Culture Vulture

When nostalgia has a point

What if nostalgia transcends bittersweet emotion to become a trigger for probing one's past?

I straightened up in my seat. In that dark, windowless room where more than a hundred strangers sat around me in all directions, I was desperate to catch a breeze on my face.

I needed evaporation to speed up to remove traces of tears from my cheeks.

The gesture would be a futile attempt, I knew that, but fear is irrational; when the lights come on, everyone will see those glistening streaks and know me as that cliche - the silent movie crier.

The swell of emotion had sneaked up on me unsuspectingly.

I was watching 7 Letters, an anthology of seven short films, or "love letters", each by a prominent Singapore film-maker, produced to commemorate Singapore's Golden Jubilee.

I know that love letters cannot go against their nature, they inevitably tug at heartstrings, but having consumed them endlessly over the years, I didn't think anything could touch me.

How wrong I was.

What did me in was director Kelvin Tong's film, Grandma Positioning System. The movie framed the universal story of returning home to loved ones as an audit of Singapore's evolving landscape where changes - demolitions, redevelopment, gentrification - like death, cannot be undone.

The delivery of key monologues in the film as recitations of landmarks past and present, turn-by-turn, GPS-style, only heightened emotions. And it did not help that the neighbourhood described in the movie hit close to home; that was my neck of the woods.

As I retreated into a haze of personal reminiscence and loss - oh, how I would fill my lungs lustily with umami-scented air from the soya sauce factory that once stood in the area - a thought snapped to the front of my mind and put the brakes on my sob fest.

"We are what we know," said the post-script in an earlier "letter" by director Tan Pin Pin, who was one of the seven film-makers featured in the film.

As that acute observation popped back in my mind, it cast my warm, fuzzy nostalgic stirring in starker light.

Beyond evoking sentimentality and arousing comparisons with "the good old days", the flash from the past had reminded me of a time in my life and a part of who I am that I had allowed to fall away.

What if nostalgia were more than just about languishing in a bath of bittersweet memories and fruitlessly recapturing what has been lost to time in one's head? What if it became a trigger for people to probe their past, seek out their roots and locate their motivation in life?

For centuries, nostalgia, a term coined in the 1600s by a Swiss doctor to describe a state of manic longing, was considered a neurological disease. Recommended cures included opium, leeches and inflicting terror and pain on the patient. It was not until the new millennium when more studies were done on the subject that nostalgia was redeemed from notoriety.

Recent studies show that by revisiting cherished memories, individuals are reminded that their life is part of a larger narrative and this enhances feelings of belonging.

Research findings also point to how yearning for a time gone by lets individuals locate meaning in the past and consequently, the present. This in turn helps them ward off bouts of crippling melancholia, which sometimes accompany nostalgia, and anticipate the future. It is for this reason too that nostalgia has been found to help people cope with transitions in life.

This year has been one of both great nostalgia and transition for Singapore. As the country celebrated its 50th birthday, marked the passing of its founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and more recently voted in a new government, various channels of culture, including film, performance, design, art and literature, have taken the opportunity to look back on how far Singapore and its people have come.

In a cultural milieu that readily feeds nostalgia to the public, it has been easy for individuals to feel cast adrift or worn out by wave-upon-wave of sentimentality on these repeated trips down memory lane. I certainly found myself in such situations and checks with friends affirm that I was not alone.

Had I realised earlier that nostalgia can be a means for scrutiny and self-interrogation, perhaps my experience of the Year of Nostalgia would have been less wearisome and more meaningful. Yet with studies showing that most people experience nostalgia at least once a week, I am hopeful that my awakening has been slow to come rather than late.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline ' Swimming dry-eyed in nostalgia'. Print Edition | Subscribe