New “Chinese” Singapore Cinema? Form, Style, and Meaning of Singapore films in the 21st century

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Is Singapore cinema becoming Chinese/Taiwanese cinema?

In recent years Singapore cinema and filmmakers have caught the attention of international film audiences and critics alike. 

These achievements – winning big film prizes at various film festivals and competitions –  function not only as cinematic milestones for the country but it also indicates Singapore’s growing cultural and cinematic clout.

Some of her filmmakers like Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, Royston Tan, Boo Junfeng, Anthony Chan and Tan Pin Pin to name a few are not only serial winners but have also quickly become critical darlings with domestic and foreign critics.

Indeed, the successes of these filmmakers had led some critics and journalists to note the re-emergence of Singapore cinema: leading some to claim that a New Singapore Cinema has emerged in the country.

But while local journalists and critics may laud this new development of Singapore cinema, they might remember that Singapore Cinema had a golden period in the decades before independence in 1965 that is perhaps more representative of the country and region than its modern incarnation.

From 1937 to 1967, Singapore arguably had a cinematic golden period when Shaw Brothers, a Chinese production film company, produced a series of Malay films in the country. Helmed by Malay, Indian and Filipino filmmakers, these films were extremely popular and continued to be played on television screens during festive seasons in Singapore.

Local stars like P. Ramlee is perhaps the most iconic actor-filmmaker from that era.  But this period was a short-lived one for locally-made films when Shaw relocated to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore.

Furthermore, Singapore had to cope with a tumultuous time as a result of the complexity of merger with the Federation of Malaysia before having to deal with the realities and the socio-economic challenges that came along with independence.

As the nineties came along, films made by Singaporeans (Eric Khoo, Glen Goei,  Philip Cheong, Kelvin Tong, Jasmine Ng, Tan Pin Pin, and Jack Neo) were quickly accepted by local audiences and critics.

For the first time in a long time, local filmmakers and locally made films entered the national consciousness.  It sparked not only debate surrounding Singapore cinema but also debate on Singapore culture.  This development was part of a bigger drive by the Singapore government to invest and nurture the Arts in the country.

While some critics might attribute artistic development as part of a mechanistic drive by the government to make the country more attractive to foreign investments, the fact is state intervention has been a net positive in promoting and developing the art sector in Singapore. 

The Singapore Film Commission was set up in the 90s to provide grants, scholarships, and sponsorships – amongst others – to support and develop future generations of local filmmakers.

This was coupled with an increase in funding for art education.  Along with Film and Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the development of art education in the country was further cemented with the establishment of schools such as School of the Arts (SOTA), and School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

At the same time, non-profit organizations such as Singapore Film Festival – whilst started as a private and almost marginalized event  – emerged as an important platform to help showcase the works of some of the country’s most prominent filmmakers at the festival.

With these initiatives and support, many Singaporean filmmakers began to compete on the international stage and the rest, as they say, is history; the emergence of a New Singapore Cinema. Or is it?

Singapore is a developed country in Southeast Asia with a diverse population of Chinese, Malay, Indians, Eurasians, and Others as her citizens. While Chinese are the majority in the country, they are not privileged over the rest

In fact, most Singaporeans are bilingual or even trilingual as most speak two or more languages. Firstly, English is used as a medium of instruction in the country. It is also the first language for most if not all Singaporeans. The English language allows Singaporeans of all races to communicate with each other not only in schools but also at the workplace and at social gatherings.

Secondly, Singaporeans are required to take up Chinese, Malay or Tamil as a second language in school in order not to lose touch with their own ethnic backgrounds and heritage.

Third, as most Singaporeans are second or third generation immigrants, their parents tend to speak their home or native languages or dialects (Hindi, Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese etc) in private spheres. Hence, Singaporeans do know how to communicate or at least understand other languages aside from English.

However, most Singaporeans do speak Singlish (a Singaporean pidgin language of English) to communicate with each other in less formal situations.

It should be noted that Singapore is not a homogenous country like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China or India. But despite its diversity, there is a high level of religious harmony in the country with Buddhist temples within walking distances to mosques, Hindu temples, and churches.

Singapore’s model of social, religious and racial harmony and tolerance is perhaps one of the most successful models in allowing the peaceful and stable co-existence of different peoples with different histories, religions, languages and cultural backgrounds.

But based on the cinematic output of the country, one would be mistaken – if one were to just watch Singaporean films – that Singapore is a Chinese society. While Chinese are the majority in Singapore, I think that Chinese-centric Singapore films do a great disservice to Singapore culture and indeed – cinematic history.

 To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong in making Chinese language films in Singapore. But it becomes problematic when critics and fans frame Singapore’s culture as being inherently Chinese.

