Lim Cheng Tju and Hong Lysa
Can art transcend history, pain and loss?
I think art helps in the healing process where there has been trauma. It is an emotional outlet for both the artist and the viewer. It helps by allowing people to revisit past experiences, and generates discourses so that people can talk about issues that have been swept under the carpet (Boo Junfeng, interview with the authors)
There has been a surge in the number of local films dealing with history in recent years, giving rise to the question whether the film format is a better medium to teach the subject than the textbook or works by historians. Non-mainstream histories of Singapore like Tan Pin Pin’s ‘Invisible City’ (2007), Eng Yee Peng’s ‘Diminishing Memories’ I and II (2008) and ‘Endless Days’ the in-production second feature by Ho Tzu Nyen come to mind.
In America, TV and films have been legitimized as purveyors of history as seen in the historicity of Tom Hanks’ ‘The Pacific’. In the case of director Boo Junfeng, his short films are haunted by the spectre of history, whether they are family secrets as in ‘A Family Portrait’ (2004), spatial history in ‘Changi Mural’ (2006) and ‘Bedok Jetty’ (2008) or social/gender/legal history in ‘Tanjong Rhu’ (2008).
Junfeng’s first feature film is ‘Sandcastle’. We sat down and talked to him on 4 September 2010 at the Esplanade Library café, a week after the film opened.
(text in block quotes or italics are from s/pores interview with Junfeng)
Working with silences
‘Sandcastle’ manages to explore the meaning and nature of history through its mutation into social memory in a more thoughtful and intricate way than if it were to be set in the 1950s, the turbulent political era where the Chinese middle school students were in the forefront of anti-colonial mass politics.
A historical reenactment would require the enormous resources such as that at the disposal of Oliver Stone. At the same time, such an effort may also not be the most fruitful, for our understanding of the period still hovers between the portrayal of the Chinese school students by the powers that be as dangerous, manipulative, if not manipulated, and the former students’ labeling of themselves as ‘idealistic’ and ‘anti-colonial nationalists.’ Even then, it is only lately that the latter narrative has been cautiously emerging.
The filmmaker’s attempts to interview former Chinese school student activists and political detainees were rebuffed. However he did not work his contacts very hard. After all, understanding and accepting their silence is what he deals with in the film itself.
I wanted to be considerate. I did not want to impose or intrude. It is history told as stories, people’s stories.
By telling the story through the eyes of 18 year old En, and selecting 1999 as the setting, the filmmaker cut his cloth to a manageable size. The death of his grandmother who suffered from dementia set him off on exploring En’s coming to terms with his family history. Each social unit, from family to country, is inhabited by a dynamic sequence of individuals, and cares about what is communicated and transmitted to its members, present and future, so as to maintain its cohesion and vitality in the face of contradictions, disjunctions and counter-narratives. En’s parents’ involvement in the Chinese school students’ political movement, deemed subversive and anti-national by the colonial as well as post-colonial state has brought shame, and awkward silence about the family’s past.
What interests, intrigues, inspires me are the many elements, the dilemmas and taboos in Singapore that surround us. I wanted to juxtapose what is happening to the current generation of Singaporeans, especially the way the internet, the social media is so much part of their lives, with the older generation who rely on the traditional media. Our mindsets are so different.
I wanted to reach out to the Chinese educated, to the intellectuals through the film. But it is very difficult to get in touch with them. The internet and facebook don’t work in this instance
En has a lot of questions. He speaks for my generation who wants to know. What En goes through is that he questions, but at the same time he empathises too. He deals with the revelation (of his parents’ past political involvements) passively. He did not confront his mother, but placed his father’s letter to her recounting their lives in a spot where she would know that he knew. You realize that there is this past, which is painful to bring up. You want to be considerate.
‘Sandcastle’ looks at the more emotional aspect rather than the larger political canvas.
The film has no answers, only questions [which the 18year old has]. I only want to pose questions. I don’t have the answers. The answers are with those who do not want to speak up. Hopefully the film will lead to some dialogue, trigger some communication.
It did not escape the filmmaker that ‘Sandcastle’ ‘made it’ this far because it was supported by the Media Authority of Singapore and the Singapore Film Commission. Being selected for Cannes and for international distribution by Fortissimo Film had allowed it to be viewed in Singapore as something without political agenda. Yet its political overtones were picked up by the overseas press.
For me, really nothing is at stake. I meant to address the issue of memory and it is not supposed to be overtly political. I am just that not polemic.
This perhaps can be seen in the filmmaker’s decision to focus on the 1956 and 1961 student activities rather than 513 ‘anti-conscription’ incident of 1954 (which would be too obvious given that En was about to be enlisted – “that would be too neat.”) or Operation Cold Store of 1963.
