Thursday, September 20, 2007

Story Jar - Chinatown, Singapore

Chinatown, Singapore, 1950
To know people, visit their homes. The Chinatown Heritage Museum in Singapore is a home built of wood and heartbreak. Visiting it left me with silent tears and haunting dreams. It is a museum to never forget.
Not long ago, Singapore began tearing down whole portions of Chinatown but people realized that the old shophouses were full of history and personality so they changed plans and blocks of old buildings were renovated. Three of those renovated buildings became the Chinese Heritage Museum, a shophouse outfitted with the belongings of the people who lived in it.
The museum encompasses three narrow structures. On the ground floor, one is a restored tailor’s shop, the second a café (calendar and décor circa October 1963) and the third became the museum’s gift shop.
The tailor shop faced the street and behind the store a work room held sewing machines, tables and ironing boards. This was where the apprentices worked and slept. There was an open courtyard – sort of – an open shaft that mined air and light for the building and gave people a place to hang laundry.
The tailor and his family had a large living area but also a kitchen, bathing stall and “toilet” – a wooden bucket in a stall. Above, people were packed in, nearly stacked up. Rooms full of possessions tell the story well.
The front room of the second floor - prime real estate because of two windows admitting air and light - housed a doctor and his daughter. The room is filled with their furniture, medicines, books, curtains on the windows and notes about their lives at the time. The two of them shared about 100 square feet. At night, they had space to stretch out on sleeping mats but in the day the area was a medical office and dispensary.
In the next room four maids enjoyed a small window and about 80 square feet of living area. The room behind theirs, about the same size but without windows, housed a working couple and 8 children. Sleeping shelves were built into the walls and clothes hung on hooks. There was a small table with a few dishes and not much else. A TV monitor was hooked up running a video of one of the children who told about living there – the noise, heat, stifling air, poverty and lack of privacy.
The next room housed four Samsui women. These Chinese construction workers dressed in blue jackets and red hats and always wore jade bracelets for luck and protection. Human trucks - they moved baskets of rock and soil to clear construction sites or they brought baskets of bricks to brick layers. They expanded their dark living space into the hall by taking turns sleeping in a hammock at night. By dawn, they were up, the hammock was down, and the hall was open for traffic.
A shoe hawker filled her room with a bed and bags of shoes and could easily hang her laundry because she was next to that air tunnel. Further back was a carpenter, his wife and their baby. This family had furniture and toys in their room and a cupboard in the hall with kitchen ware. All of the rooms had windows opening to the hall and the doorways were covered with curtains or left open. There was no area for privacy or comfort.
At the far end were four construction workers who, according to the others in the building, smoked opium in a shared room. A bed in their room had a red light in one corner to simulate a fire that one of them started by knocking over a pipe. Luckily the fire was discovered quickly and put out before it killed everyone.
The last room was the communal kitchen and bathroom – again with no windows since buildings were constructed back to back. There were shower and “toilet” stalls. In this recreation, the kitchen sink had a little pump so it seemed that water dribbled over plastic veggies in a bowl while another setup simulated steam from the teakettle. A row of blackened woks on the wall above a cooking pit illustrated the shared cooking area. A museum sign (in 4 languages) encouraged people to look at plastic “night soil” in the bucket.
Water was piped into the building sometime in the late 40s and electricity brightened it in the 50s but sewers didn't come until almost 1960 so the night soil had to be carried out to the front of the building to a daily collection wagon. A bit of a trip or stumble on the worn steps and we can only imagine the mess.
The museum added sounds – radio news and music, people talking and cooking - and collected furniture and stories from the families. All the rooms were recreated as accurately as possible to show how people lived in Singapore while I was growing up in a huge three bedroom apartment in Buffalo with lights, water, sewer, doors and so much space.
In the museum area one could watch videos of some of the people involved. A man talked of helping his parents run a food stall, a job he now has as an adult. The doctor’s daughter talked of her struggles and one of the Samsui women told of her difficult life. The tailor described the neighborhood.
Rick and I went back to our huge hotel room thinking of how much room we had and thought of our obscenely large house in Wellsville.

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