On Voting for Singapore Stories

I have been rather quiet amidst all the frenzy of the Golden Jubilee; not because I have nothing to say but because I choose not to say. Yet, amongst all the nostalgia, amongst all the reminiscence of a good old time, and amongst all the false rhetoric of the transformation from a small fishing village to a cosmopolitan city in fifty years, I could not help but speak.

I read a recent blog post by Melody Sim, a Singapore student at the University of Manchester, who compared the situation in Manchester to Singapore, and I just had to write in response. In Manchester, she is ‘saddened by the sight of homeless men and women begging for spare change’; her enjoyment of the vibrant city life is ‘tainted by the ugly streets plastered with splotches of unwanted gum’; after daylight, she jumps ‘at every alarming sound that could possibly have been a gunshot or a violent attack’; and she runs to the bus stops on Sunday mornings ‘hoping and praying that [she] didn’t missed [sic] the bus (for [she] would never know when the next one would come’. In Singapore, however, she ‘would rarely – if not, never – experience’ any of these things.

I study in Manchester. I’ve been in Manchester for the past 4 years and will still be here for at least 4 more. Whilst it is true that the streets are not clean from gum splotches, and whilst there are homeless people sat by the cash points, I have never run for a bus throughout my years in Manchester. The transport system in Manchester is one of the most punctual and the Wilmslow Road bus corridor has often been touted as the busiest bus route in the whole of Europe. In other words, if I miss a bus, because of my own tardiness, I’ll just have to wait for a few minutes before the next one comes. I have also never felt threatened walking around Manchester in the middle of the night (even on the notorious Moss Side, and even that unfair impression of Moss Side is changing) and have, on multiple occasions, consciously decided to take a walk late at night because it gives me space to think.

Yet, this is not to discount Sim’s personal experiences in Manchester, but my point is that your personal experiences – as with mine – do not really count as a comprehensive understanding of the situation in Manchester. The homeless resistance camp that have been protesting the government’s austerity measures have recently been evicted from the Manchester city centre, and maybe to Sim, they may be upsetting for it reminds her of the state of the homeless situation in Manchester. It’s sad, but it’s also kind of like a performance, a performance of resistance that brings their individual narratives to fore. Each individual has a story to tell, and we are invited to hear them.

With a single stroke however, Sim waves away the hidden in Singapore, and rehashes Singapore’s success story, a story with a very specific narrative where the poor do not exist. Kishore Mahbubani writes that in Singapore there ‘are no homeless, destitute or starving people’. He elaborates: ‘Poverty has been eradicated, not through an entitlements program (there are virtually none) but through a unique partnership between the government, corporate citizens, self-help groups and voluntary initiatives’. Yet, what do we say of the people who sell packets of tissue in order to make ends meet, or what about the elderlies who collect cardboard boxes under the unbearable heat (not forgetting the statement made by the Minister of Family Development, suggesting that they are doing it as a form of exercise), and what do we make of the government’s refusal to define a poverty line in Singapore?

Or what do we think of the Media Development Authority’s decision to impose 27 cuts on Royston Tan’s 15 (2003). When asked on how he felt about the demand, Tan suggested:

[A] lot of film-makers feel that locally made films are treated more severely by the authorities than foreign film: Irréversibly, for instance, was passed uncut […] I think it has to do with a perceived need to protect the way Singapore is seen internationally. We didn’t have any problems with the short, but as soon as the BBC and CBB ran stories on the feature, the censors acted. (Tan in Bell 2005)

Or when Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love (2013) is refused a media rating and public exhibition, because it tells a wrong version of Singapore’s history? How do we make sense of it? Why are certain stories more worthy of telling than other stories? What makes a story right when the other stories aren’t actually heard?

I am aware of what the PAP has done to bring Singapore to the state of economic success in 50 years, and I am thankful for that. But I don’t think it’s about being grateful anymore. Gratitude binds you to the past. It doesn’t allow you to move on.

Come election time, I will be going down to London to cast my vote and no, I will not be voting for the mainstream party because I refuse to have a narrative that only perpetuates success and rejects failure. I refuse to have a parliament where there are only 7 elected voices to tell a different story. A parliament should represent the people, and a parliament should tell all the stories of the people.

And even if the party I vote for do not win – and it most probably won’t, considering I belong the Prime Minister’s constituency – I would have attempted to make my voice heard; my narrative is as important as yours. We need to stop making empty comparisons with other countries. Instead, we should look at ourselves, and ask: “Well, that was great but now what? How can we be better?”

