Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Searching for Saint Jack

Jack Flowers stood here

Speaking of the historical imagination, two weekends ago I went on the Jack of Hearts Mystery Tour, a bus tour of some of the shooting locations for the film Saint Jack, the only Hollywood film ever shot entirely in Singapore (and this was back in 1978). The tour was led by Saint Jack expert and film writer Ben Slater (above), who's meticulously chronicled the making of the film in his 2006 book Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore.

I didn't really have any expectations of the tour, just that it would be good fun for a public holiday afternoon. But after watching the film on the big screen and marvelling at what a character its Singapore was, then zipping around on the tour in the middle of a suitably moody wet afternoon, I was reminded afresh by how Singapore – as a person or a character, and one worthy of a biography – has experienced what Mark called the civic equivalent of a Michael Jackson-esque make-over.

Of the 15 or so stops on the tour (see A Nutshell Review for a blow-by-blow account), only the exteriors of Fullerton Building (now Fullerton Hotel), Raffles Hotel and Shangri-La Hotel are still immediately recognisable. Everything else has been demolished, stripped and/or sanitised. In some locations, such as the shophouse shown above, the dated hues of the streets captured in the film actually exude more insouciant panache than the self-conscious hyperreality of today's "conserved" and regularly repainted buildings.

And all this, since just 1978.

Of course, Saint Jack is no documentary and it plays up a certain seedy, exoticised Singapore that suits its purposes. At the same time that the film crew was mucking about in overcrowded Chinatown and colourful Bugis Street, some Singapore families were adapting to new and neat HDB housing estates, while others were living in relatively undisturbed kampungs. Our book only briefly describes Singapore in the early 1970s, but if we were ever to go back and extend that epilogue into a full section, it would not be merely Singapore-the-charming-rogue that defined that decade.

Although it would be deliciously tempting, from a storyteller's point of view, to let him do so.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Setting the record straight (the not so mystical 'Chinatown walkabout')

Yu-Mei's previous post about our appearance in the Straits Times prompts me to write a further clarification, largely because my 'mystical Chinatown walkabout' was anything but (which in itself is quite revealing).

However, before anyone leaps in to slam the ST for yet another feeble attempt at 'responsible' journalism, let's be fair. Yu-Mei and I had arranged to meet the paper's very nice journalist at a cafe off Club Street, where the music was a bit loud and the ambiance not exactly conducive to conversation. Both of us were probably also a bit psyched, as we were about to give our first ever book reading. And so as the interview got underway and we started to talk over each other a bit (and at speed), I sensed our friendly reporter was struggling to take it all in, and that what she was getting might not be enough for her story.

Given this, I was grateful we got any coverage at all, even if some of what we were quoted as saying bore only a tangential relationship to what we had actually said or had written.

Which brings me to that 'Chinatown walkabout', during which I mysteriously morphed into Yu-Mei and began to feel the district's 'ancient history' bursting into life around me.

Well, not exactly. As I recall, what I actually tried to get across in our interview was how hard it is to get any sense of Singapore's physical past today.

I'd set off on a solo heritage walk to try and recreate the route of the 'Kreta Ayer martyrs' (see Chapter 18 of Singapore: A Biography) who in 1927 had marched angrily from the Happy Valley amusement park on Anson Road and then attacked the Kreta Ayer police station, where policemen shot them dead in the street. Thanks to road diversions, the destruction of the old Kreta Ayer police station and the lack of accessible period maps, my attempt was a total failure. Yet luckily, I met a friendly old Chinese man selling prints and his own heritage booklets outside the Chinatown Heritage Centre. As he explained to me how the streets had once been laid out and where the old police station had once stood, he seemed pretty gobsmacked that anyone should care about the 'Kreta Ayer martyrs' or want to retrace their route.

