SINGAPORE: The challenge. The adrenaline rush. The scenery. The perfect photo or video, even. Rooftoppers will admit to being motivated by all of these - just don’t accuse them of doing it for the attention. In fact, don’t even call them rooftoppers at all: They’d rather be known as explorers or photographers, said local proponents of the activity.
Rooftopping involves seeking access to the highest level of buildings to snap perilous-looking photographs or videos. Visible around the world for years, the practice made headlines earlier this week when it emerged that Chinese rooftopper Wu Yongning had plummeted to his death while attempting pull-ups off the edge of a 62-storey building.
In Singapore, the first known incident took place in early 2015 with the arrest of a group of youngsters on the roof of Shaw Towers. Two years later, the practice has gained popularity - at least on social media, where dozens of local, youth-run Instagram, YouTube and Facebook accounts flaunt picturesque scenes of Singaporean cityscapes from high up.
The locations are not always discernible, but a typical shot involves dangling feet or a subject who is precariously perched. A typical outcome is appreciation numbering in the tens of thousands.
“A lot of people will generalise and think we’re only doing it for the likes and comments,” said a 23-year-old local rooftopper who only wanted to be known as Darren. “Some people are fuelled by fame … However for me, it’s more about the experience and I would still be doing it even if there was no social media or Internet.”
YouTube content creator Thomas K said he initially started rooftopping for both the thrill and sense of accomplishment from overcoming his fear of heights.
Toss in the prospect of a “sick view” lying in wait at the top, and it explains why you have some enthusiasts climbing 60 flights of stairs just for that one shot, added the 22-year-old.
“WE MEAN NO HARM”
In a sign of its growing popularity here, last week a veteran local photographer took to Facebook to publicly decry rooftopping as unacceptable, calling it a “stupid game of trespassing into private property” and that “some day, someone is going to fall off a very tall building”.
Contacted by reporters, the Singapore police said it “would like to remind the public that ‘rooftopping’ may constitute an offence of wilful trespass or criminal trespass”.
“Wilful trespassing on any ground without satisfactory excuse carries a fine of up to S$1,000 on conviction,” read the advisory. “Criminal trespassing carries an imprisonment term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to S$1,500, or both.”
This proved a sufficient deterrent for Faaariz, 19, who stopped rooftopping after two years for fear of getting caught by the authorities. While he was still active, he admitted to “sometimes breaking the law” together with his group of seven who met through Instagram.
But they mostly tried their best not to trespass, said the student, echoing the sentiments of the other rooftoppers.
“We would climb the roof stairs to see if the roof door is locked. If it’s locked, we will make our way back. We don’t break the locks,” Faaariz asserted.
Said JL, who started rooftopping a few months ago: “I respect the security - I only go to roofs which have easy access. If the door is already open, I will just go up and have a photoshoot and go back down.”
Thomas, however, said he’d noticed that “a lot of buildings are diligently tightening their security, locking up access”. As a result many rooftoppers have been discouraged and forced to bank on security forgetting to lock up. Others try their luck by walking into residential estates they don’t live in, he said, while revealing the Tanjong Pagar, Marina Bay and Chinatown areas as common rooftopping jaunts.
“Many times it treads the line of trespassing … or basically it is,” said Thomas. “But ultimately we mean no harm.”
“NEVER DO IT JUST TO LOOK COOL”
What, then, of the potential harm to themselves - as shown by the fate of Chinese rooftopper Wu?
“Someone as experienced as him already knew the risks involved in performing such crazy stunts,” said Darren, who has been rooftopping for close to two years.
Added Thomas: “My friend sent it to me and begged me to stop rooftopping … I think when anyone attempts that kind of a stunt, they've accepted that today might be the day he dies.
“But I truly do respect the danger of this. There are many rooftoppers who are very careful. If it's too risky we don't do it,” he stated.
JL agreed. “Don’t do stupid things and attract unwanted attention, unless you’re doing it for the attention - then I’ve got nothing else to say.”
Pointing out that the media often portrays rooftopping as “a hooligan thing”, he said: “There are black sheep who just want to show off, who do foolish things … but not all of us.”
Said Faaariz: “Never do it just to look cool ... always, safety first.”
As a precautionary measure, Darren never goes at it alone. He believes that rooftopping’s two-pronged threat - falling off a building and falling foul of the law - will always prevent the activity from being embraced by the masses.
“Therefore the community is small, probably below a hundred,” he noted. “And rooftopping will always be stereotyped as a reckless activity, but I hope in future, people will be more liberal and open-minded about this.”
Yet all the rooftoppers interviewed also said they would not encourage anyone else to do what they do.
“Your life is greater than your ego and following on social media,” said Thomas. “And I don’t enjoy the risks of getting caught.”
But, for him at least, enjoying the peace and quiet afforded by rooftops makes it worthwhile.
“It’s more of escaping from the haste and bustle of the city. We're so stressed out down here,” he mused. “When you're sitting on a roof, you feel above it all, not caught up in all of it.
“You're just free for a moment, and you can just breathe and clear your head.”