References

Bell, James, 2005. ‘Singing for the Censors’, in Sight and Sound 15: 2, p. 6.

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¡Viva! Weekender – New Mexican Cinema

HOME in Manchester recently curated a series of Mexican films as part of their ¡Viva! Spanish film festival. In its 21st year, the festival focuses on the celebration of contemporary Spanish and Latin American films. For the past 20 years, ¡Viva! existed as an intense three-week long festival. This year, due to the move from its old building – Cornerhouse – HOME has broken up the programming into three weekenders. The first occurred in from 5th – 9th March, and introduced the UK audiences to a wide range of Spanish-language films from a huge variety of genres.

The second weekender of its three happened from 18th to 22nd June, and focused on ‘the very best in new Mexican cinema’. The weekender opened with a road movie directed by Jack Zagha Kababie. This film, En el último trago / One For the Road (2014), followed three old men as they go on a road trip to the José Aldredo Jiménez Museum in Dolores in order to fulfil a dying friend’s wish.

The weekender culminated with Alonso Ruizpalacios’s immensely beautiful and fascinating directorial debut Güeros (2014) – another road movie. The title of the film refers to a Mexican slang that references the fair complexion of a person. Shot in crisp black and white, the film pays unsubtle homage to the French New Wave. Shots reference directly to films by Truffaut and Goddard, and in one instance, the costume worn by the characters are a direct lift out of Jules et Jim (1962). Yet, despite the allusions, the film never loses its identity, and manages to address a multitude of issues including racism and poverty whilst maintaining a youthful and carefree tone throughout.

Interestingly, the weekender programme started off with a road movie with old people and got younger, age-wise, culminating with an explosion of (for want of a better word) life – not that there was no life in En el último trago (I enjoyed En el ultimo trago tremendously, and will be writing about it in more details soon).

Also worth mentioning, I think, are Andrés Clariond Rangel’s Hilda (2014) and Alejandra Sánchez’s Seguir viviendo / Go On Living (2014). Both are directorial debuts and both tackle difficult issues – race and class in the former and gender in the latter – with a lot of confidence and individuality.

The third and final instalment of this year’s ¡Viva! will happen this autumn, and will focus on Spanish films.

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I enjoyed the festival very much. Just one complain: every film started consistently 10 minutes later than the stated time in the programme. It would be quite nice for films to start on time.

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On Stuart Hall

I gave a testimonial to Stuart Hall at the 3rd British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) Conference. This testimonial was intended to segue into John Akomfrah’s brilliant The Stuart Hall Project (2013). Here’s what I said.

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I first went to University to do what any other undergraduates go to universities to do – to get a degree so that I can get a job. Throughout the first year, it was fun. Just fun. Fun because I got introduced to all kinds of interesting concepts, fun because I got to watch really interesting films, and fun because I got to read very interesting play-texts. But, really, just fun.

In my second year, I took a module on the representations of African, Caribbean and Asians in the media. Unsurprisingly, Stuart Hall’s name featured heavily throughout the module. The module exposed me to the amount of abhorrent injustice the Black community faced in society from history to now. I immediately connected to it. When people come up to me and say ni hao, konichiwa, and sawadikap; or when I tell people I am from Singapore and they ask me which part of China I am from; or when people say, with genuine surprise, that I speak really good English, and then react with even more surprise when I tell them that it is because English is my first language; I get angry.

I get angry because I feel unjust. And I want to speak out. But I was never equipped with the language and vocabulary to do so because all I could do was to say “I’m not Chinese!”, indignantly. And it was not until I chanced upon Hall’s works on race that something changed. Race, as Hall has demonstrated, is a discursive construct, and that we should view and study the body as a text, to understand that what we think of a particular racial group is never definite, and that these beliefs, alongside mine, should always be subjected to scrutiny.

Because of Hall’s thoughts, my view towards university changed. His attitude towards race and culture inspired me to look at things in different ways, and not just from one myopic angle. Nowadays, if I don’t agree with a person’s belief on my race, my sexuality, my faith, my political alignment, and so on so forth, I no longer get angry for the sake of being angry.

I get angry because I want to know why they would think like that. Returning to my earlier examples on my experiences with casual racism, perhaps people think like that because the Chinese form about 75% of the ethnic make up in Singapore’s demographics. Or perhaps it is because of their Orientalist attitudes towards the East.

