Film in Southeast Asia

I remember Victor and Charlee from my teens. I spent those years in Batu Pahat, a fairly large town in Johor, that had the advantage over many other towns in that state for being close enough to Singapore to receive the country’s TV and radio signals. As a result, I knew all the lyrics of televised Singaporean patriotic songs, like Stand Up for Singapore; and I got to know Singaporean entertainers like Brian Richmond, Roger Kool, and the ventriloquist Victor Khoo and his puppet Charlee.

Khoo and wooden sidekick were never considered cool by anyone I knew. I did not grow up in Singapore so I don’t know if, had I attended one of his performances, I would have reacted with as much excitement as the children shown screaming in Tan Pin Pin’s short film, Singapore GaGa. In fact, Charlee still looks rather sinister to me, perhaps because I associate him with the “insane ventriloquists” and their practically-possessed dummies (Davis 136) featured in popular culture.

Khoo, however, with his mullet and shoulder-padded jacket, seems unbelievably cheesy. Could it be true that Singaporean children really love the duo so much? The shouts and cheers at the Multiracial Children’s Lantern Festival Party seem genuine enough and director Tan herself says, on her website, that on the way to film the event, she “felt excited, unsure what it would be like to meet after all these years” (Singapore GaGa, website) … almost as if she was on her way to see an old flame.

The signage showing the name of the event makes, I feel, an ironic statement. Look out at the sea of children and they comprise mostly ethnic Chinese. Thus, if Singapore GaGa is Tan’s “statement about multicultural Singapore”, then she is saying that, like the signage, the island state’s multiracial identity is a somewhat false one, the picture skewed. In a paper published in 2008, Alexius Pereira cited Singapore’s then most recent census figures, in which the Chinese made up ‘seventy-five per cent’ (351) of the population.

Tan’s film reflects this racial majority. Footage of MRT stations shows a predominantly Chinese public. Non-Chinese Singaporeans are few and far between, and easily-missed. I don’t believe Tan included Charlee, the ventriloquist’s dummy in her film to make a point about multiracialism. In fact, her point may be that the multiracial image projected by Singaporean authorities is misleading. Charlee talks about how the children he’s entertained for 50 years have not changed at all: They laugh at the same jokes.

This might be a significant remark, pointing perhaps at how an icon like Charlee (he compares himself to Mickey Mouse) unifies children of all races, across generations, but although it may be true that Singaporean children through the decades all love Charlee, their racial diversity is not at all obvious to viewers. I do think that Victor and Charlee’s inclusion in Singapore GaGa is suggestive though. In an interview (available on the DVD of the film), Tan describes the film as a documentary about Singapore presented through the ‘sounds and music of Singapore’ (Singapore GaGa, film).

In another interview, with popular podcaster and blogger Mr Brown, she says that she had always been aware that there was a Singapore she knew ‘that was never articulated’ and that she wanted to ‘describe it and share it with others’ (Mr Brown). Tan’s familiarity with Khoo as a performer leads me to believe that she chose him and Charlee partly for nostalgic reasons. After all, Tan does say that the film is ‘curiosity-driven rather than deliberate’ and it would seem probable that she is referring to personal curiosity, provoked by her own experiences.

I do think that, in addition to this curiosity about the act, she wished to use Khoo’s profession as a ventriloquist to make a point about her movie as a whole. First of all, I believe that Tan’s film, whether by design or accident (she mentions, several times, during the above-mentioned podcast, the serendipitous nature of the film’s production process), is about marginalised communities. Khoo himself, although popular with children, is marginalised as an entertainer. He is certainly not one of the elite, like

Margaret Leng Tan (another of Tan’s subjects), who plays at Carnegie Hall and receives rave reviews in The New York Times. Khoo and Charlee appear very early on in the film and give the viewer an idea of its direction. Tan may also be signalling, whether intentionally or not, that, just as Khoo speaks for Charlee, Singapore GaGa speaks for the marginalised individuals it features. Khoo makes it clear that he feels side-lined when he has Charlee wonder why he has ‘never received a National Day Service Award’ (Singapore Gaga, film) despite having entertained Singaporean children for 50 years.

In this instance Charlee asks the question, but it’s obviously Khoo’s sentiments that are being expressed. This literal ventriloquism is mirrored by Tan’s metaphorical role (Davis 133) as a ventriloquist who uses her movie to speak for, or at least bring attention to, various marginalised communities/individuals in Singapore. Multicultural Singapore seems to be, if anything at all, a by-the-way footnote, conspicuous in its obvious absence as a visible feature in the film. Although Singapore GaGa features individuals and groups of all races, they are shown separately, which reflects reality.