The confusion in the ST piece originated with my effort to describe the one time during the writing of Singapore: A Biography when I did feel a very strong sense of the island's past returning to life. This happened, completely to my surprise, when I joined my two year-old daughter's playschool excursion to a fish farm in Chua Chu Kong (in the island's north). I'd tagged along to help out, but on the way over I noticed a sign pointing to the site of the Japanese landings on Singapore during the night of the 9 February 1942. Leaving the little ones to harass the koi, I slipped away for a closer look.

Wandering through the mangroves, I had my first, so far only, and at the time extremely visceral, sense of walking with historical ghosts: the soldiers who had fought on both sides as the whole area went up in flames during the Mandai inferno. I'm not saying I saw actual ghosts, nor heard phantom explosions, shouts of anguish or the like; what I felt, instead, was a powerful inkling that the area still retained a memory of the events that had once defined it. It also stuck me just how close Johor is to Singapore, how little distance the Japanese had to come, and how badly Percival (the British Commander in charge of the defence of Singapore) had got things wrong.

One has to be careful not to become too nostalgic for bygone streets and pathways that one has never walked down, smelled or got mugged in, places that in most cases now exist only in the historical imagination. And, of course, the rational explanation of my experience that morning was that my historical imagination had got the better of me.

Nonetheless, when people complain about the lack of rootedness they feel in Singapore today, not to say the lack of a collective Singaporean identity, I often think that what they are expressing is their deep lack of a sense of place. Obviously, economic development involves urban transformation - in Singapore's case, ceaseless urban transformation. But at the same time, historical buildings and landscapes remain the very essence of what makes a place distinctive and of what, over time, generates a sense of civic pride.

Modern spaces can do this as well, provided they are interesting (or even unintentionally humorous): a big tick for the Esplanade in this respect, a big cross next to the derivative 'woo, please look at us, we're a global metropolis' Singapore Flyer. In a weird way, the sheer 'in your face-ness' of ION Orchard currently does it for me too.

Yet nothing beats walking down a street or along a pathway that still somehow retains a continuity with what made the island distinctive in earlier days and still makes it so today. (Nothing, perhaps, save meeting a helpful old Chinese man for whom the memory of that place is still alive and vivid.)

For me, physical heritage is to a city what the face is to an individual's personality. Wrinkles will appear, the face will inevitably change, and on occasion a facelift and even reconstructive surgery might be deemed necessary to keep things in place or return them to their rightful place. But to destroy this face in an effort to reinvent it, as Singapore's Urban Renewal Authority explicitly set out to do from the mid-1960s (see page 430 of our book), seems to me the civic equivalent of doing a late Michael Jackson.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Writing without authority

Back in early 2008, literally half-way through the writing of Singapore: A Biography, I was asked to give a lecture at a conference in Johannesburg entitled 'South African democracy at the crossroads'. Anyone who knows me will know that when it comes to Africa (past or present) I'm not exactly an authority, so the immediate question was 'why me?'

The conference, held at the University of the Witwatersrand, was a bold and timely affair which sought to bring together academics, journalists, filmmakers, artists and activists, all concerned that Mandela's utopian dream of an inclusive South African democracy was being wrecked by his successors. It became quite a controversial affair in other ways too. One journalist, feeling slighted that she did not get the interview she had wanted during our party on the first night, complained in the national press of those academics who still live in a world of 'chardonnay and char-grilled prawns', notwithstanding their professed desire to step down from the ivory tower and mingle with the people. (The chardonnay and char-grilled prawns were, by the way, delicious!).

But for me this conference was special for two other reasons. Firstly, before I gave my address, I was introduced – by one of South Africa's most eminent living scholars, no less – as a 'leading public intellectual in Singapore', which almost caused me to fall off my seat! You see, to be a 'public intellectual' you kinda need a 'public', and in early 2008 I didn't even have a proper job let alone an audience in Singapore beyond my immediate family.

More importantly, the discussion at the conference turned eventually (and quite aptly, in my case) to the whole notion of 'writing without authority'.

