Cultural Criticism

When one thinks of the codified world, as Vilem Flusser describes, one starts to think of their cultural heritage as a set of codes. For me, I have come to define ‘culture’ as the methods of survival for a given civilization over time (this probably warrants a whole other article in itself.) Culture is something that grows out of the necessity to survive, and over time, develops into ritualistic practices, and then their intentions are sometimes forgotten because they are so old. As such, because each civilization has lived differently and undergone different circumstances, they have sought different ways to overcome difficulties, and of course the ones that succeeded survive. Now, Flusser will argue that culture shouldn’t be explained, but should be interpreted, because it is a humanity. For him, culture is something that is fabricated by people to give meaning to their meaningless lives in the face of death, a very existential approach, but for the purpose of this article, I am concerned only with the aspect of culture as a form of code, not its purpose.

What’s interesting about different cultures has always been about how different their codes are; even within China, the different provinces each have their own cultural practices. They might all speak mandarin, the common language, but until you have lived in a place and learned the local tongue, you might still not understand some of the terms and phrases that they use. Such symbols are not a matter of language, but a common understanding that is brewed over time within a certain frame. By frame, I mean both physical, such as geography, and metaphysical borders, such as time. People only start to accept you as one of them when you have acquired an understanding of their local culture, and if you have truly mastered it, might even confuse you to be one of them.

The tricky issue comes when a person has more than one set of codes imbued in him, although in today’s world, we already have many of such people around. I once watched a documentary where a Japan-born Korean found difficulty in being accepted into Japanese society. What’s weird is if she doesn’t tell you she is ‘Korean’, one will never know she belongs to Korean heritage because she speaks perfect Japanese and understands the culture fully. The only difference is that she has a memory which had been ingrained into her from young that she has a connection to the Korean civilization. One might argue that being ‘Korean’ is more biological than cultural, but I beg to differ. One must consider the factor of time and, once again, the notion of the frame (this will go in another article). But even if one simply looks at cultural identity, for example being Korean, as having both biological and social codes, then maybe it is not so complicated. For how a civilization behaves in social terms affects how it biologically breeds, and how it biologically breeds also affects how it socially plays out, and culture is brewed in this continuous spiral. Culture is born out of a spiral between social practice and biological function over time. For example, a people living in a cold climate might cook spicy food to fight the cold, and over time, develop a biological appetite for spicy food. But because they have grown to like spicy food over time, they start developing new recipes to satisfy this crave. And hence you have an array of spicy food in say, Korean cuisine, which only further propels the spicy appetite of next generations. Over time, people might forget how it all started, and why they had come to develop so many different variations of spicy food and have such a liking for them, but by then a ‘cultural’ code would have occurred, and if you’re Korean, you eat Korean food.

As such, this model could also be brought to explain moralistic practices within a civilization. Let’s take one of Confucius’ teaching as an example, which is to respect and take care of the elderly. Now, I’m not claiming that this necessary came out of a survival problem, but let’s say it did, and that somehow the Chinese people realized their numbers did better when they took care of their old. This practice becomes accepted and understood by everyone within the community that it starts becoming a moral, where if a person who doesn’t do it is as good as endangering the whole community. Over many centuries, this group of people gets used to this practice, it gets passed down from generation to generation, and the thinking gets imbued in their blood, such that a Chinese person will naturally be in agreement with such a practice. Social practice has been converted into a biological function over time, and conversely, biological functions continue to pass down and promote such social practices. History is embedded in our blood, and one can see it as a form of code that is a part of the cultural equation. Which is why Chinese medicine believes that the body is a product of the mind, and they even believe that some illnesses are linked to a spiritual or psychological dysfunction i.e. worry. Mind is body, and body is mind. If a person’s mind is in constant worry, his heart pumps faster everyday, and over time, he is affected physically. Every intangible thought or feeling has a certain effect on a person’s physical body. There is some physiological connection between mind and body, just like how Confucius’ teachings can be codified in every Chinese person’s blood, and the Chinese believe in it. Which perhaps starts to explain Chinese people’s use of the word ‘blood’ as not just a mere biological fluid, but rather a collection of beliefs,feelings, ideology and history. Centuries of war and suffering is codified in Chinese blood. Blood plays a huge significance in Chinese culture, and if someone wrote a letter in blood, then it must be of utmost importance.