That is because Singapore is not part of China or a Chinese colony or an honorary Chinese state any more than America is a colony of Britain or a German or Italian state just because a large segment of Americans have British, German or Italian heritage.

It is the purpose of this article to point to the importance of not representing Singapore as a Chinese society but instead as a multicultural and multiracial country. To be sure, the makeup of Singapore does not make for easy simplifications and representations. But that does not preclude an analysis of probing and understand it’s cinematic representation of the country. 

Singapore is a multicultural and multiracial nation-state. So while this article lauds the achievements of Singapore cinema, it is also a call to recapture and critique the assumption of Singapore culture in films.

This article is not so much a rejection insofar as it is a reaffirmation of the uniqueness of Singaporean culture. Furthermore, it re-orientates attention on the cliches and tropes, in the light that her cinema is gaining international attention, that limits other permutations of Singapore and her people on film.

The Reproduction of the Chinese Family as Singapore in Cinema

Film historian and theorist David Bordwell remind us that films can be seen as a practice. Film genres also have their own specific codification of conventions, tropes, and techniques.

If cinema is indeed a practice of specific codes and conventions, then it is entirely possible to identify and analyze narrative and visual patterns in Singaporean films.

In this regard, the Family Film genre defines Singapore cinemaThis is especially true for post-independence Singapore cinema. 

The practice of post-millennial Singapore cinema largely centers around the exploration of the family unit. Indeed, the Singapore Family Film is used as a surrogate to explore national and societal issues of the country.

More specifically the genre takes the family unit to represent the nation in terms of exploring the effects of modernization and urbanization on the people of Singapore.

Local auteur Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997) is perhaps the most definitive example of the Singaporean family film. The film not only codified the key tropes and themes of the genre, but it is also arguably one of the most influential local films in Singapore’s history.

The film posits four basic themes of the family unit as nation theme  (and by extension suppositions of citizenship itself) in Singapore cinema. These assumptions are (1) a distinctively Chinese society, and (2) a repressed populace and (3) public housing is a site of dystopia (4) an innocent and nostalgic past.

Indeed, most of Singapore films after 12 Storeys – despite being nominally made by different directors of different age groups – largely revolved around the basic narrative and conceptual structure of the Singapore Chinese family as representing the nation. 

It is largely a nihilistic and ultimately subversive conceptual framework in looking at the nation’s past, present and future. At the same time, one can make the argument it is also a conceptual framework that largely ignores the official meta-narrative of Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation-state.

As a result, there are several and severe gaps that exist in Singapore films that need to be addressed before the label of new Singapore cinema can be applied to the body of films.

It is perhaps better to be precise about it and to label them as New Singapore “Chinese” films. 

The Chineseness of Singapore cinema is but a by-product of the very fact that 70% of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese. But more importantly, Singapore cinema is primarily aligned with a certain idea of Chineseness that is rooted not in relation to China but in local historical contexts.

It is also important to remember that Hokkien Chinese makes up the majority, followed by Cantonese and Teochew and Hainanese in Singapore.

For the uninitiated, there are many ethnic groups in China – speaking different languages but united by a common language Mandarin which is a northern dialect.

It’s almost possible to think of it that Cockney English is somehow mandated by London to be the standard dialect for the whole of the UK.

Hence it is also possible to claim that Singapore Chinese Cinema is very much based on Hokkien Chinese culture and language.

But Singapore Hokkien culture – I assume – is very much like Min Nan culture of Taiwan and to a lesser degree Min Nan in Fujian Province in China.  That is because Singapore is very much or at least closer to the spirit of Taiwanese Chinese than China Chinese or for that matter our economic cousins Hong Kong (they are Cantonese culture)

While I do not know the exact reasons why Singapore cinema – particularly after 2000 – has slowly become if not already is Hokkien Chinese Cinema that is modeled after Taiwanese Cinema, there are a few conditions that I feel encourages the constitution of Singapore as Greater Chinese or Taiwanese Cinema.

  1. Singapore’s domestic market is small.  Hence, internationalization is key to success. But Singlish is only useful in local contexts. Using Mandarin Chinese – Hokkien Chinese allows the film to have international legs by pegging it to a broader genre of Chinese cinema.
  2. Film festivals favor ethnic or exotic films to reflect the ethnic or exoticness of countries. Hence it is more conducive to produce films that are more skewed to the tastes of European or Western prejudices or preconceptions of the world.

Hence, it is possible to view post-millennial Singapore films as an attempt to “glocalize” local cultural products to suit the taste of the consumer (film festivals). Furthermore, this glocalization makes exotic the ingredient (Chineseness) of Singapore.

As a taste enhancer, the use of Singapore Mandarin is not enough to reflect Singapore culture but Hokkien and dialects are repeatedly employed to mark and distinguish the imagination of the country.

 

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