The idea of 'writing without authority' comes from a self-reflective meditation on his work by the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and academic J. M. Coetzee (see Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews), and some critics have subsequently used it to describe his entire oeuvre. In his novels, so I'm told (I've so far only read a few of his essays), Coetzee makes a self-conscious attempt to dismantle his own authority writing as a white, South African male. To escape all the authoritarian connotations that such a status represents, his fiction embraces the narrative voices of the marginalised – the blind, the disabled and, in several instances, women.

Some people might think that this project sounds like yet more of that indulgent, intellectual navel-gazing for which white, liberal academics are so famed. (For though they might get all angsty and guilt-ridden about their privileged status, they still know where to find the best char-grilled prawns and chardonnay when it really counts.) Certainly, the irony of Coetzee's own effort to write without authority is that the more he does so, the more prizes he seems to win, and the more his international authority as a white, male, South African writer seems to grow.

Yet for those white South African liberals at the conference – who felt compelled to voice their concerns over the challenges facing their country's young democracy, while being acutely aware of how their voices might come across (given nearly half a century of apartheid) – their dilemma remained a real one. Writing without authority might ultimately be an impossibility, but it still appeared to be worth the attempt.

So what has all this got to do with Singapore: A Biography?

At first, the idea that historians ought to have a go at writing without authority might seem faintly ridiculous. Who's going to listen to a historian who consciously tries to marginalise his/her own voice, or who implicitly raises the question 'Who am I to speak?' (before other people raise it for them)? Generally, the historians I know enjoy speaking and writing as authorities, and their readers and listeners expect them to do so.

Which is why the British historian Orlando Figes is such an interesting exception.

Like Coetzee, Figes is a multi-award winning author, and also like Coetzee, Figes likes to withdraw himself from his own narratives. In mid-2008, during an interview with the Guardian about his new book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, he had this to say:
Look, the days have – or should have – long passed when the historian stands in his Olympian position and tells you: this is what happened, this is what it means, this is what you should think about. I structure my history in a literary way in which different readers can get different responses out of it. [...] I'm not the sort of historian who says, bluntly, this is the meaning of these experiences. I've tried to convey those experiences in a way that allows people to engage with them, and imagine themselves in those situations, and come up with their own meaning.
'Russian revelations'
in the Guardian (14 July 2008)

Naturally, the way Figes structures his narratives ought to give us a hint as to how he hopes they will be read. Nonetheless, he remains quite unperturbed in the face of the criticism that he never really tells us what he thinks, or that he fails to provide an over-arching political narrative or moral interpretation that might better hold the multiple stories featured in his work together. Instead, as the Guardian's interviewer puts it, Figes's work represents a new kind of democratic history where readers are expected 'to do their bit, to forge their own critical relation to, and emotional engagement with, his subject, rather than swallow a narrative and set of judgements whole'.

The attempt by Figes to write history without authority – or perhaps, to be more precise, to write history with multiple authorities (leaving readers to form their own intepretations) – proved a great inspiration when it came to the writing of the post-war sections of Singapore: A Biography. In these chapters, we used the device of placing the stories and testimonies of multiple (often opposed) historical actors side by side to explore what remains a still hotly contested period from Singapore's political past. We didn't completely remove the authoritative voice of the historian from these chapters, but we did try to restrict ourselves from the kind of over-arching moral and political judgements that might have got in the way of readers making up their own minds for themselves.

Were we successful? A veteran of the Barisan Sosialis to whom I showed these chapters wrote to me to say that such is the continued dominance of PAP-sponsored narratives of post-war Singapore (the recent volume Men in White being, in his mind, no exception) that the only real 'alternative' history that can be written at this time has to be an explicitly partisan one. Perhaps he is right. But perhaps, also, Singapore: A Biography will say something about this period that will encourage further thought as well – even as its authors appear on the surface to keep their own thoughts to themselves.

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