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feb 17 - apr 10 2022

Make Your Garden Grow:
Desire And Discipline Along Orchard Road

By Joel Tan

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I seem to recall, as a kid in the late 90s and noughts, that Orchard Road genuinely felt like the epicentre of cool in Singapore. It was a kind of teenage rite of passage to learn the ways of primping and preening “down town”—you grasped towards an awkward young adulthood by figuring out what it meant to spend money, what it meant to wear outside clothes, and why some people were so much better at it (footnote 1). Here, you could be transformed by the architecture of retail: unlike our sleepy HDB estates, this was a place where every wall, every corner existed for a kind of pleasure, which pleasure being the erotics of retail—temptation on every shelf, seducing you to buy; and in buying, change yourself. And if not to buy, at least to lust after and covet.

 

It wasn’t just teenagers. The whole street thronged with dazed adults and kids, locals and foreigners, all giddy with the optimism of the turn of the millennium and its diarrhea of consumable globalization. That version of Orchard Road abounds in the mind: Ang Mohs sipping cocktails at the alfresco bar at the Marriot, angsty Brit pop blaring in the nation’s first Top Shop, the coffee aroma amidst the books at Borders, the commanding temple that is Takashimaya, and the audacious aquarium at the basement of Wisma Atria that transformed shopping into a kind of trippy place to be rather than just a thing to do. 

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Today, some ambivalence hangs over the area. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the nation’s retail belt: falling footfall, rising rents, empty malls; none of it helped by people shopping online, and a debilitating global pandemic. 

 

Maybe the simple answer to the waning of Orchard Road is that, like most things, the Internet has changed the way people use and access spaces. Maybe the currency of cool has changed, or maybe, with our collective migration onto the digital space, we draw less excitement from brick and mortar. 

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Or maybe the problem lies in that specifically Singaporean approach to urban planning that’s given us a mall at every turn. Why do you need a high street when every residential neighbourhood clusters around a mall, a high street rendered vertical (footnote 2)? In a city as small as Singapore, this seems to have bled Orchard Road dry. Urban planners don’t necessarily think about the currency of cool, or how a single, central nexus of cool creates the kind of desire that keeps a place relevant. And how, when many strands of desire—across class, race, age, and sexuality—converge on a space, the space becomes transformed: it becomes alive, human, and exciting. That elusive “buzz” or “energy” that we mutter enviously about when we pine for cities we love is the feeling of desire transforming space and space, in turn, transforming people.


Orchard Road feels like a victim of that quintessentially Singaporean way in which we tend to build over desire with structures that tell how you should desire. Anyone with even the remotest familiarity with Singapore will know just how destructive that anxiety about control can be, the empty hallways and dead spaces it leaves in its wake. And how quickly and reactively it can work, how rapidly it can kill a thing. And if we look at Orchard Road’s past, we’ll see a recurring pattern of desire met with control, a clue, perhaps, to the present state of our formerly hip central attraction.

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Back in the noughts, us baby millennials were merely the newest kids on the Orchard block. A little over ten years before, there were the Centrepoint Kids, who thronged about that eponymous mall, defiantly wanting to be seen standing about with their funny hair and youthful rebellion. They were the source of dictionary-definition moral panic: articles were written about them in the papers declaring they “must go,” sociological studies were launched, documentaries made… 

 

I never saw them, just heard my mother mutter about them whenever we were at Centrepoint to buy make-up from the Robinsons or ham from the Cold Storage downstairs. By that time, Centrepoint had already been totally cleaned up. Whatever it was about those mall rats gathering to smoke, wear weird clothes, and listen to Western music that had spooked the older generation so much, it got them well and truly driven away. 

 

That subcultures should rise up in a place like Singapore is hardly surprising. What else are young people expected to do in a country where visions of success and happiness are so narrow and square? 

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Where else in this city could they be seen participating in global cool, or be heard rallying around their rebellious 80s anthems? Where could they be part of something larger, something real? In other places, after all, the gloom ‘n doom of the 80s created an efflorescence of cultural anti-establishmentarianism. It’s not hard to imagine this being relevant in 80s Singapore, at the time rapidly climbing out of poverty, the psychic wounds of the third world still fresh in people’s minds, the strong state mandating people’s lives and bodies. Can you blame the children for marking their displeasure, their confusion, their desire, if not in the streets, then in the mall? 

