Golden Mile Complex: Not Just Another Space
This article is the second of four pieces for our February 2019 Migrants in Singapore Spotlight series, which explores the issues facing migrants, and in particular migrant workers, in Singapore today. To see the other pieces in this series, click this link. If you’re interested in contributing an article to this series or responding, we welcome article submissions and letters to the editor (links below).
BY AL LIM
Golden Mile Complex, a building dubbed “Little Thailand” by many Singaporeans, faces possible demolition after a vote to launch a collective sale tender (en bloc) took place in August 2018. Recent efforts to preserve the site have largely focused on its architectural importance and on uncovering stories of Singaporeans using the space. As one of the wave of Singaporean-adapted Brutalist buildings that were constructed in the 1970s, Golden Mile (originally called Woh Hup Complex) has been celebrated as an important part of Singapore’s architectural history during its period of rapid modernization. While this perspective is important, it misses a crucial part of Golden Mile’s cultural value in Singapore by neglecting the narratives of the Thai migrant workers who use Golden Mile. Their stories are often underrepresented, if not absent from the narrative altogether. The Complex’s removal – or possible redevelopment – would be a major blow that further disadvantages an already societally marginalized Thai migrant population. Golden Mile is an important space in Thai migrants’ lives, both socially and functionally. Given how restricted their daily mobility is, Golden Mile’s role in their lives is critical. The removal of Golden Mile as a migrant space will further limit their mobility. Golden Mile is more than a static cultural “Thai” symbol or a place to eat “authentic mookata.” Indeed, talking to the migrants at Golden Mile reveals that through their eyes, Golden Mile occupies an irreplaceable place in Singapore’s socio-spatial urban fabric. As potential demolition approaches, recognizing the impact that it will have on the Thai migrant workers who have used their blood, sweat, and toil to build Singapore, and then acting where possible to mitigate this impact, is a moral responsibility for our society.
I arrived at the 3rd floor of Golden Mile Complex on a Sunday, about one month after the initial en bloc announcement was made, taking the escalator up the middle of the building. I had not been back for two years but I did not notice huge differences. There are few cashless payments here. When I reached the 3rd floor, I walked between numerous groups of Thai people sitting with their picnic mats and food. They had gathered in small groups, sitting in circles and catching up. The dim interior and unfamiliar smells of Golden Mile added to a double sense of homeliness and my foreign-ness. This space on a Sunday is markedly different from weekdays, as the migrants have their Sundays off, reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Central and many urban places appropriated by migrants (Constable 2007). Interestingly, it seemed that there was no perceptible difference in atmosphere before and after the en bloc announcement.
Golden Mile’s distinctive Thai-ness can at once be perceived through the visual aesthetics, smell, and experience of the place. English and Thai are interwoven throughout – with advertising banners, banter in the corridors, and background Thai music. Shoppers are not limited to Thai people: numerous Singaporeans, Vietnamese, and others frequent the Thai supermarket to purchase Cha Tra Mue tea leaves, Mama instant noodles, and even Phad Thai cooking ingredients. Sales from the Thai supermarket and marketing techniques work effectively because the store is “authentically” Thai, an important value as Thai food has become more popular around the world.
Golden Mile’s importance has had historical significance for the Thai diaspora’s community in Singapore since the 1970s. Its popularity soared as the number of Thai migrants in Singapore grew. Networks of family and friends would inform each other of Singaporean job opportunities. Photographic documentation of this phenomenon has been captured by Srikhoon Jiangkratok and Simon Peth in their “Work Men on the Move” exhibition, which features a selection of 900 photos from Jiangkratok’s collection when he worked on the Ritz-Carlton’s construction (2018). In recent years, the absolute numbers of Thai migrants have dropped from an estimated 36,000 in 2014 to 20,000 in 2016. Peth et al. attributed this drop to more Indian and Burmese workers coming to Singapore who accept lower wages, the difficult work permit test in English, and Thais’ higher education levels, which allow them to find more economically attractive work in Korea or Taiwan (2018: 468). The incoming Thai labor force has adapted through the years to suit Singapore’s changing economic needs. Throughout these changes, Thai migrants have been a part of modern Singapore’s demographic landscape, with Golden Mile Complex as their hub and gathering space.
Walking on the third floor past the groups of Thais gathered in groups of three to four people, I reached the bright lights of the Friends of Thai Migrant Workers Association, an NGO dedicated to the Thai migrants. I navigated the place based on memories from the last time I helped prepare for their annual Labor Day celebrations with hundreds, if not thousands, of Thai migrants gathered for their day off (along with other migrants of different nationalities), a reminder of how Golden Mile is a crucial community site for many Thai migrants. This NGO has become a home for many; the combination of Thai, English, and Chinese voices heard at its premises represent the unique diasporic combinations here. There, I met Khemkaeng (not his real name), a migrant from Bueng Kan in the Northeastern (Isan) area of Thailand, who has been working in Singapore for 18 years – the better part of his adult life. I had previously interviewed him a few years ago for another project, seeking to better understand the lives of migrants in Singapore. This time, we talked again about his life and the experiences of Thai migrants in Singapore – but now, with the threat of en bloc looming over our conversation.
