Peeking into Pico Iyer’s Perspectives

A picture with the perspicacious Pico Iyer (from left to right): Goh Khiam Li, Edward; Loon Kin Yip, Brendan; Pico Iyer; Darshini Rajen; Mohamed Adri Bin Mohamed Rafik Alkhatib

Like an ivory frontispiece to a magniloquent tome, wherein lay the annals of a nation splayed across its vellum pages, stood the Raffles Hotel, monumentalising old-world resplendence and modern mystique in its grand visage. Stark against the Singapore sun and sky stood its frosty white marble pillars and alabaster walls, chilled by both its grandeur and the modern air-conditioning.

Sweating from the heat and the imposing event ahead, we students approached, with caution, unsure of where amidst these colonnades, balustrades and quadrangles we would find our session with internationally acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer, author of The Man Within My Head (2012), Sun After Dark (2004) and The Lady and the Monk (1991). This exclusive engagement on 14 August 2019 for National University of Singapore (NUS) literature students arose on occasion of Mr Iyer becoming the first Writer-in-Residence in the new Raffles Writer’s Residency fellowship, set up by the Raffles Hotel. For the joint organisation and coordination of this opportunity, Associate Professor Anne Thell and the Raffles Hotel receive our sincerest thanks!

We eventually found the venue for the session: Jubilee Lounge. This in turn found us jubilant at our arrival in time – and, mutually, the hotel staff equally jubilant at their successful wrangling of a dishevelled group of students through the labyrinthine hotel and into this immaculate room. Thence began the magic of the moment, manifest by the man of the moment: Mr Iyer opened—with characteristic courtesy, asking leave of the audience to read a passage from his notable work, The Global Soul (2000)—with a reading of a quasi-autobiographical scene of his burning house set ablaze by California forest fires and his harrowing escape.

With a meditative coda, Mr Iyer’s tone dispossessed itself from that different time and turned with warmth to us, instead. With his eyes gleaming with learning and reflection, and his smile—genial, assured and knowing—he invited us into conversation on the notion of home, initiating this topic with intellectual and spiritual verve as he expounded on Buddha’s Fire Sermon, in which the image of a burning house features most prominently as a symbol for the stripping away of the pleasure and perspective of visual indulgence for one to bear witness to the truth. Indeed, for Mr Iyer, a cosmopolitan supra-cityscape like Singapore—with its global connections, globalist orientations and sparse land space—was conducive for the making a global, mobile people who would be especially prepared to take their sense of home with them wherever they went, rather than tether ‘home’ to an expression of a thing or a place.

What constitutes home—for us, for anyone? Our responses were too varied to capture in this brief essay, but I will offer a skeletal report: One English Literature major alumnus, Ong Lin Kang, proffered the observation that the mobility of a people whose homes could be ensouled and so carried with them despite their travels had to be supported by a certain status and privilege. Given this, the increasingly vociferous reactions and sentiments of xenophobia, especially with respect to immigration, could be seen as a conflict between those who sense of home is physical and those for whom it is not physical. Mr. Iyer averred and supplemented this idea—and this in turn prompted Augustine Chay, a current postgraduate student, to ask about Mr Iyer’s views on the ethics of representation in the craft of a literary practitioner of travel writing, as to whether one should take pains to reorient unconscious biases to one’s conscious values. Showing utmost respect to the audience, Mr Iyer asked leave to answer the question posed, in another way. He related his own complex cultural programming: American by residence; British by birth; Indian by ethnicity, citizenry and ancestry; and Japanese by residence and through marriage. Only with an exceptional exercise of self-awareness and self-abnegation could he identify how one or another cultural lens contributed to his perspective – the perspective through which he views the subjects of which he writes, and with which he narrates his views to readers through his work. More often than not, however, it would be a nigh-impossible task. The question then was for readers to identify, and then de-orient themselves from, the writer’s unconscious biases, in relation to the reader’s conscious values. This was why he stood by the words he said in an interview in 2006 that “imaginative imperialism when writing about the West’s meeting with the East […] never concerned [him] too much” – not because it did not concern him at all, but because there was little, if anything at all, that he could do to operationalise that concern. How he could do anything about it, however, would occur in his teaching: guiding others towards developing a critical literary intelligence and independence to do the work of reading with relish, responsibility and resistance.

