Whose invisible city? Articulating Singapore’s pasts in Invisible City

Hong Lysa

‘In preparation/preparedness for being forgotten’, (beiwanglu, 备忘录 ) the Chinese title for Tan Pin Pin’s Invisible City (2007) involves an overlapping process, both bracing oneself for that inevitability yet also doing what one can to forestall memories from being lost. Tan Pin Pin’s camera documents individuals who in varying phases of their lives have come to this realization and commitment, and the documentary has perhaps aided their efforts, deferring the disappearance of their stories. The protagonists in the film do this not as an act of memorialisation to themselves, such as Aw Boon Haw did when he built the Tiger Balm Gardens, or such as autobiographers who aim it to spell out their individual achievements. Tan Pin Pin’s subjects are more modest in personality and aim: they seek to bequeath aspects of experiences and images of the world their generation lived through, which are of value beyond the circle of their own family—film footage and photographs which have become rare simply because no one else has bothered to record the then ordinary scenes of landscape natural and built, and everyday life; photographs of participation in past struggles which contest those usually selected for contemporary circulation, and which give a diametrically opposed reading of the events; songs that can still be sung on demand, testifying to the depth of the experience and commitment to the causes for which they were rallying cries. Each of these traces of the past is able to tell that much less without the presence of its creator and/or custodian.


The narrators in Invisible City with the most straightforward story to tell have to do with the history of the Chinese population in Singapore. Guo Ren Huey forthrightly says he still hates the Japanese for the brutalities committed by their soldiers against whom he and his wife fought in the Second World War as part of the Malayan Communist Party. He gets the satisfaction of saying this to a journalist from Asahi Shimbun writing a feature in conjunction with the visit of the Japanese emperor to Singapore in Jun 2006 to mark the fortieth anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries. A photo of Guo and his ailing wife appear in the premier Japanese daily, as living testimony of at least two people who can still sing the anti-Japanese song after more than 60 years. This is as close to a resolution to the issue on an individual basis as can be hoped for. The song not forgotten is evidence of the authenticity of his account.

Guo testifies to a historical moment which has been absorbed into the national narrative, so the fact that he was then a member of the Malayan Communist Party, the key armed resistance movement after the British surrender, was of little consequence to the documentary. Former journalist Han Tan Juan testifies to the implications of that legacy. He typified the current phase of his life–his sixtieth decade– as ‘the new journey’, having travelled through struggles in the 1950s and 60s, loss in the 1970s, contemplation in the 1980s– each structured by his student political activism. The ‘new journey’ takes him on the road to rehabilitating the Chinese school students of the 1950s and 60s as the anti-colonial fighters that they were, rather than as communists out to use violent means to destroy Singapore’s future as an independent nation, as depicted in school textbooks today. While the sites where the action took place are very different today, Han can recall vividly the shooting of tear gas into school grounds in 1956, pointing to precise locations where tear gas were lobbed in the grounds of Chung Cheng High School, and the pond where students jumped in to seek relief from the sting of the gas. However, the evidence on which he hinges his refutation of student-instigated violence occurring is photographs of defenceless students pushed against a fence, being herded by armed police, with captioned questions asking rhetorically just which side was using violence. Han explains that he was deprived of his citizenship for a period on account of his political activism, but in this phase of his life, he is concerned with talking publicly to put right a historical fact. Yet, as he tells Tan on screen, he fears that the photos might get him in trouble with the Internal Security Department; a number of his friends had destroyed the sets of photos that they had. Tan Pin Pin herself was apprehensive that Han would not allow his photos to be featured in the film—understood as ‘evidence’ and hence could be viewed as subversive. Would his narrative be irreparably weakened without the photos? To answer this, one has to realize that photos of students throwing bricks and wielding sticks (Han has argued that this was only in retaliation to police violence) routinely make their way into mainstream history books under the rubric of ‘violence’ and ‘riots’.

