Personal Experience of Collective History
December 30, 2023
Collective history of Singapore

 

The exhibition was not something I was planning to attend. To be completely honest, I didn’t even know about it. While I often attend music, dance and theater performances in Singapore, I do not follow the visual art scene, due to my limited knowledge and non-existent talent for drawing. Even if I sincerely try to create something recognizable, I am asked if it is a cartoon. 

Not surprisingly, I appreciate gifted artists, the chosen ones who wield a brush with precision and are able to create works that speak to people without using words. While art that is hung on the walls of people’s homes is interesting, the ones that never fail to fascinate me are the ones those spotted in public spaces. And when the painting is larger than life sized and stands silently in the midst of your everyday life, I can’t help but stop and admire both the art and the artist. Murals, caricatures, even graffiti can be fascinating because they all tell stories. 

When I visit Rail Mall, a long chain of stores near my home to buy groceries or visit the medical clinic, I pass a beautiful mural that depicts an old-fashioned scene – a provision shop and a coffee shop located under a zinc roof. This mural, like many others that appear in several locations around Singapore, is painted by the artist Yip Yew Chong, an accountant whose true passion is painting these beautiful works of art.

Making time for art

When I learnt that “I Paint My Singapore”, an exhibition of Yip Yew Chong’s painting is being exhibited at Raffles City Convention Center for a limited time, I made sure to include it on my to-do list. And I am so glad I did.

The 60m-long painting is made up of 27 panels of Yew Chong’s impressions of Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s. Created th over 18 months these paintings depict the artists’ coming of age story alongside that of Singapore which gradually morphed from a fishing village in a developing society to the modern metropolis that it is now.

As a decade-long resident of Singapore, I have always been impressed by the speed and precision of life in this city-state. Everything is thoughtfully designed. Everything works. All the time. There is racial and religious diversity, there is room for people from all over the world, there is a future-focused outlook that never tires of striving for improvement. The ethos is commendable.

In the first few months after my arrival in Singapore, while I traveled on the bus and train, I often wondered if it was always like this. Now I know the answer.

No.

Things were very different during the 80s and 90s, the decades in which artist Yew Chong grew up alongside his rapidly changing nation. The paintings are a testament to that transformation.

And I am glad that amidst my own towering to-do list and endless errands, I made time to visit the exhibition to see how a tiny city became a powerful country.

Personal memory and collective history

To be completely honest, I have occasionally wondered if the predictability of life in Singapore took away the very thing that makes life interesting, uncertainty. Not knowing whether the train will arrive on time, whether there will be a power outage during the next thunderstorm, whether schools will close because of flooding due to a heavy downpour, these were things that happened to me all the time when growing up in India. Each day was a unique adventure. Singapore seemed boring by comparison.

Yet, the exhibition told me otherwise. Many families, comprising of two or three generations, with some of the elderly and frail in wheelchairs and the young ones in strollers, looked at the panels depicting the Kreta Ayer, the area now known as Chinatown, with its quintessential shophouses and live performances on the streets. Others studied the side-by-side facades of the Hindu and Buddhist temples on Waterloo Street with the old location of the Central Sikh Temple located across the street, a heartwarming picture of the religious diversity that remains the hallmark of Singapore even today.

The greenery of Bukit Timah Hill, the buzz of Orchard Road with the first McDonald’s at the intersection, the reclamation of land that is now Marine Parade, fascinating visuals of Singapore’s changing silhouette were spellbinding. The artist claims to draw partly from memory, imagination and research, making each panel a truly remarkable creation.

As the elderly docent guided us from one panel to the other recounting some campaigns and jingles from her youth, some of the people in our tour group joined in chanting the familiar songs that form their collective memory. Some others asked about the location of once-familiar landmarks that either have moved to new locations or do not exist anymore.

An unfamiliar feeling 

From the intricate bird cages in one panel to the Tamil lettering on storefronts on Serangoon Road, the sharp eye and attention to detail drew me in effortlessly. In each painting the artist had hidden his signature, which made for an interesting search through the details that make each panel unique. The other interesting feature that got everyone excited was the task of spotting Mr. Singh, a Sikh gentleman in a green turban and a bicycle who made an appearance in unexpected ways in most panels.

As I walked around the exhibition, an unfamiliar feeling overcame me. Was it nostalgia? Couldn’t be, because I had not grown up in the streets and neighborhood featured here. Was it sadness? For a time long gone and a way of life that seems slower and gentler compared to the hectic pace of our current lives? Or was it a feeling of affection for a place that is now home to me, a place that once had many markers of my own childhood in another country but now keeps me grounded here with its ultra-modern charm? In other words, I was moved.

Places have their aura and ambience.

They impact us. But we influence them too. Just as the previous generation lived their lives in kampung style in Singapore while leaving room for the changing nation, I have left my home country and live wholeheartedly in today’s Singapore. It leaves an imprint on my psyche. And I hope my presence enriches it as well.

We all have a part to play in where we live. It may be tiny and trivial, and at times may feel like our life is of no consequence. But what is a place without its people? How can history be created without the details of everyday lives of ordinary people?

That realization has been the greatest gift from this exhibition. 

So many roles, the mother cooking in the communal kitchen, the teacher in the primary school, the parking lot attendant or the street vendor, have been brought to life by the genius of this artist and through it he has illuminated the beauty and the wonder of our lives. 

It is one person’s memory, a nation’s history and the building blocks of human society.

 

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