On the matter of how a writer operationalised his craft, Owen David Harry, another postgraduate student in English Literature, was interested in what Mr Iyer’s actual writing practices were. Mr Iyer was glad to divulge his experience – and revealed that of the questions students had prepared for this session, he was looking forward the most to attempting an answer to this one. He informed us that he sets aside a few hours, at least, each morning for writing, by hand, and insists that he continues this practice even if his writing that day does not come to him easily or well, or if he is travelling and in a new time zone. He perseveres in this way because he has realised that when he does so, even if he does not get much writing done on a current project, he produces something, and is better able the next day to discriminate between what was good in style or subject and what was not, and what should be in this work and what might belong in a subsequent work, like the next book or an essay.

Related to this concern of what goes into constructing place and in writing a book about places, a current English Literature undergraduate, Ariane Noelle Vanco, asked if elision in travel writing is a concern, as surely not everything experienced and observed may be accounted for in writing—and, furthermore, not much that is pejorative or unpleasant finds its way into travel writing. Mr Iyer prefaced his answer as both a response to Ariane and a continuation of his response to Owen about his writing practices: in writing Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), he shuttled from one city to the next, from Rangoon to New York to Manila to Hong Kong to Bombay to Beijing to Bali; and from one country to the next, from Thailand to the Philippines to Nepal to India to Burma to China to America. He was young, and traveling eagerly through fast-paced cities, and furiously scribbled down everything, attempting to record, as much as he could, every perceptual observation—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste—as it happened. He found, though, that while this method captured fresh perceptions, it also encouraged only nascent thoughts about them. Later, he changed his methods and began to exercise more discipline and focus. Now, he jots down phrases and fragments, and what creative and descriptive expressions dawned on him about his observations – how sights could be smelt; and how sounds could be touched and felt, for instance. He then writes from memory and carefully selects just a few details to include—the sound of a saxophone on a busy street, for instance. He acknowledges that reconstructing from memory is difficult, especially if you want to make writing come alive. Oftentimes too perceptions once missed cannot be recovered. Thus he returns to his notes to start writing about his impressions, as these allow him to reconstruct, or approximate, that feeling of first perception that is so central to capturing place. If he can still feel those first sensations via his writing, it is more likely a reader can, too—and that is his wish for any reader of any of his works: to feel place. He concluded jocularly that despite this conscious effort to connect with readers, each time he writes a book he strives to write a very different book than the one before, which may not be viewed as a wise marketing strategy since a reader who loves one book might hate the next! Optimistically, though, he hopes that a reader who hated a first book might find himself or herself loving another.

Picking up from Mr Iyer’s initiation of the topic of Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), I asked if he still held the suspicion that every Asian culture and city he encountered was “too deep, too canny or too self-possessed to be turned by passing trade winds from the west”, as he wrote in that book; and if, in the thirty years since its publication, that suspicion had been ossified or overturned. Mr Iyer smiled and said, “Of course.”

“These are grand, old civilisations that you have in Asia,” he continued. “They will not so spurn themselves to become someone else. Look at China and its resurgent ascendance. Look at India and its innovations for an electronic democracy. Look at Japan, and its cultural and aesthetic power. They have reassurance in and respect for who they regard themselves to be – and who they were and who they want to be.” He also mentioned that the underlying identities of cities and countries are not so easily changed; for instance, a city which might appear to have transformed entirely—a new skyline, new streets, new trends—still retains its unique character. Cities you know well are like old friends: recognizable even after years of distance. He concluded that this was much the case with Singapore, too: Singapore, as he writes in his recently published book This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow (2019), “belonged to many cultures all at once, but wasn’t entirely hostage to any one of them.”

(Contributed by Loon Kin Yip, Brendan.)

 

2019 Applied Theatre Workshop with the Shigang Mama Theatre

It’s a beautiful, crisp February morning in Shigang, Taiwan, and a group of eight NUS students are hard at work on several pear farms and an orchid nursery dotted around the area. We’re working with members of the Shigang Mama Theatre, a company that began almost 20 years ago, following the horrific earthquake of 1999 that devastated various parts of Taiwan, particularly Shigang, a tiny district right along the fault line that runs through the heart of the island. Founded by a group of about a dozen Hakka women who are farmers, mothers and wives (and now grandmothers), their initial performances potently portrayed their traumatic experiences of the earthquake, then eventually incorporated other aspects of their lives as marginal, labouring women: their fears, their hopes, their dreams.

