Re-enter the dragon, with a trail of nostalgia

In death, it seems, the dragon playground has found eternal life.

The dragon playground - with its metallic, serpentine, technicolour walkways resembling the mythical creature from Chinese lore - had been slowly phased out, together with others of its ilk, since the late 1990s, because of safety concerns.

However, it has made a comeback - one that's been particularly noticeable since Singapore's jubilee celebrations two years ago.

Dreamed up in the 1970s by former Housing Board designer Khor Ean Ghee, it has found new life in recent years, resurrected in the form of a 22,000-piece Lego reconstruction, tote bags and pins, among other things.

It has even become the star of a number of children's books, such as Wang Shijia's Ang Ku Kueh Girl And Friends: The Magical Dragon Playground, published last year.

The dragon playground in Toa Payoh Lorong 6 - one of the few to survive the mass culling of these fabled creatures - has become an iconic landmark, welcoming visitors entering the estate from the Pan-Island Expressway.

It has become a popular spot for Instagrammers, standing tall even as the blocks around it were torn down.

Growing up, I don't think anyone ever thought that these playgrounds would end up as signifiers of national identity.

They were just places for kids to run, jump and pretend to be Transformers or Ninja Turtles.

The dragon playground - together with its kin, the sparrow and dove playgrounds - were an indelible part of childhoodfor Singaporeans growing up between the 1970s and 1990s.

My personal favourite, near my family's Housing and Urban Development Company flat in Bedok Reservoir Road, was a 3m-high behemoth, with a labyrinth of metal pipes suspended above the ground.

One risked life and limb to climb through and jump from those pipes, earning scraped knees as a badge of honour.

The playground - and the estate - no longer stands, having made way for a condominium, following a collective sale a decade ago.

I'm not sure what has prompted Singapore's recent penchant for nostalgia.

Perhaps, in confusing times, there's a desire among people to turn back the clock and return to a seemingly less complicated era, even if the truth is less idyllic than our memories make it seem.

Singaporeans looking back to the Republic's earlier days often point to the nation's meteoric rise in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many conveniently ignore that this was also when night-soil collectors - who cleared away excrement in buckets before modern sanitation was the norm - were a common sight.

And with people becoming more nostalgic comes merchandise catering to them, which more often than not seems like a cynical attempt to cash in on people's childhood memories.

I'm not sure that anyone really needs to pay $8 for a replica of a Good Morning towel, for example.

I should know. Sitting on my desk at work are little figurines of Yoda from Star Wars and Optimus Prime from the Transformers - my attempts at clawing back what little I can of a long-gone childhood.

Yet in all this harking back to simpler times, I find there's a lack of critical engagement with this sense of nostalgia.

What does the disappearance of these old playgrounds signify for us as a people?

What are the effects of having cookie-cutter playgrounds that look the same as those found anywhere else in the world, as opposed to playgrounds designed and built right here?

What does it mean that the sand and concrete of old have been replaced with plastic and rubber, which children are less likely to hurt themselves on?

Does it mean that we are raising children who are less resilient, less able to take on the pressures of the world?

These are important questions to ask, to ensure that in looking to the past, we don't ignore the lessons it holds for the future.

Perhaps even more important is to appreciate what we have now. We are alive in amazing times, with Wi-Fi on planes and driverless cars.

If you had told me when I was a child that I would be able to have any movie, video game, song or comic book I wanted at my fingertips within seconds, I would not have believed you.

But in 2017, it's a reality. And all is not lost for unique playgrounds in Singapore.

Sembawang, in the north, leads the pack with a number of large children's playgrounds.

A particularly huge one resembles a shipwreck - complete with gun turrets and smokestacks - paying homage to the estate's naval heritage.

A few months ago I took my three-year-old son to a playground at Marine Cove.

As I watched him run, jump and climb, I knew that, without him realising it, he was making his own cherished memories that he would hold on to for years to come.

He didn't care about the "authenticity" of his experiences, or what his father played with or thought was cool more than 20 years ago.

Perhaps, instead of clinging to nostalgia, we should all take a leaf out of his book, and enjoy the present.

#opinionoftheday is a new column by younger writers in the newsroom on issues that matter to them and their peers.

This article was first published on Feb 19, 2017.
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