Our codified blood, blood that contains many layers of complex information, is also affected by things such as weather and environment. Again, in Chinese medicine (and i learned this via a conversation with my landlady), they believe that everyone is biologically different depending on where they come from. Because their cultural practices are different, their blood is also different. The people who live near the sea have a certain type of liver, because they have constantly been eating seafood for many centuries, and so they cannot be treated in the same way as people from other places. Word has it that the ‘bagua’ (八卦) has clearly categorized all the different types of Chinese people according to their areas, and how it affects them biologically and culturally depending on climate, diet and conditions. It’s interesting when one starts to equate biological processes to cultural practices, and vice versa, and then blood having a memory to store all these information. Of course, blood content changes all the time, especially in today’s world, where cultures are mixing all the time, and people are migrating so often. People from hot climates are migrating to colder climates and planting new roots there, hence changing the content of their blood (and also culture), while people interbreeding from different climates is also more rampant due to technological advancements in transportation.

When all these codes change, how will we start to define them?

It is easier to define a cultural code when it is consistent across a big number of people, and this consistency trickles down to signs such as language, diet, skin, facial features and religion such that we can call them a civilization/race/nation. But when everything starts getting jumbled up, and there is not enough consistency to identify a trend, will people start to lose their cultural identities? Or will they start to develop new ones based on other factors such as one’s association with the workplace?  Before it had always been geographical borders that defined how these codes developed, but one can find different codes of conduct in the same place now, even within the same building, and people in different places might even have more in common than those around them due to the emergence of new ‘frames’ and conditions.

Or perhaps all these culture (and blood) will get diluted someday to form one ultimate unified code across the globe?

I had a conversation with a colleague about cultures in China. He told me about how many different forms of the Han culture exist throughout China, due to the political and social circumstances over time. He remarked that if you went to Guizhou, you would see Han people dressed in a weird way, different from what we understand about most Han Chinese, and he explained it was because they were people who escaped from war during the Ming Dynasty and settled there. It was as if time had stopped for these people, and they preserved that particular moment in history, and with it its culture and memory. If one takes this theory to a broader level, one could easily theorize that the evolution and history of Chinese culture was essentially spread out geographically in China. Time was preserved in packets of space.

He gave another example of the Hakka people, known as 客家 in Mandarin, which mean the ‘guests’. The Hakka people still exist today, all over the world, but they derived the name from the Han people who migrated South during political unrest in the North, taking with them their cultures and language, and thus preserving it in a different place. My colleagues claims that these people were actually the ‘purer’ Han Chinese who once belonged to the central part of China known as ‘Zhong Yuan’ (中原).

And so we came to this discussion about the idea of purity. Purity of culture, language, and blood. Races mix all the time. When the Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia, they mixed with the local natives, the Malays, to form a new breed known as the Babas and Nonyas. Everywhere people migrated, over time, their bloods mixed, their cultures and languages synthesized. It’s almost like everyone has a bit of everyone else’s blood. So what is ‘pure’?

We came to the conclusion that the Han Chinese blood itself was also a mixture. We took the analogy of a soup. You have a bit of salt, some carrot, some pork, and then you mix it for a long time. This brew becomes very homogenous over time, and it’s hard to tell what the soup was even made of if you didn’t know the ingredients. Using this analogy, every race and culture was essentially a mixture of some other forms. It was only a matter of how long this particular brew managed to sustain itself, and allow itself to be cooked. The Chinese race continued to absorb and synthesize with other cultures over thousands of years, and is still doing so today, more so with the West now. One could think of the different cultures in China as the different flavours and brews that had cooked over the centuries, analogous to the different recipes of food in China. The different flavours of food is symbolic in a sense, to the different cultures that had been fostered over time and space.