More importantly, I think, I get angry because I want to know why I think like that. I want to know why I react so strongly to the term “Chinese”. Perhaps because “Chinese” is such a loaded word. It refers to the language, the nationality, the ethnicity and the race, for example. And I don’t necessarily identify with everyone of them. So maybe next time, when I’m angry, I will reply with a more nuanced “I do not identify with the Chinese nationality. I am a Singaporean and that is a small island in the South East Asia. I speak Mandarin, but that’s just one out of the many versions of Chinese spoken by people all over the world. I can’t write or read enough Chinese to save my life. I quite like Fast and Furious 7. And I’m not going to apologise for that.”

But, putting the now more nuanced, angry, and political me aside, I think, after reading Hall, university has become more than a place for me to get a degree and to get a job, university has become a place for me to learn and to understand. In short, I realised I wanted to research, and I really have to thank Hall for that.

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On Robert Holman

I am not ashamed to declare my love for Robert Holman: I wish more people would know about him.

I always knew plays could effect a drastic change in the way I look at the world. When I first read Brecht’s Mother Courage, I got angry at the injustice of the world and thought of myself as an (incessantly) oppressed being. When I read Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, I became an existentialist, and constantly wondered about my purpose on earth and my state of being.

My first Robert Holman play – Making Noise Quietly – is similarly life changing. Before Holman, when I read plays, I tried to align myself in relation to them. I thought of myself as political, as existential, or as both of them. I positioned myself against Russian Naturalism, against Surrealism, and against Dadaism. Throughout, I constantly tried to understand myself as a human being by placing myself into categories – to essentialise my lived experiences into easily understood categories. I tried to fit myself into boxes because that was the easy and orderly thing to do (perhaps that is why I prefer academia so much – because people try to understand things by putting them into boxes).

Yet, something changed when I read Making Noise Quietly. I read the play and thought, “Wow, what a great play! What well-written characters! What a fantastic way to talk about big macro issues through very small micro human stories! What a technically accomplished play! How do I describe this play? How do I categorise this play? Where does this play fit in my (extremely) limited knowledge of theatre?” I didn’t have an answer to any of the questions that surfaced. I realised that I could not actually fit Holman into a specific theatrical tradition.

Maybe that is why he is so rarely written about in academia.

The play found its way into me. I kept reflecting about it. I kept trying to understand why I was so blown away by it. Cliché to say, it was in me, all the time, making noise quietly. I could not stop thinking about it.

I finally discovered why the play left such an impression. I realised that I have been trying to understand Holman by pigeonholing him into something specific, very much symptomatic of my bigger (flawed) aim to understand the world through obsessive compartmentalisation. I realised how wrong I had been my entire life; it should never have been the case. I should have never tried to explain myself through categories.

The characters in Making Noise Quietly try to be better human beings. They fail and they succeed. And they are never judged. A lot of critics of Robert Holman do not like him because they are unable to easily describe him. He has also received a lot of flak for his plays, particularly about the talking monkey in Other Worlds (I mean, come one, how can anyone not love a talking monkey?!), because they’re too “oblique”. But, to judge Holman is to do what Holman is trying to not do. To typify him is again to do what Holman tries to not do.

Making Noise Quietly made me realise that it might perhaps be more helpful to understand the world as life itself, as a series of relationships. My place in the world is always in relation to someone else’s. I may not understand or agree with their viewpoint but I will not judge. I will not hate because someone disagrees with me. They are, after all, also trying to place themselves somewhere. Holman made me understand that – sometimes – things do not have to be in boxes; life does not have to be packed up neatly. Sometimes, things are just messy, and it is meant to be messy.

After Making Noise Quietly, I began to track his work down and read them ferociously. Each play made me more certain of this hypothesis. Each play made me more acutely aware of my relational connection with everything around me. Holman has an incredible ability to make the smallest things significant without making them overt/in-yer-face. The eggs in Across Oka are so small, so simple, and so everyday. The tree that gets uprooted in Rafts and Dreams, likewise, is so mundane and so unimportant. Yet, we get completely invested in them. We care about them. We understand their significance in relation to the lives of the characters. We understand our significance in turn.

Holman’s plays burn and burn and burn. They never explode – just like us. Our lives burn. We don’t explode. Things happen to us and we get angry. Things happen to us and we get sad. Things happen to us and we get happy. Yet, at the end of the day, life goes on, and we try to understand ourselves better. Even when a thousand stars in the sky explode, our lives still burn. At the end of the day, like Holman’s plays, we are left simultaneously hopeful and hopeless. More hopeful than hopeless. Because we are all always trying to be better human beings. What kind of human beings? I don’t know. But we find the courage to try.

