The Sounds of Tires and Asphalt on the Streets of Chinatown

  • The Sounds of Tires and Asphalt on the Streets of Chinatown 00:00

I have to say that the quality of asphalt in Singapore was very good. From my observation while I was staying there and when I listened to the recordings, the sound texture of friction made by cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles were very soft. This was not only true for the main road, but also to the smaller roads which were very nice and flat. The roads were not bumpy nor were it full of holes. The sound produced by the road was very different when compared with the sound made in Bangkok, Yogyakarta, and Hanoi. In fact, the government was very detailed when it comes to asphalt quality. You can hear the following recording of the streets around Chinatown where I stayed at. I recorded this at night on a weekday. The intensity of sound was no longer condensed, and we can hear a couple of cars passed by now and then where the sound of the tire rolling against the road sounded very clear and satisfying. A very unique sound you could hear in the streets of Singapore. For additional information, I would like to quote a news from a website called www.[1]:

Singapore has over 3400 kilometres of paved roads and they’re generally among the world’s best in surface quality. Those rough and uneven sections around MRT tunneling works are only temporary – everywhere else, our roads are kept up to scratch by periodic maintenance.


Samwoh Corporation, probably Singapore’s largest road construction company, produces a wide range of asphalt grades. According to Samwoh’s senior technical manager Dr Kelvin Lee, “A variety of asphalt grades are possible with our in-house developed PMB, which stands for Polymer Modified Bitumen. In addition, we are heavy users of recycled aggregate from other sectors of the construction industry, even though we have our own offshore granite quarry.”

The industry refers to the top layer of the road surface as the “Wearing Course”, for obvious reasons. This is the asphalt pre-mix which is in direct contact with vehicle tyres. It would be easy to engineer a resilient pavement using hard-wearing PMB, but that would affect the level of grip and thereby compromise road safety. The available surface friction between tarmac and tires is a critical parameter. It is determined according to the road’s designated speed and expected traffic load, so the asphalt formula used for, say, Kranji Way is very different from that of Kranji Expressway.

 If we compare it with the streets in major cities of South East Asia like Hanoi, Bangkok, and Jakarta, the streets of Singapore tends to be more organized. At least according to my experience when visiting Singapore, I had never experienced a traffic jam to a degree where it causes stress. In addition, there were less car horns compared to other cities like Saigon. The level of sound was still very comfortable to my ears. Although sometimes there were sport bikes or sport cars with roaring engine passed by from time to time, but overall the sounds were very clean. On one side, Singapore, which has a very small space, has created a very great traffic system. The subway can reach any parts of the island. I was very surprised while writing this part as I came across writings from other travelers regarding Singapore’s past. One of the writing was from Robert Foran, a novelist and travelogue writer from England, who was on a trip to write about the countries in South East Asia.[2]. The articles written by Foran were very different from the modern Singapore, and I tried to imagine how different Singapore was back then. It is true, that after Raffles made Singapore as an open trading country, Singapore grew very dynamically as time goes on. Foran’s writing was very interesting and detailed as a personal experience. I also think that Foran had a very sensitive hearing. In his writing, we can see how much he was bothered by the boisterous sounds in the streets of Singapore:

Travelling in Singapore is always filled with life. The uproar cannot be described. London, New York, Paris, and other big cities are already quite bad, but they all seem like a calming place compared to Singapore. The drivers of public transportation, who are of Malay descent, have a very bad attitude. They cannot seem to resist the temptation to press the honk. Their mischievous fingers just cannot seem to stay away from the horn even for a second. These acts of theirs are identical to children who are given trumpets t entertain themselves, and use it to torment others.

These drivers do not seem to understand that car horns are meant to be used to warn other cars when they are getting too close. They think that horns were created solely to be pressed as they please. They are the source of annoyance, because they make create unwanted noise day and night.

I often see taxis line up pressing their horns as if they were playing a symphony. Some sit up straight and use all their might to press the horn, and there are also some who lay back, smoking a cigarette while pressing the horn with their feet. The bustling sound of this amateur jazz band is better only imagined and not displayed. This has to be torture for the people who work in the area, or even the ones only passing by. This constant noise created by vehicles is strongly not permitted to be played as music.

To be used to the sounds is something that seems to be impossible. The noise will not stop until around two or three in the morning. Two hours later, the church bell will be rung to call upon the people of faith, and the symphony of car horns will start all over again. For the first few days I was in Singapore, I could only sleep three to four hours at night. If this keeps going, visitors might just go crazy.

Foran’s writing was very different from what I had experienced while staying in Singapore. I had travelled all over the island, and I couldn’t seem to find the boisterous sounds Foran was describing. In fact, I was always able to have a good sleep at night. Even when I was staying in Chinatown near the main road, I was not having trouble sleeping. This was due to the fact that the intensity of sound drastically lessens at night. I even often overslept. The only torment I felt while in Singapore is the scorching sun, and that is why I mostly start recording in the afternoon and at night. The reason for that was standing in the middle of the sun really drained my energy.


[2] This article was published in an edited volume book under the title of “Traveller’s Singapore”. Compiled by John Bastin and published by Oxford University Press in 1994. Later on, it was translated and published into an Indonesian version by Komunitas Bambu in 2011 under the title of “Singapura Tempo Doeloe, 1819-1942”.

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