The Shape of Our City

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In this dream, I am a giant holding the shape of my city in the palm of my hand. Like a volcano, I must remain dormant, silent — lest the children of the land notice me. I don’t breathe, just watch with my twin vision of the macro and micro: a generation cross an intersection; a gardener cupping a red flower and bending down to inhale its sweet sickly fragrance; a sunrise as it blossoms from the ground up and reaches the top of things — a bank building, glowing metallic trees, the vault of the sky. Tenderness in the concrete.

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When I wake I will wonder why I didn’t see such beauty all along. In a second I will forget and become minute again. Yes?

Once, I was a giant.

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The past few weeks and all of today, I’ve been telling people how beautiful I find Singapore. I used to dislike it — detested everything, from the shiny Central Business District area to the HDB-riddled landscape, where the air was tense and greasy from one life forcibly rubbed against another and another and another.

Always inherently drawn to the romantic and the juvenile, skylines and spaces would form in my head as I read more and watched movies about foreign lands. I unwittingly started to create my own perfect city: beautiful gothic skyscrapers, the openness of the Santa Monica Pier, cobbled streets of some nameless European small town. In this frame I drew a ghost of a place, a bric-a-brac of stolen scenes, and when the time came for me to seek out this mystical city, I went. If I dreamt it, surely I could find it.

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But of course I couldn’t. Not in Paris, not in Stockholm, not in Sydney or London or San Francisco or Athens or Rome. No matter where I went and how beautiful things were — from the monumental to the footsore particular — all I saw was semblance after semblance of my painted city. Where was this? Where was that? Where was home?

A deep sense of dissatisfaction grew with the world.

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A strange thing started to happen. Each time I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, a realisation grew steadily — that the shape of my city was never meant to be confined to the orderliness of a New York City grid or the curlicue of Parisian arrondissements; never the subject of a Commissioner’s Plan or Haussmann’s renovation.

As a young nation, we’re only just deciding what we’re supposed to look like. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Singapore was never meant to be romantic or orderly — it is what it is. A jumble of things. The feeling of beginning.

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“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Hebrews 13:14

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Just like that, my eyes were open to the beauty of an ever-evolving landscape. Listen, structures and scenes change, but our call to the important things stays the same. The old bones of the city remain — prayer, worship, love, hope, wonder.

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I’d like to think that God really was the giant in my dream, holding Singapore in the gentle crest of his open palm as it shifts. In the verses of Psalms 139, King David talks about God forming his inward parts, knitting him together in his mother’s womb, intricately weaving him into the depths of the earth. In the same way, God is shaping the city as surely as he is shaping you, me, us.

Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well.

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I feel it all now, the keen sense of home. I feel it when I am crossing the humble intersection between Hougang MRT station and my 5-room flat, and I feel it when I am in a cab hurtling down the East Coast Parkway and watching giant metallic flowers crown from the ground in a distance. Strange how this needle prick of a country can evoke mountains of emotion in a person.

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It all comes down to this moment. Sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as she cruises down St. Andrew’s Road, framed by the lights of the National Gallery on our left and the pitch blackness of the Padang on the right, I sigh and say one more time: Gosh, Singapore is so beautiful.

Silence. No reply from either of my friends.

Of course we know this; we knew it all along. We sit quietly, watch the silver cross tchotchke dangle above the car dashboard, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

 

Originally published on SELAH.
Photos by Marcus Goh & Zann Lee

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