Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Singapore and the Experience of Place in Old Age

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Singapore and the Experience of Place in Old Age

Article excerpt

Since the 1970s, humanistic geography has gained adherents among geographers who emphasize the centrality of "people and their condition" (Tuan 1976, 266). Humanistic research has focused on human relationships with place, notably the development, characterization, and outcome of such relationships. Except in relation to homes (Perkins 1988), neighborhoods (Rivlin 1982), or places of worship (Kong 1992), few authors except Graham Rowles (1978, 1980, 1983a, 1983b) have investigated in detail how elderly people relate to the places with which they interact.

We address this deficiency in the context of Singapore, in view of the growing proportion and number of the aged and the necessity for understanding their experiences and considering their future needs. Specifically, we use two case studies, Tiong Bahru and Chinatown, to explore how the elderly in rapidly modernizing Singapore relate to their places. Environments are especially important to aging residents, affecting their adaptation to change, the sustenance of their personal identities, and their continued participation in life, particularly given their diminishing physical ability, reduced economic means, and changing surroundings.

Tiong Bahru and Chinatown represent two areas with larger-than-average concentrations of elderly residents. The census divisions Tiong Bahru and Kreta Ayer, which correspond closely to our study areas, are two of only seventeen census divisions (out of a total of eighty-one) in which the age category with the highest proportion of residents is sixty and above (Lau 1992, 22-24). Tiong Bahru can be divided into two areas [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The first comprises primarily three-to-five-story walk-up apartments, built between the 1930s and 1950s by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the housing authority prior to the current Housing and Development Board (HDB). The second comprises the high-rise HDB apartments in the Kim Tian estate.

Physically, Tiong Bahru has not undergone many changes in the past few decades. The SIT apartments still look much the way they did when they were newly constructed. Likewise, Seng Poh Road Market / Food Center has been in existence since 1950, although the stalls were already operating in an unauthorized open-air market in the immediate prewar years (SIT n.d.). Only in the past five years have some changes been apparent: a Mass Rapid Transit station is now in operation on Tiong Bahru Road, and two developments on either side of the same road (one residential and one commercial retail, office, and entertainment) were recently completed. Even so, these changes have not drastically altered the essentially Old World environment of the SIT heartland. In demographic terms, however, the area has changed. The distinctively aged community has resulted because, over the years, many younger people have moved out to newer HDB housing developments that offer bigger and better facilities.

Chinatown, in contrast, has seen many physical changes over the years. The shophouses (two- or three-story units in which the ground floor functions as shop space and the upper floors as residential quarters) were threatened by the bulldozer in the early 1980s; some were in fact demolished [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. However, with a change in thinking toward a proconservationist stance, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has begun government conservation works and has initiated such works in the private sector since the late 1980s. Many of the elderly residents who lived in squalid conditions in these shophouses have since been moved to HDB apartments elsewhere, primarily in the adjacent Sago Street-Kreta Ayer Road vicinity.

Focusing on these as our study areas, we conducted in-depth interviews with residents in 1993 and 1994, tape recording them when we were permitted to and translating them from Mandarin and other Chinese dialects when we had to. Part of our analysis was based on the observations we made as we walked through Tiong Bahru and Chinatown, noting in particular where the elderly congregated and what they did in their meeting places. …

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