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Passion for the Past July 21, 2006

Posted by kentneo in General.
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Text by Sim Chi Yin 

There he was, a Singaporean-Chinese being labelled ‘mei wen hua’ (‘with no culture’ in Mandarin) by his Shanghainese friends.

Architect Kent Neo searched for a good comeback line but was stumped.

‘I wanted to say, ‘But I’m Singaporean-Chinese, not China-Chinese’. But I realised I didn’t even know my own Singaporean culture. What was it?,’ says the 34-year-old, recalling the episode from a few years back.

That ‘insult’ – as he saw it – sparked an introspective journey that has turned him into quite a heritage junkie.

Over the past two years, the former Anglo-Chinese School boy has been spending two Saturdays a month visiting temples, taking photographs, talking to temple caretakers, and putting the pictures and stories online.

His blog (http://nanyangtemple.wordpress.com/) is a growing digital treasure trove of information and photographs of the temples.

According to Mr Neo, most were built in the Qing period, in Nanyang, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, Cantonese or Hakka styles.

Mr Neo, a full-time interior design lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, is helped by a handful of young enthusiasts.

They have listed 48 architecturally significant Chinese temples, clan houses and courtyard houses so far.

Mr Neo and his team have visited most of the 30 still standing. The others were demolished long before he got to them, so he had to retrieve images and information on them from the archives.

Of the 30 surviving temples, nine are gazetted as national monuments.

The others face an uncertain future because they have not been gazetted for conservation, and the group wants to document them. Examples are the Seng Wong Beo in Peck Seah Street, the Hock Teck See in Palmer Road and Wei Zhen Miao in Tiong Bahru Road.

The buildings appeal not only to the architect in Mr Neo. He is also interested in the story of the early immigrant Chinese communities here who set up temples and clans, said Mr Neo, a free thinker fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin.

He is calling for a collaborative effort in building the digital database, using the ‘open source’ concept where different authors contribute and share their information.

Last month, he started an online group called ‘Save our Chinese Heritage’ (https://soch.wordpress.com/) to get more people interested in documenting temples and old Chinese buildings.

But Mr Neo says his purpose is not to stop development or redevelopment of historic places.

‘We can’t and I’m not sure it’s right to. We can’t stop progress because of sentimentality. I just want to spread awareness of our heritage.’

He laments that many Singaporeans are uninterested in their rich heritage and history, and ‘remember only their last good meal or shopping trip’.

Putting information on Chinese heritage out in English may be one way to reach increasingly English-speaking young Singaporeans, he adds.

Mr Neo himself gets misty-eyed when he describes the beauty of the intricate, interlocking wooden beams of the Hokkien-style Yun Shan temple off Sixth Avenue.

But he is no Chinese chauvinist, he states.

He hopes to see Singaporeans set up similar groups to preserve the heritage of other communities, under a ‘Save our Heritage’ umbrella.

While state-driven efforts at conservation are important, citizens too must be passionate about their own heritage, stresses Mr Neo.

He, for one, has now got a comeback line if he is ever told again that he has ‘no culture’.

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