Yesterday, Meet Tomorrow

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

I

In 1972, Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa chanced upon an architectural oddity: a staircase to nowhere that went up and down again, serving no purpose whatsoever. Yet, he noticed upon closer look that its railing had recently been repaired. Amused, he began to spot more such urban leftovers around him: doorways floating on the second floors of buildings, faucets poking out of walls, pipes that connect to nothing.

He called them “Thomassons”, after Gary Thomasson, an American baseball player contracted to the Yomiuri Giants from 1981-2. Dubbed the “Electric Fan” for his inability to hit a ball, Thomasson was nonetheless maintained, earning a tidy sum for sitting on the bench. Thus, a fitting eponym for found objects that were useless, yet maintained. Akasegawa documented them in a photography magazine, and the fascination for spotting them spread, as readers started to contribute too.

It makes me ponder: what are the Thomassons in our midst today? What insights can we gain from observing them? To me, the Thomasson is a metaphor for stewardship, prompting questions that anyone responsible for the upkeep of an object, institution or practice must ask. Whether you’re cleaning your house, having a relationship, managing a business or running a country, when something has reached the point of obsolescence, the question is: do we hold on, or let go?

II

In fast-paced Singapore, we often find that things from the past are holding on for dear life. Our earliest public housing estates are seeing their last days, slated for redevelopment. Recently, I visited the iconic Commonwealth Drive flats known as the Chap Lau Chu, or 10-storey houses in Hokkien, with a group of friends. The atmosphere was celebratory, yet sombre. I sat under an impressive canopy of Tembusu trees with an architect friend, where a crowd had gathered for a film screening. “It’s amazing we would do away with a type of landscape so unique to this part of the world,” he mused sadly. I looked up to admire the interlinking foliage of the many trees, mirroring in my imagination the relationships that were once the life of the neighborhood. In the distance you could see the verdant overgrowth where the old railway tracks were, and almost hear the sounds of trains coming through.

Feelings aside, this would soon be demolished, the assessed cost of maintenance exceeding the benefit. As many other mosaic playgrounds, hawker centres and buildings of yore have also been, vestiges of cultural identity that hark back to nation-building years.

Read more in The U Press N˚10 (Singapore edition).