By Tulika Ahuja
I was ten and on a family holiday to Yosemite, California. From the sheer scale of the national park to the frosty and not-so-magical first snowfall I had experienced the evening before, everything seemed unfamiliar. Out on a hike, we had stopped to take in the view, and an audible “lah!” in the background made everything feel familiar just for that moment. A fellow Singaporean family was out in Yosemite on a hike too, just like us. We made small talk, and somehow feeling a bond through our colloquial slang, we found it necessary to ask the other which area of Singapore we each came from. Contented, we wished each other well and went down our separate hiking trails. My family probably never thought of them again, and nor they of us. But on that day in 2003, home was a feeling of familiarity found in an accent. Home was a connection to strangers. Home was also feeling a level of comfort to ask relatively personal information.
Primarily a population of migrants, it is unsurprising for a Singaporean to ponder over questions around the idea of home. Is it linked to a person’s birthplace? Is it tied to familial blood lines? Or is it about the memories you have of growing up? Singapore Shorts ’19 present these confusions and journeys of discovery. For these directors, the films might be cathartic in their self-explorations. For the viewers, partaking in the telling of these personal stories strengthened the awareness of our positioning and place in Singapore. Whether temporary, permanent or forced, it reminds us that home is a concept with different meanings for different people.
Taking SIN-SFO for example, nationality is approached through the Singapore passport. In the film, a middle-aged couple living in San Francisco prepare to renounce their Singapore citizenship. Its 11-minute runtime spans their drive to what appears to be the Singapore Embassy. Through the channeling of a nervousness that resonates with a big day, we see the couple falling in and out of an amicable squabble over citizenship. The Singapore passport seems to provide a sense of assurance for one of the characters. The other seems to be surer of their decision with practical justifications.
The Singapore passport takes a central role in the film and eventually becomes a debatable symbol for nationality. Highly regarded as a symbol of power globally, it is likely that audiences approach their understanding of the object with preconceived notions of its stature and positioning. The act of surrendering it brings up questions of power. Is an object only powerful when it is desired? In the film, an unwanted passport suddenly seems powerless. Power seems to be a quality valid only when placed on the object by the characters themselves, perhaps mirroring our own common understanding of the Singapore passport and of nationality as well.
However, nationality does not seem to be tied completely to the passport in the film. In the personification of the passport from desired to orphaned, we see the passport-owners still retaining their Singaporean identities through their Singlish accents. While giving up their passport instills a fear of the unknown, they hold on to what is familiar. For the wife, her accent and singlish ‘aiya!’ seems to be her internal glue to her identity. While handing over her renunciation documents at the Embassy, she snaps back to her accent as if to assert that her Singlish accent remains without her red passport. The husband appears to be more on the fence. If we were to use his accent as an inkling of a clue to unpack his identity throughout the film, he comfortably switches between Singlish and distinctively American enunciation, even within a single sentence. It seemed unusual and suspicious at first, but I realised this medley could very well represent his confusing, amalgamated identity. Unlike how there are rules to a passport’s validity or procedures for dual citizenship, there are no laws to govern a person’s journey with identity construction.
In Nicole Lim Xuan’s Two Islands, Kylie, a Singaporean raised abroad unpacks a similar confusion. Kylie has grown up in Singapore, America and China and in the film, is looking for what home could mean by paying a visit to her ancestral family in Hainan. She narrates the film in fluent American English, peppered with jerky and hesitant Mandarin – a stark contrast to her ancestral family’s fluent spoken dialect. “Home can’t be contained within national borders” she explains in a monologue introducing her research for the short film. For her, home has been several physical places. But listening to her, I am reminded also of the non-physical nature of home and how a thing such as language can build a home in us too.
