The sounds we make, the questions they raise
Singapore GaGa - a documentary film by Tan Pin Pin
Sanity in noisy urban environments requires us to tune out the sounds that aren't directly relevant to what we're doing at any moment. It's not that we're entirely unaware of them, but we can't give all the different sounds and noises much attention; we'd be too distracted otherwise.
At other moments, the sounds accompany what we're seeing. We see sight and sound as natural pairings, but because we're primarily visual animals, we tend to file away what we've encountered more as visual experiences than aural ones.
Yet as much as the visual, the aural elements together characterise our environment, and when we encounter them again, they are fully capable of evoking memory and identity.
At one level, Singapore GaGa speaks to this. An hour-long tour of Singapore's aural landscape, it captures the many sounds we hear as we move about, but seldom take notice of. Documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin was curious about the songs buskers sing, the musical cries of tissue-paper sellers, the people behind the public service announcements on the underground trains, and the cheers and chants at mass public events. She went out to record them in an inquisitive way, and the resulting film allows us to consider how we have been, perhaps subconsciously, impacted by these sounds as we go about our lives, and what they mean to us.
Yet, in these by-ways and alleyways of Singapore's soundscape, we encounter all sorts of marginal people. So while at one level, the film is a poem on memory and consciousness, at another, it compels asking what the margins have to offer.
25 years of coercive mandarinisation have pushed the dialects into the shadows. Today, the Chinese airwaves are almost all mandarin, and it's quite a shock to hear dialect from that medium. In fact, from being the chief broadcast languages a generation ago, dialects have been reduced a mere few minutes a day. In her film, Tan Pin Pin hunts down the newsreaders who deliver radio news in Chinese dialects. What motivates these newsreaders to go on, against an apparently relentless marginalisation?
There's a busker in the film called Ying who plays the harmonica, juggles and tap-dances with Chinese wooden clogs simultaneously. Passers-by are likely to see him as a mental case, but because Tan Pin Pin interviews him, he gets to earn a little sympathy, though his claim to be a "national treasure" on account of his talent leaves one more than a little bemused. Sympathy turns into some indignation, however, when an elderly couple, mere passers-by themselves, is seen interrogating him about whether he has a licence to perform in public. Who are they to appoint themselves as enforcers for the state?
In another sense, Yew Hong Chow is also a victim of state interference. Yew has dedicated his life to the harmonica too, not as a busker, but as a teacher and a serious performer. This instrument, in the Singapore context, has always been identified with the Chinese community, recalling especially the revolutionary experience of the mainland. Perhaps related to this, there used to be incredible demand for harmonica lessons a generation ago, but when 30 years back, Singapore schools began to introduce music education in a big way, the instrument that was most widely taught was the recorder. As Alex Abisheganaden explains, it may have had something to do with our educators looking westward to Britain and France where playing recorders was common, even though musically, the harmonica was a far superior instrument.
The first question the audience then asks themselves is why do we associate the harmonica with the baggage of Chinese culture and its revolutionary period? The second question may be what impact did official fiat have on the subsequent musical landscape of Singapore?
Tan Pin Pin also takes us behind the voices we hear in elevators and trains and we hear a discussion of how 'Clementi', 'Bedok' and 'Lavender' ought to be pronounced. Is there a pronunication police ruling over the names of various suburbs and metro stations?
The viewer can't help but ask himself, why are certain things bestowed legitimacy and others cast as outlaws? And is the state the only enforcer of the legitimate/illegitimate divide?
Singapore GaGa also takes us to places we may never go, for example, into a sports day of an Islamic madrassah, or a concert by Margaret Leng Tan, world-renowned for her work with experimental music. Tan performs John Cage's 4'33" with a toy piano at a void deck (the open ground floor of Singapore's countless housing blocks).
This work has a pianist walking onto the stage, bowing formally before the audience and then seating himself carefully at a piano. He puts his hand on the keys as if to play, but then stays absolutely still for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The audience' sense of hearing is all perked up in anticipation, but they get to hear not the tinkling of the piano but the sounds of the environment. Because in the film Margaret Leng Tan performs the work in a void deck, the film viewer finally pays attention of the various sounds that fill that disowned space, from parking cars to footsteps to lift doors opening and closing.
Tan recalled, in a discussion following a recent screening of Singapore GaGa that the first time she performed 4'33" in Singapore in a concert hall, one member of the audience was so disgusted with the absence of "traditional" music, he got off his seat and left the hall, slamming the door. The entire audience' ears being finely tuned to every little sound, they all paid acute attention to the outburst. "It was wonderful," Tan said of that moment.
The same thing happens as we, Singaporeans in particular, watch Singapore GaGa. The familiar sounds evoke memory, but they also compel reflection as to why we're reacting differently to the sounds as we're seated in the cinema, than when we hear them on the streets. Why do they have meaning in the film, and not when we hear them on all other days?
Does the film forever change the way we'll listen to those sounds again, or do we revert to a certain deafness once the film is over? Or is that impossible? Is it impossible, for example, for film audiences to react sympathetically to gay characters while watching a film, then revert to unconcern and perhaps even a homophobic swagger, once outside?
Perhaps the most destabilising part of the documentary is the madrassah sports day. We associate madrassahs in Singapore with the Malay community which is predominantly are Muslim. Yet, prior to running a race, the kids are instructed in English, not in Malay. Later on, we see Malay girls, all draped in conservative Muslim dress, jumping up and down, cheerleading with pom-poms, while the crowd on the bleaches, sex-segregrated and similarly draped, chant with gusto.
Have we always assumed otherwise? Why?
Other cross-cultural examples include a group of elderly Chinese men taking pride in chorale singing -- in Latin; a mixed-race Singaporean busker, Mervyn Cedello, who sings Elvis Presley and country-and-western songs; and a very Chinese harmonica group trying to play Tchaikovsky.
People are not what they may seem to be based on some superficial characteristics. Wheelchair-bound sellers of tissue paper outside metro stations are not sad and despondent. Chinese-speaking men prefer to sing in Latin. Muslim girls rather enjoy cheerleading. And you, who may never have attended a concert of listenable classical music, can appreciate the artistic brilliance of 4'33" and perhaps other modern experimental music that is often labelled unlistenable.
Towards the end of the documentary, Tan Pin Pin has shots of Singapore's state-organised National Day mass display. A huge inflatable mountain rises in the middle of the stadium, and a mountaineer slowly makes his way to the top. The viewer already senses the artificiality of the entire propagandistic exercise, but the dam inside us bursts when Tan Pin Pin lays over the mountaineer's attainment of the summit the soundtrack of busker Mervyn Cedello singing "Wasted days, wasted nights."
If this documentary prods us to question what is legitimate and why, what is authentic or not, it will be doing us all a service. If it helps us to see how the marginalised are wronged by preconceptions, and how our societies are richer for their indefatigable optimism -- and perhaps they are "national treasures" too -- it will be what documentaries should be: an education.
© Yawning Bread