This field trip to Shigang is part of a long-term transnational project combining theatrical collaborations and academic research called A Home on the Island. This year’s workshop, the fourth in the series, was subtitled “Body, Labour and Gender.” Assistant Professor Liang Peilin, who teaches the module TS4222 Performance as Research in Applied Theatre, has worked with the Shigang Mama Theatre since the mid-2000s and has been bringing her students to the area to develop what she’s conceived of as a “probody aesthetics,” which is ”an endeavour that shifts the conceptualisation of theatre and performance from body-based or body-centered practices towards an idea of body-centric practices. This move is based on the idea of providing care for performers through their artistic practices and the artwork they make.” (Liang, 2018: 3, my emphasis)

Over the course of the two decades, the members of the Shigang Mama Theatre have begun to encounter physical injuries aggravated by age and the coercive demands of the agricultural labour they do on a daily basis. During our visit to Shigang from Feb 23 to 27 (2019), Dr Liang hoped that we might be able to start developing an approach to creating performances with the Mamas that might be restorative and therapeutic for their bodies, instead of physically exploitative. We also did work on their farms so that we could empathise with the strain on their bodies and the repetitive motions they are subject to. Over the course of the five days, and together with a Taiwanese chiropractor, Dr Hou Boyuan, we choreographed and devised short performance pieces incorporating various chiropractic movements that countered neck, shoulder, back, and knee injuries, aches and pains. These socially-engaged pieces also dealt with themes such as domestic responsibilities and challenges, agricultural labour, and marriage and parenthood.

My group was “adopted” by Yang Zhenzhen Mama, the leader of the Shigang Mama Theatre who is in her late 50s and runs a sprawling orchid nursery with her husband and son. We quickly found out how a probody aesthetics in performance has been helpful for her own body. During the harvest season, she often picks thousands of orchids a day – by hand, and without using any farming implements or tools that might damage the flowers. This caused her to develop excruciating pain on the right side of her neck, fingers and wrist, so much so that she could not even move her head. When Zhenzhen Mama picked up taiko drumming as part of the theatre company’s performer training she grew acutely aware of her non-dominant left hand. So she implemented a policy of ambidexterity on her farm, insisting that everyone on the farm had to be able to use both their dominant and non-dominant halves of their bodies to carry flower plots or pick flowers, and she believes it’s an ambidexterity that most flower farmers lack – even the most experienced farmers in the industry – and that has helped prevent more severe injuries.

A Home on the Island (IV): Body, Labour and Gender allowed us to learn how to devise performances that make use of a probody aesthetic that might be crucial to sustaining the bodies of the members of the Shigang Mama Theatre not just in their performance practices, but also in their everyday labour on their farms.

(Contributed by Corrie Tan.)

Talk with Playwright Kaite O’Reilly

Kaite O’ Reilly (5th from left), and some students and staff who attended the talk. (Photo credit: Miguel Escobar Varela)

On 19 September 2017, Theatre Studies staff and students, including a group from the University Scholars Programme, came to listen to playwright Kaite O’Reilly talk about her works and practice. O’Reilly, a playwright and poet based in the UK who has taught and collaborated in Singapore throughout the years, is an advocate and practitioner of disability arts and culture. In mid-September, she was in Singapore working on a series of monologues that were inspired by the experiences of disabled and Deaf Singaporeans.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Chan

During her talk, O’Reilly shared with us a short compilation of her works, going more in-depth into her play, the 9 Fridas. She shared with us her interest in Frida Kahlo and how she decided on using nine different characters to portray the full complexity of one of the first well-known female artists.

She then introduced disability arts and culture, emphasizing the importance of opening up more possibilities for disabled and Deaf persons to contribute to the field of theatre, whether it was by becoming professional performers or including their perspectives and experiences within theatre works. She discussed the two models of disability: the medical model and the social model. The medical model uses the diagnosed condition to identify and classify people with disabilities, and this is also the more traditional approach. The social model, however, defines disability as something that is organized through societal practice and categorization rather than an individual’s impairment. Thus, the social model seeks to find ways that society can change to create a more equal community for all people. She also mentioned that there are two kinds of barriers that disabled and Deaf people face: architectural and attitudinal. While it is important to push for architectural facilities that do not exclude people with disabilities, it is equally important to push for the change of societal attitudes.

