Addressee Not Found: Scouring for Singapore through Five Films

November 5, 2019, 6:00pm

by Teo Xiao Ting

I watch the five films curated by Ben Slater for the Asian Film Archive’s Reframe series Singaporeana!, and register a tension in my body. Tension that refracts into apprehension, an uncertainty as to how to approach these cinematic snippets of Singapore. A fear of exoticising and romanticising this particular slice of Singapore, the same way European and American filmmakers have in the late 1960s to 1980s. I approach these films with the excitement and tenderness of knowing a new lover, despite having lived in Singapore all my life. What can I glean from these “cinematic postcards” from Singapore, unreliable and composed by foreign eyes?

Postcards as a mode of transmission

According to the official copy of Singaporeana!, the films — Saint Jack (1979, dir. Peter Bogdanovich), The Virgin Soldiers (1969, dir. John Dexter), Wit’s End (1971, dir. Joel M. Reed), So Darling, So Deadly (1966, dir. Gianfranco Parolini), and Passion Flower (1986, dir. Joseph Sargent) — are “cinematic postcards” meant to “evoke [Singapore’s] myths, history, varied cultures, particularly when seen through the exoticising gaze of the curious visitor.” Precisely because of its unreliability, I find myself free to mobilise these “Singapores” as resources, to patch together a sense of Singapore. I, too, am a curious visitor.

Delving into the metaphor of postcards, I think of its function. When we engage with postcards, we are not seeking lengthy messages or a nuanced depiction of its subject matter. They hold only slivers of images, a single thought or two. There is little room to elaborate on the chosen image on the other side of the postcard, no expectations for a reply, much less a conversation. Most of the time, they become a part of our room decoration, albeit one that is well-integrated into our daily visual lines. Transmitted through snapshots of familiar geographies as a backdrop, these Singapores are fertile with windows to more intricate details and stories. 

Hywel Bennett and Lynn Redgrave in The Virgin Soldiers (1969), dir. Joseph Sargent

In The Virgin Soldiers, young soldiers arrive in Singapore for their first encounter with war, fresh from training. They are boisterous, cast in the stereotypical hot-blooded youth hungry for a female presence. They are inexperienced in all sense of the word, still emerging from the cusp of adolescence. As Private Brigg (Hywel Bennett) weaves through the grainy streets of Singapore, he meets Juicy Lucy (Tsai Chin) who is working as a sex worker. With her, he experiences his first sexual encounter. But this is not all the film tries to portray; we also, through Brigg’s eyes, see how young British soldiers jostle with anti-British sentiments. In The Virgin Soldiers, I see uncles and aunties wearing flip-flops holding up protest signs, telling the British military forces to leave. It is a small moment in the narrative arc of the film, but it is one that stays with me. A reminder that political activism and public demonstrations were not always assumed to be “foreign interventions” and distasteful to the public. A postcard perfect moment, framed as a window towards a fuller picture, if only I do my due research. 

Likewise, in the streets of Kallang captured by Wit’s End, I disregard the thrill of recovering a kidnapped scientist who invented a deadly laser weapon — even the excessive female nudity that would usually anger me. Its plot so predictable and dull, I am able to focus fully on the set of Singapore. I sit up when Singapore’s streets enter the frame — the old Bugis Street and Chinatown are uncannily recognisable to me. I can say the same for the labyrinth-like romance within Passion Flower; despite how locations such as the Padang and Raffles Hotel are gleefully squeezed dry for its oriental glimmer, the intricate details in which they are documented are delightful. Therein lies the conflict of registering my complicity as a “curious visitor”. To which extend am I, as a viewer, also devouring these scenes of Singapore with a superficial gleefulness? Am I absolved from commodifying Singapore because I live in Singapore? (No.) These questions pester me throughout these five films, alongside an undeniable sense of warped intimacy, however fraught. The haunting sense of a postcard locked out of its source.

And yet, the setting of Singapore as its location in these two films stems from a desire for a vessel that can hold the characters’ fantasies. They are not mired in current concerns of what Singapore is, concerns of place and its embedded politics. They are only concerned with the red lit lanterns, grimy alleyways, and the promise of an illicit tantalising encounter nestled within a place still finding its name. Their Singapore is much simpler than the questions we are asking now, in this messy ball of Bicentennial yarn trying to weave and re-weave histories. It is this simplification, however problematic in its reduction and objectification, that allows me a playful peek into the material world of Singapore in the time period of 1950s to 1980s.

What’s so bad about being an object?

There are a lot of things that is “bad” about being an object, stripped of the autonomy associated with being a subject. Hito Steyerl asks a series of questions in the essay A Thing Like You and Me: Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things? Of course, the matter of authenticity in Singapore, however fraught like a dog chasing its own tail, is more complex than my wilful desire to simply exist in this place I call home. But what if we entertain the notion of being an object? 

