with Matthew Yang, intern at Asian Film Archive.
So it begins! The AFA folks and I!
Things have settled and gotten a little quieter in the office since the conclusion of State of Motion 2017 (SOM17). My internship had a frenzied – but expected – beginning since I was thrown into the heart of the preparation for the month-long event. That meant longer working hours that I consider as my “baptism of fire” to my time at the archive. Nonetheless, I have since found my centre again to reflect on my involvement in SOM17.
For the unfamiliar, State of Motion is an annual film-meets-art exhibition organised by the Asian Film Archive (AFA), as part of Singapore Art Week. This year’s edition themed: Through Stranger Eyes, features an exhibition that delves into the island’s cinematic history through the critical exploration of historical film locations. The locations are picked from the five films programmed; these films were shot on-location in Singapore between the 1960s-80s. Majority of the films are lensed by foreign filmmakers, lending us to re-imagine Singapore’s space and identity through their eyes. Apart from the usual film screenings, the exhibition features a special roving bus-tour, taking participants to visit the location sites around the island where a site-specific artwork awaits.
The bus tour reminded me of The Magic Schoolbus, an American animated kids series that follows a class of elementary school children who go on field trips on board a talking school bus where they learn about the world with their eccentric teacher, Miss Frizzle. While the State of Motion buses certainly don’t talk, the tours cast a magical field for me. The roving tours offered an alternative history of Singapore cinema that I never knew, thanks to the information provided through the well curated programme.
When we consider the history of Singapore cinema, we tend to break it into two parts: golden age of Singapore cinema, when there was bustling film activity especially of Malay film productions led by Shaw’s Malay Film Productions and Cathay-Keris; revival period when the film industry appeared resuscitated after the success of Eric Khoo’s 12 Stories at Cannes. Hence our cinematic history often omits the films from outside of these two periods, leaving many of them ‘unaccounted’ for and less known to many.
This year’s SOM17 selection introduced some of these ‘unaccounted’ films, majority of which I had never heard of before. Apart from the infamous Saint Jack (1979), I became acquainted with other films such as Tony Yeow’s and James Sebastian’s Ring of Fury (1973) and Shohei Imamura’s Karayuki-san (The Making of a Prostitute) (1975), two of my favourites from the programme. I would not have thought Singapore had its answer to Bruce Lee as karate master Peter Chong plays Fei Pao, a noodle hawker turn vigilante as he battles against extortion from local hoodlums. While the performances were bordering cheesy, some of the fight sequences were quite impressive. The final fight scene set in the Tampines sand quarry was particularly memorable as Fei Pao harnesses the power of a ring gifted from his mother to defeat the evil masked gang leader. The impressively coordinated fight sequence was spectacularly captured against the rocky barren-brown landscape. Imamura’s documentary offers a sombering reflection of Malaya’s past as the film chronicles the harrowing testimonies of the Japanese women kidnapped by the imperial army to service the soldiers in the peninsula. Imamura follows Kikuyo Zendo, a former comfort woman, as she leads the audience to interview other women who remained in Malaya, recounting their lives as sex workers in casual stoicism as well as discussing matters such as love and marriage amongst other things.
While these films offer varying perspectives of Singapore’s past, they raise one thing in common – the need to preserve and archive these cinematic gems. The films provide glimpses of the past, serving as a visual and aural document depicting history and culture. Saint Jack (1979) for example, presents incredible footage of the Old Bugis Street (current Bugis Junction) granting an insight to a notorious red light district for transgender women. The alleys of Bugis Street once held parades every evening, attracting tourists, sailors and American G.I.s on R&R from the region. If not for the film, I would not have known the history of Bugis Street which I now associate with tacky souvenir shops. Hence films do not just hold entertainment value, they also act as an audio and visual record that can be studied, so that we can make sense of the past as well as the future.
“So what do you do at an archive?” – a common question I get from curious family and friends. I always struggle to answer this question since I can never give them a concise answer. I suppose like the reality of most internships, we interns don’t usually get allotted into a particular department; we do whatever that we are tasked. Hence my internship has gotten me involved in all aspects of archival work, or rather, archive operation. The truth is for a small archive like AFA, it is less formally structured compared to larger organisations. This means, if I may say, we are more flexible; we adopt the sort of structure that requires us (the staff) to wear several hats, taking on several roles at any time. Hence, our roles are not necessarily defined by position.