More information on these models can be found here: http://www.disabilitynottinghamshire.org.uk/about/social-model-vs-medical-model-of-disability/

For more information on O’Reilly’s work:  https://kaiteoreilly.com

(Contributed by Dr Maiya Murphy.)

Two Graduate Students Win Best Presentation Award

Phoebe Pua

At the recent Nanyang Graduate Student Colloquium held on 17 February 2017 at NTU, two graduate students from the department won the Colloquium’s Best Presentation Awards. The two students are Grace Chong who is a first year Masters by research student in English Language and Phoebe Pua who is a first year PhD student in English Literature. Grace’s research interests are in contact linguistics and sociolinguistics, while Phoebe’s dissertation focuses on cinematic representations of Southeast Asia with an emphasis on sound.

We talk to Grace and Phoebe about their experience at the conference.

.Q: How did you hear about the conference?

PB: The Department often sends out CFPs for various conferences and I keep an eye out for the ones that are based in Singapore. I was excited about this conference organized by NTU as it centred on Asia, which is an area I am working to get more engaged with.

G: I heard about the conference through my supervisor, A/P Mie Hiramoto. She encouraged me to give it a shot to gain more exposure and meet people who may be in the same field as me.

Q: What made you want to submit a paper there? Was it A/P Hiramoto’s encouragement?

G: Yes, Mie’s encouragement, and also a genuine interest in finding out what it is like to actually attend a conference and present at one. I did not think too much about it after I submitted the paper, so I was really happy to be given the opportunity to present at the conference.

PB: The conference’s focus on Asia was attractive to me given the scope of my research. It was also a graduate students’ conference so it is, in one sense, a survey of what our peers are interested in and what kind of work is being conducted. I attended a couple of conferences before this one, but I would say that a graduate students’ conference can be a lovely foray into the academic world. And finally, practically, attending conferences in Singapore is a treat because it eliminates the hassle of travel and the need to scramble for funding.

Grace Chong

Q: Did you present a whole new idea or a draft version of your ongoing research?

PB: Because I am still at the beginning of my program, any idea I have, really, is a new one. The paper that I presented came out of conversations had during the Graduate Research Seminar I attended last semester. I am indebted to Dr. Gilbert Yeoh who was the instructor for that class. Briefly, my paper was concerned with how the Southeast Asian imaginary is peddled on the international tourism market via a recent emergence of highly cinematic tourism advertisement videos (or travel films). It was titled “Your Government the Filmmaker: The Tourist Gaze under ASEAN Direction”.

G: I have a somewhat different story; what I presented was an extension of my honours thesis, which was in Mandarin (as I was originally from the Chinese Studies department) so I had to translate part of the paper into English. It looked at a unique feature of Singapore Mandarin: the beneficiary usage of the preposition gen. I expanded this topic and applied new theories from contact linguistics to give a new perspective on the issue.

Q: Did you find the conference enjoyable and also helpful to your paper?

G: I must say the conference helped me to tie down some loose ends that I did not have the opportunity to resolve when I was writing my honours thesis, and helped me to make the paper more coherent and comprehensive. It was also through the conference that I managed to draw a stronger conclusion, and demonstrate the relevance of the new theories I introduced into the paper that were not there in my honours thesis.

PB: I too found it enjoyable not least because I finally got to see the NTU Hive building, which is really unique in design. For me the most interesting thing was getting responses to my paper from people with whom I do not often get to interact— such as those from quantitative Sociology and state policy. That is the best thing about attending non-disciplinary conferences like this one.

Q: Congratulations again on winning the Best Presentation awards! How did you feel about winning?

G: I was really surprised. I have always had public speaking phobia so I practiced multiple times before the actual conference. I would especially like to thank A/P Mie Hiramoto and Wil, who listened to my dry runs for so many times, and gave me invaluable advice that helped improve my presentation. I would also like to thank A/P Mie Hiramoto and Dr Leslie Lee, for taking time to vet through my abstract, and patiently suggesting the changes that I could make to make it better. My classmates at the Graduate Research Seminar and Assist. Prof. Yosuke Sato also gave me great advice on how I can improve my abstract and conference presentation skills as we were given the opportunity to write abstracts and have mock presentations during the seminar. I am also grateful to my friends who encouraged me and believed in me more than I did in myself. Thank you so much, everyone!