While Han Tan Juan sees the value of the photos as evidence of the historical injustice that has been inflicted on his generation of politically active students from Chinese- medium schools, Ivan Polunin’s footages on Singapore in the 1950s literally brings the invisible city and its outskirts to view with its scenes of Chinatown residents going about their daily routines (shot for anthropologist Marjorie Topley), of fishermen building kelongs. While the flora and fauna have practically disappeared, the people who were displaced from the streets of Chinatown and their lives as fishermen, as with their families and practically everyone in Singapore from the fifties would have adapted to the city. One cannot assume that they will want to remember the scenes that Polunin has captured way behind. Indeed, the official repositories are not willing to recompense Polunin for them, presumably calculating that unlike artifacts that museums would pay market rates for, the films would not command a price on the international auction market, such is logic of the entrepreneurial city. Tan Pin Pin presses Polunin on whether they are the records of a collective memory, and hence belong to the public. Yet the answer if not for him or any individual to give. As long as Singapore does not value the films as patrimony, they remain an archive of but one facet of the life and work of this retired medical lecturer in epidemiological disease at the local university. Along the way also recorded indigenous music for the Smithsonian, and took photographs for National Geographic. Invisible City has not resulted in a public subscription to buy the materials on Singapore from him.

Marjorie Doggett’s Characters of light: a guide to the buildings of Singapore was published by Donald Moore in 1957, before the Urban Renewal Authority and land prices threatened the buildings she painstakingly photographed. However, in Invisible City it was the prospect of their imminent destruction that the ailing octogenarian attributes as the reason for the book. As with Guo Ren Huey, her story is one of resolution of sorts: she has published the photographs of buildings that she loved, and which it turns out, have been subsequently destroyed. Doggett holds an open copy of her book as she tells the film-maker about it, though her sight is gone. Alert though physically frail, Doggett was asked if she had any regrets staying on in Singapore, to which the reply was that she had thought of spending her last years in England, as Singapore is no place to grow old in, but she never got around to it, and it became too late for that.

Marjorie Doggett is a Singaporean, though her fellow citizens would assume otherwise, so used are we of the CMIO model, with the Others usually occupied by Eurasians. In fact, the Doggetts became Singapore citizens the year after Singapore was granted self-government in 1959. Right up to the turn of the millennium, Marjorie Doggett was a regular contributor to the Forum pages of the Straits Times. A animal welfare advovate, she contributed informed critiques on the commercial farming of frogs for consumption, which involved extensive use of antibiotics and genetically engineered hormones; the unnecessary dissection of rabbits in biology classes in schools; Singapore as a transit point for illegal animal trading. Her photographs were featured in the 1992 exhibition on “Animals: they also share this world’ which raised issues of testing of cosmetic on animals, vivisection, and practices in industrial farming of animals for food which constituted cruelty to animals. Similarly, Ivan Polunin came to Singapore in 1948; his daughter, artist Olga Polunin, describes herself as a Singaporean artist living in Belgium of English- Russian and Hakka Chinese (her mother being one) descent. The range of his activities in Singapore is no less than Doggett’s and include a scholarly study of the Farqhuar paintings, and helping Temasek Polytechnic students digitalise and edit 8 two-minute and 9 one-minute video clips from his film archive which were distributed in a commemorative CD for the 2005 National Day celebrations. They are the invisible citizens of this city of possibilities, where the assumption is that their concerns are those of ‘expatriates’.

Thirty-something year old Lim Chen Sian is the foil to the old men and women who live in the Invisible City. His youth and energy is plain to see, but also unlike the others, he is not recording the times he is living in, but is excavating a military bunker on Sentosa’s Mount Serapong. He digs up objects that have been forgotten– the broken bowls and intact soft drinks bottles are distinctly familiar to the audience. They are not more than 60 years old, not even as old as the other people featured in the film. It is Lim who makes the grand statements about documentation and remembering: What if there were no records of his excavation work—if Tan Pin Pin was not on site with her camera; if he did not write up his findings—would it mean that the event never happened? Lim does what could possibly be a gentle spoof on his own labours: Sentosa is jungle which they had to cut through, with perils for the unsuspecting (an airwell in the ground marked with an orange flag) giving the romance and danger of the wild.

The editors of Invisible City do the rest in the final sequence. Lim’s team-mates treat their artifacts with the same scientific protocol as they would objects that are centuries old, carefully cleaning, measuring and documenting them. The film ends with an archeologist picking up a bottle, (from 1956, we are told with great satisfaction in an earlier segment), and spelling out the name of the popular drinks bottler for his colleague to record: Yeo Hiap Seng. The effort, earnestness, energy and seriousness put into their endeavours unearth information that can be retrieved more easily from other sources. If the fact that soft drinks did not always come in tin cans is what is stunning, then advertisements for the products in newspapers and magazines of the day would also have shown just how common this was. A bottle excavated at Mount Serapong would not reveal any secrets of the past that would be different from that dug up at Katong Park, the site of another fort. Lim contemplates what the people who drank from the bottle and ate from the bowl were like. These are questions which the objects will not be able to answer. Maps and engineering plans in the archives would have charted the exact dimensions and orientation of the fort if that is what the painstaking ‘excavation’ (overgrown by vegetation) of the fort was meant to do.

