A Shirkers' Trip With Filmmaker Sandi Tan Around 90s Singapore

The award-winning filmmaker reminisces on her childhood and takes VICE Asia through her favorite teenage hangouts.

by Sharon Shum
20 November 2018, 1:00pm

Image: Netflix

While growing up as a cosseted creature in lawful, straight-edge Singapore may seem to some a huge hindrance to creativity, it was in this transient, fast-growing garden city that the likes of filmmaker Sandi Tan have bloomed. Since her award-winning documentary Shirkers’ debut on Netflix in October, audiences worldwide have been taken in by the dreamy fragments of what would have been the first feminist road movie set in a surrealist Singapore, and a slightly sinister tale of lost-and-found original footage, backed up by minutiae from the director’s extensive personal collection of notebooks and archives.

It seems that part of Sandi’s ethos is her willingness to dive deep into the past – seeing it not just as something that has-been, but as a crucial element for the inception of something transcendent, yet rooted in tenderness.

When asked if she has more hope for the future of Singapore or nostalgia for her past, Sandi responds, “You cannot look forward in a meaningful way without kinship with and appreciation for the past. I find myself very seduced by a smoky, off-key chacha-filled past Singapore, one that predated me and probably never even really existed. I indulged in imagining this place in my novel, The Black Isle.“

Perhaps the ultimate device against the apparent restrictions of strict censorship-ridden Singapore is the relentless boredom of a restless teenager. VICE Asia goes on a trip back in time through 90s Singapore with original shirker Sandi Tan, celebrating the unexpected freedoms to be had by the most curious of minds.

Essential pit stops on a typical afternoon if school lets out early (or even if it didn’t!)

First up, the former National Library at Stamford Road (the old brick building that looked like an insane asylum and perhaps might have been) to see what issues of BigO or Sight & Sound or NME were there. And then I’d go looking in the stacks to see what Kerouac or Burroughs books (mostly contraband) had slipped through the cracks and passed into circulation. For some reason, you couldn’t get Kerouac’s On The Road there but you could get The Dharma Bums.

Wanting to expand our tiny circle, my friend Julian wrote his phone number in pencil under the flap of the book, looking for the like-minded hidden in our midst. Weeks later, he received a call from a familiar voice - Ben (seen in Shirkers)... who was already in our extended group. That’s how small our world was!

The photocopying machines at the National Library were responsible for some of the most terribly blurry-photocopied pages of my zine The Exploding Cat. These gigantic, low-ink machines were where I gigglingly photocopied my collages while mothers waiting to photocopy assessment books for their kids looked on with impatience and absolute horror.

For sustenance: Wanton noodles in the rickety hawker canteen outside the National Library. Or else the famous $2 jet-black char kuay teow [stir-fried rice noodles] from Hill Street Hawker Center, with a prune juice chaser. Or: whatever home-cooked-seeming lunch they were serving in the Substation Cafe on Armenian Street.

Then I’d run into the venerable MPH Building across the road, ride the escalators up and down for the free air-con, and to take in the musty smell of books (this was pre-renovation). Elderly store clerks would glare at me, shaking their heads - I think I partly did this just to get those looks!


Capitol Theatre. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’d pass through Capitol Theatre’s dank lobby, laughing at those hand-painted giant movie banners that had images of movie stars like Tom Cruise that looked *nothing* like them. Val Kilmer always looked like an abandoned woman. I’d say ‘hi’ to the kacang puteh [mixed nut snack] man with his magical cornucopia.

Then I’d continue along North Bridge Road to Coleman Street and dip into Fee Fee Photo in Peninsula Plaza to pick up a roll of black-and-white 35mm film for use on my instant Konica camera. Usually I’d also be picking up the photos I’d left them for processing the previous week.

There were shops upstairs at Peninsula Plaza that sold The Smiths and Bauhaus t-shirts but I rarely went because they were rip-offs at $25 or $30. So I made my own Smiths t-shirts! :)

On to Funan Center! Multiple stops here - Carona fried chicken wings in the basement food court then off to DaDa Records on the 3rd floor where they sold expensive (like $30) LPs by the Pixies, The Fall and Cocteau Twins.

Because they were super expensive and because my record player was perpetually broken, I’d have the owner dub these albums onto cassette tapes that he sold for around $6, which still wasn’t cheap. This sideline was profitable for them, the salad days before the copyright law kicked in. Shops in Lucky Plaza were still selling counterfeit albums of acts like Duran Duran or Michael Jackson for $6, and you could spend hours (as I had) arguing with the uncles who claimed they were “of course original, lah!”

Then it’s off to Skoob Books, the best musty-dusty used bookstore in Singapore, which specialized in literature, erudite academic journals and arcana, including the ReSEARCH magazines that would serve as the gateway drug into American counterculture and the writing of JG Ballard for me and my friends. Skoob got their stock of used books from the UK and Australia so their wares were a far cry from the creased-spine romances and Stephen King paperbacks common to all the other used bookshops in town. Skoob was also the store whose clerk Clarisse quoted Wordsworth at customers and grumblingly agreed to stock [my zine] Exploding Cat (sold at $1.20 each) at the front counter.


Bras Basah Complex Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last stop - Bras Basah Complex with its top floor comic shop, where the store owner (Raymond?) would try to sell me issues of Weirdo and freak me out with the drawings of gigantic big-butted women and lecherous old twerps in R. Crumb comic books (Crumb was never my thing). I’d save up to buy issues of the now-classic omnibus comics series Raw. And then if I had any time and money left, I’d go browsing at the Japanese pens and erasers on display at Popular [Bookstore]’s stationery department.

As told by Sandi Tan.