Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, January 24, 2010
“So how long will you be in China?” probed an academic friend in Ithaca, New York, where I live and work.
I explained I would be teaching and researching in Singapore, a tropical island city state just north of the equator tucked between Malaysia and Indonesia, a little red dot on the map--and a completely different country from China.
“So if I write to you, would the address be Singapore, Shanghai, Japan?” she continued.
No, I answered. Send mail to Singapore. Shanghai and Japan were further north. Different latitudes.
“Do you speak the language? When did you learn Chinese?” another friend asked. “How will you teach?”
Yes, I speak the language, I replied. The language of business and education is English in Singapore. Singapore, I elaborated gently, is multilingual, with signs in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, recognizing the four major ethnic and language groups in the country.
Singapore is in some ways the Montreal of Southeast Asia—signs are multilingual. The aural landscape is a fugue of languages and dialects, including the multitude of languages spoken by the ex-patriate communities here who work in the major industries of banking, oil, high technology, health, pharmaceuticals, educations, media, the arts.
In their quest for networks that insured empire, the British established Singapore as a port in 1819. It remains one of the biggest and busiest ports in the world, although shipping has declined in the current recession. Containers and container ships line the south side of the island, monikers of global capitalism and the flow of goods.
Formerly part of Malaysia, Singapore established self-governance in 1959 and became an independent country in 1965. A major global city on par with London and Hong Kong, four million people live here. It is a clean New York, a warm London, a less polluted Mexico City.
Ten years ago, Singapore was known to most Americans as the place that banned chewing gum and caned spray-painting, delinquent American teenagers. Now, according to one guidebook, it is a country of “bests” in the world: best airline, best acoustics in a concert hall, best public transportation, best healthcare system, best students , and, according to many of my colleagues here at NTU, best food.
FLEFF digital arts curator and now one of my colleagues here at NTU, Sharon Lin Tay, claims Singapore invented fusion cuisine in the 19th century, with its Perankan (Straits Chinese, part Malay, part Chinese) culture. It’s also one of the model countries for creative industries public policy, marshalling the arts for economic development. More on that initiative in another blog.
To confess, before I journeyed to Singapore to teach at Nanyang Technological University in what is now the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2003, I didn’t fully comprehend the complex histories, identities, ethnicities, languages and cultures of Asia. It was a continent to me, not countries, people, cultures, arts, music. It was a unified concept: ASIA.
After living here, Asia dissassembled into Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia broke down into Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and these countries came into focus as regions. And regions sharpened into neighborhoods. And neighborhoods into streets like Joo Chiat in the Katong distict of Singapore, where Stewart (my partner and also a visiting professor of health communication in the School of Communications) bought hand-made rattan furniture for our balcony overlooking the forest and jungle.
Despite my obsessive study of postcolonial theory (a major influence on critical historiography, one of my research areas), I admit now that preconceptions warped my thinking. These preconceptions were probably stoked by Hollywood films like Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) and Joseph von Stenberg's Shanghai Express (1932) as well as New York Times stories about Asian economic crises, Asian economic tigers like Japan, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong, and Asian massage techniques like Indonesian long stroke and acupressure.
On the 18 hour flight from Newark to Singapore on Singapore Airlines, I noticed that the bathroom had a purple and pink orchid in a small wooden vase. When I got on the plane, a close friend called to wish me farewell. I mentioned to her that I was relieved to finally be on the plane after dealing with some very grave family issues.
When I closed up my cell phone, the steward wrapped me in a hug and said welcome. I could not imagine an American airline with flowers in the bathroom and steward’s repairing worn-out psychic states.
With more movies than I could watch ( I did Steven Soderbergh'sThe Informant!—thought it was okay but rather dry) and more music than I could possibly listen to (I reveled in the new Kronos Quartet album, Floodplain), the flight across the north pole, Europe, the Middle East, India and then Thailand felt like an aerial spa kneading the kinks out of my mind.
Yesterday, Stewart and I bought four rattan chairs, a small rattan table and some footstools with caning from Miss Theng and her brother Mr. Theng at Teong Theng Co. at the junction of Joo Chiat Road and Duku Road.
The neighborhood is filled with classical turn of the 20th century Singapore architecture—two storey buildings in pink, blue, orange, the second floors with colorful shutters, detailed tiles imbedded in the walls, a contrast to the postmodern skyscrapers of downtown. Food stalls spill into the streets selling Katong laksa, a specialty curry soup found only in Southeast Asia, fish head curry, and dim sum.
Miss Theng suggested that we ride back to NTU with Mr. Theng in his truck--he needed to pick up the chairs and one of the footstools we had purchased from their warehouse in the Tampines district and then stop by one of their other stores in the HDB (Housing Development Building).
Mr. Theng’s first language is Chinese. Crammed into the cab of the open-backed truck shuttling our new balcony furniture, we all had to speak slowly, excising adverbs, adjectives, and abstract concepts. Mr. Theng drove us through the warehouse district, where wood furniture from Indonesia and Thailand jammed the stalls. We then manuevered through the recycling district, where old cars and air conditioning units were pressed flat like spatulas.
On the ride on the PIE (Pan Island Expressway—Singaporeans transform almost everything into acronyms) to the Jurong district in the west where NTU and our university flat are located, we asked Mr. Theng about his shop.
He told us that his parents had emigrated to Singapore from a region of China right outside Hong Kong in the late 1930s to start a wood furniture business. With rattan and wood furniture stacked to the ceiling like puzzle pieces, Teong Theng Co. predates the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II and the formation of Singapore as an independent country. It has been in continuous operation for 70 years by the same family.
In Singlish, a local patois that blends Chinese and English, Mr. Theng asked where we were from. Upstate New York, near Canada, we replied. He said “You come long way to Singapura. You like?”
As we tried to figure out on the map if we were in the Seragoon or Tampines or Bukit Timah district, we said : yes, yes, we like Singapura. Good food. Good students. Good people.