In fact, the Indians featured in the film are foreign workers, while the Malay community comprises students in a religious school, singing Arabic songs about Singapore. A multicultural tapestry perhaps, but more significantly, a picture of unseen communities, living separate lives, unnoticed by the world. TASK 2: Music for the Masses The scene in question is preceded by Juanita Melson, the ‘voice’ on Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit trains, remarking to the director Tan Pin Pin that it’s ‘good for (passengers) to know that there’s a voice that comes on air and gives them instructions’ (Singapore GaGa, film).

Melson’s voice is then heard thanking MRT passengers for not eating and drinking on the train. Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque No. 7 in G-flat major then begins to play, rendered by Singaporean harmonica virtuoso Yew Hong-Chow. The music is light and sprightly, with the sort of playful and whimsical melody suggested by its title, which refers to a certain genre of romantic music. It is said that this piece of music might be the ‘most famous small piano work after Beethoven’s Fur Elise’ (Hurwitz 112).

It is certainly ‘catchy’ and memorable, and this has resulted in the melody being used, in the past, for comic and even bawdy songs. One such song is about instructions concerning the use of toilets in trains and begins with the lines: Our passengers will please refrain From flushing toilets while the train Is in the station, Darling I love you. We encourage constipation While the train is in the station, Moonlight always makes me think of you (Brand). Could the director Tan Pin Pin have had this song in mind when choosing the music for the scene?

It seems wickedly appropriate considering Melson’s observation that train passengers like being told what to do. The reference to toilets and answering the call of nature is also neatly fitting following Melson’s voice telling the passengers that it’s an offence to eat and drink in stations and trains. ‘We encourage constipation’ takes on a whole new meaning! As I recognise the piece of music used and know something of its history, the scene is vaguely amusing to me. However, as the scene continues, it evokes other feelings and provokes other responses.

Firstly, I am reminded of my daily commutes when I was studying and then working in Singapore. There really is nothing like the monotony of a long train or bus ride, that you must ‘look forward to’ every day and that you can see no end to, to stir up feelings of loneliness and sadness. Research has shown that long commutes lead to ‘increased blood pressure and heart rate, negative mood, emotional arousal, poor concentration’ (Kuennen 50) among other undesirable effects. Somehow, sitting (or worse, standing) in a compartment full of strangers really makes one feel totally alone.

The ‘sweet’ music, somehow, made the unpleasant memory more vivid, probably because its repetitive melody and phrasing conjure up sensations of a train regularly stopping and starting; the wistful lilt in the bridge lending a sense of yearning and melancholy to the scene. At the same time, I thought of how classical music has been used to calm cattle (Grandin), and wondered if this was also Tan’s intention for the scene. Perhaps the blank stares of the passengers made her think of the resignation of animals when led to the slaughter.

In a way, there is as little escape for these humans going through the daily grind of life as there is for livestock being transported in trains and trucks. Similarly there is no escape for the marginalised individuals whom Tan features in her film. Their lot in life is shaped by various factors including disability, and public perception. For some of them at least, music provides some comfort and release. The handicapped tissue seller, Liang Yu Tao, says that she sings Jesus songs when she feels discouraged; Melvyn Cedello plays and sings late at times in MRT stations … to no one – is he suffering from insomnia?

And there is Yew Hong-Chow, the harmonica player who performs Humoresque No. 7 for this scene. Tan writes on her website that the harmonica has seen Yew through extreme poverty and a divorce. In the movie, he talks about how the instrument is not given the attention it deserves in Singapore and classical guitarist Alex Abisheganaden confirms how the harmonica would be a more suitable for school music lessons than the recorder, which is used in Singaporean schools, and in Malaysian ones too.

Yew is another side-lined individual but Tan shines the spotlight on him, showcasing his considerable gifts as a versatile, inspired and inspiring musician. It is interesting, however, that although she chooses the piece to be performed on the harmonica and although the scene is set on an MRT train, Tan has Yew perform it rather than choose Gn Kok Lin, Singapore’s self-proclaimed ‘national treasure’ whom we see performing at MRT stations on his harmonica, while juggling and tap dancing in wooden clogs. Perhaps Gn does not take requests. Or perhaps his performance on the harmonica must be ccompanied by tap dancing and this would have resulted in a percussion-heavy rendition that would not have fitted the mood Tan wanted to convey. This dreary and inactive mood is reflected in the faces of some of the passengers who mostly avoid making eye-contact with the camera. Two of them seem more aware than the others and seem to discuss the filming, but although they seem uncomfortable, they do nothing to stop Tan from shooting the scene. In reality, there is no music that has quietened these people to a state of apathy and avoidance.

