Our creative colonial cousins

Known for his extensive study on cultural creativity in the world’s great cities, British urban planner Peter Hall said that “the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities, for all their evident disadvantages and obvious problems, have throughout history been the places that ignited the sacred flame of the human intelligence and the human imagination”. According to his book Cities in Civilisation: Culture, Technology and Urban Order, cultural creativity is observed to take place in urban environments characterised by accumulated wealth, social tensions and the presence of outsiders. Which to me begs the question: why is it that despite all the wealth that Singapore boasts of which has resulted in a world-class theatre and all, despite all its efforts in attracting foreign talents, does it seem that it is our poorer neighbour Malaysia which is actually ahead in creative and adventurous film-making?

I’m not talking about a spectacular epic like Puteri Gunung Ledang (it would be unfair since the only legendary figure Singapore has is Prince Sang Nila Utama, all for spotting a lion in the jungle, and there is even doubt if it was indeed a lion; and it has no hero to talk about since Lim Bo Seng during World War II, nobody poltically correct anyway). I’m talking about film makers like Yasmin Ahmad (her groundbreaking work Sepet just happened to be shown on TV last week during Chinese New Year) and Amir Muhammad (more on him later) who have challenged censors with their social or political commentary. I’m thinking also partly about the 2005 Malaysian movie The Third Generation which I stumbled upon by rare luck in a video shop here, a Cantonese movie with impressive cinematography (if a little overdone) in the Raise-the-Red-Lantern school of oriental beauty, that makes Penang look just about as sexy as Shanghai. Perhaps the Malaysian cities we like to think of as lagging behind Singapore by a couple of decades have actually managed to preserve some old Chinese architecture that affords a cinematic panorama? It is interesting, as Singapore cinemas are now selling a local Chinese slapstick comedy which indulges in fun with the Malaysian Chinese accent, to note that Malaysia has long taken its Cantonese dialect thus to film festivals in Cannes, Shanghai and Hawaii. That was even before Singapore’s most prominent movie director made box office records with a campy Hokkien musical!

While Singaporean directors tend to grab attention through romanticising of juvenile gangs or florid depictions of red-light districts or other forms of sensationalisation, Malaysia’s famous directors prefer to keep it real, bringing potentially explosive stories of social and ethnic tension down to the street level of everyday people. In Sepet for instance, the girl Orked has an open argument with a Malay school mate on interracial romance, and meanwhile in a Chinese coffeeshop, her Chinese boyfriend Jason is facing similar reactions from a pal who advises him against the relationship, saying it’s troublesome to convert and he wouldn’t be able to eat char siew again. (It’s funny how the Chinese fear of other cultures is often linked to food; incidentally, in a racist and/or plain stupid entry in youtube, two Chinese Singaporeans have tried to poke fun at an Indian Muslim hawker by asking for bak kut teh.) Reference is also made in the movie Sepet of the bumiputra policy in Malaysia: whereas Orked who has scored 5 A’s is awarded a scholarship, Jason who has scored 7 A’s is just out in the streets making a hard living. It’s such a pertinent movie; if there is anything I can complain about, it’s just that the movie is so manja at first and then so sedih in the end. Yasmin Ahmad (who has gone beyond garnering international awards and is currently on the jury of the Berlin Film Festival) (link: http://yasminthestoryteller.blogspot.com/ ) has made not just one movie but an entire trilogy out of the Orked story, including Gubra which is partly about a Muslim cleric who has prostitutes for neighbours. You can make a big fuss about the scene of him caressing a street dog, but as I’m trying to say, it’s all about human beings in daily lives. Making everything seem natural and casual without being judgmental is this director’s greatest strength. It’s like how Jason’s brother says about his divorced wife, just in passing: serve me right for marrying a Singaporean. It’s meant to draw a smile rather than provoke head on.

Perhaps Singaporeans are so stifled in their creativity and unable to portray real people because they just can’t get out of their shells. Singapore film makers are not so adept in reflecting on intercultural situations, they tend to do only cardboard representations of multiculturalism, echoing the typical government propaganda that is best manifested in a kitschy Chingay parade. No wonder another urban theorist, Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making, concluded on the place: “The notion of a creative city implies a level of openness that potentially threatens Singapore’s traditions of more top-down action.” He said: “Singapore’s strengths embody its weaknesses. It is better at creating the containers than the contents, the hardware rather than the software”. Perhaps constraint is something which has been internalised by Singaporeans; in a city which has a fixation for clean toilets, everybody becomes constipated with an anal personality.

Anyway, below is an old review of mine on the film The Last Communist, which I really enjoyed as a wonderful portrayal of multiculturalism in the Malaysian peninsula, not to mention the director’s courage in dealing with such a politically sensitive figure of the last century. If anybody in Singapore attempts to make something along the same line, somebody will make sure he gets his head checked. (I’m not saying there is no effort at all among local film makers in tracing Singapore’s history, but it tells you something when the one notable title is, aptly, Invisible City.)

Saw The Last Communist at the cinema that day, Lelaki Comunis Terakhir, the Malaysian film directed by Amir Muhammad revolving around the legendary Chin Peng, who joined the Communist Party of Malaya at barely 16 and became its leader at age 23, henceforth public enemy number one for the British forces in Malaysia. The film features interviews with former CPM members now living in the Peace Village in Thailand following the 1989 peace settlement, mostly rather old by now (Chin Peng himself, who never appears in the film, is already 82). But that is only towards the end of the film. The film traces the life and legacy of Chin Peng, starting from his birth in Sitiawan, Perak where his father ran a bicycle shop. He grew up in a colonial society whereby the Asians were segregated from the Europeans. He refused to study in a Christian missionary school and enjoyed playing with his friends near a mosque. But such facts about Chin Peng’s life are juxtaposed throughout the film with depictions of ordinary folks in present-day life and culture in Perak, in an often light-hearted manner. There are even musical interludes now and then, with hilarious songs spoofing national propaganda as a way of telling the history of communism and colonial rule in Malaysia. One just has to watch it to see how fantastic the film is, really bagus! Unfortunately there is only one screening per day, scheduled at odd timings like one hour before midnight, as if to deter all but the die-hard viewers. Still I count myself lucky to be able to see the film since it has now been banned in Malaysia; understandably such media portrayal of the communist party remains a taboo in Malaysia, much like how a film about the opposition parties would get Singapore authorities taking action in panic.