 

It’s not hard to imagine the thronging of brightly costumed rebels lounging by the escalators, clogging up the walkways, as a kind of theatre, even performance art. And in the late 80s and 90s, as the record shows us, both these forms were hotly contested. After all, performance makes visible latent desires, and enacts dreams of difference and defiance in space. These are forms through which the body twists and transforms the structures that bind it. Here, in the city where the body itself is militarized and aestheticized towards order and productivity, what do you make of young people decorating their bodies, dangling their bodies in leisure, moving their bodies to Western noise and filling their under-aged lungs with nicotine? 

 

The story of the Centrepoint Kids is part of a trajectory of state discipline: the kids existed at the tail-end of that bizarre period of our history where the aesthetics of people’s bodies and taste in music were an active concern of the state. Forging a national identity of discipline and temerity against Western excess and “yellow culture,” these anxieties were played out on the bodies of the young. Who can forget the stupidity of the long-hair bans? Or Michael Fay, the white boy vandal, who in 1993 was caned so publicly it became a diplomatic spat between Singapore and Bill Clinton’s USA? Problematic youths rebelling against the inhumanity of the 80s were turned into public villains. 

 

Rebellion has a way of flowering briefly but beautifully in Singapore. It’s cut down with ferocious speed, and the soil is left poisoned after. In Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, the protagonist manages a pyrrhic victory against the state, securing a non-standard size grave plot for his father’s coffin. The result, though, is a new policy, which prevents the same thing from ever happening again. Probably as a result of all this moral panic about the troubled youth, I seem to remember being lectured by my teachers about “unlawful gatherings” every opportunity they got. I remember growing up nervous about gatherings. The surveillance entered my body.

 

Is it then any surprise that the Orchard Road kids who replaced the Centrepoint Kids in the noughts, baby millennials raised by the strong state and fed on the self-improvement narratives of 90s consumerism, were so much less of a problem? All we wanted was chokers and Ayumi Hamazaki CDs, bought with pocket money from our affluent parents. We brandished Nokia phones and bitched on MSN from the comfort of our bedrooms. Orchard Road was still “cool” but maybe cool had started to mean something else. Where my generation could purchase cool, the kids before us really just wanted to live it, to mark it on their bodies, to manifest it in the world around them. Perhaps they wanted to rewrite the world with cool, starting with claiming space for their own unproductive uses. And for that they had to go.

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Orchard Road was the site of another famous gathering in the 90s, this time in the field next to the old Orchard MRT, which is now where the ION Orchard stands. In the 90s, foreign domestic workers, many of them Filipinas, would gather there to eat, and dance, to hang out. Here, not rebels or punks, but the people who looked after our families, made themselves gleefully visible in a space that was so rooted in the heart of the city’s aspirational self-image (footnote 3). 

 

When that monstrosity from space, the ION, was built, the field disappeared. I doubt that the migrant worker community was consulted or invited to occupy other spaces along Orchard Road. Perhaps some people were even glad that they were gone. Obviously there’s a kind of anxiety about seeing these labourers as human beings with a love for a good time, a need to dance and sing, and flirt, and gossip (footnote 4).

 

Not long after the ION was built, I happened to be in the area on a Sunday afternoon. Outside, on the stairs, where they installed tacky multi-colour effigies of happy shoppers, a small dance party had broken out. A Filipina lady was singing into a mic, accompanied by a keyboardist, doing rock number after rock number. People were dancing hard. The revellers were mostly migrant workers and a couple of happy tourists. Nearby, some of these folks were eating out of Tupperware on benches. This felt like a spiritual moment to me— here, outside a temple to commerce, an assembly of bodies had its own desires. They were dancing on hot concrete pavement to remember a field, creating dance where only shopping was prescribed.

It’s clear to me that people don’t just disappear. Latent desire always rises to the surface eventually. But desire and discipline round constantly on each other. No Singaporeans joined the dance floor, but a few stood in a nervous circle around the revelers, taking videos with their phones. Maybe one of those videos made it to the wrong bureau, because the Sunday tea dance is no more.