What, in fact, has produced this condition? Is it the soothing motions of the speeding train? Is it the natural tendency of Asians preferring to avoid confrontation? Whatever the case may be, these people will get off at their station and go about their daily lives which may or may not offer them more excitement and variety than the train ride afforded. For other Singaporeans, like Melvyn Cedello, Gn Kok Lin and Liang Yu Tao, there is the sense of being caught, stuck in a scene that endlessly repeats, same frame, same soundtrack.

There is no escape. Task 3: National Treasure or National Nuisance? The old harmonica player in question is Gn Kok Lin, a busker who performs classic melodies from the East and West (Singapore GaGa, website) in MRT train stations. He also juggles, one-handed, and dances, his wooden clogs, the preferred bathroom and kitchen footwear of the elderly Chinese, beating out a distinct tattoo on the tiled floor. Gn is one of the marginalised individuals featured by Tan Pin Pin in her movie Singapore GaGa. He is marginalised in three ways.

Firstly, he is a street performer. Although the Singapore authorities are gunning for the city-state to be a ‘significant player in the global creative economy’ (Ooi, ‘Reimagining Singapore’ 288), they do not see street performers as serious or respected participants in the creative industries. In fact, busking is seen as a ‘form of “disguised begging”’ (Ooi, ‘Subjugated in the Creative Industries’132) and is thus strictly regulated, with buskers needing to obtain a license to perform from the National Arts Council (NAC).

The application process involves the buskers being vetted by the NAC and successful applicants must keep to their designated area when performing. Gn, as a busker, is not respected by the authorities. Unlike, the pianist Margaret Leng Tan, he would not be seen as contributing to Singapore’s economy or its growth, neither is he internationally feted. He is not in the position to swell the national coffers, and neither is he able to sweeten Singapore’s global reputation. Gn calls himself a ‘national treasure’ but it’s doubtful if the Singapore authorities are even aware of his existence.

His tale (whether or not true) of being handcuffed is pathetic and heart-breaking: ‘Even though I’m a national treasure and a human being’ (Singapore GaGa, film). He is aware that he is not valued and this brings us to the second way Gn can be viewed as marginalised: He does not have a license to perform. I make this assumption because, earlier on in the film, he is asked to leave his spot by a station official. Therefore, already marginalised as a street performer, he is doubly-so as an illegal one.

His interrogation by the elderly woman as to whether he is permitted to perform at the station is distressing especially as Gn seems to know all about permits and the NAC. Does this mean that he has applied for a license and been rejected? It seems to me that by including this scene in her movie Tan is saying that while Singapore might have its priorities right in its promotion of the arts, it is very wrong-headed in its refusal to recognise and value the beauty and benefits of the kind of creative and quirky spontaneity shown by Gn.

The woman’s rude treatment of the busker seems to directly reflect Singapore’s official stance towards street performers – one of extreme wariness and suspicion. That ‘busking is a form of begging is still central in the popular mind-set’ (Ooi citing Pang 1994; Dhaliwal 1997; Koh 1998; Tan 2009, ‘Subjugated in the Creative Industries’ 132), but it is a double-reflection – her attitude might well be a result of the official policy and general attitude toward busking. The third way in which Gn may be viewed as marginalised is as an elderly individual.

In a country that ‘prides itself in economic productivity’, ‘negative attitudes towards older workers are widespread’ (Teo, Mehta, Thang & Chan 48). Gn may be able-bodied but still unable to find employment, and, considering the prevailing attitudes towards buskers, he may be viewed as ‘lazy’ and out to make easy money by ‘begging’. This scene, full of irony and pathos, is one of my favourites from Singapore GaGa. Gn is victimised by one of his peers who seems to have no reason to pick on him other than to satisfy her own petty curiosity.

He meets her questions with good cheer, answering her politely although he doesn’t have to. When she leaves, still muttering to her partner about her doubts as to the existence of a license, Gn announces that he will play the ‘Poland (sic) Mazurka’ and starts to perform, with gusto. Although undoubtedly eccentric, he is a talented and interesting man who acts with grace and dignity. Like other buskers, he makes an honest living, spending long, often lonely hours, performing for a public that seldom takes an interest.

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