In ‘Sandcastle’, the disjuncture which threatens En’s family’s ability to tell the next generation who they are cuts across the three generations, with the one in the middle, in the person of his mother, as the pivot. She withholds and denies her husband’s past, and her own, from their son. En’s grandfather was about to tell him about his father, having taken out the photo negatives of the latter’s student activities so that En could store them in the computer to ensure their preservation. However, En was distracted by a phone call, and the moment passed. As it turns out, his grandfather died that very night.
En’s grandmother has dementia, but in her lucid moments, she turns away from looking at the photo album and tells En to leave the past alone. However, her mumbling in her sleep alerts him to the possibility that his father had been in prison. He finally learns that his grandmother had tried to persuade his father to sign the ‘confession’ that would lead to his release when En was born, even though it would be admitting to falsehoods. He had refused. En takes his grandmother to Johor where his father was exiled, died and was buried, to perform his belated qing ming ritual. En’s acknowledgement of his father’s life frees his grandmother from the burden of her son’s unfilial act. The wholesomeness of the family’s social memory is restored.
But there is another disjuncture between generations that the film is enmeshed in—one between 18 year-old En (and the 26 year old filmmaker) and viewers who had been middle school students in the 1950s. The sexual exploits of En, at the beginning of the movie where he watches a porn clip on the computer, and later having sex with the girl next door, may well symbolize alienation and listlessness, and the intimacy and solace derived from people of one’s age group. The girl, Ying is three years older than En, and so is mature enough to handle their relationship, but members of the audience in their seventies, particularly the women who were politically active in the 1950s may well find their sexual liaison not easy to take in their stride.
A key issue which had galvanized the middle school students into critiquing colonial society in the 1950s was the anti-yellow culture movement which condemned pornographic salacious publications and films as the product of unbridled greed of capitalism, which led the young away from a wholesome life and service to society. Proper male-female relationships were a primary code of conduct which the progressive students observed, and which gave them a tremendous sense of righteousness. En’s mother refused to talk to him and even slapped him in anger when he told her she was over-reacting—his grandmother had slipped out of the house when he was in bed with Ying. A former Chinese middle school student in her 70s who watched the film said that she would have slapped him as well.
People of different age groups respond to the film differently. That response is another form of conservatism. Things have changed.
Embracing China (once more)
Things have indeed changed, and to the filmmaker one change is that it is now alright to ask questions about the 1950s, for that is history. In an interview with Ng Yi-sheng, he said, “Honestly, there was a line in the film that we took out where the grandmother asked the grandson, ‘What the hell does communism even mean?’” Because in this day and age, like, we are like showing China’s 60th anniversary film [‘The Great Cause of China’s Foundation’], that huge propaganda film that was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. And it was released here.”
In today’s Singapore, we can watch the film of the Communist Party of China praising its brilliant history, totally oblivious to the fact that what is being shown was that which had riveted at least one generation of student political activists in Singapore.
Why can’t we talk about that period, why can’t we put it into film, if it is done responsibly?
We have completely embraced China. There is so much communication between that country and our government. The story is set at the time after the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, with China’s open economy as an established feature. I pushed it as far back as I could to 1999 to be able to accommodate the handphone, Windows 98 and to make the task of coming with clothes, hairstyles and cars on the road etc ten years ago easier for my production designer. Two years makes a great difference in Singapore, given the rapid physical changes in the country. Any later than 1999, and it would not have been possible for someone schooling in the 1950s to have a biological child age 18.
In the interview with Ng Yi-sheng, the filmmaker said:
“Bobbi Chen played En’s new girlfriend. She’s the character who moves in next to En and she’s a new immigrant from China, and so is her father. As the film deals with the idea of time, it also deals with the idea of new immigrants and old immigrants: that Chinese Singaporeans are essentially all immigrants. It addresses a little bit of the heritage of Singapore.”
However, the relationship between En and Ying, underplays the very real social tension and mistrust between the local Chinese, and the recent PRC immigrants in Singapore. Ironically, it is Ying who makes it possible for En to piece his parents’ past. She is the one who recognizes his parents in the old photographs, and is able to read his father’s letter, written in the non-simplified script, which younger Singaporeans, are unable to read (though in actual fact, neither can PRC Chinese). In a reversal of the situation in the 1950s where the Chinese middle school students in Singapore were steeped in the history of China, Ying struggles to read in English about Sir Stamford Raffles and the indentured Chinese labourers who came to Singapore in the 19th century. She cannot identify with this history, nor does En think that she should.
The issue of the Chinese educated is better explored in the film’s telling and casting. The filmmaker told Ng Yi-sheng:
“Language also plays a big role in the film. It’s a generational thing: between the grandparents, they speak in Hokkien; mother and son speak Mandarin, and then En, the son, and his friends speak English. I think language can really define how the generations of Singaporeans have lived.”
