Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Natalie Soh

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information! 

In December 2014, 8 interns joined us to work with the curatorial and outreach teams, conducting research for upcoming exhibitions and programmes in 2015 at the museum and the NUS Baba House. Besides those involving our collections and recent acquisitions, the interns prepared for upcoming exhibitions surrounding the work of alumni artists, the T.K. Sabapathy Collection, as well as SEABOOK. They also assisted with ongoing happenings at the museum, including exhibition installation and programme facilitation. 

Natalie Soh is a 4th year USP Scholar and Sociology student at NUS FASS. In December 2014, she joined us as a Baba House outreach and research intern, contributing to walking tour research which delved into housing schemes undertaken by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), challenges faced by the housing commission, Everton Road and Tiong Bahru estates and the development of the Housing Development Board (HDB). She also assisted with Museum and Baba House Outreach activities.

During my one-month internship with the NUS Baba House, I was assigned to research on the Housing Development Board (HDB), as well as its predecessor Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Specifically, I was tasked to examine the histories of various early HDB and SIT flats that are still around today, such as the Tiong Bahru estate and Everton Park. Having had no prior background in this, it was indeed eye-opening to be learning about the evolution of HDB from SIT, as well as the various challenges faced along the way. Furthermore, as SIT was formed during the British colonial era, I was able to learn about the struggles and successes of the colonial government at that time, especially with regards to their efforts at clearing the slums and introducing public housing.

Tiong Bahru was an especially interesting estate to look at, not least because of its recent popularity among young entrepreneurs, new residents, and tourists. Through researching on its development from when it was first built until today, I was able to process the changes that have taken place, as well as the implications resulting from such changes. In particular, the entry of various new competitive businesses have generated some friction among the long-time residents who see these as spoiling the original ambience of the area. In some ways, this is also a reflection of the broader tension that can be found throughout Singapore between what should be conserved and what constitutes progress.

An intriguing discovery I made during the research had to do with how Everton Park seemed to be in a similar situation to Tiong Bahru, but has reaped vastly different effects. Like the latter, Everton Park has seen a surge of popularity among new and independent shops, cafes, and bakeries. Thus, walking through the estate today, one is able to observe a good mix of old and new businesses juxtaposed against one another, operating side by side. However, unlike Tiong Bahru, this entry of young entrepreneurs has not resulted in a backlash among long-time residents and business owners. Instead, they are welcome as new blood, and seen to contribute to the vibrancy and liveliness of the estate. Thus begets the question, ‘Why is there such a disparity in reaction in Tiong Bahru and Everton Park?’

My conjecture is that there are both historical and economic reasons which may explain this difference. Firstly, Tiong Bahru is a rare pre-war site that is officially under conservation status. This unique feature means that the area is relatively well-known throughout the country, and possibly contributes to the perception of quaintness that it is commonly associated with today. Unsurprisingly, the demand for commercial spaces among independent businesses is high, and as a result, rental prices shoot up. Long-time business owners who are unable to deal with such high costs inevitably close down, and tension between the new and old is aggravated as the new shops are perceived to be fierce competitors. On the flipside, Everton Park is a considerably newer estate built by HDB in the 1960s. The building’s features are more commonplace, and less unique compared to that of Tiong Bahru. Hence, it might be viewed as a relatively less charming, and demand for rental shop spaces is lower. Without the similar problem of inflated rental costs, existing business owners in the area are less likely to view new businesses as competition, and thus are more welcoming to them.

I came to this conclusion only after uncovering the details and historical facts of the respective estates, and then trying to draw the links between them and the phenomenon seen today. It was most gratifying to have reached this postulation after hours of research.

Apart from research, I also helped out at the Baba House, be it at ad-hoc events, or during the heritage tours. My tasks were usually simple, such as ensuring that the doors and windows are opened before the guests arrive, or helping to lock up and switch off everything after they leave. However, instead of finding them mundane and trivial, I came to notice how much effort it took to upkeep a conserved Peranakan home. As the furniture were mostly genuine antiques, much care had to be given to them at all times. Fahdly and Poonam were extremely meticulous in making sure that things were always arranged in a precise order, and took extra precautions in maintaining the house. From this, I learned that the pristine conditions of conserved artefacts and environments that visitors generally take for granted have undergone great care and restoration before going on display.

During one Saturday of the December break, the Baba House conducted a children’s workshop where parents and children came together to learn about Peranakan tiles, and ultimately design their own tile. It was definitely heart-warming to see each pair work together to produce a work of art they were proud of. Most surprisingly, the children were able to direct their attention to painting their tiles for a good two hours! Their intense focus reflected how seriously they took the workshop, and how determined they were to produce a decent-looking Peranakan tile. Personally, I felt that this was a creative and engaging way to teach not only children, but also people of all ages about the Peranakan culture and way of life.

In all, it has indeed been an enriching time working at the Baba House. Although the bulk of my research was confined to analysing HDB, I have also learned a lot about the Peranakan culture and lifestyle, and have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the kind of environment they once lived in.


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