PB: I am grateful for the organizers’ generosity though the award does feel somewhat undeserved. But I think this is testament to the education received in our Department and from our teachers. As I mentioned, Dr. Yeoh, whom I can always count on for honest feedback, played a key role in the development of this paper. I am also indebted to those who have taught me— a long list since I did my undergraduate studies in this department— but to name a few, A/P Valerie Wee, my supervisor, and Dr. Tania Roy, Dr. David Teh, and A/P John Phillips, whose graduate modules are in equalmeasure frustrating and gratifying. And of course, A/P Mie Hiramoto, to whom we both owe a great deal.

 

On writing: conversation with alumnus Clara Chow

Clara’s seminar “How I Became a Liar”

On 1 March 2017, Alumnus Ms Clara Chow came down to the Graduate Honours Room to give a seminar titled “How I Became a Liar.” Besides sharing her journey towards becoming a fictional writer, Clara conducted some writing exercises to get those in attendance attempt some creative writing. We also took the opportunity to invite her to share with us her thoughts on writing and her own experiences.

Could you share how the experience has been from writing as a university student to journalism and then to fictional writing?

As a student, writing was all about literary analysis and academic assignments. I was terrible at time management – always waiting until the absolute last moment, and then staying up overnight to finish my essays. It was as though inspiration would only strike me at the last moment, like freak heat lightning attracted to a very dry, gnarled tree on an otherwise barren hill.

When I became a rookie reporter circa 2000, I was told to write short sentences and stop using abstract, pretentious terms. It was terrible. It took me a long time to stop trying to use multiple embedded clauses in my sentences, and to banish the word “postmodern” from my theatre reviews. I became much, much better at meeting deadlines, though.

Then, when I started writing fiction full-time in 2014, I was free to go back to writing like a university student and imitating Virginia Woolf again, but found that I’d forgotten how. I’m not entirely sad about that.

Dream Storeys by Clara Chow

What led you to cross over from journalism to fictional writing?

In 2014, I travelled to the Iceland Writers Retreat, and sat in classes listening to authors such as Susan Orlean and Geraldine Brooks talk about the writing life, and met many participants from all over the world, at different stages in their artistic lives. When I came back, I realised that writing my own crazy, made-up stuff was what I really wanted to do. It was sort of a now-or-never moment: I was 37, my two children were no longer babies, the spouse was very supportive, and I felt like I’d put my dreams on hold long enough. So – after a few months of trying to write after work, typing softly in dark rooms while putting my kids to bed – I decided to quit my part-time gig as a copyeditor and just focus on writing fiction full-time. Losing a stable income was terrifying. Getting up every morning and sitting in front of a blank word document in my pajamas, with no brief or deadline to meet, was also terrifying. I had to train myself to be patient and wait for things to slowly develop – both creatively, and in the publishing industry – as opposed to the fast pace of the newsroom. But, because I made that switch, I’ve learnt so many new things and met so many more wonderful people.

What was it like to be a writer-in-residence with South Korea’s Toji Cultural Centre?

It was paradise. At Toji – which means “land” in Korean – writers are provided with communal meals, and building maintenance is taken care of by the super and lovely staff, so all I had to do was write and think. No school runs, ironing, car servicing, or the million mundane things that I have to deal with when I’m at home, being mum to two boys. When I got stuck, I went for long walks and climbed mountains with the Korean writers in residence. My productivity went way up: I completed new drafts every two or three days. One week, when the other residents went away to celebrate some public holiday or other, I stayed in my room five days in a row and wrote a 16,000-word novella. I haven’t been able to get back to that level of efficiency since I came back.

What led you and your team to come up with the online literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com?

My primary schoolmates, Christine Lee and Yen Yen Wu, were having dinner at my house, and I got this idea that running an art and literary website would be a fun thing to do, with very little monetary outlay. The cost was that of time and energy, and at that time – in 2015 – I had plenty of both, while plugging on to establish a foothold in fiction. It must have been the wine they’d already drunk, because my friends agreed to do this with me. We roped in a fourth, Eva Aldea, who lives in London but was based in Singapore for a while, to co-edit the venture. We’d meet and argue about the submissions for hours, while depleting Christine’s cache of champagne, and then I’d take what we accepted and put them up on our website. Couple of years on, we’re putting together our sixth issue. The idea is to give a platform to new art and writing that we like. Our contributors are awesome people.

How did it feel coming back to NUS again after your graduating years? Any thoughts on the architectural changes you see on campus?