We find to courage to try because we love.

What love? Don’t know. Neither does Holman. But he observes them so beautifully with astute accuracy. The love between Penrose and Francis in A Breakfast of Eels – his latest play at the Print Room – is romantic, is brotherly, is parental, is friendly, and is sexual; it is everything and nothing. To try and explain or essentialise is to go against what I have just suggested. Holman brilliantly verbalises it through Penrose: ‘To love. To be loved. Difficult things.’

He’s dull? No, he’s life.

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A Breakfast of Eels is at the Print Room until 11 April 2015.

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On the Passing of Lee Kuan Yew

To mourn is to lose. To celebrate is to gain.

To mourn or to celebrate is to move, to move backwards or forwards.

We are constantly moving. We crawl, we walk, we jump, we run, we drive, and we fly. At 5:30am in the morning I wake up, take a shower, and get dressed. I pick my school bag up and walk to the bus stop. At 6:17am, the 74 bus comes. I get onto the bus and find myself a seat – it is usually the second window seat on the left. I fall asleep, or I frantically try to read Great Expectations or Brave New World or Waiting for Godot or Agamemnon. I pass time. At 7:10 – usually – my bus reaches my stop. I alight and walk to school. At 7:17, I am in the school hall all settled. At 7:25, the door closes. Whoever comes after is late; the bus caught in traffic is no excuse.

We stand up. We sing the national anthem and recite the pledge.

We go to class. We go home. We do our homework. We watch a bit of TV, play a bit of game, talk a bit to our family and friends. We go to bed. We wake up in the morning and repeat the cycle again. We keep moving. We mourn and we celebrate.

When have we stopped? Certainly not in exams – we write, so that we can get to the end of the paper. Certainly not whilst queuing – we wait to move, and to get to an end point. We are always looking to the future. But what if we can’t imagine a future? We look to the past. But what if we cannot find the past? We look to the present. We stop and think. We feel.

Sometimes, stasis satisfies.

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(The Fear of) Going Home

I have not been home for slightly under a year now but now it is time for me to pack my suitcase up again.

And I am afraid.

Not afraid because I do not want to see my family. Not afraid because I do not want to catch up with my friends. But afraid because the home I know will be different.

A Singaporean friend and mentor of mine in Manchester went back home for the first time after four years. She was surprised by the change. She did not recognise the unique MBS skyline that Singapore markets itself with nowadays. She got lost around Orchard Road because of its rapid change. She returned home to a different home.

Whilst my experiences have not been as drastic as hers, it is still as scary – if not more – for I witness the change. Change is a very funny thing. It creeps up upon us. We do not realise that it is happening when we are experiencing it, but when we step away for a while and return, we cannot deny the change that has occurred. I recognise home but I don’t know it. It is familiar yet unfamiliar. I land in the uncanny valley when I reach home.

But what is home?

I try to write one play a year. Till date, I have written three in Manchester, and am in the process of writing the fourth. And I realise that all three plays deal with the notion of home. It is as if there is something I want to express but can’t seem to articulate it properly. Stuart Spencer describes these stories as ur-plays, stories that are buried deep in one’s own subconscious that desperately needs to be told (Spencer 2002: 27). Further, David Mamet adds that these stories ‘aren’t clean, they aren’t neat, but there’s something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart’ (Mamet 2007: 18 – 19). My first play, Two Chairs, was about a brother who goes to the UK to study despite his family’s objection because he desperately wanted to get out of Singapore. My second play, To Be Frank, was about a mother who forgets how her family looks like. My third play, Purple Heart, deals with an overseas exchange student returning back to Singapore at the end of his overseas education stint, realising that he hates it back home.

Returning to the question posed above, I still do not quite know what is home. On the one hand, it is good to be afraid of going home – there is nothing wrong with it – the fear of not knowing how it will look like is a very real one. On the other, I think there is a need for me to re-evaluate what home means to me. When I am in Singapore, Singapore is my home. When I am in Manchester, Manchester’s mine. But what is going to happen when I move to another place? Thinking about the meaning of home may just be another exercise in empty nostalgia because it is always in such a constant flux: it means one thing yesterday, another today, and is most definitely going to be something else tomorrow.

Maybe, then, I should not be afraid of going home, or staying home for that matter. On the one hand, staying can be viewed as tragedy. On the other, stasis itself can be seen as defiance.

