Meet the Researchers: Associate Professor TC Chang

13 January, 2012

1. Describe your current research on Singapore.

I have a number of different research and writing projects but they all centre on urban, cultural and tourism issues. One area is the adaptive re-use of historic shophouses as boutique hotels. Another pertains to the Arts Housing Scheme and how ethnic and cultural districts have been reconfigured for arts purposes. I am also co-editing a collection of articles with A/P Michelle Lazar for a book focused on ‘border crossings in Singapore’.

2. How did you get interested in this topic? What led you to do this research?

I have always been interested, since young, in architecture, historic buildings and urban design. My research on old shophouses and their new uses as tourism and arts/cultural amenities is an expression of this interest. The boutique hotel topic was also inspired by my visits to Malacca in the mid-1990s. The research eventually covered three sites in Malaysia (Cameron Highlands, Malacca and Penang) as well as Singapore.

3. Were there any challenges you faced in carrying out this research?

Getting interviews with hoteliers is not as easy as one expects. Many of the hoteliers say they are too busy to entertain academic interviews and visits. Leveraging on personal contacts does not automatically guarantee a foot in the research door either. On the other hand, speaking with arts and cultural practitioners for the Arts Housing Scheme project was a pleasure as many were happy to provide feedback on the scheme.

4. Was there anything memorable or that surprised you when doing this research?

Boutique hoteliers are passionate people, and many of them enter into the business as an outcome of their personal interest. I have met lawyers, a historian, an architect and a pharmaceutical executive who left their work to establish their hotels. In many cases, their hotels are extensions of their personality and passion, and this is most inspiring. Looking at the personal collections of furniture and art, and even names of individual rooms, one can trace the biography of the hotel owners. It’s most fascinating!

5. What are your future plans with your research?

In the area of arts housing, I am interested to see how urban spaces continue to be provided, developed, adapted and resisted by cultural practitioners in Singapore. The official scheme housing scheme was revamped in 2010/11 and new plans are afoot to house new artists as well as re-house existing tenants. It will be interesting to see what develops.

6. How would you describe yourself as a researcher? What motivates you?

I am motivated by personal interest to understand a worthy geographical issue, and also by the conviction to share it with fellow researchers, readers and of course my students. Very often, what I write is inspired by what I hope to teach and share with learners, namely my students.

7. Apart from your work, what else do you enjoy doing?

I love to travel and visit cities with interesting neighbourhoods and unique architecture. Most of my travel photos are of buildings, streets, windows and doors, and all manners of urban infrastructure. I also enjoy exploring shops, especially those selling artisanal crafts and local products. Sports wise, I love swimming which I try to do four or more times a week, and also yoga and pilates. By the way, it is during long swim laps that I often think through research and teaching ideas.

8. Who or what has been a key influence in your work and/or life?

Many colleagues past and present influence and inspire me in different ways. A mentor who was always independent-minded and passionate about his work is Prof Wong Poh Poh (recently retired from the Department of Geography. He was also my Honours thesis and MA thesis supervisor). He was a great inspiration for me. Many of my peers and colleagues in my Department also inspire me, but I am sure they will be too shy for me to mention them by name! It may sound facetious, but it is true – many of my own students – enthusiastic, engaged and constantly questioning – from Year 1 to the PhD level, also influence my work through their own research and academic pursuits.

9. If there is one thing you’d like to be remembered for, what would that be?

As an educator who tries constantly to make a difference to his students

10. In one sentence, describe your personal motto.

To delight in all my work, social relations and diverse life pursuits with a thankful heart!