Street spirit

With their skateboards in tow, (L-R) Mun Kong, Pham, Qi An, and Vicky lead their friends to take over the streets with their own rules. Photo by SAM KANG LI

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AS THE clock strikes 6PM and residents retire to their homes for a good night’s rest, a regular group of skaters who practise at the estate of Margaret Drive has just started its day.

They meet to take to the streets, led by their ‘boss’ Lee De Ming, or King Ming, as they have nicknamed him. It’s Friday and some 20 of them are ready for a good workout, each with an extra t-shirt to last him through the night, or theoretically, morning.

Except, “we don’t know where we’re going next,” the 22-year-old lets out.

His uncertainty articulates the thrill that different spaces offer street skaters.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Terence Koh, 21. “We roam around and the excitement comes in discovering a new spot.” Skateboarders thrive on the ebbs and flows of the city architecture – the more varied, the better.

As they glide through Bugis in search of a new obstacle, they spy a metal manhole. One after another, they try a trick of flipping over it with the skateboard stuck to their feet. If they hit the metal midway, they haven’t conquered it.

The skaters’ hunt for obstacles reveals a different approach of looking at the city.

“Motion requires mapping,” says Professor Robbie Goh, author of Contours of Culture, a book that looks at the reinterpretation of urban environments. “To be able to move through a space requires understanding it, instead of travelling passively.”

With this ability to appropriate the elements of the outdoors in new ways, skaters read the city as text, “looking at the city as a composition, as a story,” Prof Goh adds.

But zipping speedily through walkways and grinding wheels against marble introduce anarchy to the streets, damaging property along the way. Like uncontrolled road traffic replicated onto pavements, skateboards – instead of cars – become a vehicle for danger.

Not surprising then, that the authorities have been paying attention. Since 2002, Singapore has built five skate parks to reenact the best scenes from the concrete urban milieu, catering to the sport’s increasing popularity.

“These parks give youths a proper space to do the sport,” says Keith Jhee from the Extreme Adventure Sports division in the Singapore Sports Council. “It’s also a way of channeling them into a healthy lifestyle, away from negative behaviour.”

But street skaters still crave for the casual movements from place to place. “What you can find in the park, you can find in the streets, but what you can find in the streets, you can’t find in a park,” King Ming explains.

It is why they only take to the streets at night. In these hours of darkness, with only the life of traffic lights, an occasional car or a pedestrian, we would read the empty roads as being just that – empty roads – but skaters see them as an oceanic canvas of possibilities, and quite literally so.

This is because skateboarding has its roots in the Californian surfers of the 1950s, who wanted to recreate the feeling they got out of a wave onto the urban jungle – so they attached wheels to wooden boards. When a skater conquers a smooth transition on a ramp in a single sweeping move, it is just the feeling a surfer gets as he carves across the face of an ocean wave.

And riding the concrete waves is just what King Ming and his skaters have been doing for the past four hours. At about close to midnight, they head to their latest discovery.

Codenamed “Four Stairs”, it lies around a corner of the Golden Landmark Hotel at Victoria Street. Each individual step of the stairs rises to about 30 centimetres high, stretching across the entrance’s plaza and splitting the space into two levels.

In short: liquid waves.

A few boys queue to try out the obstacle while others sit around, to enjoy the sight before them. At this point, King Ming does a smooth kick-flip transition over the flight of steps, garnering shouts and whistles from around.

“It’s all very visual,” says 20-year-old Ryan Tay. “He’s got it right for now, but the same feat can’t be repeated. It’s an art that only he can create at this space and at this moment,” he says.

“Four Stairs” isn’t just a playground, it’s guerrilla theatre, a raw treat for the eyes. For these boys, skateboarding is ultimately performance art and the city is their limitless stage, complete with props.

Alerted by the thunderclaps of skateboards hitting the ground, onlookers pause in their tracks to watch the boys pounce and throw themselves through the air. A few of them capture the action on tape while cheers and jeers are made for the love of the sport.

“We’re all so different,” Tay says, “but when we come together, this space is a home for us all.” 

Read how they turn an old estate into their playground 
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