Khemkhaeng has a first-person understanding of international labor migration. He described to me the patterns of international labor migration to Korea, Israel, and Singapore over the years. The lives and social networks of migrants are deeply intertwined with the supply-and-demand logic of labor movements across countries. Khemkhaeng and many others have pursued opportunities for overseas employment to send money back to their families. Their experiences of migration, however, are heterogeneous and heavily shaped by the various types of communities formed in their places of work – with Golden Mile the lynchpin of their community in Singapore.
Figure 1: Thai migrants at work with a foreman holding the concrete vibrator that is used to remove air pockets from concrete walls (Photograph: Jiangkratok, 2018)
The shared space at Golden Mile has helped to break down regional boundaries between migrants as they form communities. An observer of the influx of North and Northeastern Thai migrants to Singapore might assume that there are boundaries between the two groups, especially because of their linguistic differences and different shared kinship networks. Interestingly, these differences did not produce blatant forms of exclusion. Members of both groups bonded over being migrants in Singapore. Khemkaeng emphasized how the third floor of Golden Mile (and many years ago, the carpark) were places that friendships and community could form in many ways – coming from the same village or home (baan), similar training centers, or having mutual friends.
Khemkhaeng also showed me just how important Golden Mile is in many of the Thai migrants’ everyday lives. Their experiences of Singapore are heavily shaped by places they can and cannot go. Golden Mile is one location where they are permitted access, both socially and economically. Khemkaeng described his daily routine: “I work. I’m tired. I send my remittance here [Golden Mile]. I eat, drink here. I meet my friends here.” Golden Mile is ingrained into his everyday life as he moves between his workplace, dormitory, and the Complex. The journeys in between are regarded merely as means to reach each of his destinations. Khemkaeng and the other Thai migrants have restricted mobility, with less access to Singapore’s socio-spatial fabric because of their work and living conditions (more on this later). Given this lack of mobility, Golden Mile has become a key part of their lives.
Figure 2: Perspective of the 2nd and 3rd floors of Golden Mile (Photography by Al Lim, 2018)
After discussing why the Golden Mile Complex is important for the Thai migrants, I discussed with Khemkaeng how the destruction or redevelopment of this building would further reduce their already limited degrees of mobility. One important part of Khemkaeng’s mobility-restricted everyday life is the practice of remittance. When describing his routines, he mentioned that once a month when his pay came in, his “number one [priority is]: sending money home; that is the main duty of the migrant. Sending money can be to take care of family, children’s schooling, or for other reasons. That is what we do.” Sending home remittances is the primary reason that migrants come to Singapore; they send money back home to support their families, working over-time, saving as much of the little they have, trying to ensure their kids have a good future. The agglomeration of remittance services to Thailand in Golden Mile is another key part of its importance, and its removal will force migrants to find this service elsewhere. The fact that they co-locate in Golden Mile to accommodate the Thai migrants has created a sense of competition between the remittance services, resulting in remittance rates that benefit the Thai migrants. In their already limited time off on Sundays, they will have to find alternative remittance services once Golden Mile is demolished (or if the remittance places and migrant spaces are lost during the property’s redevelopment), which are unlikely to offer rates as competitive as the current ones. The extra time and cost it will take to rebuild trust with the remittance services will severely disadvantage the Thai migrants for some time, in the very best case. In the worst, the competitive remittance rates currently available to the migrants may never come back.
Golden Mile’s demolition is akin to destroying the migrants’ home – not the physical location where they sleep, perhaps, but the social roots they have put down in Singapore. Khemkaeng talked about how his 18 years in Singapore has distanced himself from his village. If he were to return, he would not recognize his own village. Like many Thai workers in Singapore, he has become estranged from his own home, despite sending remittances back every month. Since I last spoke with him in 2015, his visions of the future have slowly shifted. Previously, he aspired to go back home and become a car mechanic. Now, he feels stuck between Singapore and Thailand: both, and neither, are his “home.”
