Becoming Bishan: Becoming One With Heritage

by Celine Ng (16A01A), Choo Shuen Ming (16A01E)

Drop on by – it’s well worth the time!

Drop on by – it’s well worth the time!

Becoming Bishan is a project aiming to explore the history of Bishan, and currently they are holding an exhibition at Bishan Library till 23rd August,  at Ang Mo Kio Library from 24th August to 30th September, and at Toa Payoh Library till 31st October. It was started by a team of current and former Rafflesians, and completed with the help of many parties (listed below). The project was kickstarted last April, when a group of seniors researching on Bishan for a photobook came across a treasure trove of stories, that they felt ought to be shared. This led them to create Becoming Bishan, with their investigation into Bishan’s history culminating in a booklet, a walk held earlier this May, and this exhibition. Their booklet is a comprehensive and accessible account of Bishan’s history, with archival photographs, personal accounts and even a 2-page map overlay showing the Bishan area then and now, which we found incredibly interesting:

A translucent map of today’s Bishan overlaid on a map of the very same area in 1945 – a simple yet fascinating and clear way of seeing how the place has changed.

A translucent map of today’s Bishan overlaid on a map of the very same area in 1945 – a simple yet fascinating and clear way of seeing how the place has changed.

Regarding the Project’s Jane’s Walk: Jane’s Walks are held worldwide every May, and are led by a member of a community, with the aim of not just touring an area, but also encouraging discussion and sharing amongst participants during the walk. Their walk attracted a diverse range of people, including some current and former Bishan residents. For all involved the walk proved fruitful, with lively discussion about topics ranging from redevelopment to community spirit, ultimately making for a meaningful experience.

Carefully built dioramas of places that once stood in  Kampong San Teng, along with displays to watch clips of interviews with former kampong residents.

Carefully built dioramas of places that once stood in Kampong San Teng, along with displays to watch clips of interviews with former kampong residents.

They have an exhibition up which comprises of intricate dioramas of some everyday scenes and places in Kampong San Teng (once a happening kampong beside the old Peck San Theng cemetery in Bishan), videos featuring interviews with former residents, and panels that delve into Bishan’s history, with photographs and fascinating personal accounts from former residents. These panels are arrayed around some actual artefacts from that time, with impressive pieces including actual WWII uniforms, and a preserved sample of the Seven Sister’s plants that used to be grown in Kampong San Teng. It’s a short exhibit, taking about 15 minutes to complete, but it succeeds in capturing Bishan’s colourful and fascinating past, making those 15 minutes entirely worthwhile.

The exhibition’s cosy layout.

The exhibition’s cosy layout.

One key feature of the exhibition worthy of notice is its commitment to creating a full and accessible picture of Bishan’s history. The exhibition boards cover a fairly comprehensive spectrum of topics, from life in Peck San Theng Cemetery and Kampong San Teng to a short history of the battle at Peck San Theng which occurred during the Second World War. Weaving historical details with personal anecdotes, they were helpful in articulating the significance of these places while making them oddly human and relatable. Fascinating to learn, for instance, was the knowledge that at different points in time Peck San Theng Cemetery was home to settlers seeking to hide from Japanese soldiers in World War II.

One of the many quotes and stories shared on the exhibition panels.

One of the many quotes and stories shared on the exhibition panels.

Next to the information presented on the panels were quotes from previous residents of Kampong San Teng. Ultimately the anecdotes featured are stories that tell us about how life then was like– as recounted by former residents in the area who would reminisce about how as children they would sneakily catch movies for free by peeking through the cloths surrounding the cinema; or even our principal Mr Chan Poh Meng sharing his memories of how as a family, they would visit Peck San Theng to pay respects to their ancestors. All these first-hand accounts make for real, relatable glimpses into that past time. Hearing from ex-residents themselves through quotes and interview clips, and seeing the past through the photographs closes the gap between past and present. This exhibition gives rise to an odd feeling of nostalgia almost,  and presents one with an impactful, poignant look at a now bygone era. Some of the stories also surprise – who would’ve thought that the same Bishan that today has shopping, schools and a library was once the site of a fierce battle, or that it once held a huge cemetery, and one where gangs operated at that? Such stories and small glimpses add colour to the black-and-white pictures we so often associate with the past. This exhibition instead adds texture and depth, painting for us a more detailed picture of what and who came before us, how life was lived then.

Actual old photographs and artefacts from the time, including a Seven Sisters plant specimen.

Actual old photographs and artefacts from the time, including a Seven Sisters plant specimen.

On the whole, the exhibition made a point of making systematic comparisons to present day Bishan, allowing for a clear narrative of the area’s transformation over time. The most obvious testament to the clarity of this narrative is the carefully designed overlay map which allows one to physically superimpose a map from 2015 over one from 1945, but it is also worth noting the exhibition’s attention to the littlest details. One board, for instance (dedicated to interesting facts about Bishan), told the story of how the name ‘Junction 8’ was derived from Bishan train station’s original station code, N8. These subtle quips of the little-known history behind present-day features of Bishan, that can be easily identified with, played a crucial role in making the exhibition intensely relevant even to those more ignorant of Bishan’s history.

The overlay map, in all its intricate glory and cool awesomeness.

The overlay map, in all its intricate glory and cool awesomeness.

Becoming Bishan is a fascinating and lovingly crafted exhibit that allows for an informative and entertaining experience. Lovely aesthetics and comprehensive research aside, perhaps what struck us most was its ability to tell a truly lovely story about Bishan and its transformations over time. Subtly poignant and deeply thought-provoking, Becoming Bishan is an exhibit well worth visiting with a friend.

Locations and dates of the Exhibition:
1st July – 23rd Aug:  Bishan Library
24th Aug – 30th Sep: AMK Library
1st Oct – 31st Oct: Toa Payoh Library

The Organising Team:
Calvin Teo (08S06D)
Leong Yee Ting (14A01C)
Ying Yilun (14A01C)
Ng Qi Siang (14A01C)
Carol Yuen (14A01A)
Wong Kwang Lin (14A01E)
Edgar Yeo (14S03P)
Lazarus Chok (14S03P)
Andrea Ang (14S03P)
Kuek Jiayao (14S03R)
Estee Faith Leong (15A01E)

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