Introduced and translated by Kwee Hui Kian
Born and raised in Singapore, Huang Kaide is an award-winning poet and prose writer. He has published Tiao si wei zhi 跳死为止 (1995), Xiu ding ban 修订版 (1996), Dai zhi 代志 (2004). In recent years, he has also explored writing short stories, and most pertinently from the perspective of this e-journal, these narratives are based on various historical events in Singapore in the period from 1950s to 1980s. In four instalments, Kaide explored the themes of sexuality, memory and history in each decade, mostly seen through the eyes of a little boy. These literary musings on memories and history in Singapore are especially fascinating since few young writers in Singapore, particularly those writing in the Chinese language, explore the nation’s history in their works.
In recent months, Kaide has been writing on similar musings on social issues, memories and history in a column every fortnight in the main Singapore Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao. The column, entitled “De Yizhi” (德意志), is a stylized name for “(Huang Kai-)De’s will”. In this issue, we have translated the piece he has written on the re-opening of the National Museum, under renovation from 2003 to 2006. The piece was published in Chinese in Lianhe Zaobao, 17 Dec 2006.
In my memory, it seems that at the end of every semester, the primary school administration would organize an excursion for us. Prior to that, our teachers would distribute consent forms and require us to obtain signatures from our parents. Excitedly, I would bring the form back and observe the home situation for the best timing to take it out from my school bag. To cajole my mother to sign it, my common tactic was to stress how the excursion was part of the school’s teaching, that all students would go with the teacher, and if we should miss out, we would fall behind in school.
My mother could of course see through the antics behind my sudden transformation into an obedient kid. There would invariably be a session of admonitions to study hard, followed by rantings and complaints against the school’s actual intention and utility in organizing such activities. Only after the necessary nagging would she look for a pen to sign the form.
In our six years of primary school education, the places we went for excursion trips were all different, and we looked most forward to these trips after examinations. Sentosa, the Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Science Centre and the Botanical Gardens were among the favourites. One year, when the teacher announced that we would be visiting the National Museum for the excursion trip, more than half of my class-mates probably felt lost like me. Although the majority of us had not been there before, we felt, as if it was a haunting memory, that the Museum would be a place that is boring, sombre and not fun at all. The teacher seemed to sense our unvoiced protest, and said something about how “the Museum has our memories” and that we would love it.
The cannons and wax figures in Sentosa, the grey bears and penguins in the Zoo, the ostrich and parrots in the Bird Park, the colourful lightings and imageries in the Science Centre, the gigantic trees and odd-shaped branches at the Botanical Gardens – they still retained a hazy impression despite the many years. But that year at the National Museum, aside from recalling a sense of loss and regret as I watched the rays of light shining into the hemisphere-shaped glass ceiling, I truly could not remember what else I had seen, a memory I could not recapture even in my dreams.
Although I have long changed my mind about that year’s trip being “not fun at all”, I have not been to the National Museum in all these years. It would be an exaggeration if I said it was an unpleasant memory, but deep down I could not be rid of the general suspicion that “the Museum has our memories”.
After some years of major renovation, the National Museum has recently reopened. In the papers and in posters at bus-stops everywhere in Singapore, the hemisphere-shaped glass ceiling of the Museum occupied an unnoticeable corner in the sky-blue background, paled by a series of activist slogans in big white letters: “nuclear disarm”, “make it in Bollywood”, “give a damn”, “end the reign of reality shows”, “popularize chilli crabs in Kazakhstan”, “clone yourself”, “be a benchmark”; after which comes the main slogan: “what will you do to be remembered?”
There are no obvious symbols denoting history or artefacts. Everything is in the progression of the present and the future. Memory is of a bearable weight. From the reports in the media, one also has the sense that the National Museum has become “more fun” place after its renovation. The poster makes a direct appeal to readers and viewers, but somehow, when I saw the poster, I recalled my primary school excursion to the National Museum and that irretrievable memory.
That year’s disappointment might be read as a kind of weak historical consciousness. Still, in the paradox of memory and forgetting, the fundamental dignity and rationale for the existence of a national museum should be questioned in a similar slogan: what has this city done to make us remember it?
This city of ours has a common history but we do not have a mutually communicable memory. History has happened but memory does not exist. In his rich and colourful autobiography Istanbul, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk goes in search of and writes about traces of his growing up from the collective memory of the city. With its depth and also some bitterness, that history is also memory, and Pamuk repeatedly uses the word “melancholy” to describe he himself and his homeland.
The “I” during the primary school excursion to the National Museum was also melancholic. The Latin origin of the term “museum” means the temple to worship Muses, the Greek goddess in charge of managing memory in mythology. Does the National Museum have any memory that we ourselves cannot remember?
 See Lianhe zaobao 27 Nov 2003, 1 Sep 2004, 6 Oct 2005 and 9 Jun 2006.
 “De Yizhi” also happens to be the Chinese transliteration for “Deutsch”, as in “Germanic”, though one could read the punts in many ways, as is the intention.
Kwee Hui Kian is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on Southeast Asia and South China, where she has examined various themes relating to colonialism, capitalism, political economy and diasporic entrepreneurship, from the seventeenth century to the present. Currently, besides archival and library research, she is also doing fieldwork and collecting oral histories in many Chinese temples and related associations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. When she has spare time, she tries to gather data on the history of her parents’ old kampung near the Paya Lebar airport.