I did my Masters in Literary Studies at NUS part-time, from 2010 to 2013, and it just felt so familiar coming back to campus. The canteen may have been renovated, but the topography is still the same. Certainly, AS5 is very much the same. I love walking down the corridors and looking at all the pictures and notices pinned on the tutors’ office doors. It’s always comforting to come back, because university was the last place where I felt I knew what I was doing.

What was your favourite spot in NUS (to study in or relax)?

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Central Library, hogging RBR books and copying out passages from tomes. I was a kiasu nerd. I even had a supermarket trolley that I used to cart home the books I checked out (graduate student loan privileges rock!). I’ve considered taking out a personal external membership to the library, because I love it so much.

Thank you Clara for taking the time to come down and speak to us!

Clara’s book Dream Storeys is available in local bookstores and online!

(Contributed by undergraduate Rachel Loh)

 

Alumnus Prasatt Arumugam is the First Singaporean to Walk 4,280km Against Cancer

Prasatt has a bird’s eye view of the Crater Lake – Oregon’s crown jewel among all its lakes.

Alumnus Prasatt Arumugam (Class of 2016) is one of 4,862 people in the world and the first Singaporean to complete the 4,280km-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT is one of the world’s longest and toughest hiking trails spanning from Canada to Mexico. Prasatt boldly embarked on a self-funded solo trek as part of TrekInvicta, a social initiative he founded to support the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF). He did it in five months since July last year and has raised over S$40,000 for CCF with contributions from the National University of Singapore Society and the National Youth Council.

His desire to help raise awareness for children with childhood cancer started when he lost his close aunt to cancer, which left his family devastated. Since 2015, Prasatt has been an active volunteer at CCF helping to keep the children’s minds off the uncomfortable and painful procedures that they have to undergo. To Prasatt, this cause is like a symbolic representation of the journey that the children have to take on their road to recovery – a long and arduous one that is full of struggles.

He aims to raise a total of S$50,000 for CCF through his campaign by the end of this month (January) and is hopeful of more donations to help the CCF patients. To learn more about Prasatt’s inspiring campaign or to donate, visit TrekInvicta’s website.

Congrats Prasatt! We salute your perseverance and tenacity going through the journey.

Topeng Pajegan Workshop

I Made Suteja teaching the steps of a movement in Topeng Pajegan

On 15 November 2016, students from the ELL department attended a Balinese Topeng workshop taught by Balinese dance and theatre practitioner I Made Suteja and hosted by Assistant Professor Maiya Murphy and Associate Professor Irving Johnson at NUS Theatre Studies Practice Studio.

In this workshop, I Made Suteja taught the basic steps and provided a demonstration of Topeng Pajegan. Some of the students who attended the workshop had previous exposure to Balinese dance and theatre in the module “Unmasked! An Introduction to Traditional Dance in SEA” taught by Associate Professor Irving Johnson. Topeng is a popular form of theatre in Bali that uses masks and half-masks in order to represent the human face. Topeng Pajegan is a sub-genre of Topeng where one performer portrays all characters, male and female, old and young, as well as characters of different backgrounds.

I Made Suteja drawing a diagram explaining the correct posture for performing Topeng

He introduced the students to a simple exercise that practices the basic physicality and footwork that constituted the foundation of performing Balinese theatre. The movements were controlled and powerful, at all times there is a conscious effort to ‘bulk up’ the performer’s stage presence. He went on to teach the class on how to perform a movement set called ‘looking for the umbrella.’ The students all struggled to master the movement, but nevertheless it was an energizing workout.

I Made Suteja giving a demonstration of Topeng Pajegan

At the end of the workshop, I Made Suteja gave a full length demonstration of Topeng Pajegan, displaying his prowess and mastery over his craft. His performance was lively and entertaining as he switched from mask to mask, character to character. Having experienced a taste of how much control and endurance one needs to perform Topeng, the students had a better appreciation of the craft of Balinese performance.

A link to I Made Suteja’s demonstration can be found here

(Contributed by undergraduate Eugene Koh.)

Kodrah Kristang! (“Awaken, Kristang!”)

