Yangtze Scribbler, I still haven’t found you! Soon there won’t even be a reason to call you the “Yangtze Scribbler”, once the Yangtze Cinema is gone from memory. The reference that I used to refer you by will have ceased to exist.
Yesterday my mother and I saw the Yangtze Cinema appear on the 6.30PM Chinese news in Singapore. We only saw the second half of the report, but due to the stunted state of our Chinese we couldn’t agree on whether they were reporting that it was about to reopen, or about to close for good, my mother was unfoundedly optimistic that she had heard that it would be reopening, but I knew that even if the dilapidated Yangtze suddenly rose from the ashes, it wasn’t quite something that would be celebrated with a spot on the prime time news.
And so indeed, the Yangtze finally closed its doors on 29 Feb 2016. For me, the search for the “scribbler” started from nothing more than a chance discovery of the strange scribbles on the stairwell of the Yangtze – that somehow continued for years like a game or hide and seek in other parts of Singapore, when the same scribbles started appearing on the routes I frequented near Queen Street and the Muslim Cemetery where I would catch the bus. I have always been terribly grateful for Pin Pin’s foresight for documenting the story of my search for the mysterious writer of symbols which I had childishly named the “scribbler” at the time…
I’m not always in Singapore these days. Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not. But last August, whilst walking from Outram to Chinatown, I ended up being trapped in Pearl Centre during an extremely heavy downpour, the relentless tropical kind of rain which demolishes umbrellas and forces you to wade through ankle deep water in order to get to your next appointment. So I soon realised that the rain meant that I would be stuck at Pearl Centre for quite some time…
If we talk about ambiances, there are actually very few places in Singapore where I feel a sense of being physically repelled. The stairwell leading up to the Yangtze Cinema is certainly one of those places. I have always supposed it is because in real life I am awkward and have been thoroughly socialised by society’s norms to respect people’s “private space”. I don’t like accidentally brushing against strangers on public transport and I would never really feel totally at ease in someone else’s house. The stairwell makes me feel like I am intruding into a space which someone has already claimed as their own; the walls engraved with scribbles, handprints and furniture for one to sit on.
Paradoxically, like the extreme vertigo I often experience when walking on large rocks or steep natural terrains, this inexplicable sensation of being physically repelled is what excites me and attracts me to return to and look closer at the place.
Could it have always just been a product of the hypnotic flicker of artificial light, or the effect of some low-frequency extractor fan infrasound that induces a vertiginous sensation of there being some other presence within the enclosed space? And what of the other doors with the MALE TOILET signs next to it? Is there something significant about how all the Male toilets are next to this passageway that is trying to send me some subliminal messages about how this is some Male space that I’m not supposed to be intruding on?
On that afternoon in 2015, the sense of having intruded was also quite frankly literal. Poking around the stairwell on one of the higher floors, I set off some kind of alarm within the building (that I had never encountered or triggered on previous trips here). So I bumbled through one of the other doors on the stairwell, and was surprised to find a middle aged man in plain white shirt, long trousers and flipflops, sitting on the floor in the corner, reading a newspaper. Mumbling an apology for suddenly disrupting his peaceful afternoon in the corner, I walked through the corridors between closed shutters and glass windows decorated with MOVED signs – only to accidentally disturb another man hiding in another concealed corner of this empty shopping centre. Looking through the glass of another vacated shop, I could see another man in another corner, not doing anything at all. With the shops gone, they were free to use the building in any way they pleased. And they decided it was a good place to sit. They were all seemingly waiting for something… perhaps the next showtime at the Yangtze?
The old men sat apart and alone, occupying the unused corners in this emptied shell of an old shopping centre that still remained lit and airconditioned for nearly the last few who remained. Did they ever speak to one another, or did they know each other? I don’t know. Perhaps they remained complete strangers to each other till the very end, just as I may never really know if I inadvertently crossed paths with the Yangtze Scribbler that afternoon. After I finally left Pearl Centre, I realised that somehow it hadn’t occurred to me to speak to the men to ask them if they had known who had made the scribbles on the stairwell.
Somehow united by this strange space, the strangers passed the time together and waited for the last show of the day…
May 2013 – Yangtze Scribbler on Victoria Street
June 2012 – Yangtze Scribbler on Queen Street
April 2012 – Looking for the Yangtze Scribbler
Mar 2012 – Yangtze Scribbler on Victoria Lane
Flickr Set: More images of the Yangtze Scribbler
Singapore Memory Project Showcase – Tan Pin Pin’s short on the Yangtze Scribbler