A type of “home” can be found in Singapore for the migrants. In Thai, the words for “home” and “place to stay” have stark differences. Baan (บ้าน) is infused with a sense of homeliness associated with where one comes from, whereas tii pak (ที่พัก) refers to a physical accommodation or an impartial way to mention where one stays. Khemkaeng’s Tuas Link dormitory is a place where he resides (tii pak) and he does not associate it with the idea of “home” (baan). On the other hand, he likens Golden Mile to baan rao – his home. The looseness of the pronoun rao can refer to both a singular or collective subject. This ambiguity shows that Golden Mile is important for not only its physical location and amenities, but also the symbolism it holds as home for a community. Khemkaeng (and his friends) consider Golden Mile to be their home and a respite from the daily vicissitudes of work in a foreign environment. As the numbers of Thai workers in their workplaces have declined, their community outside of work – at Golden Mile – has become more important. Golden Mile, therefore, is not just his, it is also ours, as his use of the pronoun rao implies. It is the shared home of his family here, a family composed not of blood relatives, but of fellow migrants who have met, become friends, and now maintain their network in the central gathering point offered by Golden Mile.
Golden Mile has thus become a space for the migrants which they can claim as their own, and has helped them to reclaim some autonomy in their lives. The state and society have imposed a socio-spatial regime upon numerous aspects of the migrants’ lives, dictating basic choices such as where they stay and what they can work as. Nevertheless, Golden Mile provides a sense of respite for the collective Thai population. Indeed, Golden Mile is one of the few places in Singapore to which they have free, autonomous access. Their status in Singapore as temporary migrant workers means that their mobility throughout the island is severely curtailed, limiting their autonomy. They have no economic or social reason to shop at Orchard, buy fancy coffees at atas cafés or drive through the tree-lined highways of Singapore in expensive cars. At Golden Mile, they do not have to conform to an English-speaking society. They can comfortably speak in their own language and dialect, in communities they are familiar with. Golden Mile is especially important because of the lack of alternative spaces to speak and be Thai. Given their estrangement from their own village homes (an irony given that they left their homes to help their families still residing there), Golden Mile has become many Thai migrants’ collective home. Now, however, their home stands at risk of being lost with its en bloc.
In the meantime, uncertainty rules. (The URA’s advice of retaining the building in future redevelopment plans and complications that developers might face compound the uncertainty surrounding this building’s future.) Rumors about the building being old, possible engineering faults in its construction, worries about the potential relocation of Golden Mile’s amenities and shops, and the simple fact of not knowing what will happen next: these have been the main responses from Thai migrants to the news of Golden Mile’s en bloc sale. The 80% quorum that was achieved in the en bloc involved the mostly Singaporean shop owners, not the Thai people who manage the shops and use the space. Khemkaeng says he will “start from scratch” if that were to happen. In this process of change, the Thai community’s voice has been silent. To go further, it has been silenced by being ignored by mainstream Singaporean society and its institutions. While the Thai migrants were the key players in Golden Mile’s evolution into a place of cultural value instead of just another piece of 1970s Brutalist architecture, they do not have the ability to change the outcome of its en bloc, or to institutionally manage and mitigate the effects of Golden Mile’s redevelopment. This is the tragedy of Golden Mile Complex, and Singapore’s migrant workers. What they have built and what they value can be destroyed with little or no consideration of their welfare, ignoring the contributions they have made to Singaporean society. In Singaporean policy considerations, they are an afterthought – if that. One might summarize our attitude towards them as “thank u, next”.
Golden Mile Complex’s importance and its en bloc’s likely consequences significantly affect the Thai migrant population. This situation exposes how the Thai migrants’ access to rights has already been limited and is at risk of being further diminished. This social dynamic works in tandem with the focus of existing discourse regarding Golden Mile on architecture and the unsung (but mostly Singaporean) stories of the place. The experiences of migrants, though, demonstrate how Golden Mile became and continues to be important. In the migrants’ view, the place’s crucial remittance services, association as a home for a population whose home is otherwise ambiguous, and its status as a space giving them representation, autonomy, and dignity may potentially be removed. En bloc will unmoor an already marginal population. Khemkaeng’s stories and life illuminate all of this empirically, emphasizing the present uncertainty and the bleak future with Golden Mile’s demolition. The memories of friends – male, female, young, old, of all groups – might, in the future, be simply fading and then faded memories. But his story is just one of the kaleidoscope of socio-spatial narratives which Golden Mile anchors. If the wrecking ball hits, Thai space in Singapore and the kaleidoscope of all the Thai migrants’ lives at Golden Mile will be knocked down.
Half-Thai and half-Singaporean, Al Lim is an Urban Studies major at Yale-NUS College. This piece has been adapted from a research paper originally written for the Urban Ethnography of Asia course at Yale-NUS College led by Professor Erik Harms.
