Spacetime juxtaposition: A Singapore heritage narrative

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There are only two possibilities: yes or no. He said yes. Standing in the lobby of Goodwood Park Hotel, he smiled broadly in my direction, stretching out his hand to greet me as I approached. It was our first meeting after months of negotiating via email, a plan and schedule for his knowledge exchange visit between Sweden and Singapore. A Nordic born in a small city enclosed within the Arctic Circle, he sweltered standing in the air-conditioned hotel lobby in mid-afternoon Singapore. “Hi, Bo Hjemqvist.” he said. “Hi, I’m Patricia de Souza, Pat ” I said. Bo was a renowned academic with a background in Chinese arts history. I beamed at the thought that he was now officially engaged as guest speaker at the Singapore Civilisations Museum. “How was your taxi ride from Changi Airport to the hotel? No heavy traffic I hope?” I queried. “It was a smooth ride from the airport to here. No problems whatsoever.” he said. At the café, we sat at a table that faced the inner courtyard of the beautiful early 1900s constructed building. Déjà vu, I thought, had we not had this conversation before? I swept that feeling aside and ordered our drinks as the waiter came around. Two cups of pure black coffee. “But I did feel an incredible sadness when I passed a stretch of beach to the left hand side of the highway.” Bo continued. “How do you mean, ‘an incredible sadness’?” I asked. “A heaviness of feeling, unexplainable.” he said. “Do you know the history of Singapore?” I asked, knowing that he was well versed in Chinese history but uncertain if he knew much about Singapore history. “No,” he said, “What happened there?” The café in which we sat was acknowledged to serve one of Singapore’s finest English Afternoon Teas. Seeing that the waiter was taking the afternoon’s last orders, I called for… “The lady will have the house’s tiramisú.” Bo told the waiter. I smiled. Tiramisú was exactly what I craved. I thanked him for the order. “I think ‘the incredible sadness’ that you felt could possibly be related to incidents that happened at Changi Beach during world war two.” was all I offered in explanation.

We met again next morning at the ferry terminal that would take us to Sentosa. Bo was invited by Steven Pereira of the Eurasian Association to connect with the Eurasians for a heritage trail around Pulau Blakang Mati (‘the death island behind Singapore’). On the ferry, I told Bo that I was last at Sentosa as a 14-year-old convent schoolgirl, on a geography excursion to Fort Siloso and the Rock Museum. “I’m not fond of Sentosa” I said, “At the Rock Museum, I went into a distinctly empty washroom only to find that I couldn’t get out fast enough after washing my hands because there were ‘people’ standing in the way that were not there to use the washroom.” He listened and smiled. “There’s also a sense of stillness, a quietness in Sentosa that I cannot explain.” I said. As the group got off the ferry, they signalled that they would have lunch at the nearest eatery before starting the walk around the island. Just at that moment, I stopped Bo in his tracks, pointing to the secondary forest located to the right of the concrete pavement. “Look here, this is exactly as I mean!” I said, “This spot of land looks and feels as if a painting. You can see the waves just out at sea, and you can feel the slight breeze on your skin. But in this stretch of land, there is not a sound, no rustle of leaves, no birds calling, nothing!” I turned to Bo to see him deep in thought. He was silent for a few minutes, his gaze diffused. Finally, he turned to me, nodded and walked on.

“What?” I asked, “Why the nod?” He was silent. “What?” I asked again, this time in curt tone, bordering on impolite. As the group came into sight where they seemed perfectly comfortable getting seated for brunch, Bo said, “I saw a long row of Chinese men, walking. Some with t-shirts, some without. Somewhere in distant, I heard a language that I am not familiar with. Then I heard gun shots.” I only looked at him to continue, “The voice using that language was rough and commanding. The expression on the men’s faces was one of utter desolation. It was as if they knew there was no more hope for them. It was as if someone had disappointed them immensely.” I nodded in response, “The British” I offered, “Steve told you about Sentosa and Sook Ching during the Japanese occupation.” I nodded. “Sook Ching? No, nobody told me anything about the Japanese occupation, Steve mostly told me about how the Portuguese got here”. I was stunned, “But how did you know this?” “I saw it.” he said, matter-of-factly. I didn’t ask more.

As our day continued around Sentosa however, I realized that Bo could give information about places, things and events related to the context that noone had previously mentioned in his direction. By evening, I had to ask, “How do you do it?” “Do what?” he replied. “See things.” I said, matter-of-factly. He raised his hand to eye-level, his palm facing horizontal to the ground “People tend to see Time like this, linear, straight, moving forward.” I nodded. “I tend to see Time, like this.” he said, and turned his fingers in wave-like notion. “This is how Einstein probably conceived it when he said Time is relative to the Observer.” he said. “So what I saw when I was 14 in the washroom at the Rock Museum?” “Could probably be explained as a perceived juxtaposition of spacetime events.” Seeing my perplexity, he continued, “You know, in quantum theory, there is no ‘universal now’ in the Consciousness of Time.” I looked at Bo, blinking twice, I said “I thought you said you were an Arts Historian?”

About the Author: 
Cheryl Marie Cordeiro has a PhD in general linguistics from the University of Gothenburg. She is currently a faculty member at the Centre for International Business Studies (CIBS), School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg.