Yan An is a 23 year old Singaporean fresh grad with a bachelor in German Studies. She currently works on German-English translations, and spends the rest of her time thinking about culture, identity, and what her next meal will be. Through this article, she hopes to convince Singaporeans that there is more to do in Singapore beyond shopping malls, and encourage them to explore the past around them.
Have you heard of the Brunei Hostel at Tanglin Hill? Our writer Yan An goes to the quite place to experience a silent symphony, stealing all her senses.
Nestled in a quiet residential neighbourhood atop Tanglin Hill, the Brunei Hostel immediately stands apart from its neighbours with its rusted gate, a surprisingly shiny padlock chaining it shut, and a “no trespassing” sign tacked onto it. Beside it stands a guardhouse, but the last guard has long abandoned his post.
Despite its foreboding first impression, entering the abandoned hostel was deceptively easy – the curious explorer simply had to step through a hole to the right of the gate. Past the gate, the sprawling expanse of the compound was stunning. In a country where land is scarce and nary a space is left undeveloped, the existence of such a large plot of abandoned land a mere short drive from Orchard Road seemed almost surreal.
According to Remember Singapore, the hostel was set up in the early 1950s, and housed Brunei’s best students sent to study in Singapore till it finally shut its gates in 1983. Three decades after the last student had left the halls, what now remains?
It would never look like this if it were owned by Singapore, I thought as I picked my way through the rubble. From Tiong Bahru to my own neighbourhood of Katong, old buildings in Singapore are constantly being remodelled and refurbished into some chic new café, bar or hotel. Either that, or they are simply demolished altogether to make way for the new. This is no country for old buildings.
In the space that people had vacated, plants staked their claim. Trees pushed their branches through windows. Vines creeped their way across the rooms. The air smelled a strange mix of urban decay and the freshness of nature.
The only sounds were the crunch of the debris under our feet, the crack of a fallen plank of wood, or the hollow thump of our footsteps on rotting floorboards.
I didn’t dare touch anything, afraid that it would crumble on contact. Here and there, though, an odd forgotten possession left an eerie reminder of the hostel’s past human presence. A singular chair left standing in the middle of a room. The skeleton of a briefcase, its leather skin all but disintegrated.
But there were signs that new hands had touched the place too. Graffiti artists had made the hostel their underground gallery, adoring the walls with murals and anarchy symbols. Sometimes they left their tools of the trade behind; a plastic cup of neon pink paint, or an empty spray paint can. What was behind the instinct to mark a space as one’s own?
Singapore preserves its history by refurbishing and renovating – all important methods of conserving our heritage. Sometimes, though, it’s refreshing to get an organic taste of the past, to savour the flavours that blossom with age.