If one takes the soup analogy to another level, one can view some new nations as the beginnings of new flavours of soup. Singapore is probably a good example, although the fusion of different languages to form a common one is a healthy sign of its primal synthesis. I have another friend who once wished the world had no borders. As much as that would make the world much more free-flowing, it does threaten the diversity of cultures. Almost like bacteria in science, they cannot be cultivated without certain conditions. Every living organism thrived in its own optimum condition, and if the whole world existed in the same manner without borders or limits, there would only be one type of organism growing in it. The existence of borders allows different cultures to be formed, different ’soups’ to be brewed, different ratios of people to be mixed.

Now, there is also a different argument for this, a different way to look at it. Because as much as synthesizing different cultures eliminates the presence of existing cultures, it also helps to create new ones. Everyday new things are being created, and old things are being made extinct. There is a sort of sadness to things being lost, a culture so old only to vanish after the last of its kind returns back to the Earth. With him, he takes centuries of knowledge and wisdom to his grave, never to be seen by his children again, as they are diluted with other forms of culture, or globalized by the modern world. It’s as good as seeing an endangered species become extinct after centuries of evolution, wiped out in a single blow.

I guess the only fear is that cultures become wiped out faster than they can brew, because they do take some time to cultivate again, for life doesn’t evolve overnight. As much as culture is a soup that brews over time, we must remember that when we overturn the soup, we also lose time.

It’s crazy how Vilem Flusser’s writings could inform me about Chinese thinking. Vilem Flusser’s work mainly focuses on communications theory, and treats it as a science, almost like physics, approaching with a very analytical and critical rigor. And yet, even though I was reading it mainly for my curiosities in media theory, i somehow stumbled upon some views that coincided with my findings on Chinese culture.

Linear thinking had triumped in the West; after the printing of the bible, after the industrial revolution, after people learned history. Linear thinking was the ability to think in terms of logical sequences, which manifested into writing, mathematics and finally science. Science could be said to be the highest order of Linear thinking, putting theory into practice and method. One could say Western history, being linear itself, was the history of linear thinking, and how linear thinking has ‘progressed’ (grown in a linear fashion) to what it is today. You could say the West dominated the ‘Fission’ process of things, breaking down and analyzing and going deep into things. Such an approach contributed to ‘disciplines’, specialization and industrialization. Divide and conquer, so to speak.

Now, Eastern minds had a different approach for a long time. From the fundamental principles of calligraphy and typography, to cooking, to society and moral ethics, Chinese thinkers have approached things from a wholistic point of view. This is in tune with what Flusser terms as ’surface’ thinking; the ability to synthesize things at once, and put things together to create a greater whole. You could call it the ‘fusion’ of things. Take Chinese calligraphy and art for example: masters in the Chinese arts have always been taught that the unpainted surface of the paper is more important than the painted surface, or to put it in another way, the negative space. In doing so, the Chinese artist seeks to achieve a balance between negative and positive until it is finally in harmony. This philosophy is also resonated in the Yin and Yang from Taoism, where it provides wholisitc guidances for the way of the world, and not to separate individual things from the cosmological body (段章取意). Again, this approach is seen in cooking as well, in things as simple as steaming fish and vegetables; the idea of it is to steam them together in a cooker so that the flavours of the fish and vegetables mix: the fish fragrance goes into the vegetables, and the vegetable flavour seeps into the fish in a mutual osmosis. And then you have martial arts such as Taiji, which stems from the I-Ching, which the word ‘Taiji’ pretty much means ‘The Grand Completeness’, and is all about teaching oneself to balance forces.

Now, when the British attacked China during the Opium war, it was pretty much a fight between linear and surface thinking. The technologies nurtured from analytical scientific thinking were too powerful for the wholistic civilization of China at that time. The world saw Britain crush an ancient civilization with their almighty canons, and signified another victory in the progress of linear thinking. This, and probably many other wars, contributed to the rejection of China’s traditional culture by its own people, deeming it ‘backward’ (another linear term) and superstitious. People lost faith in a culture that had been with them for centuries. As such, since then, from Sun Yatsen to the Cultural Revolution, traditonal Chinese practices and thought were rejected, and western logic and sciences have been adopted. Today, modern China is what it is today because of this, and the people continue to look to the West because of their leadership in linear thinking. In fact ‘modern’ is a term that comes from linear history, almost like the ‘final stage’ of progress.

But yet, somehow, and thankfully, alot of Chinese practices have been preserved. Partly because China is so big, and many Chinese fled overseas, taking their cultural practices and values with them. The Chinese values that had been preserved, such as 凉 and 热气, in Chinese medicine, or Confucious teachings, start to conflict with modern day values and the premises on which modern China is built upon. In everyday life, the battle between line and surface continues, between logic and wholistic, science and magic.

And yet, as China advances (another linear term) rapidly into modernity and linearity, Americans start embracing Eastern practices such as Yoga and Wholefoods. How do things fit together? they ask. How does it all make sense? How can so many races exist together in harmony? China itself has long been a mixture of cultures and civilizations. But it believes in the integration and harmony of plurality, and so even from the time of Qin Shihuang, China has sort to unify its people in so many different ways.

They still are doing so today.

And by deconstructing culture, we are able to gain access to a peoples’ values. Hence, when culture changes, values change. The shifting of cultures ( and everything beneath it, like art, music, writing) over time could be understood as a shifting of values.

Chatted with a friend today about ‘helping’ kids in a village. It began casually, about how it will be nice to help a kid in rural China, or perhaps bring a kid over to the city for a week. But then suddenly it dawned on my friend, who is a local Chinese, that it might also be harming the kid to do so. Is it good to show them something they might never have? Or even if that wasn’t true, was it good to inject them with ideas beyond their world, to change their behaviour and desires? This goes back to a discussion I had with myself a long time ago, not unlike the  colonial Europeans who came to ’save’ the ’savages’ in Asia or Africa.

Our conversation then led to what it really means to ‘help’ these kids, and what it really means to ‘modernize’ someone, or a village. I brought up the thought that when you ‘modernize’ something, at the same time, you are also destroying existing culture, and this is how a lot of tribal culture is being made non-existent. My friend tried to rationalize this aspect by saying perhaps as beautiful as certain cultures are, it is inevitable that they do not survive if they cannot keep up with the times, or not tolerate cultures from the outside world. He started thinking if there is a point in preserving cultures that aren’t strong enough to survive the outside world. I mentioned that, well, we have zoos, which preserve and protect animals that may very well be extinct in our world today. I’m not sure if there is a point, as, the longer you keep them in the zoo, the longer they won’t survive outside in the ‘real’ world. But then i also mentioned that museums are also like cultural zoos in which they preserve culture that has otherwise been overwhelmed by globalization, and he quite liked the idea.

All this brought me to the thought of how the industrial revolution and technology has changed the world so much today to endanger cultures everywhere in the world. How are cultures endangered? When boundaries are erased and cultures exposed to each other, it brings them into a conflict and threatens their existence. A simple example of an influx of immigrants to a certain country makes the locals feel threatened very easily, overwhelmed by the foreign language and culture. In the old world, we had all sorts of boundaries: political, social, geographical, technological, linguistic, etc. But in the new world, everything is getting homogenized, and everything brought closer to each other, everything more accessible. At initial thought, that sounds great and all, unifying the whole world into one species. But then if you go deeper into it, you are essentially smearing all the colours on the palette to create grey. Without boundaries, many things will not survive. Deers could survive because they could hide or live in areas that were perhaps inaccessible to lions. But if the only boundary that kept them alive was taken away, they’d be extinct immediately. Being intolerable to the outside world doesn’t signify that a culture or a species shouldn’t exist, contrary to what my friend thought. It’s really the changing world that is erasing these boundaries that used to protect different species and cultures. Or should I say, enable different cultures to propagate and grow. If we didn’t have physical boundaries, we wouldn’t have so many different types of flowers in so many different colours. Flowers that aren’t strong enough to compete with other flowers don’t warrant their extinction. Unless we really want just one big bowl of cultural soup in a single flavour, we should really start thinking about what boundaries we are destroying everyday and what new boundaries are being created. These boundaries will break or make the future.

I visited Soong Ching-Ling’s memorial home today, and inside, her writings made me think about all the dreams and hopes she and her husband had for China. Would they be happy to see what it had become today? Or would they be rolling in their grave? Was this the China they had worked so hard for? All those lives sacrificed in the countless revolutionary uprisings from Guangzhou to Beijing, were they really worth the China it is right now? And then you look around, you see the new generation of Chinese kids, those born after the 90s, and you see a lost generation. A generation that doesn’t know what the future holds, rejects the past, and is only absorbed with their own individual pleasures. This isn’t necessarily a judgment, but it’s definitely an observation.

Revolution means so many different things to so many different people. To some, it is only a change in government. To Madame Soong, it was a change in the people and how they saw themselves, how they defined themselves, ideologically and socially. Perhaps it should be renamed Social Revolution, because very often governments change but the people don’t, and everything remains the same even though the ‘packaging’ is different. The question is, did Madame Soong’s Social Revolution succeed? Has the Chinese people changed their perception of China and of themselves as a nation and a civilization?

Now, I’m not interested in going into the details about Mao and his cultural revolution and whether that had anything to do with preventing true social revolution from happening, but I’m going to talk about things as they are, without assigning blame to anyone or to any entity. The fact is that China is far too complex a civilization to assign blame to just one party; it will always be a combination of factors, whether internal or external.

So, what is the state of the Chinese people now?

If you ask outsiders, they will tell you their impressions of most mainland Chinese as sometimes rude, not knowing basic manners, not understanding social etiquette, and not very polite. Of course, this is a general statement and does not apply to everyone in mainland China, but here we are dealing with a general impression and a large sample size within this huge population. Does this have to do with poverty? You do see a lot of rich Chinese businessmen who are a little loud and rough. In fact a lot of them can be quite rude in their mannerisms, and quite selfish and inconsiderate in their daily actions. So that rules out money as a factor. How is it that you can have so many people not feeling disgusted about spitting in public, and not feeling bad about cutting queue, and not feeling impolite to push and shove someone else in public if they are in your way? Why is this decline in social behaviour so apparent in mainland China, even though people are starting to become well-off and they have been opened to the outside world for about 20 years now?

You can’t say the Communists didn’t try to create good behaviour among their citizens. There have been countless of red banners with doctrines of good behaviour plastered all around China for centuries. But people tend to ignore them as noise no one ever really pays attention to them. It has become government propaganda now, instead of a good-will service to its people. So what is it? Is this actually the stubbornness of Chinese culture, which has prevented them from being brainwashed by countless different dynasties and different cultures and allowed them to withstand any sort of cultural invasion to preserve their own identity and values? Does this mean the Chinese people have always been rude? Now, let’s not jump to conclusions yet, as all these are still hypothetical, but they are possibilities.

And yet, China was the civilization that created the culture of politeness and rituals, thanks to Confucius, which became adopted by so many other cultures, such as Japan and Korea. How has Japan succeeded in creating good social behaviour? Why have they succeeded when China has failed, or should I say, not yet succeeded (if they are even trying in the first place)? I believe a big part of it lies in the education, although once again, there are many other factors, such as the social framework and the acceptance of bad behavior, or should I say, the lack of awareness of it. I am aware that this might start to sound like ‘the white man’s burden’ sort of thing, but for one, I am not white, and two, I believe the Chinese people themselves consider it as bad behaviour too, just that they put up with it and ignore it over time.

Did the revolutionary leader accidentally leave out this detail in their painful struggles for China? I know Sun Yatsen was all about how the people should be governed, and the freedom to vote for your own government. And when Mao came, he seemed to be more concerned about mobilizing the farmers and the workers, and distributing food and resources, and building the country up industrially. Then when Deng Xiaoping came, he seemed only concerned to let China became rich and powerful, increasing the opportunities in financial growth of the whole nation. Every step was essential, and you needed them to get to the next stage of progress. But what of the country culturally and socially? I believe Lu Xun was one of the few that actually cared about the country’s moral illness, which was why he put down his scalpel and took up his pen to try to cure it. But was it enough?

