Walking Jalan Besar
On a walk around Jalan Besar with New World's End
It’s a privilege to spend time with friends, especially those you’ve known since you were young, dumb and full of naive idealism, all the way through your early adulthood and major milestones to here, now, with a new life stage’s new-found sense of pragmatic, cautious optimism.
Walking is another one of my favorite things to spend time on. The sweet slowness of each foot step, one foot in front of the other, no haste or hurry. Walking takes the time it takes.
I had the chance to do both with a good friend of mine who came to Singapore for a visit over the long weekend. We decided to go on a self-guided walking tour through the streets of Jalan Besar neighborhood, called New World’s End by Oh Stories. We didn’t know what was ahead of us.
The tour started at Desker Road. As we wove our way through the crowded Sunday afternoon tapestry of people, following the narrator’s instructions, carefully matching each other’s pace so as not to yank the damn headphones off of the shared audio player, we came across a “park” marked by drippy mural – cue a scene in the story. We stood still and examined the surrounding open space, imagining what was. The sound of a bustling past gave us a hint, here we are in the present, where things aren’t.
The lovers’ stories sent us on the hunt again for the past that’s no longer here, we stopped for a drink, looked to our left and right, avoiding traffic. Without knowing, our footsteps had synchronised perfectly with their footsteps. A clever trick by whoever designed this tour, making sure we were where we’re supposed to be on the map.
We got lost and then we found our way. Hiking up 4 or 5 flights of stair, breathing out of our ears, we were now really transported to the past. Old newspaper clippings, novels, dresses, the familiar straw mat every South East Asian must’ve had in their home at some point. “He liked drawing, and script writing, he liked King Kong, he smoked.” Like detectives, we examined the “evidence”, artefacts of characters that supposedly once occupied this space.
Cut to the next scene, we crouched through broken rubbles and got a glimpse through a tiny peephole like window, the dim lamp illuminated a letter, as the narrator with perfect timing, read out the words. Cut to the next scene, empty hotel room. Cut to the next scene, black and white movies. Cut to the next scene…
As we made our way back to the beginning:
“A new hotel in the place of the rubble, a shopping mall and condominium where an amusement park once stood. That’s how this city rolls. But the streets and backlanes remain, like an old lover waiting for your return. Some ragged, some scrubbed clean but all familiar – pathways written on your body.
Walking, the streets transport you, whispering your stories – secrets the two of you share. Walking, you unravel a bit. You reopen wounds. One foot in front of the next, each step a step into the past, present and a dream of the future.”
— New World’s End
Cut to the next scene…
We sweat balls and parked our aging bodies at a bar down the street, in our hands, 2 cocktails inspired by the lovers from the story. We eagerly talked about our shared yet, too, utterly alone experiences, chatted about our perspectives, some details he noticed, I didn’t, and vice versa. I felt my head ringing with excitement, here it is, that feeling of time well spent, with an old friend, with whom you just click.
I fell in love with traversing time through the sounds and voices in my head, interweaving with the present hustle bustle of the city, being neither here nor there. Rediscovering these streets, connecting the dots of the past with the present brought a whole new experience to walking.
The last 2 years has felt like I was living in a limbo, as if a dome has fallen on top of this city, keeping me locked up inside my own head. These same streets that I’ve walked a thousand times, now felt new, like I wasn’t home, but a strange new land with stories I have never heard, stories hidden in backlanes, in quiet corners waiting to be discovered.
There’s so much to dislike about this place, and yet a whole lot more to love, if only I would just take the time it takes to get to know it.
I’m grateful for the afternoon, for friendships that stay for most of my life, for sweating under the heat, for being surrounded by strangers again, for every aching muscle in my body, for rekindling my old love for newness in old things, for this brief moment in time, still existing.
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