For the first time in 17 years, there will be no site tours or performances for the Singapore Heritage Festival. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced organiser National Heritage Board to take the festival online.
This digital edition, which is on from Friday to July 5, will offer more than 80 online programmes instead of the mix of site visits, live theatrical experiences and workshops that have drawn increasing interest and participants over the years.
Festival director David Chew, 39, says his team were cognisant of the looming pall of the pandemic as early as January when they were busy with scenario planning and trying to ensure that visitors could have a safe experience at festival events.
He recalls: “We had ongoing multiple conversations with partners and vendors, and plans had to change time and time again. At one point, we were rejigging plans on almost a daily basis. It was a little bit crazy.”
The team “decided to bite the bullet” in March and go fully online. This was not a painless decision. Some of the most popular programmes for the festival are the heritage site tours which, over the years, have opened previously inaccessible sites to the public.
This year’s festival, which highlights the three neighbourhoods of Tanjong Pagar, Kallang and Pasir Ris, was to have included the former St Andrew’s Mission Hospital at 5 Kadayanallur Street.
The modest triangular building, designed by the firm of Swan & Maclaren, was built in 1923 as a hospital to treat the poor women and children of Chinatown. It houses the oldest lift in Singapore, installed in 1929. The lift would take children suffering from tuberculosis of the spine and other bones up to the open rooftop of the three-storey building for fresh air and sunshine.
The earliest modernist building in Singapore was to have hosted a festival village experience.
Mr Chew adds a tad wistfully: “It’s just paradise for Instagrammers because you can take gorgeous photos of these sites that you otherwise would not be able to go into.”
But there are advantages to going online, chief among which is that the programmes will be available for free and heritage enthusiasts can access them at any time from the comfort of their homes.
In festival tradition, there are plenty of anecdotes that bring neighbourhoods to life, except this year, they are captured in video documentaries.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Sebastian Yeo, 61, who retired last year after 42 years with the Marine Police, recalls working eight-hour shifts at the former Police Coast Guard headquarters at Stadium Walk.
He says his fondest memories of the building was running 2.4km around the Marina Promenade area for his IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test): “The running route is the most beautiful in comparison with the other ones I have taken.”
Now that he does not work there, he adds: “I miss the serenity of the environment at Kallang Basin where I used to immerse myself in after a hectic day.”
He says the area has changed in the past four decades, but for the better: “In the past, the quality of the water was not pristine and there was debris everywhere. Due to the filthy environment, everyone avoided Kallang.”
Nowadays, Kallang’s cleaned-up river attracts people with recreational facilities.
Recreation has been a defining characteristic of the Pasir Ris neighbourhood, as artist Carlyn Law discovered.
The 45-year-old, who has lived in the area for 26 years, says: “It really surprised me that even as far back as in the late 19th century, there were holiday bungalows set up by rich businessmen by the beach.”
There was also the Golden Palace Holiday Resort which for a short-lived period from 1967 to 1971, drew merrymakers with holiday chalets, boating and fishing activities as well as nightclub concerts.
While trying to find someone who remembered this resort, Law discovered her father, Mr Law Yap Teck, had visited the resort in his early 20s.
She says: “He went with friends on an excursion. They paid $2.50 for the entrance and a packed lunch. At that time, $2.50 was quite a sum because they were earning about $100 a month. I joked that this was probably like the Disneyland of rural Singapore then.”
With a golden pagoda and two restaurants, the place was a rural alternative to the urban equivalents of Gay World and Great World. It was also a rare development amid all the kampungs which were then common in the area.
Law’s father also helped her locate someone who had grown up in those villages. His fishing buddy Samat Sulaiman is the fourth generation of a fishing family and shared stories about his childhood: “How they would play at the beach and catch fish. How he would help his parents make belachan with the shrimp they caught and how carefree life was, the sense of community in the kampung days when people didn’t have a lot but they really helped each other,” she says.
The theatrical experiences that festivalgoers have come to enjoy have also been translated into videos. This year, Sweet Tooth has produced two shows, one for Tanjong Pagar and one for Kallang, while Act 3 made a five-part mini-series inspired by Pasir Ris.
Act 3’s Fiona Jeremiah, 46, co-writer and co-director, says the team had to “re-learn everything” so that they could present the stories in digital format: “It was a whole new and exciting experience for all of us. We felt that this had to go beyond a documenting of the past, and at the back of our minds, we always remember that storytelling was the key to the presentation.”
Sweet Tooth producer Alexandre Thio, 30, adds that the digital format also offered unique advantages: “In the digital realm, viewers are engaging with content at a different pace, and are determining their own experience, charting their own desired journey with the characters and stories, so it becomes an opportunity to engage viewers in unexpected ways.”
So with Sweet Tooth’s production for Kallang, she says: “The quiz format engages viewers through active participation and encourages multiple plays to view different results. It was our intention to bring attention to these historical sites in an unexpected way and to discover presentation formats that were fun and relatable.”
But the best thing about taking the festival online is accessibility. As Mr Chew says: “The benefit is that there’s no capacity restriction, everyone can go for it. And it’s free access, so people don’t have to pay for it.
“After the festival, we’re keeping all this digital content online, so people can access it after as well.”