Kylie’s family tree was split two ways when her great grandparents decided to migrate to Singapore bringing only her grandfather with them. With her grandfather’s sister left behind, a divide formed in the ways the two families came to understand and use language. Back in Hainan, though united by blood and under the web of a large family tree, language reveals Kylie’s resistance to finding a place in her ancestral home. When asked in Mandarin by her cousin’s nephew what she would do if Singapore and China went to war, Kylie replies “Singapore” without hesitation, after understanding the question through some translation help from her film crew in the background. Here, phonetics reveals its role in identity construction. We realise that just by observing language alone, a person’s preferences become evident. Perhaps for Kylie, having lived in several places, picking up language, accents and slang have became an option for her. For her distant family in Hainan, this choice was lacking.
For many migrants that first moved to Singapore, like Kylie’s great grandparents, the country’s prime position as a trading hub proved to be an ideal place for making a living and building a life. For the Singaporean couple in SIN-SFO, San Francisco became home for practical reasons, dismissing Singapore for being “too hot, too expensive, too crowded.” In Idette Chen’s Bangla, the story of a migrant worker reveals how home is a practical one , not necessarily by choice. The decision to uproot and make a new home means leaving behind family, friends and taking up jobs that show no path up the socio-economic ladder. Like Savi, the Bangladeshi migrant worker in Bangla, many migrants in Singapore justify their reason to be in the underbelly of society because of the monetary worth it provides back home.
In understanding these varied and often imbalanced relations between people and their ideas of home, we come to understand that home too must provide in order to support life. A person’s relationship with ‘home’ cannot be one way, for it is less likely to stand when there is no equal give-and-take. Set in a modern-day Singapore practically built by foreign construction labourers, Bangla’s premise is grounded in our current reality. Migratory pains of low wages, discrimination, poor living conditions and inadequate medical care are synonymous with Savi’s experience of calling Singapore home. None of his troubles come as a surprise to audiences. He tries harder to prove himself, and the amount of effort he puts into building a home in Singapore and connecting with society here is not reciprocated. He gets shunned and twirled around by most.
In a sense, Bangla attempts to redeem Singapore’s crude attitudes towards migrant workers by showing the growth of an amicable friendship between a Chinese kopitiam aunty and Savi. After powering through racist remarks and rude rejections of efforts to prove himself, Savi lands himself a job at the aunty’s food stall. Over the course of the film, we see the aunty opening up and seeing Savi in a more humane manner, even supporting him when he is going through his lowest point. Soon after this, the film springs us back to reality as the end credits roll and the title ‘BANGLA’ is hard to miss. The planting of such a derogatory term seems rather unnecessary, as especially in that moment, viewers come to understand Savi for his hardworking and affectionate nature. We make no association of his character with this term that is all too familiar to us. The film’s redemptive effort remains a mere attempt.
But perhaps, this jaunt is a truthful reminder that when a home fails to provide, people move away. Savi’s character is unable to find a sense of home in neither the film and nor the country, and that’s why he leaves to return to his motherland.
The porousness of home as a place in all three films makes me think about the imbalance migration can create. Why do some people get to move elsewhere to search for opportunity, and others don’t? There is inequality even in the opportunities and the way they are distributed. Savi, Kylie and the couple living in San Francisco are all mobile. While they have their own struggles, home for all of them has been more than one physical place. I am then reminded of Kylie’s grand aunt who got left behind as a young girl when her entire family moved. Why was she left behind? And what was the true impact of leaving her behind?
The search for a physical home creates feelings of homelessness in more ways than one. With movement, balance and imbalance is inevitable. Examining Singapore through the lens of these films, it is grounding to be reminded of the relevance of these conversations. Clubbed under Singapore Shorts 2019, these films reiterate that this theme of belonging and identity is a constant draw for filmmakers that come from here. Perhaps it is because Singaporeans still lack a full understanding of our place on this little red dot. Behind all that distinguishable Singlish, we are still trying to figure out where and how all of us, once migrants, can fit into the island. The catharsis is probably then in accepting our expectations of home and realising our place, keeping our personal privilege in mind. Maybe only then can we find freedom in the idea of home.
About the writer:
Tulika is a curator and writer interested in pop culture, accessibility and the masses. She is currently developing her practice in Asia with an interest in the intersection of art and technology. Since 2016, she has worked with arts and culture practitioners in various curatorial, programming and mentorship capacities.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.