Between Culture and Nature at Yishun Dam.


Finding respite within the teeming jungle that makes up our heartlands, always seemed a notion as remote as the possibility of not finding a mall a bus-ride away from… Anything. Which is probably why I have a soft spot for Yishun Avenue 1 (henceforth 'the Avenue’).

Spanning the entire lower perimeter of Yishun, the unusually long road starts out at the intersection of Sembawang Road and Mandai Avenue, hardly meandering as it runs past the length of Lower Seletar Reservoir, past a country club, a golf course, finally culminating in what seems to me (depending on my state of mind) a ‘Causeway to the Other Side’, or more appropriately, ‘Yishun Dam’.

It's not often for me that journeying a single stretch of road, or even locale, can act as a microcosm that reflexively reacts to, reveals and represents the shifting modalities surrounding it. In the past decade, Singapore’s general landscape has morphed in myriad ways that bear reflection to its own growth along the axis of punctuated equilibrium. If evolution occurs in fits and starts, this has indeed been one strangely epileptic period in our history. Our skyline is barely recognisable from what it was a decade back, earning itself greater currency on many a postcard-rack. It’s not uncommon for one to chance upon some story of a relative returning from abroad, shocked at how so much could happen in so short a span of time. While I often bemoaned this and had a cynical view towards what I would call ‘post-colonial decompression’ and the knee-jerk drive toward progress, my perspective has changed somewhat in recent years.

Perhaps it was proper assimilation and realization of the idea that Singapore is in a ‘perpetual state of transition to the next’ that enabled me to encompass and view most changes with grace. At the same time, questions loomed. Questions such as ‘transition to the next What?’ This fractured continuity seemed to me a mainstay of our cultural reality. That of a relentless forward movement towards a firmer sense of identity against a backdrop of ever changing memories. Or rather, it’s not so much that our memories change, but that the vantage points shift. The temporal signposts we use to orientate ourselves when we reach back in time, are constantly being redefined, rebuilt or erased completely. The architecture of a locale, a small community courtyard or a collection of foodstalls, the coming and going of all these don’t just leave a quaint nostalgia in their wake. A sense of loss and dislocation also results, more so when the timeframe between the experience of a place and its demolition or redefinition grows smaller and smaller.

This is probably a reason for the increasing numbers of people I meet who relate their stories of ‘some things never change’ to me, recounting how they manage to find something that gives them a deeper sense of continuity with their past, sometimes their childhood. Perhaps it’s the loss of a certain continuity that belies the need to find it with greater urgency. I notice how the elements of the story itself are subtly changing.  A prime element being that ‘something’ they find at the end now turns out to be an internal value, such as ‘mother’s cooking’, rather than an external shared object of experience, such as ‘the ol’ haunted house’. The antagonist would be the ‘difficulty of finding external vantage points these days’.

One thing that never fails to amaze me is how displaced the Avenue makes me feel. All this displacement and dislocation from apparently nothing much in sight. It probably has to do with the fact that the Avenue begins so innocuously but ends so incongruously with a monolith of a dam. The trek starts off cozily enough in a way vaguely reminiscent of driving through the latter part of Upper Thomson Road as the rain turns to drizzle. The greenery and foliage on either side is somewhat dense, affording one a view of hardly anything outside their veiled hues. But with that, a simultaneous feeling of remoteness and potential openness beyond what’s known can begin to crystallize.

It’s not long before you reach the pastoral checkpoint that is Lower Seletar Reservoir Park. Laying adjacent to the longest stretch of MRT track between two stations (Khatib to Yio Chu Kang), this is the first reservoir that I noticed had the sign ‘Beware of Crocodile’ erected. Maybe it’s good the signs seem quite a distance away from the more populous areas. The reservoir is popular for water activities such as kayaking and Dragon-Boat racing, and in recent years, the People’s Association has developed a small and entertaining Water Park.

The sense of being at the edge of the heartlands continues as one looks at a handful of residential blocks that litter the reservoir’s edge. It’s only a matter of time before the last vestiges of open land along the Avenue cave in to the demands of (sub)urban change. Where the Avenue was once flanked by sizeable plots of open land, now the plots are cleared and fences erected announcing the construction, and in some cases completion, of another new condominium project. The Avenue is already beginning to look predictable.

Pushing on through a last stretch of canvassed greenery and round a sharp bend, one finally makes it to the highlight of the whole trek. Here stands Yishun Dam. The Avenue would not be what is if not for the fact that it leads to, and terminates at the end of this dam. Monolithic in proportion, it stands at around the same length as our first Causeway, difference being that this is an actual dam, with a man-made reservoir of fresh water on one side, and the open sea extending to Malaysia on the other side. Standing in the center, the water levels on either side don’t always match, even the surface tension is visibly different. There are no toilets or benches here, a sure sign that this has not been taken into consideration as a place of activity. But yet, more and more people and families come with their makeshift tents, barbeque pits, cameras, fishing rods and car-boot bar counters. They can be seen from the early afternoon through the wee hours of the night and morning.

I always get the feeling of having arrived when I reach the dam, for here the ideal balance between culture and nature is reached. All our new places and architecture is great, no doubt, but it leaves me caught in a perpetual feeling of ‘catch-up’. Here, the domain of interaction with the built environment is one that is responsive and allows for the accretion of memory, despite the increasingly transitional nature of the urban landscape. The dam is free from clutter, which enables one to appreciate things better.  I can see the clouds and breathe in the night sky. For real. It also opens me up to the sobering fact that I cannot do what I do here most elsewhere, which is letting my mind wander before I encounter another darned ‘object’.

Beyond what it factually is, which at first and second glance isn’t much, the feelings that belie my fondness of the dam inform me that it serves as a metaphorical touchstone of sorts. It doesn’t so much stand by itself as an entity independent of what actually surrounds it. Rather, it’s within the juxtaposition of feelings that it entices against broader social realities and ongoing changes that its meaning is fully realized. In reflecting upon what makes it special, I see that it reveals much about what other places are not, which perhaps contributes to and forms the essence of what it is. I always manage to derive a certain peace and centeredness each time I traverse it in its entirety.

Originally published by POSKOD.SG. POSKOD.SG is an online magazine about modern Singapore and its people, places, and phenomena. SOUNDSCAPING is its special section that soundtracks Singapore's neighbourhoods.

Words Nick Chan
Images Ng Xi Jie

Tags | Singapore , Audio , Mixes , Experimental , Poskod.sg , Electronica

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