Picture this: Marina Bay area in pre-MBS days

Picture this: Marina Bay area in pre-MBS days
Marina Bay’s transformation is the story of Singapore and its people, a story of how tenacity and creativity can create something out of nothing, says freelance photographer Tan Geng Hui, who has been tracking developments in the area for the last decade.

IN 2006, Mr Tan Geng Hui and his friends booked a room at the Swissotel The Stamford hotel for a gathering. That night, out on the balcony of a room somewhere between the 60th and 65th floors, he secured his Canon EOS 300D on a tripod and took a nightscape of the Marina Bay area.

It is an arresting photograph. The foreground - the Padang, the Esplanade Bridge, Collyer Quay - is a riot of sparkly green, white and gold, capped by the spikey twin domes of Esplanade By The Bay glittering like giant sapphires in the night.

The background, however, looks a tad forlorn, with only splotches of light to break the lonely expanse of black sky.

When he took that picture, Mr Tan, now a director in a furniture company, knew that things would change.

The year before in his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had revealed plans to transform Singapore into a vibrant global city, with the redevelopment of Marina Bay taking centre stage.

He said: "We have got the old civic district which we have renovated. We have linked it to the new virgin areas, Marina South, Marina Centre, Marina East. We are going to build a new downtown on the new areas, link it up with the old city and extend the city seamlessly into the new Downtown.

"So, there is water in the bay, there are gardens and we will have a Garden City by the Bay. If you consider Fort Canning behind, in Chinese, they say you shan, you shui, very good fengshui because there is mountain, there is water, and it will be our city."

When he looks at the picture now, Mr Tan, 38, is filled with a sense of wonder. Singapore, he says, has changed indeed.

"It is amazing how fast everything has been transformed. You know, not too long ago, a lot of this was just sea and reclaimed land," adds the shutterbug, who has been chronicling developments in the area for the last decade.

Where the void was in his photo, the 20ha, $8 billion Marina Bay Sands (MBS) Integrated Resort now stands, a three-tower, 55-storey architectural wonder topped with the surfboard-like SkyPark. It has now become the most definitive icon of Singapore.

A hop and a skip away from MBS, what was once a wide expanse of grassy land has been transformed into Marina Bay Financial Centre, a show-stopping hub of skyscrapers. Home to DBS, South-east Asia's largest bank, and other international financial institutions, the area boasts three office towers, two residential towers and the Marina Bay Link Mall.

Further back is yet another new Singapore icon, the Gardens by the Bay with its three garden parks, 18 Supertrees and glorious conservatory complex housing the columnless Flower Dome, the world's largest glass greenhouse.

"You know where Gardens by the Bay now is, was where I used to come for steamboat buffets," Mr Tan says. Indeed, before it became home to the Supertrees and The Cloud Forest, Marina South was a magnet for steamboat lovers and bowling fans.

What amazes Mr Tan is that the whole Bay area has become a hub for not just business, but also leisure activities.

"We have Formula One, sailing competitions, National Day parades, arts festivals here. People run here, bike here, dine here," says the freelance photographer, who has shot many sporting events in the area, including the annual DBS Marina Regatta. This year's Marina Regatta takes place next weekend.

Change fascinates Mr Tan. It explains why he has been documenting the Bay's transformation. Besides Marina Bay, he has also documented Singapore's disappearing playgrounds as well as the Green Corridor.

"To understand the future, we need to understand and remember our past," he says.

In more ways than one, he says, Marina Bay's transformation is the story of Singapore and its people, a story of how tenacity and creativity can create something out of nothing.

Mr Tan's father, now 70, came to Singapore as a young man from Johor in the early 1960s, with not much of an education, but a lot of drive. When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, he decided to throw in his lot with the Little Red Dot.

The elder Mr Tan started out as a construction worker and later became a foreman. He was involved in building many Housing Board flats, including the four-roomer in Clementi West Street 2 that he bought a few years after marrying a purchasing clerk in 1976. When he was 58, he joined hands with two cousins to start a business dealing in office furniture.

Set on building a better life, he and his wife worked hard to educate their only child, sending him to study Business and Hospitality at the University of Queensland.

Mr Tan returned to Singapore after graduating in 2002. A few months later, the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis hit, hampering his job hunt.

It took a while before he found a job with Far East Organisation. He moved to financial planning firm Finexis in 2005, not long after Singapore set out to become a pre-eminent financial centre.

With a rueful laugh, he says he was not one of those who made a mint in the industry. "But it taught me the most life lessons. I learnt how to read people and talk to them; I learnt how to present myself. I learnt how to read market reports, digest economic news, understand new government regulations and their implications - from the personal to the professional - on clients."

After nearly a decade in financial planning, he decided to join Solos, the family's office furniture business, last August. "My dad was growing old, and there was a gap in renewal.

Even though it is not my industry, I know the lessons I have learnt will help me to grow the business and bring it to the next level," says the bachelor, adding that Solos now has three retail outlets, two online stores and one warehouse. Plans are afoot to set up more online stores, as well as outlets in shopping malls. Down the line, he hopes to start exporting Solos' furniture too.

To unwind, Mr Tan often heads down to Marina Bay when the sun is setting. The Promontory is his favourite spot because he believes it gives the best view of the "city within a garden".

What he sees often makes him contemplative. "My life has changed, but perhaps not as fast as Marina Bay," he says with a laugh. "But I now have to learn how to run a company and I hope, like Marina Bay, I will be able to introduce growth, expansion and transformation."


This article was first published on May 20, 2015.
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