If the endeavours of Lim and his friends seem somewhat futile, they are not alone. In the penultimate sequence, Han Tan Juan notes that his spirited talk at the National Library was to no avail in educating the young about that part of Singapore history that he participated in: students in the audience did not even know what the Malayan Communist Party was, nor were not interested to find out. If this were the case, then ironically, Han need not be concerned that the Chinese school students are branded as communists in the history textbooks, for the state version was apparently not imbibed by the students either. Yet Han is of course too pessimistic, for the other younger Singaporeans in the film Chan Cheow Thia and Teng Siao See are very much so. They are members of the civil society group Tangent, which organized the public seminar on student activism in Singapore with Han and Koh Tai Ann as speakers.

Tan Pin Pin must have been prepared to be and indeed was invariably asked why there are no Malays and Indians featured in Invisible City. Her reply is that she did not set out the make a film on Singapore as such, but on those who are observers and documenteurs of the city—photographers, journalists, film directors, archaeologists. Yet only certain people are in a position to articulate their narratives publicly. Even Han Tan Juan and the Chinese middle-school students now have a respectable and indeed heroic tale to tell, which is one anti-colonial defiance, and of their subsequent marginalization. The valorization of ‘Chinese culture’ has turned them from bandits to heroes, as Pan Shou, one of the former Nanyang university officials who was accused of chauvinism, but towards the end of his life awarded the Cultural Medallion, noted with irony.

Han Tan Juan is a 2007 recipient of the Public Administration medal (bronze) for his work as director, North East Community Division, People’s Association; Guo Ren Huey has a 29-minute tape recording in the Oral History Centre under the rubric ‘Political Development in Singapore, 1945-1965.’ His testimony about unknowingly enlisting into the Malayan Communist Party to fight the Japanese and not realizing that its chief Lai Teck was a double agent forms the basis of the first part of a 2001 DVD ‘Riding the Tiger: The chronicle of a nation’s battle against communism’ put out by the Ministry of Information and the Arts. Han and Guo are not simply two individuals who have decided that it is time to tell their stories. Rather, the former has gathered sufficient social capital to have a sense of the limits that they can go; the latter has been useful to state discourses. What narrative frames are Singapore Malays permitted that would enable them to prepare for being forgotten, when they have yet to have a place in the nation’s collective memory, save for being party to race riots?

Much as Invisible City reveals the contours of the past that struggle to be remembered, it is also a documentary of those who belong to particular discursive communities whose existence already is a sign of privilege, albeit hard-won. Too much of the city remains invisible.

A former colleague of Siew Min and Hui Kian at the History Department, National University of Singapore, Hong Lysa is currently researching on Singapore history and history writing on her own steam. (Jun 2009)

One thought on “Whose invisible city? Articulating Singapore’s pasts in Invisible City

  1. Hi Chun See,There were kampong hosues along Old Upper Thomson Road, not far from Sembawang Hills Estate. The Malay guy who sold satays on his bicycle in our estate lived in one of the hosues here. He carted two metal containers across the back seat of his bicycle, one for the hot charcoals to bbq the satays and the other for his uncooked satays. If you travel from the Seraya Crescent end of Old Upper Thomson Road, the house that he lived in is on the left hand side of the road, about a kilometer from here. I am not sure if there were other Malay families living on this side. The kampong hosues on the right hand side of Old Upper Thomson Road were mainly inhabited by Chinese families. I do not think there were any hosues near the reservoir. The kampong hosues that I saw along the left hand side of this road were situated quite a distance from the waters of Peirce reservoir. I have hiked along the entire banks of Peirce in the late 60s and have not seen a single house nearby. So photo no. 1 is unlikely to be near Pierce Reservoir. But photo no. 5 could possibly be at or near Sembawang Hills Estate. The road in the background could be Old Upper Thomson Road. Edward

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