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Tok Wi at the Peranakan Museum; some of the object-descriptions tok-what??

Just visited the new exhibition museum at the Peranakan Museum, “Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars”.

Dear Maria Khoo Joseph, since you are the curator, I’d like to point out a glaring error. Yes, one pendant consists of a tiger’s claw (which is pointy and flat-ish). The other, I’m embarrassed to point out to you, is NOT a claw as the label says; it is pointy and rounded (and SO different visually from the real claw), therefore making it a canine instead.

The following are not ‘errors’, but more of of sloppy ‘curator-ship’. You seem to describe anything that is stitched ‘on-top-of’ the cloths as ’embroidery’, which I suppose you are not wrong, strictly speaking. But as a curator dedicated to Peranakan objects, I would expect you to share a bit more info about the different types of ’embroideries’ used on these cloths. For example, some are simply stitches stitched in-and-out of the cloth, while others are knotted before being tightened. One cloth on the lower floor was embroidered using gold/metal-twined thread – which was a bit more special than the rest of the tok wis, as this must have been costlier to do, and also gives the cloth a raised ‘relief’ while the other cloths were generally flat – but you had also (surprise, surprise) described the decorative technique simply as ’embroidery’.

Perhaps you were simply playing to the audience; most Peranakan visitors would already know to a certain degree what they are looking at, and therefore you did not feel that you had to ‘over-analyse’ the objects. But let’s not forget many visitors – Peranakan included – are relatively clueless, and that’s why they need a curator to point out and ‘interpret’ stuff for them.

In terms of scholarship, this perhaps signals a slight difference between the exhibitions done at ACM Empress Place and Peranakan Museum (both headed by Alan Chong). At ACM, each important temporary exhibition is normally accompanied by a catalogue, where a certain degree of academic integrity is needed for something that is ‘in print’. Therefore such exhibitions at ACM give visitors a feeling of ‘strong curatorial input’ from the staff. But at PM, I don’t recall the past few temporary exhibitions being accompanied by academically-rigorous catalogues. As such, since the curators only need to write short/simple wall text, such exhibitions give visitors a feeling of ‘weak curatorial input’. If PM wants to gain a foothold as not just a great ‘local’ museum but one with an international standing, I suppose the curators should start simply with 1) getting their object-descriptions right, and 2) share more ‘in depth’ info about these how these pretty objects were made (rather than just describing them using the lowest-common-denominator).

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April 27, 2014 · 9:23 pm

“Chinese dialects are important because I say so”: Minister Wong oh-so-convinces me of his convictions

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said this in Parliament on Tuesday that “…Chinese dialects are part of the Chinese Singaporean culture and heritage”. He added that “…these efforts will help ensure that the use of Chinese dialects as part of the culture and heritage of Chinese Singaporeans remains accessible to future generations”. (click here for the news)

I grew up in a Singapore where I spoke to my grandma and mother in dialect, and watched Man in the Net on national TV in Cantonese. Heck, all the HK movies where shown in Cantonese too. I also saw the gradual shifting away from dialects to Mandarin, to the extent that they were eventually replaced by it. Sad; Stephen Chow’s jokes in movies dubbed-over in Mandarin just do not work.

When my younger cousins were growing up, they had already been weaned off dialects, to the extent that my non-Mandarin speaking granny had to learn Mandarin to communicate with her younger grandchildren. All my granny’s naggings-at-me and lullabyes in Cantonese (rich in meanings!) were something that my cousins would never be able to experience (and hence something important have been lost in translation between the generations).

So it is really rich to hear Minister say that his government thinks that dialects are important.

Read this blog (click here) which sums up nicely how our government’s rhetoric on dialects is whitewashed by its actions. In a recent talk that Prof Eddie Kuo gave at the Hokkien Huay Kuan, he was totally pessimistic about the government’s commitment to dialects. He harped on the point that the govt had been funding dialect-news on local airwaves for a long time, but these programs have had their time-slots reduced, and are in real danger of being pulled off the air completely.

For a start, if Minister Wong puts his money where his mouth is, let us have Taiwanese tv dramas on national TV shown in original Hokkien, and let Hong Kong movies shown in cinemas be undubbed.

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January 22, 2014 · 10:14 pm

‘A life of practice: Kuo Pao Kun’: An article about the man, but only half an article

I am planning to go National Museum of Singapore to see ‘A life of practice: Kuo Pao Kun’ (click here for exhibition info). So I have been doing some online snooping on the man and his life. This is one illustrious man, not just known for his plays, but also hi run-ins with authority. Kuo was imprisoned by Singapore’s Internal Security Act between 1976 – 1980 for his ‘political work’ (click here for a quick summary of the man and his works in a foreign book). From local sources, you find out more about Kuo’s problems with the State: he was alleged to have taken part in “communist activities and had his citizenship taken away in 1977… The restrictions were withdrawn in 1983 and his citizenship reinstated in 1992” (which is a quote from here, from the National Library of Singapore).

I came across a write-up on the exhibition in Bemuse (a National Heritage Board publication; click here and scroll to page 59). This written by Assistant Curator Lynn Lee. In the article, she wrote that ‘Kuo was detained under the Internal Security Act in March 1976 for four years and seven months”. No mention was made of the reason for his detention, or the revoking/reinstating of his citizenship.