My involvement in SOM17 is a testament to that fact. I took on numerous roles and responsibilities since the preparation for the exhibition. There was a huge range in scale in terms of the exciting and the not-so-exciting things I got to do. Assisting in handling Ming Wong’s artwork, Filem-Filem-Filem, was one of my more exciting involvements. There is something quite surreal in handling the instant colour photographs shot by an artist you have studied in school. His work, for me, no longer exists in plain text but takes form in my neophyte hands. Of course, there are always less exciting moments, but speaking in the spirit of a true intern, I would like to think important lessons can be drawn from them. For one, working on the ground provided me the chance to interact with an assemblage of people: volunteers, artists and the passionate public. The dialogue we exchanged formed a constellation of a passionate community for culture and the arts. It felt as if we were all cut from the same cloth, sharing the same passions and caring for the same concerns. However, the question for me was how can we make this community grow?
Close inspection of Ming Wong’s polaroids for his artwork Filem, Filem, Filem.
This question surfaced after I noticed the same familiar faces at our events. On one hand, it is an encouraging sign that people support us by returning for our other events. On the other, it signals that the crowd we attract is a small and niche one. They are mostly professionals and students in a related discipline (film, arts, visual arts, theatre, etc.), as well as a smaller group of passionate/curious members of the public. The question then is how do we resolve the imbalance? How can we attract Singaporeans from other walks of life to be interested in the work of the archive and to show support?
It seems the interest is there but what deters others is the cost. Our free events did much better than our paid ones. Our screenings (free) were extremely successful. Tickets for the screenings were fully registered weeks before. On top of that, we even had plenty of walk-ins on the day itself. Ticket sales for our SOM17 day tours were not as well taken up. The issue seemed not to be the lack of interest, but rather the cost as mentioned earlier. During my sitter duties at the exhibition, there were interested individuals that would enquire about the tours. However, the enquiry would take a dip when the topic of money came up. I would get “Wah! Must pay ah?” or “So expensive!” in typical Singaporean fashion. Therefore, it seems that many are still unwilling to part with their money for art events. It seems some citizens expect it to be free and place the responsibility on the state to make art accessible to them.
It bothers me that people would expect something they can get so much from to be issued gratis. The cost to put the tour together is substantial; it requires significant manpower (tour guides, bus drivers, contractors, etc.) and material (raw, curatorial, etc.). So how can all arts events always be free? Do the people involved not need to be paid?
Currently, the arts is still largely funded by the state. SOM17 was heavily funded by the National Arts Council. This is part of the many state initiatives that has been rolled out as Singapore continues to position herself as a ‘Renaissance City’ in the globalised world. The arts has taken a greater degree of importance over the past decade resulting in a brighter glow of the cultural landscape. Once considered a cultural desert, the island now boasts world-class art infrastructure such as schools and art institutions. The National Gallery Singapore is one such example. The former city hall and supreme court turned museum opened its doors in 2015, becoming the country’s latest addition to its collection of cultural institutions and spaces. The National Gallery oversees the largest public collection of modern art in Singapore and South-East Asia. This collection which features works from local and regional artists is available to all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents at no cost.
While the institutional infrastructure is in place, audiences do not seem quite ready just yet, hence it seems necessary for the industry to develop step by step with them. Art programmes such as SOM17 are already available, providing greater access to art. They enrich local arts by developing local talent through commissions as well as providing a platform to showcase new works. However, this would all be in vain if we do not develop an audience for the works.
Initiatives such as the WeCare Arts Fund and the annual Silver Arts Festival have been introduced to act as a touching point for seniors to have a meaningful engagement with art-related activities. Much more can still be done. While it is easy to blame the state when things do not happen, effort should also come from the community when it comes to creating a robust arts scene. These efforts do not have to be monumental. Educators (parents, teachers, etc.) are essential in cultivating an interest for art in the young where they could inculcate the value of the arts to be on par to the sciences. For instance, they could make trips to the museum as regular as making visits to the library or even the cinema.
My interest in the arts grew from the support I received from home and school. My parents would make it a point to take my sister and I to museums every now and then when we go on family holidays. While they are definitely not art-ficionados, they instilled in us that there was cultural and economic significance in appreciating art. They would take us to see the Rembrandts, Picassos, Michelangelos and the Turners even when they had zero understanding of art. Hence I believe a relationship between community and institution can be established when engagement is reinforced from both the home and school.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Both the state and the community need to make continuous effort so that the arts scene can mature. Till then, it is not for us to decide whether we are a Renaissance City, but for there to be space to allow an already thriving scene to grow, and for there to be individual commitment to support and inspire the local arts.