Partaking in the act of viewing Singapore as an object, distilled and reduced into postcard-size by these films, I find my imagination freed from the questions of national identity and politics. Despite the “dangers” of objectifying Singapore, I engage with this guilty pleasure. This is a luxury, I realise. A luxury to be able to look upon these sepia-tinged images as beautiful, without the historical weight of dispossession and displacement. What stories lie behind the glided romance that these films espouse? In a clip filmed in the 1900s shared by Toh Hun Ping in his presentation Obscure Locations, I see a group of “coin-divers” — young indigenous boys literally diving for coins as European tourists toss them into the sea — weaving in and out of the water, masters of the seas. I think of the Orang Seletar, how their allegiance lies with the fluid sea instead of the rigid definition of a nation. How we have only begun coming to terms with that part of Singapore’s history within its present time. 

Saint Jack (1979), dir. Peter Bogdanovich

In Saint Jack, I follow Jack Flowers (Ben Gazzara) as he navigates 1978 Singapore. He tries to realise his dream of opening a brothel, much to the chagrin of the local triad gang. He pays dearly (his arms were forcefully tattooed with insults) and yet remains unfazed (he covers those tattoos up with flowers). There is resonance with how Singapore tries to glaze itself over with beautiful things. His interactions with the locals are playful, familiar and familial. When the same triad gang members appeared to trash his brothel housed in a bungalow, a Chinese sex worker stands up for him, shouting that “he is a good man”. Arguably, it is through Jack Flowers that Singapore’s heart as I see it surface: childishly idealistic yet almost pitiful in its sincerity. I feel a sympathetic fondness for Flowers the same way I feel for Singapore’s desire to “dream boldly”.

Saint Jack is not without problems; the layers of deceit the filming crew employed to shoot the film gives it an air of ethical murkiness. But again, like in Passion Flower and Wit’s End, I find myself irrationally drawn to the flashes of how Bugis Street and Chinatown were, how people lived and worked in those spaces. Perhaps this is what Singaporeana! hopes to evoke with these films. Out of the five, it is only in Saint Jack that glimpses of Singapore expanded beyond its two-dimensional materiality. They become more than simply postcards.

In a panel moderated by curator Ben Slater, the perennial question of authenticity is brought up yet again. Addressing the inauthenticity of films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Dr. Edna Lim quipped that the mode of cinema is already a fiction. In cinema, inauthenticity is a baseline through the process of creating narrative; the only difference is the degree of truth being distorted and the harm that a claim to “authenticity” can bring. Rather than fixating on whether these five films are authentic or not, I take inauthenticity as a given. Dare I say that it doesn’t matter how Singapore has been exotified? We are already exotified, commodified. It is a fact. What I am interested in, is how we can take ownership of this, and play with it. 

Objecthood as subjecthood

It is irksome that Singapore is cast as a glitzy shiny technocratic society, but so what? Rather than disavowing how Singapore has been trying to construct itself, why not accept vanity as part of our identity, and go from there? Toni Morrison said about racism in her speech, A Humanist View[1], that it is a distraction to keep those discriminated against from doing their work. That it keeps them explaining, over and over again, their reason for being. [1] The same can be said about how in Singapore we are obsessed with explaining, justifying, theorising our way out of these narratives that are so deeply ingrained in the international consciousness and state-sanctioned national identity. 

Perhaps the path forward is through the emergence of artworks interrogating our histories and the narratives most Singaporeans have taken for granted or forgotten. A positive generative action rather than pouring our energy into demolishing our vanities. Pieces such as Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் by W!LD RICE and Tanah•Air  土:A Play In Two Parts by Drama Box, further the different conversations by materialising the research done about our surrounding myths, histories, and cultures, transmuting them into living works that contend with difficult questions. With that in mind, I deeply appreciate Dr. Liew Kai Khiun’s exploration of shopping malls in Singapore as captured in film. Through his presentation, the CentrePoint kids (CP kids), a group of youths who hung out and created communities in the then-newly opened CentrePoint in Orchard Road, are once again brought to surface. Similarly, Toh Hun Ping’s presentation on obscure locations in Singapore, meticulously documented, gives a breath of life to the otherwise barren and abandoned spaces. They will not be forgotten, left to collect dust in silver gelatin film reels. They can become focal points, fertile grounds on which renewed objects and subjects can be rebirthed.

Singapore as an Object can finally delve into what it constitutes, how it transmutes its constituent parts, rather than circumambulating around the same questions of how Singapore has disavowed itself, what it looks like to the “outside world”, and how Singapore has been co-opted. It can finally ask, what am I made of, who lives/lived within and without me. Through Singaporeana!, these films are given the space and time to be shown to the public again. What comes after showtime? This is the question lingering on my mind as I walk out of the Oldham Theatre. In seeing Singapore as a thing among other things, I want to believe that we can become more comfortable in our identity among the seas without having to construct contrived boundaries out of fear and insecurity. That we can reintegrate our histories and cultures into Singapore’s consciousness, and move from there.


[1] This speech was part of Portland State University’s Oregon Public Speakers Collection, “Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2,” on May 30, 1975. The full transcript of the dialogue can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/portland-state-library/portland-state-black-studies-1


About the Writer

Teo Xiao Ting’s preoccupations flutter between alternate forms of book-making and publishing as manifestations of truths-telling and the viscera. She is primarily a writer and editor. For more information about this human, visit txting.space


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.