I know this article in Bemuse is not meant to an ‘academic’ work (since the journal is not refereed nor does the article contain proper references). But for an article dedicated to Kou’s works, it seems completely baffling that his political past was not featured prominently, especially since it appears to have shaped his thinking and influenced his works. One of his works I’ve watched on stage – The coffin is too big for the hole – is a brilliant piece on the dilemmas of filial piety and adherence to State rules. But what is more illuminating is that watching it as a Singaporean, you can just sense the mastery of Kuo in using the play to poke fun at the sometimes stifling bureaucracy in Singapore. Reading Lee’s article, you would not understand how Kuo’s past had fueled his cunning ability to weave complex nuances in what appear to be ‘simple’ plays. I hope the exhibition is not as lacking as this article appears to be.

(On a side note: I wonder if Bemuse has ‘over-controlled’ itself in playing down Kou’s past in the article. It is after all part of the National Heritage Board, a stat board funded by the Singapore government. Maybe it did not want to over glorify someone who was once declared an ‘enemy’ of the state and then made persona-non-grata. But then again, the link above from the National Library states clearly his communist-leanings; the Library, too, is part of the government. I wonder…).

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February 19, 2013 · 9:50 pm

Should I stay or should I go?: Singapore, and our government’s way with physical heritage

I fully agree with our newly-minted Minister Chan Chun Sing; it is indeed a fine balance between the need to ‘preserve’ physical heritage and the never-ending demands on space on our small – and soon-to-be shrinking even more – island (click here for full story). He is paraphrased as saying “But while some places will be preserved, there will be other sites that have to be redeveloped to meet the emerging needs of the younger generation”. Again, this I fully understand.

What the article does not cover is the Minister’s way – which is also the PAP’s way – of dealing with the dilemma. How does our govt take on the heavy task of justifying what to ‘destroy’, forever? I remember many past examples where we can get clues as to how the government reasons what physical heritage they destroy and what they deem important enough to preserve (for a while more at least).

1. The old Raffles Institution at the site where Raffles City now stands. The old school has been there for yonks (as it was founded by the man himself in 1823), and many illustrious people have gone through its gates. Never mind its history and legacies; it was torn down for a mall, a hotel and a train station. I was too young to remember how this building was justified for destruction, but as we know, the govt had its way. If a govt can do what they did to this grand old dame (seemingly to make way for commercial considerations), I think we know how this govt finds “balance between redevelopment and preserving its heritage as it progresses”.

2. National Library at Stamford Road. Some say the building was ugly. But for many (esp those born in the 70s), this was the place where we had our dates with our first loves, before nipping off the Lido for a movie. I understand that this library was sitting on prime land, and it must have always been in the crosshairs of our ever-hungry urban-developers. Perhaps its location would always be the doom of its own posterity, and that I comprehend. But for it to have been destroyed to make way for, of all things, a bypass road-tunnel, I am completely flabbergasted. (And mind you, this does not even seem a necessary bypass, nor is it well-used). And this was done in the face of so much public uproar, mind you. Architects, academics and the person-on-the-street all voiced their opposition in very public forums, but they might as well have cried for mercy in front of a deaf and blind person. From this, I think we know how this govt finds “balance between redevelopment and preserving its heritage as it progresses”.

But I have to say that due to our govt’s need to be seen to be ‘cool’ and ‘considerate’ that it thinks its own heritage is worth preserving, many old buildings have been given new leases of life. Think about the old SJI, National Museum, Empress Place Building, soon-to-be-opened Supreme Court etc, and how they have been been preserved as museums not only housing stimulating exhibits, but also as vestibules for memories that these buildings generated and continue to harbour.

But there’s always a darker flip side. Certain old buildings are still with us today. They are saved from the wrecking ball, however, not because they are ‘important’ enough to be preserved, but because they – their physical shells and their locations – seemingly are worth more as ‘commercial’ entities than as a pile of rubble or as new buildings without histories. These buildings are kept ‘alive’, in short, because in their ‘old’ skins, they are worth more in the rent they generate (or the price they can fetch if sold), than if they are pulled down and new buildings erected. The Fullerton Building, St James Power Station, Raffles Hotel, Boat/Clarke/Robertson Quays, come to mind. We have to thank Singapore’s relentless pursuit of economic-rationality for the survival of these grand buildings. But when they cease to be commercially viable, their fate may be hard for some to swallow.

I can go on. Many old sites had to give way for progress; I understand. Many more old sites will have to give way for progress; I understand. I am a realist; you cannot preserve everything on a small island with an ever-growing population.

That till now, our government spews that they care about our physical heritage, but yet is not transparent with how they decide on the outcomes of whether to preserve/destroy (think Bukit Brown, the social movement to save it, and govt’s firm stubbornness on going on with its initial decision in the face of so much criticisms); this I don’t understand at all. Sometimes, not all of us old sentimental fools are obstinate. We can understand that sometimes the govt has to ‘destroy’ to ‘create’. But we need to know that you WILL, in between making hard decisions, sometimes listen to us and say “I’ve heard you. We admit we may have made a premature decision, and that’s why we will reconsider our decision to destroy XXX”. Until then, such sound bites by such Ministers (like the one made by CCS above), will, remain painful ‘bites’ that leave scars.

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February 17, 2013 · 3:12 pm