In order to talk about the biggest, most defining things, one may need to return to the smallest of situations.
It started with a poem. I was back in Singapore over my college’s winter break when I started obsessively borrowing local poetry books from the library, typing up the poems that struck a chord and gathering them in a folder on my laptop. One of them, Learning to Leave by Carol Chan, an ode to the humbling process of growing up, would later serve as fodder for my work. It would take two years, an intercontinental one-way ticket, and a bumpy re-entry to my city to realize this.
They say that youth is about increasing one’s territory, a search for vastness, while adulthood is about sieving out the expanse, and returning home. It is life’s circular process of widening and narrowing that finds me standing outside the gates of my childhood home, a house tucked alongside other houses on a quiet road behind my alma mater. I am here to take photographs; it is barely 7am and the fog has not yet lifted off the field that lays opposite, so everything looks slightly mysterious and perfect for the makings of nostalgia. The gate is covered by a blue polythene sheet; the owners are in the process of renovating the house. I wander in for the first time since I was eight, walking along the driveway where I first learned how to ride a bicycle, where I would sit and pluck rambutans from the neighbour’s tree that stretched its way over the fence. The tree is still there. A construction worker is brushing his teeth, and stares at me in surprise. We converse in rudimentary Bengali; he smiles and agrees to show me around. There is barely anything I can recognize; the present owners, tycoons of a famous local hair product company, have demolished, uprooted and constructed a home of their own belonging. I walk up newly constructed staircases, past would-be lavish rooms, onto a rooftop meant, as the supervisor tells me, “for evening parties.” It is impressive, and it is not my own.
The sun begins to blaze; it is time to go. I walk along the quiet road, past my old school, down to the bus stop, and alight the bus that winds back to where I now live.
To articulate my thoughts about family is one of the most difficult things for me to do. Yet my family is a definitive part of my identity; they have, at times unknowingly, made indelible marks on my life. I see echoes of my childhood still today, in the choices I make, in the answers I offer and the silences I give, in my prayers, and in the rings of privacy I draw around myself. It is with this knowledge that I embarked on a photography project about them, centering it on old family photographs and the childhood home where they were taken. It has taken me 16 years, an overseas university education, and the privileged introspective baggage that comes with it, to interrogate this. The weight is substantial, and I might ache tomorrow.
My 72-word artist statement, submitted to the curators of the Noise Singapore exhibition, reads like this: “Until the age of eight, I lived on a quiet street facing nothing but trees. It was in this house that I made mazes out of cardboard boxes, towns out of pebbles, and where I fell off a see-saw, head first, on carpet grass. In returning to my childhood home, I found history and its hazy imprint on my life. This work is about a homecoming, reconciliation, and the ceaseless speeding towards adulthood.”
Perhaps photography is a means to this end of recovery, a path down which, where words are insufficient, to gently probe my greatest difficulty into becoming something bigger, something kinder and more reconciliatory. I do not have the courage nor the capacity, emotional or otherwise, to write about it; I have not yet grown into an adult who can look back on the past, disentangled, and write with nuance. At present, it is something I shake aside. But one of the comforts of the image is that it is open to interpretation. In many ways, it is safer. Less vulnerable. I think I am able to at least take that step.
I don’t think it would be a great leap to say that in traditional Asian households, there is an emphasis on silence – a sweeping under the oriental carpet, a communal soothe-saying. To diffuse scrutiny is a good thing; to obfuscate, even better. The familial face remains porcelain and unshattered. My introspective storytelling, therefore, even if it is crafted in the ideal of genuineness and truth (or perhaps precisely because it is so), disrupts the status quo. I am loyal to both sides – myself and dutiful obligation – and a spy to both, and could potentially be held up for treason by the familial state, whose reach of governance goes further than any political imaginary might hope to accomplish.
Local pioneering art historian T.K. Sabapathy writes, “There is little or no interest in history in Singapore because to remember is to impede being fully in the present and to thwart moving forward. To pause over the past is to be intolerably encumbered, to dwell on yesterday is pointless indulgence and to think historically is to sink into pitiable paralysis.”
It is this forward-lookingness that has transformed the psyche of the nation into one that is unhelpfully trapped in between the brimming possibility of the future and the mildewed rosey tint of the past. It is in this search for an explanation of why we are this way, and who we hope to be, as individuals and as a society, that we find a yearning to place ourselves in a timeline of lessons and answers. What is a society’s historical lineage but individual threads knotted together, family trees that reach deep into each passing generation?
It is an arc that has floated to the surface of many a local storyteller’s mindscape. The tropes of nostalgia are getting tired, but we wear them out anyway, grievously rubbing the bruise because it is there and it still hurts. For catharsis is an intensely individual experience, and belonging cannot be spoon-fed, textbook form, to the masses. In a nation that was cobbled together by consensus and state-induced memory, its inhabitants are trying to pick up the remains of what the winds of economic progress swept in and left behind.
By focusing on my family, I am inevitably searching for clues to proffer something more tangible than a harried quieting. It is this search that also found me, over my college’s winter break, plowing through poem after poem, trying to decipher the minds of my country’s writers. Call it a severely macro act of decolonization or approvable citizenry; I cannot help but both revel in and laugh in disdain at this sense of loss. I am still tunneling through the rabbit hole.
I like the gaps in stories. I like the unexpected plot holes that acknowledge that there is room for both celebration and terror. There is both grace and pain swirling in the cup that we are each given. They are true, and even if they do not reflect the experience of the majority, they are valid. The various tones and shades in between light and dark are firmly in existence. Family isn’t all goodness. It isn’t all badness either. Family, its borders and its eventual permutations, is hard. If I could sum it up, what I’d like the viewer to know is that it is okay that family brings out the sadness in you. It is okay to feel at a loss at its definition. It is even okay to be ambivalent. But it is also important to remember that we are not stagnant beings. We are made up of shifts and turns and we are able to change as we grow up and old. And we can become better. While history, in all its haziness, may follow us throughout our lives, we have choices to make and we are able to come into our own. We must learn to leave for new places. In life. In love.
This story is for my family, and for the ones who have carried me through.