Written by Alfian Sa’at
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
– L. P. Hartley
In the year 2001, Royston Tan released the film Hock Hiap Leong, about a coffeeshop on Armenian Street that was facing closure after 55 years in business, one of the many casualties of ‘urban renewal’. The first part of the film gives us quotidian shots of the coffeeshop: frying woks, stocking strainers, customers chewing while huddled at round tables. The second part is a reverie: at the cry of ‘ja jambo’, the film’s colours become desaturated, loud prints and hairbands make an appearance, and we get a campy homage to 50’s and 60’s Hong Kong musicals.
This would not be the first time that a Singaporean filmmaker rushed in where heritage activists had tread (and lost the battle for conservation). In 2008, Boo Junfeng filmed Keluar Baris, telling the story a young man about to be enlisted for National Service, with the old National Stadium (1973-2008) as a prominent setting. And more recently, Nicole Midori Woodford made Tenebrae, detailing the angst, disorientation and numbness of members of a family who are vacating their unit at the Pearl Bank Apartments (1976-2019). If actual physical preservation proved impossible, cinema would step in to preserve something—not the thing itself but its record. Its tracing on celluloid, or recomposition as digital data.
It struck me then that in Singapore, the narrative filmmaker would become a documentary filmmaker by default, simply because of the implacable rate of change in Singapore. I found myself watching Malay studio films of the 1950’s and 1960’s—mainly those produced by Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions and Cathay-Keris—with renewed interest. Beyond the narrative, there was the landscape, made all the more arresting by the fact that much of it has vanished. In an interview with the website sindie.com, the extraordinarily conscientious film historian Toh Hun Ping was asked what in his opinion were the ‘most fascinating film locations that have already disappeared’1. His reply deserves to be quoted in full:
“The kampongs and the former coastline of Singapore. Lost to urban redevelopment and land reclamation.
Massive transformation on the coastlines of Singapore. Kampong Siglap (now a condo), Kampong Padang Terbakar (now a golf course and Changi Business Park), Kampong Tanjong Kling (now Jurong Shipyard), Kampong Koo Chye (once a “floating village”, now Boon Keng HDB estate). From watching the films, you realise that kampongs do not all look alike (and they are not “slums” as some would like to claim), many have distinct terrains, landscape settings, and architectural characteristics (e.g. ornamentation).
It was just fifty to thirty years ago when they still existed. Now all gone without a trace. Little documentation as well. Many films from the golden age of Malay cinema were shot in these places.”2
The films that have been selected for the programme ‘The Rest Is History’ are put together in response to the curatorial question: how do Singaporean short films represent the past? One way of answering this question is to examine films which do not self-consciously attempt to depict a certain period, but were contemporary at their moment of production. And thus I tried to locate some of the earliest surviving made in Singapore short films.
This led me to the works of Rajendra Gour. In My Child My Child (1979), one sees the 70’s in full flower: thin eyebrows, flared trousers, the untiled cement floor of a public housing apartment. Filmed In 16 mm, the film stock itself is ‘period’—because of colour fading of the cyan and yellow dye layers, magenta becomes dominant, leading to ‘70’s-style ‘pinking’. And somehow the very idea of a family outing to Haw Par Villa—that eccentric public attraction of moralistic parables and ratings-free dioramas of tortures in Hell—seems quaint on hindsight, a demonstration of a more careless but also rugged mode of parenting.
That same hindsight will also give us a more sinister framing to the image of a young Indian child getting lost in park dedicated to statuary based on Chinese legends. In 1979, the Speak Mandarin campaign was launched, a move that tried to streamline and homogenise the linguistic habits of the Chinese community. It had the effect of alienating many who did not, and could not, master the language.
In K. Rajagopal’s The Glare (1996), we also see a woman and a child—this time a daughter—together, but its tone could not be more different. The woman in The Glare is a cleaner, resentfully surrendering her salary to a jobless husband. While his escape from reality involves drinking, hers involves television. Before Youtube, some people were addicted to television, to the point of timing their bathroom breaks with commercial breaks or even watching late-night infomercials with the all the lights in the house turned off.