Junfeng is a former student of Chung Cheng High School, an Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school which offers Chinese as a first language. However, he was from the Express stream. He admits that it takes a long time for him even now to read a piece of writing in Chinese. Like En, he has difficulty connecting with the past because of his limited command of Chinese. En overcomes this when he stays with his grandparents, and when he get to know Ying.
Junfeng did not know about his alma mater’s turbulent past when he was in school. But he can see that embracing Chineseness is the way to go.
I still think it is harder for an English-language Asian film to travel, whether it is art house or commercial. The reality is, people want ‘authenticity’, and a film from Asia with Asians speaking in English isn’t considered ‘authentic’.
The improbable top history student, 1999
Were the students communists?
Well, they were protesting the closure of the student union, which was supposedly pro-communist.
And in the 60s, the government arrested the communists?
Well, that’s a contentious issue also… whether or not those arrested were communists.
What happened to them? Were they exiled?
They were locked up for many years. Some of them exiled after that.
Andy, En’s classmate gave this history lesson to En when they were at a disco. His voice was almost drowned by the loud dance music. It was impossible for them to discuss the subject further then. In any case, En did not seem to want to, nor is it plausible that Andy could have said much more. For that matter, his reply was rather improbable for 1999. ‘Alternative histories’ made its cautious appearance in 2001, with Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history (edited by Tan Jing Quee and KS Jomo). This book certainly did not hit the reading list in schools immediately. The civil society group, Tangent, organized a forum on ‘(Un)learning the past’ which featured an account of the idealism of the period by former Chinese middle school student Han Tan Juan (Han Sanyuan, born 1942). Tangent published the papers of the forum in a landmark issue of their journal (2003). Documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, who had filmed the event for Tangent, featured Han in her ‘Invisible City’ (2007), which was a primary resource for the director of ‘Sandcastle’. In 2006, The Necessary Stage organized a forum where two former political detainees spoke
That Andy could utter the line ‘that’s a contentious issue…whether or not those arrested were communists’ certainly cannot be taken for granted. If such open-endedness existed in 1999, then En’s mother’s suppression of her 1950s self does not make much sense, or seem necessary. The silence that continues to be maintained by participants of that period of history is a product of a hardline insistence that the political detainees were all communists.
The unredeemed mother
The film’s resolution rests firmly on whether En’s mother finally lives ‘a fulfilling life’ and is ‘true to herself’, as her dying husband bid her to in the final line of his letter to her where he expressed his deepest love. In fact, she does the opposite, rejecting her past. Disavowing the admiration the students of the 1950s had for China, she makes baseless and disparaging generalizations about the hygiene level of food prepared by PRC Chinese. She embraces a ‘western’ religion, and disregards the ritual visit to En’s father’s grave during the qing ming period even though her son wants to observe it. In the same vein, she forces the deathbed conversion of her mother-in-law. Her beau is no less than a colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces, charged with organizing the National Day parade. There is no indication that with the burden of hiding the past from her son lifted, she finally attains some degree of liberation, and self-realisation. All that happens is that having discovered the truth of her past, En accepts her for what she is.
‘Sandcastle’ is the first feature film to deal with the Chinese middle school students of the 1950s and early 60s. As filmic history, it will shape the view of its audience to some degree, especially as there are no other means of learning about that generation beyond the prescribed stereotype, given the paucity of memoirs and other literature on them.
Ultimately, En’s mother lives that very stereotype. Just as she was even more committed than his father was to political activism as students, forty years later, she embraces her new religion and Singaporean identity in a much more uncritical and uncompromising way than her son.
While for En’s family, his discovery about his parents’ past brings an acceptance and equilibrium to its social memory, the same cannot be said about the large family of the Singapore nation. Its disjunctures remain, as such may even be reinforced, such is the impact of film. The trauma of being vilified largely remains. ‘Sandcastles’ privileges En and his generation. They grow, develop and move on with life. On the other hand, the wounds inflicted by the political system on En’s mother leaves permanent scars. She is disfigured for life. There is no healing for her. Nor for viewers then of her background and generation.
However, this is perhaps as far as En’s generation can grasp of that period of history. The failure to go behind and beyond the stereotype is not the younger generation’s alone. Historians have not done any better to date, nor have the subjects themselves helped to explain who they are.
But does En need to know more? He doesn’t seem to think so. That is a choice that his generation is entitled to make.
A beach sans sandcastles?
Newly built sandcastles would dot Changi beach when existing ones were washed away by the incoming tide.
One wonders if this is still the case.
Ng Yi-sheng’s interview with Boo Junfeng can be found at
Lim Cheng Tju is a secondary school history teacher who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art.
Hong Lysa, a historian, is the co-author of The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (2008). She is a s/porean.