 

Often, I wonder if the sad fate of Orchard Road has to do with the history of its soil. Something quite lovely and bucolic attends to the area’s history as an orchard, but the history of agricultural land use in Singapore is pretty violent. When the first planters started flooding into Singapore in the 19th century, they cleared large swathes of ancient primary forest to build massive plantations of cash crops like gambier and pepper. Gambier, in particular, was very popular, but it also left the soil completely nuked. The Orchard Road area used to be, like so many downtown locations, filled with gambier, which threatened to permanently render the soil unusable, and so gambier was replaced with fruit orchards to keep maximizing the use-value of the land. 

 

In other words, the area grew out of incredibly destructive deforestation, and has, since this first colonial intervention, always been tied up with anxieties over wealth, value, and luxury. In this way, it is the perfect emblem of the Garden City, not garden as in “verdant” but garden as in “man-made”. When you keep pulling weeds, keep toxifying the organic soil-bed where desires flower, what can you truly hope to grow here? What can flourish? Perhaps everything that is planted here eventually dies.

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The one remnant of the orchard is the massive trees that line the main thoroughfare. But even here, there’s an interplay between desire and discipline. I’m thinking of the mynahs that live in the canopy here, whose desire is probably older than the island itself. At sundown, they form a thunderous murmuration that is the physical and poetic embodiment of rebellion itself: they drown out the advertisements and buskers, they black out the sky, they rain shit on the Prada shoes. 

Over the years, they’ve resisted extermination, though many a committee has tried. To me, their resistance is a song of desire that lives under the skin of this city, that infrastructure tries to bury and hide, but that, like a Freudian sex dream, keeps coming back, over and over again. Maybe one day the trees will be cut down, and the mynahs finally killed. But maybe then Orchard Road will have already, finally died, and it can return to its base value: state land, barren and utterly spent. 

 

I love that some of the most interesting stories about Orchard Road have little to do with retail and everything to do with rebellion, re-appropriation, and revelry. And each of these stories is emblematic of how the Singapore state deals with irregular desire: with panic and violence. None of these visions was flattering to the version of Orchard Road that is high class, luxurious, and global, which is why they had to go. But clearly no one wants this shiny version of Orchard Road either, because why else would it become so rapidly stale and irrelevant? Perhaps the lesson of Orchard Road is that you can’t keep meeting desire with discipline and hope for anything to flourish. Something has got to give.

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In David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), an adaptation of the medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur is depicted as pale and on his way out. His power is brittle, his body failing. This is not the Camelot of high romance; it is much closer to the end of an age. Something gives. Disruption arrives in the form of the titular Green Knight, who symbolises life and organicity, the green that will reclaim us all when the kings die and cities fall. Watching this film, set in medieval England, I couldn’t stop thinking about Singapore in 2022.

 

I find this all oddly apt in the context of Singapore in 2022. And it gives me hope: this notion that desire always finds a way. Maybe there’s something in the waning of Orchard Road that is a kind of revenge. Maybe it’s an omen that the superlative vision of this city is beginning to crack. What happens when inside the tall walls and spires of Camelot, sits a pallid king whose anxiety eats away at him, whose power grows brittle? What happens when the green life-force, call it what you will—resistance, rebellion, desire, the queer and magical— starts to rally and grow through the cracks? How long, after all, can we keep building over desire before it bursts, destructively, through the doors? How long before we realise that desire itself is design, and you either work with it, or die (footnote 5)?

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Joel Tan

Joel Tan is a playwright and performer based in London and Singapore. His work straddles theatre, film, audio, visual art, and essays, and explores the intertwined histories and lived realities of empire, state will-to-power, queerness, and the city. 

Footnotes:

1. As a teenager at the time, one simply did not have a choice. You headed down to Orchard Road if you needed to stock up on young people things: edgy clothes from Lips at Far East Plaza, comic books from the compendious den of geek at the old Orchard MRT station, new albums from the HMV at Heeren. Or even just to absorb the cool radiating from the older kids. 

 

And there were other pleasures. Certainly, I remember, as a blossoming homosexual, the economy of gazes across the shelves at Borders, the thrill of picking up a pink copy of Gay Short Stories and brandishing it like a love token along the street. This was a time when buying things got you precious little pieces of the bigger world, way before it started streaming directly into our pockets.  RETURN WHERE YOU LEFT OFF

 

2. Today, the defining urban experience of Singapore is the mall. We’re fatigued by malls, of wandering around a mall looking for things to do. And Orchard Road just feels like more of the same. What is that experience?
 

