Penman No. 12: Singapore’s Cultural Renaissance (2)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 10, 2012

ANYONE WHO doubts that Singapore is going through a cultural renaissance just has to drop by places like the Goodman Arts Center, the Arts House, the National Library Board building, and any one of the many museums that have sprung up around the city-state city-state celebrating everything from historical heritage to biodiversity and toys.

On a recent media visit to Singapore, I was shown by my hosts from the National Arts Council around many of these cultural hotspots, and they offered a wealth of insights into contemporary Singaporean society and its concerns.

Housed in what used to be a school run by the La Salle Brothers, the  seven-hectare Goodman Arts Center in the Mounbatten district opened last year and has quickly become Singapore’s largest arts enclave, serving as a studio, meeting place, and performance venue for both local and international artists. Studios in the GAC are generously subsidized by the government, and “There’s a long waiting line of artists wanting to use the center,” said Evan Hwong of The Old Parliament House Ltd., which manages the GAC.

Being a complex of converted school buildings, there is nothing particularly impressive about the GAC on the outside; but open one of the many doors and instantly a world of artistic creation meets the eye and swarms the senses. During our visit, we encountered Jerry Hinds, an expat Briton who’s helping young Singaporean cartoonists sharpen their skills not just in terms of drawing but also in sharpening their narratives; Iskander, a longtime transplant from the Netherlands, who’s working to help people see comics not just as entertainment but also as an art form; Sonny Liew, Malaysian-born but Singapore-based, who’s already drawn for Marvel Comics; Japanese artist Eriko Hirashima, who’s turning books into art objects in themselves; and Singaporean copywriter Amanda Lee and artist Winnie Goh, whose Studio Kaleido explores crossovers between visual and literary art.

Not only professional artists are welcome at the GAC. Ongoing at the GAC this month and open to the public are a batik painting workshop, a professional singing course in Mandarin, and classes in contemporary dance, hot glass bead-making, bookmaking, and pottery, among others.

Theater has always been particularly strong and popular in Singapore, and performance venues abound, such as the landmark durian-shaped Esplanade, the elegant Arts House at the Old Parliament Building along the river, and the Drama Theater of the School of the Arts.

We had a special encounter with an icon of Singaporean theater, the playwright and novelist Stella Kon, at the Peranakan Museum which had dedicated an exhibit to her play Emily of Emerald Hill, much performed and beloved of generations of Singaporeans since it debuted in 1982. Although born in Edinburgh (she later reacquired Singaporean citizenship), Stella is of Peranakan origins, referring mainly to the Chinese who settled centuries ago in certain places around the Straits of Malacca, particularly in Penang, Melaka, and Singapore. The Peranakans have contributed richly to the economy, culture, and cuisine of their host countries; most outsiders will recognize, for example, the sarong kabaya immortalized by the TV ad’s “Singapore girl,” a stylized version of traditional Peranakan dress.

Emily of Emerald Hill is a long dramatic monologue in English (most recently and brilliantly performed by the cross-dressing Ivan Heng) that takes the audience through the colorful life of Emily Gan, who rises from poor Peranakan girl to powerful matriarch. It’s a sad story but one that has resonated powerfully with its viewers (it’s being taught here in the Philippines by Dr. Lily Rose Tope, our new departmental chair in UP, in her Southeast Asian literature class), and it’s too bad that we didn’t get to see the play, but meeting the author herself as we walked through the Peranakan Museum was a special treat. “It used to be that being Peranakan was something of a disadvantage,” said Stella, “but today’s it’s become chic.”

