Culture Vulture

Ranting and raving about the history of Singapore writing

It is important to educate the younger generations about the roots of cultural explorations that have anchored the arts scene

The Singapore Writers Festival kicked off on Nov 5 with playwright Chong Tze Chien's Between The Lines: Rant And Rave II. A title like Rant And Rave may seem to signal emotional outbursts and declamatory tantrums.

The play certainly was boisterous at points, amped up with the injection of noisy pop songs. But what surprised, and pleased, me was how thoughtful and wide- ranging this retrospective look at the history of Singapore writing turned out to be.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that as the anchor books writer for The Straits Times from the 1990s to the noughties, I have a vested interest in seeing proper representation of the literary scene. The play also quotes from a few of my articles which tracked the then-blooming poetry scene in Singapore.

As a journalist covering a beat, my interest in the literary scene then was born, not just out of delight as a bookworm at the burgeoning of home-grown poetry, but also, quite frankly, self-interest as the scene offered fodder for my job. I was lucky enough to have interviewed poets such as Aaron Lee, Alvin Pang and Alfian Sa'at about their first collections. Other poets such as Felix Cheong, Grace Chia and Gwee Li Sui took time to participate in longer interviews to discuss why poetry was blossoming in what most people were still calling Singapore's cultural desert.

Watching Rant And Rave II's recap of that period of Singapore's literary history was a little like watching my life flash in front of my eyes. But it also reiterated the importance of documenting the cultural life of Singapore.

In retelling the history of Singapore writing, the play quoted extensively from many sources, from academic journals to writers' interviews. But a good chunk of the information came from what is now oft dismissively labelled "mainstream press", not just The Straits Times, but also The Business Times and Today.

In the newspaper business, there is that self-important chestnut of being "the paper of record".

Watching more than 50 years' worth of newspaper snippets quoted in Rant And Rave, it is hard to argue with that self-serving label. Whether the headline is positive or negative, there is no denying that newspapers have tracked closely the ups and downs of the writing scene here.

But newspapers are ephemeral things: read today, forgotten tomorrow. That was the other realisation that struck me while watching the play.

Chong and his researcher have done a stellar job of unearthing critical gems from the dusty archives. In the process, he has repackaged mouldering newspaper interviews and features into a lively verbal crash course for the layman.

Even I, the jaded journalist, learnt fresh nuggets about the literary scene from the play and, thanks to its macro view, discovered anew the overarching themes of Singapore writing: That it has always strived to dissect and define what it means to be Singaporean, that it seeks to articulate our worst fears and best hopes.

Chong's first attempt at this kind of docudrama look-back at an arts scene was 2012's Rant And Rave, commissioned by the Esplanade on the occasion of its 10th anniversary as a celebration of Singapore's now-thriving theatre scene. That play was also a thoroughly enjoyable romp through Singapore's hectic theatre history, full of insider references as well as being accessible enough for the layman.

What both productions proved was that Singapore's cultural history is chock-full of artistic endeavours and conflicts, now forgotten and buried in the millions of column inches of newsprint.

By unearthing those artistic quarrels and struggles, both productions are critical contributions to the necessary conversation that has to happen if a country's cultural life is to thrive.

Rant And Rave II reminded me that in the 1980s, Singapore pulp fiction had a brief but glorious epoch, with best-selling books easily clocking up sales of 30,000 copies, and that the entry of bookshops such as Tower Records and Borders changed the way Singaporeans shopped for books. The trashy era of book publishing, in its own curious fashion, paved the way for the poetry scene that came later as publishers were more willing to take a risk on local writers and prove there was quality writing being produced on home ground.

The crash of Tower Records and Borders, driven partly by the business exigencies of their American parents, nonetheless fuelled the growth of lifestyle bookshops in Singapore and left a lasting legacy for Singaporeans who now demand extensive stocking of titles and a bookshop cafe as a matter of course.

By reclaiming these near- forgotten bits of history, the docudrama offers context for the current literary scene and helps the audience understand that each generation evolves from the one before.

After watching the play, one of my first thoughts was that Chong should continue with this series and go on to tackle the history of the visual arts scene.

Publisher Goh Eck Kheng told me he had the same thoughts and extended it to include Singapore's music and dance scenes.

Singapore is a young nation with a history of forgetting. But if this series continues, it would be a stellar opportunity to educate younger generations about the artistic battles that have been fought, lost and won. In his two docudramas, Chong has done the hard work of processing archival information and his potted histories are a great way of reminding audiences of the cultural work that has been done through the generations.

In countries with longer histories and more pride in their cultural legacies, such knowledge would have been disseminated in schools as a matter of course, part of art and history syllabuses.

In Singapore, where arts and culture has always been burdened to prove its propagandistic and economic worth, there has been little or no interest in promoting Singapore's artistic works in schools, let alone educating the next generation of arts practitioners and consumers about the roots of cultural explorations that have anchored our burgeoning arts scene.

Here is to hoping that there will be more Rants And Raves in the future. Because Singapore, and its arts scene, needs it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Ranting and raving about the history of Singapore writing'. Print Edition | Subscribe