On 21 November, The Straits Times featured a language initiative by Kevin Martens Wong, an honours year English Language major from the department. Kevin’s language initiative focuses on the revival and preservation of Kristang, a critically endangered language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community. Below we catch up with Kevin to learn more about his initiative and the plans he has to revitalize Kristang. We learn that besides continuing to run the popular Kristang classes, Kevin has plans to launch an online Kristang dictionary, produce a textbook for Kristang and hold a Kristang Language Festival in May 2017.

(Note: The new cycle of Kristang classes begin on 3 January 2017. To register, see poster below.)

Kevin in a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)
Kevin in a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)

Q: What is Kristang?

Kristang is the critically endangered heritage language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malacca and Singapore. It is a creole language, meaning that it is effectively the progeny of at least two to three other languages: much of Kristang’s grammar appears to have its roots in Malay and possibly Hokkien, while Portuguese provided most of Kristang’s vocabulary. The language has also seen influence from other languages historically present in our region, including Dutch, Konkani, Malayalam, Hakka, Cantonese and Indian varieties of Creole Portuguese, all of which have left their mark on the contemporary Kristang lexicon.

Q: How many people speak Kristang today?

Estimates vary widely, but in Singapore the language is almost extinct, down to 100 mostly older speakers or so, while in Malacca it appears to be a little stronger, though it is fast declining there as well — an optimistic estimate would be about 400 or so speakers in Malacca, mostly concentrated in the Portuguese Settlement. There is also a significant Portuguese-Eurasian diaspora community in other cities worldwide like Perth and London, but overall I’d say no more than 500 people speak Kristang today, and most of them not even on a daily basis, if at all.

Members of a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)
Members of a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)

Q: What have you been doing to revive the language?

I am a linguistics undergraduate of Portuguese-Eurasian descent who only discovered the language even existed in January 2015 — that’s how unaware most young Singaporeans, even those who have their roots in this community, are about this language! I also discovered that almost nothing was known about Kristang in Singapore, both in the public sphere and academically, and so set out to document and revitalize the language on my own. I learned the language from my work with the remaining speakers in Singapore and the materials that had been produced about the Malaccan variety of Kristang; with one of the remaining speakers, Bernard Mesenas, we started a multimodal revitalization initiative for the language in Singapore called Kodrah Kristang (“Awaken, Kristang”)  in March of this year.

The initiative is centered around adult classes for complete beginners in Kristang: we’ve run four iterations of these classes so far, with a fifth and sixth already on the horizon in January and March 2017, and brought the language to 192 people in just eight months, which frankly still amazes me — demand for the classes is still very strong, and shows no signs of slowing down.  For older, more immobile and/or diaspora learners, we also produce an audio course, Kontah Kristang, and an online vocabulary course, Kriseh Kristang, so that they can work with the language as well. Beyond classes, I produce a new video of myself singing an original or translated song in Kristang every month in an ongoing series called Kantah Kristang; together with the rest of my team, we’ve also just received a National Heritage Board grant to start work on the first ever Kristang Language Festival in Singapore, to be held in May 2017. Complementing all this are our ongoing efforts to produce an online, collaborative dictionary in Kristang and a textbook for the language in Singapore, and an overall Revitalization Plan and Curriculum Plan that I wrote while attending the 2016 Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in July — the Revitalization Plan provides a roadmap for the language up to 2045, 29 years from now. In the near future, we hope to start classes for kids, and start formal teacher training so that the entire initiative becomes more sustainable.

Announcement for Kristang classes in January 2017
Announcement for Kristang classes in January 2017. Click to enlarge.

Q: How has your training as an EL major helped you in your work with Kristang?

If I hadn’t majored in linguistics I probably would have never had the confidence to first take up the extremely daunting and always very challenging task of revitalizing a language, even one part of my heritage; but because I had that linguistic training, I felt like this was the best way I could give back to my community, since such training isn’t exactly that common. So I had had the good fortune to have read courses with the department on second language teaching (EL3880E) and applied linguistics (EL3880F), creoles and contact languages (EL3211), and field methods in linguistics (EL3212), which all turned out to be highly relevant for what I needed to do with Kristang; I also had the fantastic opportunity to read an undergraduate research opportunity (UROP; EL3551) under Assistant Professor Rebecca Starr that very ably prepared me for independent research work on my own.

