Spice warehouses! Nutmeg mania! Walk the colonial past of Singapore’s Emerald Hill

AKSHITA NANDA, The Star Malaysia, February 27, 2018

Singaporean arts organisation Oh! Open House has curated art walks that have taken viewers into the homes and stories of present-day residents of Joo Chiat and other neighbourhoods in Singapore.


Its eighth edition next month, however, takes ticket-holders into the colonial past of the Emerald Hill area, when Orchard Road was known for nutmeg plantations.


Held in the first four weekends of March, the art walk Oh! Emerald Hill is a two-and-a-half hour experience, ticketed at S$30 (RM89), which includes three 30-minute tours and an exhibition.


Tours run from 11am to 5pm and begin at Chatsworth International School, continue through Peranakan shophouses in the Emerald Hill conserved area and end at Orchard Plaza.


In all, 22 artists from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and France were invited to contribute art installations and performances responding to Singapore’s colonial history.

These range from a barbershop quartet and procession around the area, organised by theatre-maker Tan Kheng Hua, to Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong’s Open Love Letters, where a replica of the Raffles statue is cut in half and made into a charcoal grill for roasting kueh kapit or love letters. The other half is a cooling rack for the food, which can then be eaten by viewers.


Malaysian artist Kayleigh Goh presents a real estate shop with “listings” of shophouses from Emerald Hill. The shop hangs many delicate, textured paintings. Each work focuses on the distinct architectural features of the facades of shophouses in this conservation estate, which are often the only parts of the houses that are actually conserved. Each is a tidy, easily consumable representation of culture and heritage.


A key theme that inspired many of the works is the profitable nutmeg plantations started by European colonists in the early 19th century after Sir Stamford Raffles sent nutmeg and clove seeds to Singapore. Many such plantations took over farmland cultivated by local farmers.


While Raffles is seen as a looter in Indonesia, the idea of colonial powers as exploiters is not prominent in Singaporean memory. The Singapore Government is even spearheading next year’s bicentennial commemoration of Raffles’ arrival in Singapore.


Singaporean artist Nabilah Nordin and Australian sculptor Nick Modrzewski will transform an Emerald Hill shophouse into a spice warehouse, recreating the days of ‘nutmeg mania’ in the mid-19th century.


“Other countries, when they gain independence, pull down colonial statues and buildings. Singapore erects them,” says Alan Oei, 41, artistic director of Oh! Open House, which started in 2009 as an art walk.


Oei is referring to the polymarble statue of Raffles that stands beside the Singapore River. It is a copy of the original bronze statue and was made in 1972. He adds that his own team “wasn’t really interested in the colonial” era at first – which is precisely why Oh! Emerald Hill was curated to explore and respond to the historical narrative.


The art experience ends at Orchard Plaza, where art installations inspired by retail consumption occupy vacant shopfronts.


A sculpture made out of lace by Mamakan – in the shape of a stiff Victorian dress called crinoline – representing the story of Agnes Joaquim (1854-1899), the creator of Singapore’s national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim.


On the fifth floor is a “tea shop” designed by artist collective Evil Empire, which specialises in site-specific work. In the work, titled Tea Revives The World, viewers can learn about the history of the tea trade and buy blends such as Oolong Oppression, made by tea merchant Pek Sin Choon.


Next door, environmental artist and educator Zen Teh has created a zen garden out of more than two tonnes of pebbles and marble slabs. The garden follows the topography of the Emerald Hill area.


Teh, 30, used marble because it is a “luxury stone” and thus suited to a building dedicated to retail. At the same time, her installation, Small Landscape, is meant to offer shoppers and art-walkers a “place of contemplation”. “It’s a place for you to sit and appreciate the moment,” she says.


The Straits Times/Asia News Network


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