Much of this offbeat documentary film in fact consists of interviews with ordinary people in Malaysia of different trades today, so much so that you tend to forget at which point in time the focus of the film actually moves from the hometown of Chin Peng to the resistance against Japanese occupation and then the emergency period under the British, and you begin to wonder if the film is about Malaysia’s economy or Malaysian food culture. You hear Chinese fruit sellers in Ipoh talking about pomelos – how the Chinese like it sweet while Europeans like it sour; you hear Indian peddlers in Bidor talking about the variety of petai beans – how Chinese like ‘rice’ petai, malays like ‘wood’ petai and Indians like ‘nut’ petai. Then somebody in Taiping would tell the story about the origin of their popular flower bun. Apparently there was a man who joined the resistance force against the Japanese during the war and was captured and given the Japanese torture, like forcing water down one’s throat and then hitting the bloated stomach. Meanwhile his mother started going to a temple to pray to a Chinese goddess for her son, and he started dreaming that a fairy was feeding him with lotus and somehow he survived the ordeal. Since then his mother started worshipping at the temple offering lotus flowers. After the war he went underground again, this time as guerilla against the British, and was never heard of again. But his mother kept offering lotus flowers in prayer and as they became hard to come by, she started replacing them with pink-coloured buns with a white pattern of 6 petals on top. This soon became a specialty of Taiping popular all over Malaysia.

And then you would hear a mock patriotic song about Malaysia being the top exporter of tin and tyres in the world. The singer is a fat lady with big curly hair, posing by a stream in a valley. As the camera tilts around her in different angles, she would sing about the industry set up by Malaysia’s colonisers, how whenever the world needs its supply of tin and rubber, Malaysia is willing (Malaysia rela…). There is an interview with an owner of a charcoal factory, who proudly shows how charcoal is produced there and adds that the Japanese are major buyers. You hear rubber plantation workers saying they are too young to remember the second world war, and talking about their hopes and dreams for their children. You also see some tunnels that have been used as hideouts for the communist soldiers, where tin ore can be found. And there is a song about identity cards being issued during the emergency period. The fat lady would ride a bicycle around town, singing about how important ICs are (IC, penting!). The ICs helped the British to contain communist influence; the British also guarded people in racially segregated villages, to prevent them from supplying communist soldiers with food and medicine. There is an interview with a man who has betrayed his communist uncle and cousin to the British for a sum of RM1,000, big money at the time as the starting pay for a teacher then was just RM62.

The film portrays the 1957 negotiation between Tungku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng through caricatures. Actually colonialism was already getting out of fashion and expensive for the British by then and Malaysia’s independence was in sight, the communists were about to lose their major mission. But the only option offered to Chin Peng and his forces was to surrender and renounce the communist ideology. Chin Peng refused and said there was no true independence if the British military bases remained in Malaya. The CPM forces hence persisted for the next few decades, though they took more of a defensive position instead.

It is in the final segment of the film that it turns to the ex-soldiers of CPM who now live in the Peace Villages in Thailand, especially since applications to return to Malaysia have been rejected. Among them are men who are maimed, who have a right hand gone or a left leg lost to landmine. They can only spend time now singing karaoke of patriotic songs, recalling 30 or 40 years of their lives given to an ideology as memories of glory. Some of them concede they have committed mistakes in their time, causing inconvenience and distress to civilians, but basically they have no regrets for the lives they have chosen. Unfortunately the film director has not been able to interview Malay communists who occupy two of the Peace Villages, due to current unrest in southern Thailand.

After watching the movie that night, there were no more buses and I had to take a cab home, with the extra midnight charges. A very small price to pay of course for such excellent efforts of a film. Pity not many people here will spare 90 minutes of their time for a movie like this. Something like this will never make the big headlines here, unlike news this week such as a Singapore actress making it to the Desperate Housewives television series in America, or the opening of the new X-men movie; apparently the job of saving the world should only be left to some mutants in an imaginary future. I suppose 2,000 people holding out for 30 or 40 years in the jungle is already a miracle. Imagine living without proper shelter, enduring worn-out garments and broken shoes, just hanging on to the belief that you are doing something worthwhile. They are like a miracle generation now gone by; for who even dreams of miracles these days?

End of this repeat broadcast. By the way Amir Muhammad (link: http://amirmu.blogspot.com/)  also made a sequel that was also banned, Village People Radio Show (Apa Khabar Orang Kampung)  about Malay former communists living in exile in southern Thailand. I must clarify that I’m not voicing support for communism here, what interests me is the multi-faceted Asian identity in this region. In fact I would like to cite a quote by one Tom Nairn who wrote: “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure. But … [it] would be more exact to say that nationalism has proved an uncomfortable anomaly for Marxist theory”. I read it in an essay that also noted “the fact that since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms”, like China, Vietnam and so on; written by Benedict Anderson, the essay is entitled Imagined Communities: Nationalism’s cultural roots, and it talks about how language has created the possibility of imagined communities and set the stage for the modern nation. Tak faham? Well, never mind, such long stories.

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