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Image Credit: Darren Soh
 En bloc refers to the collective sale of land in Singapore, part of an urban redevelopment strategy employed by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) to maintain and upgrade housing stock. It is colloquially used to refer to the demolition and sale of buildings, which are key aspects of this strategy. According to The Straits Times, 724 owners of the 550 units have agreed to the proposed en bloc sale on 3rd August 2018, which comprises 80.83% of total share value, meeting the requirement for en bloc approval (Zaccheus 2018). A recent article in TODAY by Janice Lim explains how Golden Mile’s future continues to be uncertain (2019). A complex set of regulations complicate developers’ control of the site, as successful bidders would have to retain the existing 16-storey building and develop an adjacent building (Lim 2019). This forces developers to consider adaptive reuse or upgrading current infrastructure, which may be risky or costly. However, this advice by the government’s Urban Redevelopment Authority only applies to the current en bloc process, in which any buyer must purchase the property by 30 January 2019. In any subsequent en bloc sale attempts, the building will again be at risk of demolition by its buyer, as the building has not been gazetted for conservation. Finally, even if the existing building is retained, it can be redeveloped – removing its current character as a “Little Thailand” for Singapore.
 Golden Mile’s architectural importance is captured by the Singapore Heritage Society’s 2018 position paper “Too Young to Die.” The paper talks about three modernist icons that are “examples of the earliest phases of the government’s successful urban renewal” with its visionary architecture designed by Singaporean architects (Chua 2018: 6). Golden Mile Complex is situated on Beach Road, and replaced sea-facing shophouses in the 1970s. It was designed to be a “self-contained city” with commercial and residential uses (Chua 2018: 12), including elements like a sky garden and stepped-back terrace, which adapted modernist and Brutalist architectural features to become locally Singaporean. The famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas mentioned in 2005 that these buildings were not intended to be landmarks, but eventually became landmarks (quoted in Chua 2018: 13). Koolhaas and Maki’s positions as experts add legitimacy to attempts to preserve the building. This architectural angle focuses on how the building was designed, but not why it became a landmark, which is necessarily explained through its socio-cultural significance. The 2018 CNA Insider video shares seven narratives of Golden Mile, including photographer Darren Soh, architect Jonathan Poh, and banana fritter shop owner Saelee Potrijt. “10 years ago, nobody gave a shit about this place. Now people are starting to petition to keep this building,” Ritz Ang, a 27-year old musician, mentions as he recounts his memories growing up in Golden Mile (Tiah et al. 2018). Additionally, Lim’s article also refers to business owners and customers who have reiterated the uniqueness of Golden Mile, not knowing where else caters to the Thai community in the same manner (2019).These stories portray a variety of roles that people perform in and around Golden Mile, conveying the stories of the place’s unsung heroes. While portraying important perspectives, these approaches do not engage at length with the migrant workers using the space.
 The Romanization of the Thai words referring to Thai barbecue, literally translated as “pork pan,” where the pan refers to the special hot plate used for this style of barbecue.
 This is a stark contrast to the recent attempts in Singapore to encourage cashless payments using cards (e.g. Visa Paywave, Mastercard) or phone applications (e.g. Apple Pay, PayLah).
 Many of these evolving dynamics have been captured by anthropologist Pattana Kitiarsa (2006; 2014).
 Atas is a Singlish adjective, used in this case to describe something of high social status.
Chua, Ai Lin. 2018. “Too Young to Die: Giving New Lease of Life to Singapore’s Modernist Icons.” Singapore Heritage Society.
Constable, Nicole. 2007. Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers. 2nd ed. USA: Cornell University Press.
Jiangkratok, Srikhoon. 2018. “Work Men on the Move: A Photo Exhibition.” 2018. http://storyform.co/@speth-2/-734dab35c6bb.
Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2006. “Village Transnationalism: Transborder Identities among Thai-Isan Migrant Workers in Singapore.” Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 71.
Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2014. The “Bare Life” of Thai Migrant Workmen in Singapore. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.
Lim, Janice. 2019. “Golden Mile Complex stays for now, but experts say conserving it may not help en-bloc sale.” TODAYonline, January 8, 2019.
Peth, Simon Alexander, Harald Sterly, and Patrick Sakdapolrak. 2018. “Between the Village and the Global City: The Production and Decay of Translocal Spaces of Thai Migrant Workers in Singapore.” Mobilities 13 (4): 455–72.
Tiah, Corine, Marcus Mark Ramos, and Shushan Lam. 2018. “The Faces and Ages of Golden Mile Complex: Stories behind a Landmark.” CNA Insider. Channel Newsasia (CNA). https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/videos/the-faces-and-ages-of-golden-mile-complex-stories-behind-a-10769812.
Zaccheus, Melody. 2018. “Golden Mile Complex Gets More than 80 per Cent Votes from Owners to Launch En Bloc Sale.” The Straits Times, August 11, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/golden-mile-complex-gets-more-than-80-per-cent-votes-from-owners-to-launch-en-bloc-sale.