other references