I am currently in the midst of writing the first draft of my upcoming play (to be staged in May by The 1121 Collective in Manchester), and for the first time – though the thematic concerns are still largely the same – I have adamantly and defiantly set my play somewhere other than Singapore. Wong Kar Wai, after making 2046, widely seen as the last of the Hong Kong “spiritual trilogy”, started making films that are quite different. Maybe, after this new play, I would have finally told the ur-play that is buried deep inside me.

But, for now, it’s Char Kuay Teow, Chicken Rice, Bah Kut Teh, Mee Pok, Pig’s Trotters, Steamboats, and Durians.

Reference 

Mamet, David, 2007. Three Uses of the Knife, London: Methuen Drama.

Spencer, Stuart, 2002. The Playwright’s Guidebook, London: Faber and Faber.

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At Leeds International Film Festival

I went to Leeds last Saturday for the 28th Leeds International Film Festival (#LIFF28). Not for long though, just a day trip from Manchester to Leeds. Here are my quick thoughts on a few films that I watched.

Before I go into talking about the films though, there is something I would like to rant about: FILMS SCREENINGS THAT OCCUR DURING FILM FESTIVALS NEED TO START ON TIME BECAUSE PEOPLE ACTUALLY DO RUN FROM ONE CINEMA TO ANOTHER!!!

Journey to the West (Tsai Ming Liang, 2013)

The latest addition to Tsai’s slow cinema, this film consists of 14 shots and lasts 56 minutes. Throughout, Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng dresses up as a monk and walks through the streets of Marseilles at a snail pace. I have already seen this monk walked the streets of Hong Kong (Walker, 2012), and Malaysia (Letters from the South, 2013). As the monk walks through the streets, the audience is invited to, like the monk, meditate on his environs and the people that inhabit them. Both Walker and Letters from the South are short films that require the viewers’ patience, yet never testing it too far. Here, in Journey to the West takes on the challenge with an extended 56 minutes of walking. Describing the shots will be unhelpful and unnecessary (considering the film is only made up of 14 shots) but one thing should be noted: I was never bored by it. In fact, many times, I forgot that the monk actually in the shot and instead became more enthralled by the passers-by that occupy the frame. The film is also knowingly funny as the audience is constantly invited to look for the monk in the shot. The monk, dressed in his red robe, becomes Wally.

Paris of the North (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, 2014)

This is the latest feature from the Icelandic director who brought us Either Way (2011), which David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche (20113) is based on [If you haven’t watched Prince Avalanche, you have to now. It’s wickedly funny]. Unlike Sigurdsson’s previous film, Paris of the North treads less on the comedy but more on the drama. The protagonist of the film, Hugi, is a recovering alcoholic and has escaped from Reykjavik to a small Icelandic village to deal with his breakup. Hugi’s father, Veigar, however, decides to pay Hugi a visit. Chaos ensues as both Hugi and Veigar are forced to reconsider their relationship.

Throughout the film, characters often breaking into philosophical musings and asides. Yet it strangely works. I was so drawn into the world that the “expositions” – which usually make me cringe – seem like something the characters would say in a normal conversation. The film is also very funny. In one sequence quite early in the film, for instance, Hugi sits through an AA meeting with two other alcoholics. The convenor of the meeting gets Hugi to introduce himself and declares that they would go anti-clockwise this time round to spice things up slightly. In another instance, a group of ladies exercise in the pool whist Veigar floats along in a pair of garishly kitsch flora trunks. The humour can’t get any drier.

Symbol (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

Directed and starring Hitoshi Matsumoto, Symbol is a master class in absurdist comedy. The film has two plots running alongside each other. The first concerns a wrestler (Escargot man) as he prepares for the toughest match of his career. The second follows a man (Matsumoto) who finds himself trapped in an empty white room surrounded by many protruding cherubs’ penises.

Whilst there are moments where Matsumoto can be accused of over-acting – and, in fact, there are many of such moments – the film is nonetheless rip-roaringly funny. The situation in both plots become increasingly absurd and culminates in a third act that no one could have imagined. Considering Matsumoto’s cult status, it is quite surprisingly that the film was received rather poorly in Japan.

This is a bizarre picture that requires the audience to just go with it. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.

DISCLAIMER: These are not really reviews, or fully formed thoughts (as you would have realised from the abrupt ends to the paragraph). I do apologise because it’s been quite a week since I saw the films, and have crammed many other movies into my brain during the in-between, so my memories are vague. I have also been quite busy (i.e. managing my time terribly) so have only managed to write half-paragraphs. I promise a better entry the next time round.

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