Ashen History: Narrating the Fire at the Origin of Modern Singapore

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Oral histories of former squatters trace the origins of modern Singapore to its largest and historically most important fire at Bukit Ho Swee on 25 May 1961. The inferno not only razed an urban kampong, it also set the stage for the government to transform Singapore into an organized public housing state of governable citizen-workers. The storytellers’ ashen histories highlight the grey area colored by the memory of the inferno; they straddle national and local history, and reveal the price of citizenship in Singapore. The narratives of the kampong tell us much about people’s mobility, community, and modernity—they were far from inert, as the state depicted them. Where the state was transfixed on high modernism in the form of organized public housing blocks, the squatters were willing to accept different typologies of housing and ways of life. Their narratives of, and alternatively silence on, possible arson outline the social worlds of the squatters in the past but also underline the ambivalent position of socialized citizens today, straddling and mediating between their own narratives and that of the state.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-394
Number of pages8
JournalCity and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


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