The woman even imagines herself as the characters on television, and the alienation suggested in My Child My Child comes to the fore in The Glare. Transposing herself in place of a Chinese actress in a Channel 8 TV serial, she exposes the gulf not only between her life and the fantasy life of a TV character, but that between a working-class ethnic minority woman and more privileged members of the majority. Wherever she finds herself lured by television screens, either at an electronics shop or a community centre, her presence is immediately policed—as potential shoplifter, trespasser, loiterer and overstayer.
In addition to depicting a historical slice of 90’s Singapore, the film also serves up some film history. The 90’s were known for spawning what could be termed ‘underbelly cinema’, an overcorrection to touristy projections of the city, highlighting the grain underneath the gloss. With settings ranging from the red-light districts of Geylang, to claustrophobic HDB apartments, to a Little India bustling with migrant workers, some of these films include Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997) as well as another Rajagopal’s short film, I Can’t Sleep Tonight (1996).
Another way of examining how short films represent the past is by looking at works created in a retrospective mode. These often involve self-conscious re-creations, where production design and art direction are crucial in establishing the look, sound and more importantly, the feel of a certain period. In this category, I have included both Raihan Halim’s Sunat (2009) and Anthony Chen’s The Reunion Dinner (2011).
The first shot in Sunat establishes the era—we see a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack, which would trend during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Other 80’s features would make appearances, or perhaps specifically a Malay 80’s: lime green walls, giant wooden fork and spoon on the wall and man-perms. Even with a modest budget, the 80’s is evoked, with saturated colours and judicious locations consisting of grimy back alleys and mature HDB estate—those with the kind of tree cover that makes the ground appear like it is ‘breathing’, carpeted as it is by moving leaf shadows.
The Reunion Dinner, on the other hand, looks like a film where no expense was spared in conveying verisimilitude. A commission by the River Hongbao 2011, the film showcases three different eras: the 60’s, when the lead was a young boy, the 70’s (a late teenager) and the late 90’s and early 00’s (when he becomes a father himself). One can practically play a game of spot-the-object, the ‘object’ being the sign of an era: hair rollers, railway tracks, school satchel, thermos flask, spring cradle, bottle of Green Spot, currency notes, acid-wash denim, bus stop, etc.
One of the most remarkable shots in the film takes place on a stretch of rather empty road. As if they had emerged from a transport museum, we witness period-specific vehicles: a scooter, a bus, a jeep and a boxy car occupying a single frame. Interspersed with the narrative scenes are archival footage from Mediacorp and the Singapore Tourism Board—serving as both transitions as well as templates. These insertions pose an interesting question. Which is more ‘real’ to us: black and white footage of firecrackers popping in Chinatown, or its re-creation in full colour, the firecracker paper casings vivid like flowers unburdened after a windstorm?
Finally, I found myself also drawn to films which interrogated the process of representing the past. Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s 20th Anniversary Pak & Son Travels (2007) begins with a send-up of 70’s-style Singapore tourism ads, before shifting to a fictional travel agency. The aesthetic of a VHS home video strains against the genre of melodrama. The actors mug for the camera as if their lives depended on it. And yet it is this kind of overemoting that undermines the ‘artfulness’ of the film. The acting is not realistic at all, but it is realistic for amateurs to produce that kind of acting. And thus the film vacillates wildly between the artificial and the authentic.
What Pak & Son seems to ask is whether it is possible for us to portray the past in a way that is completely ignorant of the future. We are always putting the past up for judgement: the terrible fashions and hairstyles, the head-scratching trends, the jaw-droppingly bad decisions. Can we truly put aside our contemporary prejudices in the service of being true to the attitudes and sensibilities of the past? For the film Pak & Son, it would seem dishonest to think that we can. Best to acknowledge that as tragedy plus time becomes comedy, then earnestness plus time becomes camp.
Liao Jie Kai’s Nocturne (2017) is ostensibly an adaptation of an episode in Yeng Pway Ngon’s novel Art Studio. A character has to leave a loved one behind because he is suspected by the authorities of being a Communist. We later realise, however, that it is a film within a film, where real-life director Boo Junfeng takes on a role as the director in the film. Junfeng himself made the film Sandcastle, about a young man uncovering his father’s past in student activism and leftist politics. Quite obviously this is ripe for intertextual pickings.
