joining the dots

The stories about the Singapore River never seem to end.

caught (捉)

Last Saturday, J and I went on a tour of the Singapore River organised by The Tangent and led by Mr Han San Yuan, the journalist featured in this film.

Mr Han had an endless stream of stories about Singapore's past against the backdrop of the river. There was the story about a drawbridge that refused to draw; the story about that white statue of Sir Stamford Raffles; the story of Indian convicts shipped by the British Indian Company to build their post on this island (the prison quarters supposedly where the Singapore Management University now stands); the story of Chinese reformist Kang Youwei's supposed temporary abode where the UOB bank now is (and a poem Kang had written from the 3rd storey room overlooking the Singapore River); the story of the Yuan dynasty porcelain found by the river and the foot of Fort Canning which was, more importantly, the location of the keramat of the last Malay king in Singapore...

"Singapore's history", Mr Han thundered, "did not just begin in 1819. [Or if one may add, 1965] Who is it who keeps saying that this country is young?"

white (白)
the white man

My favourite story was Mr Han's description of the Teochew storytellers. Perhaps because he had personally experienced and enjoyed their stories, his own telling of 說書 (literal trans: speak book. What a great term!) was simple, direct yet animated. He spoke of how the story tellers would intersperse their stories with "news breaks", reporting snippets from the newspapers, and how the length of each episode or segment was measured by the time it took for one stick of incense to burn. The story teller would, in between lighting each incense, collect a fee from his listeners. Like television, someone observed, minus the ads.

Of course, Mr Han with his running commentary of the river, was not unlike these story tellers. We had nothing to hold on to except his voice, his description, his expressions. Occasionally he would hold up an old photograph or a photocopied newspaper clipping to illustrate his point - but it was not the sight of the river and rows of gaudily conserved shophouses and godowns, certainly not the smell of the still-jungle green water (the campaign in the 80s to clean up the river made sure of this) that held my attention. It was Mr Han's voice - his storytelling.

river (河)
all images by J

I will always remember one evening, in the Substation's Garden (now the bistro Timbre) under a tree, a fairly elderly actor - I can only remember his surname was Bai - sat and told 2 completely entrancing stories. No visual aids, no sound effects, no dramatic movements, no supporting cast. Not even a mic. It was just his voice. I remember only 1 of the 2 stories. About a glutton gourmand who lived and ate through reformist China, the Japanese war and Communist China. That experience I would never forget.

parklife (園)
under a tree at the speakers' corner where no one really speaks anymore

That Saturday, it was also food which concluded our tour. Mr Han led us to the Ee Hoe Hean Club (aka the "Millionaire's Club"), the birthplace of the Singapore Chinese's support towards the revolutionary movement led by Sun Yat Sen and, later, anti-Japanese movement. It counts among its founders famous folks like Gan Eng Seng, Lim Boon Keng and Tan Kah Kee.

At the club, the members were gathered for their usual Saturday lunch - and for some, a post-lunch game of three-person mahjong. The club Chairman had very kindly offered to host the Tangent members over for lunch, so us tag-alongs also enjoyed the free food and company.

history (怡和軒)
no post-lunch mahjong for this bunch!

Over some introductory pleasantries, one of the club's committee members expressed his joy at being able to interact with the today's young "bilingual intellectuals" (he said this in mandarin 雙語知識份子). "Ah", someone at our table quickly corrected, "you mean the Tangent folks at the other table." On our table of tag-alongs were 2 filmmakers, 2 historians/teachers, 1 bureaucrat and 1 designer ﹣half of whom were not effectively bilingual and only the filmmakers/historians/teachers could conceivably be termed "intellectuals".

But that remark sent me to look for my copy of the latest Tangent journal. It's been a surprisingly enjoyable read with not much of the angst I had expected, but many questions asked (you can find the journal at the Ngee Ann City Kinokuniya bookstore). Among the questions is "Singaporean, you scared what?", the topic of a forum held at the Tangent's 5th anniversary.

The journal lists 60 replies given by listeners of radio station UFM100.3 via SMS: [I've just pulled out the first 24, but there are some real interesting ones in the next 36]:

1. I am afraid of the government's ever changing policies
2. I am scared of the government
3, I am scared of death
4. I am afraid of being penniless
5. I am afraid of being jobless, hungry, having no money to pay for my children's school fees and of being lonely in my old age.
6. Frighten 2 pay n pay. Job security. Medical n education expense.
7. I am afraid that I am not capable and intelligent enough and will lose out in my old age. The need to constantly learn soft and hard skills is very, very exhausting.
8. The Singapore government is afraid that Singapore will lag behind one day.
9. I fear that I will be abandoned when I am old.
10. I am afraid that my children unable to cope with our education system.
11. I am scared of trouble, death, having no money, being unemployed, ghosts...there are too many!
12. I'm a Singaporean. I think I'm scare of having no money n sick. Medical fee n medicine very high.[sic]
13. Worry jobless, no income all other problems would raise. [sic]
14. I am afraid of inflation.
15. Afraid old and frail but can't have a quick exit from this world.
16. I am scared of snakes.
17. I am scared the government will not take care of us.
18. I fear being out of job.
19. I am scared of fines.
20. I fear being penniless and bald. Unfortunately, both apply to me.
21. I fear riots.
22. Kiasu.
23. I am afraid of falling ill.
24. I fear costly educational costs and job insecurity which will lead to late marriage and low birth rate.

Friends, what are you afraid of on our small island?


oceanskies79 said…
Thank you for this post. I didn't know about this tour until I read your post, but it sure looks interesting. I think Mr Han San Yuan has a gift of making history come alive!
ampulets said…
He definitely does! I think the tour was only by word of mouth - but perhaps one day Mr Han will also be interviewed for the oral history archives.

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