It feels like someplace you’ve been a million times before. Probably you have. Any mall. Any airport. Anywhere. The clinical citrus of the carpet cleaner binds the non-places of the world. The embarrassing house music they play to keep your heart rate up begins to feel hysterical. Your eyes glaze over looking at brands you’re told to covet but that are cheaper online. The department store sells you a life you don’t need or lead—cashmere parka, goose-feather duvet, a thousand dollar pair of shoes. 

 

You can’t remember why you’re here. Perhaps out of duty to spend. Perhaps to kill time. Or to wander like those flaneurs you’ve read about, who make an art of wandering. So you wander, from shop to shop, in search of something to do. You’re commanded to spend. And so maybe you buy a book from Kino. You’re hungry. And so you wait in line at the café that sells the orange-scented coffee from Marrakesh. You see the prices. You walk some more. 

 

Maybe you cross the road to that other mall. The uncle melting in the heat tries to sell you ice cream from the cart, and you wonder if he has any CPF. Your feet hurt. You want to sit down. But the benches outside are burning in the sun. There’s mosquitoes. There’s bird-shit. There’s ants. You cross the street in search of rest. Inside, it’s $10 to sit down somewhere, anywhere. So you wander around yet another cavernous mall, killing time, yes but maybe your soul is also slowly dying. Your eyes glaze over, your bunions scream. You wonder why you wore your nice clothes today, they’re already smelling of sweat. You look up and see a woman looking at you. But her eyes are glazed as she passes you along the empty walkway, heels clacking to the muzak. Do you have the same look of catatonia in your eyes? You wonder: why are we here? Why are we still here?

 

And here, in a tragic callback to that long-gone Wisma Atria aquarium, we are all just desultory, depressed fish floating about in a sterile tank, looking pretty but fundamentally waiting to die. RETURN WHERE YOU LEFT OFF 

 

3. Again, I remember as a kid feeling nervous about seeing them gather—I can’t put a finger on it, perhaps it was my latent Singaporean anxiety about groups, perhaps it was the racism built into my ways of seeing, perhaps a nervousness about people using public space in organic, un-mandated ways. I was a total success story of state discipline. Today, I recall that field with sadness because it makes me think of the possibility of living in a city with more room for spontaneous sociality, for public displays of joy. It makes me think of a city shared with all who live here, and not so cynically drawn along brittle “local versus foreigner” lines.  RETURN WHERE YOU LEFT OFF 

4. I find it absurd that as the number of migrant workers grows in Singapore, so does the will to unsee them. Today, we see similar social efflorescences all over Singapore. The Indonesian foreign domestic workers have turned the area around the Paya Lebar malls into their hotspot on Sundays. The space, usually neurasthenic and bland like every other Singapore mall, becomes briefly alive. Of course these uses of space are hotly contested. In 2018, a woman selling bakso in a nearby field where these folks would gather was arrested by NEA officers, who seized her food and equipment. And more recently, in 2020, MP Yaacob Ibrahim, uploaded photos of a field near Kallang MRT where migrant workers would gather. Chuffed that lockdowns and social distancing measures had cleared the field of people, he noted smugly that he’d been working on plans to get rid of them, but alas “it takes a virus to empty the space”. The photos show a barren, lifeless field, devoid of life, meaningless: state land, in short, good to pass through, but god forbid you should use it. RETURN WHERE YOU LEFT OFF 

 

5. Plans are already underway to re-imagine Orchard Road. The street, in typical government parlance, will be revived as “The Lifestyle Destination,” broken into different precincts each with a different “lifestyle” focus. Areas will be “enhanced” to reflect their historical significance, to make them more amenable to “lifestyle” uses. The arts and culture will be brought in to add some kind of sheen to the space. 

There’s some promise here, in trying to shape a space around how people might actually want to use it, but I have my doubts. My eyes glaze over as I read these plans. Breathless and optimistic, they like someone who’s spent all his life in the city trying to write about a rainforest. It feels a little bit like a rainforest in an airport. It feels a little like super-trees growing out of reclaimed land. I feel like we’ve been here before, already seen this. Maybe this time it’ll work, or maybe, again, it won’t.  RETURN WHERE YOU LEFT OFF 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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