Since we started Kodrah Kristang, I’ve then been able to start looking at how I can have Kristang help me with my ongoing training as a linguistics major; I’ve written term papers and group projects on unexplored aspects of Kristang syntax (EL4201) and morphology (EL3205), with the former eventually becoming a conference paper which I delivered at the 5th Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory conference (LDLT5) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and eventually wrote my undergraduate honours thesis on Differential Object Marking in Kristang this semester under Assistant Professor Michael Erlewine. I’ve also presented about Kodrah Kristang at the University of Macau, the National Institute of Education, and the University of Malaya as an invited speaker, and will further present about the initiative at conferences in Hawaii and Barcelona early next year. Last but not least, Kristang is to be the language of focus for the new iteration of EL3212 Field Methods in Linguistics this coming semester, which I think is awesome.

Q: What are your goals for the future of Kristang?

To make the language healthy again, of course! — Kristang remains on the precipice of extinction, and though I like to think that our efforts have helped postpone its demise, it remains true that few families speak the language at home, and there is still relatively low awareness about the language’s existence in Singapore. For Kristang to be preserved for future generations, intergenerational transmission of the language must begin again, and more Singaporeans must be made aware that the language is a priceless part of our intangible cultural heritage — something very unique to our region, and part of our shared history and heritage.

(Assistant Professor Rebecca Starr contributed the questions to this post.)

 

Prof. Philip Holden Launches Debut Collection of Short Stories

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Prof Philip Holden launches his debut fiction collection, Heaven Has Eyes – a collection of stories that studies estrangement, interconnection and belonging in Singapore. The 12 short stories are linked by their characters’ discovery of moments of transcendence in everyday life.

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Join Prof Holden for his book launch, organised under the Singapore Writers Festival 2016, at The Arts House – Living Room on 9 November 2016, Wednesday from 8.30pm to 9.30pm. The session will be moderated by Dr Matilda Gabrielpillai.

To purchase or learn more about the book, visit Epigram Books.

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Heartiest congratulations to Prof Holden for the launch of his debut fiction collection!

Launch of Contemporary Wayang Archive

The punokawan (clown servants) watch a wayang recording in their puppet laptop.

A hundred and fifty people attended the launch of the Contemporary Wayang Archive (CWA) in Lecture Theatre 13 on 7 October.

The archive is the work of Dr. Miguel Escobar Varela, an Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies in the Department of English Language and Literature. It contains video recordings of 24 performances, along with scripts, translations into English and Indonesian (if the script is Javanese), notes and details of honorifics. Together, the videos and supporting apparatus make this modern and popular performance form available to a worldwide audience.

Wayang is, Associate Professor Sarah Weiss of Yale-NUS College explained at the launch, a kind of “Gesamtkunstwerk”—a form that brings different arts together. It incorporates puppetry, dialogue, dance and music and has often assimilated new cultural influences from other places. Associate Professor Jan Mrázek of Southeast Asian Studies, gave a more personal account of his encounters with Wayang, and what it has meant to him. He first saw a performance as a teenager visiting the US from communist Czechoslovakia. The sense of dislocation he experienced then has remained with him ever since, and continues to shape his understanding of a form that “has defined my life”, as he confessed.

But if Wayang dislocates, it also brings people together. Farah Wardani, former Executive Director of the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, spoke of her institution’s collaboration with Dr. Escobar. CWA, she said, had been built upon friendship, a quality that was evident throughout the launch. The speakers and performers played their parts with the energy and enthusiasm of friends working together.

The launch culminated in an electrifying performance of “Wayang Hiphop.” It was led by the Dalang, Catur “Benyek” Kuncoro, and four members of his troupe (a DJ and three singers), and supported by FASS’s Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble. The performance began with traditional puppets casting shadows across the back of the stage, to the sounds of gamelan music.

But this was soon interrupted by the eruption onstage of three of Dalang Benyek’s troupe. Dressed in traditional Wayang Wong costume, with the addition of very modern footwear, they rapped to electric beats complemented by the gamelan ensemble. Their music was a powerful mixture of street rhythms originating from the US with melodies and poetry from Java. In the puppetry that followed, modern versions of the punokawan (the clown-servants of Wayang) joked about the appearance on their puppet laptop of the CWA.

The members of Wayang Hip Hop and Singa Nglaras gamelan.

The launch was very different from the sobriety of most academic events. But there was serious academic work behind it. Wayang is one of Southeast Asia’s most important traditional performance forms. It has undergone many changes in its history, and the emergence of Wayang Kontemporer represents a new and significant development. The archive preserves and disseminates knowledge of this development for scholars and students everywhere.