It is more than obvious that the next stage of Chinese revolution, if you want to call it a revolution to continue the pattern over the past century, would be a cultural one. Not like Mao’s cultural revolution, which I’d rather call a cultural destruction. But a revolution that would awake the Chinese people’s hearts and minds and make them realize what they have been missing all those years, and how they have been living blindly without any sense of social etiquette. That would be a true revolution, and a good one without causing the deaths of any, but a cultural renaissance, as Daniel likes to put it, where the arts would flourish and the people respected by foreigners as the upholders of the origin of civility.

Even when you look at Chinese calligraphy, it attempts to teach one how to live a proper and balanced life of good morals and social etiquette by walking up straight and not with a slanted back, which is translated through writing upright and visually balanced characters. This is embedded within Chinese writing and calligraphy although I’m not sure how much of that is still taught and believed in schools today.

I had just seen Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized, and I must say one of the quotes from the documentary hit the nail on the head about Singapore’s social condition. I’ve always felt there was a problem with the communal landscape in Singapore - the problem that there was none. But I accepted it as being part of an ‘advanced’ and ‘modern’ society, that we were modern citizens of a city, and not some village or town in some rural area. I grew up in Toa Payoh in Singapore, the first and oldest area to have HDB flats built. HDB flats, as they are known in Singapore, are government-built residential blocks varying from 20-10 stories high which provide an affordable and comfortable housing solution to most residents in Singapore. They are an architectural model based on Bauhaus concepts, using modular blocks stacked on top of each other like Lego. Yes, they were based on famous Bauhaus ideals of design that followed function and social responsibility. But yet, as we know, design that arises from rational motivations will only have rational results, and tends to be a little cold.

No I’m not criticizing the government housing in Singapore, but yet I am. I have first-hand experience of what it feels like, growing up 21 years in a HDB neighbourhood. Yes, it is a great solution. Being a small island, it solves the problem of space, becoming a vertical street that floats in the air, and being modular, it can be cheaply fabricated and duplicated, again and again, and again and again. This provides affordable housing for everyone, a privilege that Singaporeans do not understand how lucky they are to have. If they ever traveled elsewhere, such as China or even the States, they will realize it isn’t as convenient elsewhere. So I’m grateful for what it is and its purposes. But here I have to stop my praises and be critical for what it is, for I am a child of my land, and one can’t help but point out the consequences of such a model.

The quote in Urbanized showed a building in New York, probably built during the time of Robert Moses, not unlike the HDB flats in Singapore, and remarked that such buildings destroyed the framework of a community, because it prohibited interaction between the neighbours. In traditional times when we still had villages or towns, when everything was more or less flat, people could see what was outside their house, and would sit outside too. There were open spaces where children could play, and people are rather visual; they associate with what they see, and over time, they recognize neighbours, they start chatting and everyone becomes a community. Such is lost in the modern high-rise. Nowadays, residential blocks are cold and inhumane, filled with dark corners that people are afraid to go to. Few talk to each other, because the balconies are so narrow, and for some reason, people feel like trouble is looking for you when strangers knock on your door. There is no more public space near the living areas save for the playgrounds downstairs. And even so, space is wasted because the journey along the balconies and vertically through the lifts have become purely functional for getting from point A to point B, whereas back in the day, the journey home is also the journey to greet and interact with the community. The points of interaction in HDB heartlands in Singapore now are only in shopping malls, churches, playgrounds (which are usually deserted now), coffee shops (known as kopitiams) and schools. Other than these touchpoints, the residential areas are basically stark and provide only a singular function: for you to rest at home with your family. Hence I have grown up without knowing most of my neighbours, although luckily for me, we were at the unit beside the elevator, and people always had to walk past our door to get there, so they would sometimes say hello. I knew most of the shopkeepers downstairs my block, and even after 7 years of absence, they would still give me a smile or a nod when they see my face on my visits back home. That was the little warmth I could get out of communal living, but it’s even colder now as most HDB flats don’t have shops at the base but only cold empty void decks. This is why you have an international community in Singapore, with multi-cultures and multi-races living in the same block and on the same street, but yet no sense of community in the residential areas, and hence no sense of belonging. You do, however, feel a sense of belonging to organizations and institutions such as schools and workplaces.

