SINGAPORE: Orchard Road has been buzzing over the last few weeks.
Shoppers, hauling bags of bargain, filled malls as the retail district buzzed with activity.
Delightful pop-up markets, carnivals and fashion shows breathed Great-Singapore-Sale life into the streets.
Many didn’t let the scorching heat get in the way of coming out from the malls to enjoy the tune of a busker or a mug of cold beer at the food truck fiesta at a carpark.
The mood was unmistakably positive. Whatever those overseeing Orchard Road’s revamp were doing, it was working.
Shoppers enjoying beer at a Great Singapore Sale event along Orchard Road.
If this was anything to go by, Orchard Road, it seemed, is turning the corner after years of being beset by lower footfall and some shuttered shops.
MURDER AT ORCHARD TOWERS
But the news over Orchard Road the past two weeks was not about new-fangled retail concepts or booming sales.
No, it was about a bloody death.
Seven suspects were charged in connection with the death of a 31-year-old who collapsed at the foot of an escalator at Orchard Towers early last week. People were shocked.
Footage of what looked like the gruesome deed has been making its rounds online, sparking not just comments expressing outrage over the series of events, but also discussion over Orchard Towers, a place many of us would rather forget sits mere blocks away from where families just spent the weekend.
Pieces of tissue paper soaked in blood seen at the entrance of Orchard Towers on Jul 2, 2019. (Photo: 8world News/Cai Youxia)
VIOLENCE, SEX AND DRUGS
Orchard Towers has gained great infamy over the years. A history of violent episodes has rocked the establishment, including a 2002 double murder that captured the country’s imagination.
Last week’s murder was the second in three years, and there have been tales of other homicides, fights and assaults involving dangerous weapons.
The place has also earned huge notoriety for playing host to vice, sleaze and various degrees of sketchiness.
The most prominent cases over the past year involved a well-known socialite snorting ketamine given by a transsexual named Jeri on a toilet seat of the female bathroom, a man having sex in full public view on the pavement outside and a teacher who used counterfeit notes to pay for sex.
You just can’t make this Pulp Fiction stuff up.
Much of this vice has been attributed to its tenant mix, which includes seedy bars, nightclubs and at least one massage parlour that doles out “special services”.
File photo of Orchard Towers. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)
Once a thriving office and retail hub, it is dimly lit discos, which have sprung up since the 1980s, that now dot the Orchard Tower landscape.
While some tenants have said Orchard Towers is still safe after the murder last week, they acknowledged that the reputation of its late-night watering holes has made other walk-in customers all but disappear.
The once-mighty Orchard Towers has fallen from quite a height. In its prime, it was buzzing with activity that attracted many visitors, and even had a cinema to boot.
SITS AWKWARDLY AMID PLANS TO REVAMP ORCHARD ROAD
There are many thoughtful, multi-year plans in the pipeline to transform Orchard Road into a “must-visit” lifestyle destination, as part of a complex cross-agency effort launched by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing in January, which deserve applause.
These include ambitious infrastructure works to improve connectivity like the pedestrianising of a section and the building of elevated link bridges, as well as the creation of a green corridor that would showcase lovely fauna and shrubbery.
All these efforts no doubt aim to make Orchard Road a more attractive place for all to experience and enjoy, and pull in tourism dollars. Many Singaporeans are watching how these plans will unfold with great anticipation.
A general view shows the prime district area around Orchard Road with hotels, shopping mall and residential housing on Mar 6, 2014 in Singapore. (Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP)
Although not part of it, the move to make Orchard Road a smoke-free zone has also helped rid the place of cigarette butts and plumes of smoke, something warmly welcomed by many, especially by non-smokers like myself who look forward to the fresh breeze while walking outside.
NORMAL PART OF ORCHARD ROAD?
But in my stroll across Orchard Road last week, it was incredibly difficult not to take notice of Orchard Towers or the few police officers hovering around the place.
It felt odd to walk from Shaw Centre, where many movie-goers were buying tickets to Toy Story 4, to Eton International School, and encounter Orchard Towers sitting across from family-oriented Forum The Shopping Mall. It’s not quite the same ‘hood, is it?
So while authorities look at how best to revamp Orchard Road to entice shoppers, is it time to review whether Orchard Towers should remain as is?
Should it remain so, the risk is that all the good work to breathe new life into Singapore’s famous shopping district could be somewhat undermined.
While questions have been asked about what people would like to see along Orchard Road as part of the revamp, perhaps it’s also time to ask what we don’t want to see there.
Lin Suling is executive editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees the Commentary section and hosts The Pulse podcast.