Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Exploring the Past Through the Personal: “Meantime” and “Rojak Romance” at TFOOPFest

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By Akanksha Raja

(1181 words, five-minute read)

It’s 2019 and nostalgia is in the air in Singapore, thanks to the Bicentennial fever that is sweeping the country. Standing out among the plethora of Singapore Bicentennial events is a youth-led initiative, The Future of Our Pasts Festival: a multidisciplinary programme which dialogues with the idea of the past, and the writing or re-writing of histories. #TFOOPFest (pronounce: tee-foop-fest) runs 16 February to 17 March 2019 at various locations around Singapore. Organised by Yale-NUS in support of the Singapore Bicentennial, it’s a series of events that delve into lesser explored narratives of people and communities in Singapore’s history.

Borne out of the need to explore these histories by means that move away the academic and towards the artistic, the Festival presents a mix of creative mediums such as films, zines, graphic novels, theatre, installations and more. Since its conception in late 2016, the organising team has been working with the commissioned artists to workshop and fine-tune each project over the past two years through to its official launch in February 2019.

Since it’s February, love is also in the air, so we’re shining the spotlight two TFOOPFest events that explore history through personal and intimate relationships: MEANTIME, a zine that acts as a kind of archive of love stories from the the 1950s through the 1990s through photos, created by Kaiyan Chong and Pang Xue Qiang; and Rojak Romance, a documentary film exploring the history of the Ceylonese Tamil community told through the lens and the journey of an interracial couple, the filmmakers themselves, Tinesh Indrarajah and Jane Christine Zhang.

The two projects are in different ways about personal accounts of love, but move towards uncovering deeper stories about culture, society and history that go beyond the individual. The genesis of Rojak Romance lay in Indrarajah’s curiosity about his family history, which led him to study the history of the Ceylonese-Tamil community as part of his capstone project in his final year as a history major at Yale-NUS – which was where he met Zhang, an anthropology major.

MEANTIME’s creators also met at school; specifically, the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU, where Pang Xue Qiang studied journalism and Kaiyan Chong, documentary and narrative filmmaking. Chong shares about the inspiration behind MEANTIME: “It came from realising that we’re very detached from the history that we learn about Singapore. In our textbooks, it’s always about the war, and the riots, and Raffles. What about the history that is all around us – our grandparents and their lives? Their personal memories have a place in history too.”

 

Pang Xue Qiang and Kaiyan Chong; “MEANTIME”

 

The pair later discovered TFOOPFest’s call for applications and found that their project dovetailed with the festival’s themes. “Xue Qiang then started to talking to his family, and we discovered drawers of old photographs that were stashed away only to be looked at every year during family gatherings. We thought, why not use these as a window to the past?”

“When my grandparents came to Singapore, they lived in Tekong,” Chong continues, referring to the island off the north-eastern coast of Singapore best known as a military training ground. “I can only visit the Tekong where my grandparents started a family through photographs they had kept.” Like their story, MEANTIME sheds a light on places and times that are likely unfamiliar to most Singaporeans. The research process was extensive: “We went out to knock on people’s doors, trawl the internet, search newspaper archives to find if there were any interesting couples that maybe slipped away from the radar. We asked our parents and other contacts if they knew anyone who may have had relations to the World War, or anyone who was resettled from a kampong.”

 

Pang Xue Qiang and Kaiyan Chong; “MEANTIME”

 

The conceptualising of Rojak Romance was a little more long-winded for Zhang and Indrarajah. “Tinesh’s original idea for Rojak Romance was a very – no offence! – but a boring idea of a History Channel-esque documentary,” laughs Zhang, nudging Indrarajah as he rolls his eyes. “We then had a lot of critique sessions with different academics and artists, and one of the questions that arose was ‘What is the conflict?’ And we figured one conflict is that we’re in a relationship – that brings up bigger questions [related to] what culture means, what it means to carry on a culture. We’re both part of diasporas, him being Ceylonese Tamil and in my case, my parents immigrated from China to the United States. And we did have people giving us comments like ‘You should be with a person of a certain type of background…’ That’s how the storyline developed.”

Indrarajah adds that their documentary is shaped by two themes: the fallacies of the predominant CMIO model of codifying ethnicity, which “just clouds over so many different demographics and their different migratory histories,” as well as the idea of love as crucial to the growth and development of societies. “Being a port city, a lot of people have migrated here, fallen in love, and started families.” The documentary touches on mixed-race relationships – and building a family involves the process of negotiating aspects of each other’s culture that they’d want to carry on, from language and food, to dressing and celebrating festivals. That negotiation requires having a thorough understanding of one’s culture, which is one of the insights Indrarajah gained from making the film. “Even though we’ve been conditioned to categorise ourselves through the CMIO model, I don’t think we even embrace it fully – because we often don’t take the time to learn about the cultures we choose to define ourselves by.” He hopes that projects like Rojak Romance may make viewers think deeper about how they describe or consider their identities within such frameworks.

 

Tinesh Indrarajah and Jane Christine Zhang; “Rojak Romance”

 

Picking up on Indrarajah’s point on rediscovering identity, Chong shares more about how the process of curating MEANTIME led herself and Pang to discover things they didn’t know about Singapore, or stories that upended their assumptions. For example, one of their profiles was a baby born to Japanese-Chinese parents during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. “She doesn’t have many memories of her parents, but they were in a happy relationship – not a stereotypical, exploitative kind of relationship” – the kind that one might assume taking shape between ruler and subject during wartime. Some of the love stories are framed by the impacts of certain policies that were established along Singapore’s history – for example, through the 70s and 80s several English teachers from the UK were invited to teach in Singapore to “raise the standard” of English language in the country. This fact ties into the story of Chong’s former English teacher, Paul, who had fallen in love with and married Yati, a Malay Singaporean, marking an example of the connection between immigration-related policy and the story of a mixed-race couple in Singapore.

Pang sees platforms like MEANTIME and Rojak Romance as opportunities for young people to find out more about personal histories – and hopes the projects leave audiences inspired to carry out their own investigations into the unsung stories of their loved ones, and gain new insights about their stake in the nation and the region.

Rojak Romance Trailer (2019) from Christine Seow on Vimeo.


Rojak Romance and MEANTIME are both free with registration via Peatix. MEANTIME is on 10 March, Sunday, 1 – 3pm, at SPRMRKT at Singapore Tyler Print Institute on Robertson Quay. Rojak Romance will be screened at the Projector’s Blue Room on the 10 March 2pm, and on 16 Mar at the Indian Heritage Centre. At the time of this publication, both screenings are fully registered. There will be another screening at Yale-NUS on 11 Mar, 7.30-9pm. Be sure to follow Rojak Romance‘s Facebook event page for updates on new screenings.

Follow #TFOOPFest via their website, their Facebook page or their Instagram page.

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