Postcard from Singapore
By Ben Slater
What do you usually write on postcards from far-away places? Something about the weather perhaps. Well, it’s been raining hard these past few weeks in Singapore. Rarely a day goes by when the light doesn’t fade from the sky, still air roughly shaken by wind, and then a downpour begins. Except it didn’t rain on National Day (August 9). By some well-organised miracle, the country was spared the sight of this annual mega-million dollar spectacular (live and televised) parade being drenched in warm water. This is the day that Singapore celebrates its independence (since 1965), a combination of excessive Vegas showbiz with North Korean-style displays of military might. Singapore on ice – with weapons. A demonstration of stealth attacks segueways into a Finding Nemo rip-off, 500 schoolkids dressed as colourful sea creatures. Thousands more extras are martialed onto the stage, singing, dancing, waving glow-sticks, lights and kites, as an ersatz narrative of the country’s ‘emergence’ is represented by an in-line skating lion-fish-man. The audience, waiting for the fireworks, look awed and bored in equal measure. But National Day is actually rain-proof. Not to say that the state can control metereological conditions – but rather if the clouds do disgorge, the show will just go on, and the national myth – endurance against the odds – is only affirmed.
To escape the rain (or the parade) you go to the cinema. A feature film lasts long enough for the storm to pass and even for the streets to be bone-dry when you leave. Locally-made features tend to get a bad rap – they struggle to find stories that can compete against the official version of ‘being Singaporean’. Unhappiness becomes a trope, worn out by over-use. A parade’s worth of miserable, alienated Singaporeans trapped on the screen. Yet this year has brought some alternatives to the alternatives, and it might quietly be marked up as a watershed for Singaporean film. Tan Pin Pin’s Invisible City, released a few weeks before National Day, explicitly addresses the problem of history in this country, a malaise that the parade, utterly and joyfully anti-historical, epitomised.
Tan Pin Pin makes essayistic documentaries, but eschews voice-over or on-screen text, keeping editorial intervention way in the background; rather she carefully arranges the subjects and strands (characters and stories), teasing out humorous and meaningful connections, leaving others open, forcing the viewer to do the math (or history). City is most powerfully about old people and their souvenirs. A former student radical clutches his set of black and white photographs of left-wing protests from the late ‘50s; events that have been censored, footnoted, then ignored. An ageing brain-impaired professor, lensman of dozens of reels of colour film footage of the region in the ‘60s, reveals that most of it is unlogged and mysterious, much like his fragmented memories. A dying English woman alone on a bed – she once photographed buildings in Singapore for a book. All of the places she saw are demolished, and it’s now a volume of empty spaces – ghosts.
Speaking of which, Seventh Month began a week after the parade. It’s the time of year when Taoists believe the spirits of their ancestors temporarily return. Celebrated by Chinese the world over by the burning of incense and ‘hell’ money, in Singapore (and Malaysia) there’s a tradition of entertaining the dead (and the living) with getai (song stage) – makeshift live variety shows that spring up in fields and carparks near housing estates, featuring Hokkien (a popular, but officially discouraged Chinese dialect) songs, saucy comics, and ridiculous costumes. Royston Tan’s new film 881 (released on National Day no less) celebrates the form as an enduring folk art, while embracing its kitschiest and most sentimental tendencies. While local critics have been quick to dub it ‘commercial’, it retains a subversive edge. Cinematic exuberance may make getai cool, but like the awkward memories of Invisible City it won’t fit into the parade any time soon.
Published in Ekran, 2007 (September/October)