when you're 64
an angkor wat-looking place in Singapore! - All images in this post by J/TOHA
...how would you describe the country of your youth?
Saturday afternoon at a forum organised by The Tangent on student life and activities in the 1945-55, J and I heard Professor Koh Tai Ann from the English division of the Nanyang Technological University and (ex)journalist Mr Han Tan Juan do just that.
Held at the 16th floor of the new National Library Building, the 2 speakers spoke with their backs to an amazing panaromic view of the city- and as they spoke, one could almost imagine the buildings and landscape behind them shifting, the shoreline that moves further and further away from us.
Level 16, caught not listening to the speakers
Theirs were seemingly contrasting stories. Prof Koh would declare themselves as 2 worlds in 1 country. His was the personal, enlarged by the historical - though perhaps overwhelmed. And hers was also the personal, made to seem small by the historical - though perhaps advantaged to be on the winning side.
Though poor and living with her single mother, Prof Koh nonetheless had an "English" (read: colonial) education. An over-achiever who topped her class, wrote a stanza of her school song, won scholarships, her stories were an odd mix of self-deprecation and self-dramatisation. In that "English-educated" world, she learnt of birch trees and girl guide knots. Hers was a studious but also girlish childhood- and one, we are told, that was oblivious to the larger forces of history in the 50s. We did not hear of conflicts, emotional or historical. As colonials, I supposed you could choose to live a life a dedicated improvement.
Mr Han's, on the other hand, was all philosophy and ideals. He recounted his student activitst days in Zhong Zhen, culminating in the famous Hock Lee Bus riots and the student sit-ins. He described escaping the unbearable tear gas by jumping into the Zhong Zhen lake, and the various guises of political activity in the school.An impassioned storyteller, his was a story of conflict. His student activist days had continued into his later involvement with the Barisan Sosialis, leading to his detainment and the revoking of his citizenship in the 60s. Even till today, his story remains that of conflict - he ends his talk by appealing for the just and rightful claim of his story (and his compatriots) with that told by the "winners" (the current PAP government).
And though Prof Koh evaded the subject, she too was involved in student politics - in the 60s, she was vice-President of the University Democratic Socialist Club at the then University of Malaya. But that is another story, and a less glorious one - as one of the members of the audience (her peer at the opposing Socialist Club, the pro-Barisan Sosialis faction) reminded during the Q&A session.
[I can't do any justice to the many "sub-stories"(?) that were indirectly told that afternoon. If you are interested, you could pick up a transcript of the seminar, which The tangent usually publishes some months after their events (look for the journals at Kinokuniya's Chinese section).]
It was a coincidence that the next afternoon, J and I heard another such story.
We were with wheyface at the Arts House at Old Parliament to catch Ann Hui's 1997 documentary As Time Goes By, an intimate, slow-paced conversation not so much about the ex-colony's past, as it is about its future. Probably of the same generation as Prof Koh, Director Ann Hui gathered a handful of close friends who were also turning 50 (she is now 60) to talk about their days growing up in a country that would soon cease to be a colony.
Mr Han spoke of a past that was still striving to assert and legitimise its place on the present and future; Prof Koh of a past that was itself a curiosity to her present audience, though strangely, not too alien. Ann Hui and her friends (1 a "company strategist" and 1 a "reluctant politician/hero") spoke with humour and a rather youthful voice spoke too about the past, but perhaps they were speaking in 1997, there was a keen awareness about HK's future - and a sense of commitment still to that future, however uncertain, and the ideas and ideals of freedom, hope - and curiosity.
In the closing sequence about why she would still remain in HK post-1997, Ann Hui said that it was because she was still curious about the country - curious about the shape its future would take.
I think that's a pretty good reason to hang on.