Friday 26 May 2023

Now Boarding: Experiencing Singapore through travel 1800s–2000s

T.A.Morton gives a sneak preview of Now Boarding, an exhibition opening on May 27 at the National Museum, Singapore. 

In 1956, writer W. Somerset Maugham permitted Raffles Hotel to use his words for their latest marketing campaign. His words were, 'Raffles Hotel stands for all the fables of the exotic East.' Such a testimony from a well-known writer was priceless and Raffles promptly used them in their advertisements, on their menus and matchboxes. 

Various hotel chains have since used this idea of the "exotic East" over the years, including the Singapore Hyatt in 1971, who wrote in their advertisements, 'If Somerset Maugham were alive today, our Islander Room would be his second home.' There was this sense that Somerset Maugham encapsulated something unique and romantic about Singapore, an alluring part of the world where one would experience adventure. 

The new travel-themed exhibition at the National Museum, Now Boarding, aims to encompass that feeling of adventure and rediscovery. It is a welcome distraction after years of the pandemic when travel was impossible. It seeks to look at Singapore's role, first as a travel hub and how it has transitioned to becoming a dynamic, cosmopolitan tourist destination. The exhibition contains over six hundred artifacts and there is a sense that by looking back, it wants to highlight how much it has moved forward. The Singaporean landscape alters quickly, and this exhibition allows for playful reflection, encouraging visitors to contemplate how Singapore identified itself to others and evolved. 

On arriving at the National Museum's main entrance, one of the former Terminal 2 Changi Airport Flipboards greets you. It is an impressive sight. If you wait a few moments, you will hear the flip and click of the board as it changes destination. It invites you to check in, where you will be presented with a boarding card as your ticket. First class, and so begins your journey, transforming you into another time. Singapore has turned the mirror on itself; how did it see itself, how did others perceive it, and how did it alter to suit cosmopolitan travellers over the years? Using five common themes found within an ordinary travel guidebook, Getting Here, Getting Around, Places to Stay, Eating out and Sights and Shopping, the exhibition cleverly uses a colourful array of images, items, sounds and thoughts to evoke feelings of amusement and nostalgia. 

In the first room, guidebooks from different decades are presented behind glass. The oldest dates to 1887; its title reads, Picturesque and Busy Singapore. There is an immediate feeling that Singapore has always been depicted this way, a luscious green city busy with traders, travellers, and life. As you move down the line of guidebooks, you see how Singapore was presented throughout different time periods. Landscape photographs of the city, Raffles Hotel and pretty smiling local girls wearing handcrafted rattan hats are illustrated on various cover pages. 

Vintage posters of the former Malay railways and P&O ships line the walls in Getting Here. Headphones filled with oral testimonies lie underneath the vibrant commercial posters of cruise ships, giving an insight into the long, arduous journey from the West towards the East. It becomes obvious that the European traveller was the main focus of the tourist industry in the early twentieth century. Singapore Airlines is naturally featured, showcasing one of their First Class Suite seats from 2007, the iconic Singapore girl uniform and the vinyl record of the Singapore girl song, 'A great way to Fly.’ Reminding us of their vital role in making Singapore an easy place to get to. 

In Getting Around, Singapore’s crowded and chaotic streets are seen in black and white photographs. There is a touching mention of the traffic police (angels in white) that carefully directed traffic flow before the arrival of traffic lights. A fun addition is a well-preserved trishaw. It is a relic of the past, reminding us that rickshaws and trishaws were once the most common transportation in Singapore. Crowding the streets, they became a hindrance once more cars were on the road and dropped in popularity. A vibrant display of the old Transit Link cards illustrates the many designs over the decades, from celebrities to landmarks and the outlines of the MRT. Getting around Singapore has changed over time, yet it is evident it always wanted to ensure that it was accessible and easy for all. 

Raffles Hotel is highlighted today, as the oldest hotel in Singapore and one of the most well-known hotels in the world. In Places to Stay, Raffles has donated two staff uniforms from two different times; a room service uniform from the 1950s and the modern-day doorman's uniform that appears to be more formal almost military attire. The Raffles doorman's job is to keep non-guests out of the hotel, yet now tourists seek him out making him one of the most photographed people in the world. Dishware and silver from the old Europe hotel showcase the luxury of the past where hotels wanted to encapsulate the desires of the society, from the roller-skate rink that was set up in a hotel lobby to the rich resort living at the Shangri La in Sentosa, to the world-famous MBS. The hotels of Singapore have been leading the rest of the world in how to cater to those that can afford them. 

Food is often considered Singapore's favourite pastime; from the arrival of Chinese immigrants setting up the hawker centres to the fine dining experiences of the grand hotels, there is something to interest everyone. In Eating Out, you can browse through the menus of the past, filled with different local dishes and see the emergence of international cuisines that filtered through to satisfy foreign tastes. In addition, there is an arrangement of old cooking utensils used in the hawker centres and an imaginative circular arrangement of old branded coffee cups and soda bottles that bring a sense of longing for a time that once was but has now passed.

Singapore has always been known for its Sights and Shopping. During 1970/80's, shopping for electronic items in Singapore was world-famous; cheap cassette players, VCRs, watches, and good deals were to be found. With the vibrant signs from the former Neptune Theatre, once the largest dining theatre in Singapore, and Zouk, the nightlife hotspot, we are taken back to the days of amusements and parties. Sightseeing highlights include forgotten tourist attractions such as the Crocodile farm with a tannery where you could design your leather goods. And Haw Par Villa, formerly Tiger Balm Villa, which has been present since 1935 and falls in and out of popularity. Here there is a sense that Singapore directs tourists to what they want them to see. Today Gardens by the Bay, the Merlion and MBS dominate the guidebooks; in the past, many guidebooks recommended renting a car and taking a road trip to explore the island in its entirety and all its offerings. 

The exhibition is like visiting an old friend, reminiscing about the past; there is a lightness and a sense of humour with its pop-up disco room based on the clubs of the 1980s. By looking back to go forward, it reexamines itself, emphasising that Maugham's ‘exotic East’ belongs to another time and that Singapore has fully emerged from no longer being considered just a travel hub destination but a destination to rival any great modern city. 

Details, Now Boarding 

When: May 27, 2023, till Nov 19, 2023.

Where: Exhibition Gallery, Basement, National Museum Singapore.

Timings: 10 am to 7 pm daily (last admission at 6.30 pm)