The stories of the Peranakan—and much more—are lodged in the National Library of Singapore on Victoria Street, a breathtakingly modern building whose collections comprise not only the traditional hardbacks but a growing library of digitized e-books as well. (Just how far ahead Singapore is in the digital game struck me when I overheard someone mention a “Donate your old iPad” campaign being undertaken there for the use of schoolchildren.) “We don’t actually keep all that many books here,” a reference librarian told me, “because they’re sent out to the public libraries.” In other words, Singaporeans are busy reading. The National Library Board also runs a vigorous publishing program, and its products—such as an annotated bibliography of contemporary Singaporean literature in English—are available for free to anyone interested. The library’s collections are searchable online. At the time we visited, a large and groundbreaking exhibit featuring the letters of Singapore’s colonial founding father, Sir Stamford Raffles, was just about to open; there was also an exhibit upstairs of the personal memorabilia and writing tools (the pens were of particular interest to me) of some of Singapore’s most prominent writers. And here’s a travel tip: the best view of Singapore’s skyline can be had at the National Library’s Pod venue, open by special arrangement.

We ended our visit with dinner and music at Timbre at the Arts House, a bar and restaurant along the breezy riverfront operated by a group led by Danny Loong. Danny was himself a musician but has moved on to become one of Singapore’s leading arts managers and music entrepreneurs. (Danny told me that he was due to fly to Manila soon to judge at a blues-band competition; he’s also brought some Pinoy bands over to Singapore.) The music scene in Singapore was varied and dynamic, Danny told us—and we could hear that for ourselves, as a local trio essayed Bon Jovi on acoustic guitars. Some years ago, a Singaporean rap tune called “Why You So Like Dat?”—in Singlish, of course—was a big hit on the airwaves, and you can still catch it on YouTube. A message on the TV monitors at Timbre reminded the audience that they could send in their dedications to one another via SMS. It was a Monday, just the start of the work week, but the young Singaporeans around us were clearly enjoying themselves—and the great food and wide range of beers—at prices that weren’t going to bust anyone’s wallet.

It’s this kind of popular enthusiasm that Singapore’s cultural planners want to tap into, toward the creation of even more original material that would engage Singaporeans of all ages and levels. There’s a master plan behind all this, and it’s contained in the recently released Final Report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which noted among others that “Since 1988, our cultural vibrancy has increased exponentially, with activities rising almost twenty-fold. Local audiences now have a year-round selection of festivals, fairs, events and activities to choose from. Demand for arts and culture has kept pace with vibrancy, with ticketed attendances and museum visitorship rising three-fold and eight-fold respectively.”

The review is a very detailed plan that our own cultural poobahs can learn a thing or two from—such a streamlining funding requirements for the arts (the NCCA, bound by COA procedures, makes our artists go through hoops of fire for the simplest things). And it should be noted that Singapore’s National Arts Council is backstopped by its Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth—leaving us, again and parochially, one of the few large Asian countries without a Department of Culture to spearhead these initiatives at the highest levels of government.

On a more personal note, I was happy to be able to indulge myself this last visit in some of my favorite Singapore pastimes—feasting on the chicken rice at the Kopitiam, looking for bargains at the Sunday flea market on Sungei Road, and ducking into the Aesthetic Bay pen shop at ION Orchard for a bottle of ink. On my last morning walk, I stumbled serendipitously into a sidestreet that led me to Emerald Hill, the setting of that fabled play.

And even in Singapore’s smallest corners I found a Pinoy connection. Chatting with Kenny Leck, the owner of Books Actually (who publishes handsome little poetry chapbooks under the Math Paper Press imprint), I discovered that a Filipino poet—my old student and beer buddy Joel Toledo—lived just across the street in Tiong Bahru. Joel’s in Singapore to do his PhD, and has begun to make his mark there, with his Ruins and Reconstructions sitting on the same shelf alongside the works of Alvin Pang, Edwin Thumboo, and Kirpal Singh. I flipped through a copy of the Asia Literary Review in the bookshop, and found contributions by the Ateneo poet Anne Carly Abad and the Leyte-based poet Michael Carlo Villas. One way or another—and let’s not forget the forthcoming Singapore Literary Festival in November—Filipinos will figure in Singapore’s cultural reawakening.

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