As the film progresses, the actors start to raise questions. What kind of language did the characters use? If it was Hokkien, then what kind of Hokkien? Can they trust the translation? Who can they verify it with? The actors realise that to represent the past is not only to present its material culture, but also to pay attention to certain elements such as language. And not just which language but registers, accents, slang. How can one represent the past when one is estranged from it, especially as a result of brutal language policies? The actors’ struggle to imagine that period of history mirrors the collective amnesia regarding the history of left-wing movements in Singapore.
Recent trends in short film commissions (and advertisements) reveal an appetite for portrayals of the past. The bulk of these, however, make little distinction between the act of representing the past and manufacturing nostalgia, the latter often for political and commercial purposes. Unfortunately, films that are historically specific often require large budgets, which usually only big clients can provide—which often means the corporations or governmental departments.
It must be recognised that filmic depictions of the past have an influence on the public’s construction of historical knowledge. The phrase ‘the rest is history’ assumes that there are histories that are regarded as common knowledge and therefore to narrate them is redundant. But these unexamined histories are the ones that run the most risk of turning into myth—the telescoping of time in Singapore’s growth between ‘mangrove to metropolis’, the romanticised figure of a lone visionary British founder, the persistent victimhood that Singapore was ‘kicked out’ of Malaysia, as if it was a unilateral act and not an agreement between political elites, the best out of possible worst futures.
This essay began with a consideration of the curatorial question: how do Singaporean short films represent the past? But representation is a creative act, as is the act of remembering; the past is not only re-created in cinema but invented anew. It seems necessary to extend the question to: what then are the pasts that foreclose some futures, and what pasts can make those futures possible?
1. Sing, Jeremy. “Singapore in a Thousand Guises: An Interview with Toh Hun Ping.” Sindie, 9 Jan. 2017, www.sindie.sg/2017/01/singapore-in-thousand-guises.html.
2. Toh runs the Singapre Film Locations Archive, which “showcases screen memories of Singapore and chronicles the historical transformation of Singapore’s urban and rural landscapes through ‘on-location’ scenes in films produced and released in the 20th century”. It can be accessed at https://sgfilmlocations.com.
Singapore, a land-scarce island, is under perpetual construction; a popular running joke is that the national bird is a crane. One consequence of land scarcity is also scarcity of the past, or at least the evidentiary traces—landforms, buildings, graveyards—that testify of the past.Given this lack of ‘the material presence of the past’, how do filmmakers portray ‘old Singapore’ in their films? This selection juxtaposes three kinds of films against one other to ask questions about authenticity, technology, time and re-enactment.
Given the rapid rate of urban renewal, filmmaking in Singapore often acquires a certain urgency: the filmmaker as archivist. Yet films as historical sources are complex: rich in detail but also deeply subjective. This programme examines how films can be read as both records as well as inventions of the past.
Guest curated by Alfian Sa’at
SINGAPORE SHORTS ’19 is an annual showcase celebrating the best and the most promising local short films. A critical platform for excellence and diverse thought in moving images, the selection is overseen by a panel of respected professionals across Singapore’s film industry. Alongside screenings of the selected cinematic works, the programme will also feature post-screening discussions with the filmmakers and dedicated reviews from critics.
The 2019 edition will also include a special section of older titles curated by local playwright Alfian Sa’at from the Asian Film Archive’s collection.
Date: 10 – 18 August 2019
Venue: Oldham Theatre, National Archives Singapore
Guest Curator for The Rest Is History
Alfian Sa’at is the Resident Playwright of Wild Rice. His published works include three collections of poetry: ‘One Fierce Hour’, ‘A History of Amnesia’ and ‘The Invisible Manuscript’; a collection of short stories, ‘Corridor’; a collection of flash fiction, ‘Malay Sketches’; three collections of plays as well as the published play ‘Cooling Off Day’. In 2001, Alfian won the Golden Point Award for Poetry as well as the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature. His plays and short stories have been translated into German, Swedish, Danish and Japanese