Seletar Airbase: Singapore’s Secret Garden

Seletar Airbase: Singapore’s Secret Garden

When it was announced that Clifford Pier would cease operations in March 2006 with plans to develop the landmark into the inevitable mall complex, there was public outcry against Singapore’s rapidly disappearing heritage. In a constant struggle between tradition and progress, iconic buildings such as the National Library and National Theatre have been swiftly torn down to make way for modern conveniences.

In the past, news of a historical building’s impending demolishment have been met with protest, usually through a flurry of letters published in the Straits Times. Li Xiuqi took it a step further. On discovering that Seletar Airbase was to be demolished to make way for a new aerospace park, the 26-year old architecture graduate made a film, Seletar Airbase: Singapore’s Secret Garden, to capture the area’s serenity and historical charm that will soon be lost come 2008. The film will be screened as part of the Substation’s 2nd Indie Documentary Festival on 6th March and at Timbre on 13th March.

Tell us about your film Seletar Airbase: Singapore’s Secret Garden.

Li Xiuqi

It’s an interview-based film that tries to bottle the charm of Seletar Airbase and convey it to people who have never been there. I think the synopsis about sums it up: “Green, historic, lovely and home to a warm community, Seletar Airbase is one of the last few pieces of old Singapore that still survives intact and untampered-with. This short documentary was produced in response to the government’s announcement that the area was slated to be turned into an aerospace industrial park.”

This is your first foray into filmmaking. What made you pick it up? Why this film?

Well basically, I really objected to the callous bulldozing of such a charming and historic area. I felt something had to be done about it. It should not just vanish like that without Singaporeans ever knowing what was lost. I was inspired by a documentary film made by two of my friends from ReallyArchitecture, that investigated what was the “real” Singapore. They did it without any film background and they said it wasn’t hard. Film just felt right for the subject, a sentimental medium for a sentimental message. Also, film is kind of universal. People won’t read lengthy arguments, but anyone can watch a 12-minute film and get the picture right away.

Still from Seletar Airbase

To satisfy the curiosity of filmmakers reading this: How long did it take to shoot Seletar Airbase? What equipment did you use?

Shooting took maybe about 6 days, spread out over about 2 weeks. Research, including book research, exploring the airbase, getting to know residents and doing preliminary interviews, took a couple of months. Equipment: I shot on DV, using mostly an old borrowed Sony camera, a TRV900E. Edited on my iMac using iMovie and Final Cut Express.

The National Theatre, Van Cleef Aquarium, Clifford Pier, the list goes on; ‘out with the old, in with the new’ is a very real concept in Singapore. What are your thoughts on this?

I really don’t agree with the mindless bulldozing of places in Singaporeans’ collective memory. There’s a violence in it, like cutting off a part of the city’s soul. I feel that such places, not just the shell, but also the life inside it. There should be a continuity between its past life and its present. Clifford Pier for instance is a beautiful structure and a breezy and laid-back public space, such as you don’t find in Singapore nowadays. But I hear there are plans to make it part of a new lifestyle development (a mall or something). Sure, the structure may be kept but I wonder if the soul of the place will be kept as well.

Many Singaporeans mourn the loss of old buildings, because their memories are very much linked to these structures. Do you think there is such a thing as being overly nostalgic or sentimental?

Gee. I don’t really think so. I think it’s healthy to feel nostalgic and sentimental. If one feels nothing when places of memory are lost, one’s sort of less human. It only looks oversentimental in contrast to our rather anti-sentimental society.


Do you have a favourite building in Singapore? If yes, why that particular one?

St. Andrews Cathedral

Currently, it’s St Andrews Cathedral. Apart from the fact that it is my church, I think it’s a beautiful building and there’s always a sense of peace about its grounds. I love the thought that in the congested, commercial city centre there is this spacious square of land, with one beautiful church on it, and anyone seeking solace can come in at any time, for free. Also it’s got hidden passageways, stairways and confusing exits, just like a cathedral should, I find it quaint.

Any further films planned?

Am currently working on a video for church on missions work. In the future, I hope to do videos on architecture or planning, and also a film starring a dog.

To find out more about Seletar Airbase: Singapore’s Secret Garden, visit the blog.

(Originally published 4th March 2007)

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