I have been in and out of Shanghai, but in the past year I have moved into an old lane house in the French Concession. The old lane houses in Shanghai are called ‘Nongtang’ (弄堂), which are really small lanes that extend from the main road into an area of low-storied houses. These clusters of houses are grouped by a unit number, such as 12′Nong’, and they have a gate and a security guard assigned to each Nong. Inside each Nong there is a a common rubbish area, in some Nongs there are common bath houses and common washrooms. The area inside each Nong is lively, because they understand that the people who live within the gates are all neighbours, and so they put out their stuff freely, hanging clothes and plants. They also tend to take out their chairs in Summer, the old people mostly, sit around and chat or play mahjong in the sun or at night, or letting their dogs play with each other. Even though I have only lived here for a year, I already start to recognize most of their faces since I get to see them more than I did back in my HDB flat in Toa Payoh, and for them mine. There is a sense of looking out for each other within each Nong, as some thieves tried to steal my bike before, and my neighbour’s dog barked and another neighbour also caught someone suspicious in the area and saved my bike. Once, an old lady’s son came to knock on her door but no one answered even though he could hear the TV from outside, and he was worried that the worst might have happened, and so started banging away at the door for her to open up. It was late at night and it stirred the entire Nong, who all came out to find out what’s happening and if they could help, which they did. My neighbour downstairs, who is an old ayi, took a long bamboo stick and started knocking on that lady’s window. Fortunately the old lady woke up and opened the door, and everyone had a sense of relief. I would never have had such an experience in Singapore. Nothing so human.

What does all this mean and what am I saying? I just feel that if Singapore wants to create a communal society, where people look out for each other and are not just selfish and think about themselves, and where people feel like they belong to where they live, then something ought to be changed. The interaction between residents needs to be facilitated through urban planning and design, even in the details at the very bottom level, like the mailboxes. Could we humanize them? Instead of just numbers, could we have a blank where people could write their family names or welcome messages or even draw pictures? There is a stark contrast between living in Singapore and anywhere else, and it is the lack of humanity. Do we really need void decks? At the end of the day, they become spaces for people to park their bikes or for kids to play soccer, which aren’t that bad, but weren’t the point of them to begin with. Their ‘repurpose’ came from the people living there themselves, finding use in a space that was left wasted. Quite often now, soccer is even banned from those void decks in fear of hurting someone. Everything in Singapore is duly organized, sectioned off piece by piece, in their places where ‘they should be’. If you want to do sports, take it to the stadium or the community centre. If you want to buy something, go to the centralized malls. Life is separated into compartments, with gaps in between; gaps that are wasted and lifeless, but worst of all, gaps that make residential life disconnected. Why can’t we have a cafe in the void decks? Or a late night movie screening where everyone is invited? Why can’t the walkways between school and HDB flats be filled with small little stalls or shops or games? It’s almost more interesting if you are forced to walk through something to get to another place, because it forces interaction and people are aware of their surroundings. What if you had to walk through a flea market or a bunch of people pracitising taichi everytime you want to get home? Wouldn’t that be more interesting?

In my place in Shanghai, because these old houses used to be a single unit, but were split up into 3 units after the war, I have to walk through my neighbour’s kitchen everytime I want to get home ( I live on the third floor). At first I thought it was annoying, but then I realized how interesting it is as I had to walk through their home everytime, and I would greet the old ayi and her family and her dog everytime I came home. And they would greet me back too.

I never got this in Singapore. And I had lived in the same place for 21 years.

I underline the government’s determination that nobody should use dialects. Indeed wise parents will never let their children speak dialect at all . . . The more one learns dialect words, the less space there is for Mandarin words or English words, or multiplication tables or formulas in mathematics, physics or chemistry.
- (Speech on ‘Mandarin must replace dialects as the mother tongue’ on 25 October 1981, by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce 1991)

According to the Government, Singapore’s lack of progress, particularly amongst the Chinese Community, was largely due to the use of dialects creating an incoherent and divided society. To tackle the problem, the Government introduced the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) in 1979, which effectively signalled the beginning of the death of dialects.


One of the many Speak Mandarin Campaign slogans


Singapore’s many Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka etc.) came about as a result of early settlers arriving from various provinces in China.

In the 1950s & 60s, Singapore, like many de-colonised countries, began a search for an independent national identity. The Chinese in particular, turned to the cultural products of film and music from Hong Kong as a source of inspiration. The fascination with Hong Kong was also seen as a reactionary and feudal ‘Yellow Culture’ that was set out to oppose the ‘Red’ culture still apparent in Communist China.

Canto-pop in particular, boomed because of its apparent lack of censorship and ‘sexy songstress’, and made its way to the hearts of Singapore with popular Hong Kong singers taking centrestage at the Republic’s newly established culture centre, the National Theatre.


Cantopop made its presence felt in Singapore even before the Four Heavenly Kings.


However, Singapore’s continued emphasis of bilingualism upon independence was becoming more apparent in both schools and the media, and this led to ‘actively discouraging’ the use of dialects championed through the Speak Mandarin Campaign, with then PM Lee going as far to say that ‘ Chinese Singaporeans below the age of forty who speak dialect will the last in queue (in government departments)

Some slogans throughout the years of the Speak Mandarin Campaign include

华人讲华语,合情又合理 (Mandarin’s In. Dialect’s Out – 1983) and
(More Mandarin, Less Dialect. Make it a way of life – 1989)

Some of the first steps on the emphasis on Mandarin by the Government included the removal of popular Cantonese programmes from television and radio stations, most of which were state owned. By 1981, they were phased out, much to the displeasure of even non-Cantonese Singaporeans.

Even up till today, the Media Development Authority(MDA), states that on National Television,All Chinese programmes, except operas or other programmes specifically approved by the Authority, must be in Mandarin. Dialects in dialogues and songs may be allowed provided the context justifies usage and is sparingly used.

None of this is more perhaps more apparent in the movie Army Daze, where Malcolm and gang frequently tell the hokkien spewing character Ah Beng to ‘讲华语‘ (speak Mandarin).


Dialects however received some reprieve in 1991 when the PAP lost four constituencies during the General Elections. One of the reasons cited for poor results being the use of dialects by Opposition leaders reaching out to the Chinese voters.

Many also saw the Speak Mandarin Campaign as a propaganda effort to alienate a large section of the working-ethnic Chinese who still predominantly spoke in Dialects.

The Government then stepped it and although they never actively promoted the use of dialects, they stopped shoft of discouraging it and even allowed TVB, the Hong Kong Cantonese station to be shown on cable television in 1995.

Even the Prime Minister himself has been seen using dialects phrases in many National Day Rallies, none perhaps more famous than his statement one should order mee siam mai hum.

The effects of the Speak Mandarin Campaign were however already evident, with the population of households now increasingly using less dialects and more Mandarin.

Language Spoken at Home Among Chinese Resident Population in Singapore[30]

Predominant Household Language

1957 (%)

1980 (%)

2000 (%)

English 1.8 11.6 23
Mandarin 0.1 10.2 35
Chinese Dialects 97 81.4 30.7


Dialects however represent a truly cultural link and experience for many, the deterioration of which has led to a comprehensive lack of communication between the elderly and their grandchildren.

The beauty about dialects, just like any other language, is that it is able to emote a certain feeling through it words that no dubbing or subtitling is able to accomplish.

It also surprising that the Government, with its constant strive for racial harmony, actually saw the Speak Mandarin Campaign as a way to improve cohesion in the community and not a tool for economic progress and trade relations with the increasing power that was China.

Nothing really beats walking into a dim sum restaurant and hearing the waiters shout to each other in Cantonese, trying to understand what your grandparents say, or simply even telling the coffeeshop uncle that all you want is a nice cup of ‘teh siu dai (tea with milk but less sugar). Dialects should be here to stay and is one of the few things we should not let any form of education or state run campaigns intervene in.