Finding the 'Real Singapore' on Singapore's 50th National Day
VICE spoke to New York-based Singaporean photograph Clang about finding the "real Singapore."
August 9, 2015, marks the 50th year of Singaporean independence. In lieu of the celebrations taking place 10,000 miles away, VICE sat down with New York-based Singaporean photographer John Clang. Clang's collection "The Land of My Heart" is a dedication to Singapore National Day (SG50) and was recently featured in TWENTYFIFTEEN.SG, a compilation of work from Singapore's established and emerging photographers.
Clang's art centers on his identity as an overseas Singaporean citizen and his longing for the home he left behind. In his recent photo collection, Clang photographs ex-Singapore Airline Flight Attendants foregrounding mundane settings around Singapore. In this juxtaposition, he de-mystifies the iconic "Singapore girl" through the disruption of the Singapore Airlines global brand. His photographs capture the transitory nature of time, space, and identity that Singaporeans are facing both within and outside the nation on its 50th birthday.
While flipping through his recent photo collection, Clang and I talked about the heartland, globalization, and finding the "real Singapore" in an ever-changing nation.
VICE: Hey John, you will be here in New York on National Day, right? How do feel being so far away from home during the Nation's largest celebration?
John Clang: I'm going to watch it online. I wish I were there to be with all my family and friends—not exactly for the celebration of it, but more for the festive period.
You recently released a collection of photographs "The Land of My Heart" as a dedication to Singapore. What I found interesting about your collection was that while Singaporeans are currently chanting "Majulah Singapura" ("Onward Singapore") for today's celebration, your photographs seem to be more about looking back and celebrating the past.
When I was invited to do the series, I was thinking about doing something that is not a documentary of where we are now. Singapore is a country that is always evolving and moving forward. Presenting where we are now is not an accurate representation of what Singapore is because Singapore will be completely different in three years. I'm more interested to show what the real Singapore is. What is the image of Singapore? The image of Singapore is not the MBS [Marina Bay Sands] building, the Merlion, or the chewing gum.
I wanted to do something about time, because time is more fascinating. In this series I do talk about the past, but there are only three time zones in the world itself [that are portrayed in this collection]. There is the past—my memories, the present—the current location where I photographed them: the places where people live in Singapore, the heartland. Then, of course, there is the everlasting logo of the Singapore girl. There are actually three time dimensions here, which exclude the future. I wouldn't say that I am [only] talking about the past, I am talking about three different things: the past, the present, and the everlasting.
You mentioned wanting to show the "real Singapore." What, to you, is the "real Singapore?"
The heartland. That's why I say "The Land of My Heart." It's basically where most Singaporeans live. Whenever I have friends come to visit Singapore, I always take them to visit the heartland—not just Orchard Road, or the central area for shopping. We are known to have a lot of malls and all the malls are basically the same. I am not particularly proud of that. What I find fascinating are the different heartlands, where people grow up, wake up, go to work, and when they come home at night. That's what's beautiful. That is the true Singapore—not where we spend our weekend or where the tourists go.
That's how I wanted to represent it, with stories that relate to me and my past. I wanted to show a young man, twenty years ago, and what he has gone through. It represents a part of the growth of Singapore as compared to what is going on now. What we are experiencing now is very different from before. I think we should have a marking in history of how Singapore grew.
Singapore is totally dating the world. We are trying to charm the world, but my thinking is that you can only charm a person so far.
50 years is a very young age for a country. You are someone who has seen Singapore grow, both as a Singaporean and now as a foreigner living abroad. What was your intent in de-mystifying the global image of Singapore?
I was born in '73, so I saw Singapore in the 70s. I have some set of knowledge of the late seventies and early eighties. My parents and grandparents were undereducated. I have seen the growth of the nation and what education can do [for its growth]. With understanding and true education, people start to have their own voice. Earlier we had a lot of guidance, guidance from the government. Now with education, everyone has [an] independent mind and wants to speak their opinion. I see a different Singapore now than before. Now you have a city with its own voice. It could mean [something] good or it could mean trouble, but [we'll] never know.
What changes stand out to you within the Singaporean society?
In the past, Singaporeans would work and hope for the best. Now, we work, and we want the best. That's the huge difference between my parents and my generation.
Singapore has fueled one of this world's greatest economic success stories by its need to be the best. Are you critical of the changes you see as a result of its success?
We used to hope for the best, and now we want the best. The question is, what is the definition of "best?" Between these two generations, the definition of "best" is different. The "best," for my parents, was material success and success for their children. They wanted a secure livelihood and a secure political situation—no crisis or war. That's what they hoped for, and they got it.
Like all humans, we have our three-course-meal and we are now at the dessert phase. We have what our parents hoped for, [their] "best," and now we want the [new] "best." You know dessert, dessert doesn't really fill you up, it just gives you a sweetening taste. Now [Singaporeans] want to sweeten their lives, but is that a good definition of the "best?" I'm not agreeing with the current "best" we are looking for. The current "best" is just a sweet taste that will give us a sugar surge. You just get a crash after the whole thing; you just get disappointment.
I'm not concerned with the success of Singapore. As a nation you have your ups and downs, but the question is how you sustain the "up"? How do you sustain the hope? I think that's the next phase. The government has to let go of our hand and let us grow on our own and we will have to face our own failure somehow and decide where to go from there. That's the exciting part. Now we have a choice. We want the freedom and we want the power, but we are yet to know what it tastes like.
Now that it's SG50, and Lee Kuan Yew has just passed, it is a critical time for the nation. Which direction do you see Singapore going in?
I like these kinds of questions. This is a very critical time. SG50 happened at a very critical time and Lee Kwan Yew's passing happens to be a very critical time, too. I just did a piece specifically for Lee Kuan Yew which is me wearing a mourning funeral suite, which is only meant for my parents when they die. In the photograph my parents and I are holding hands while I'm wearing that attire to show my utmost respect to him. What Lee Kuan Yew has done is create a very strong foundation for the company. I keep saying the word "company," it's an accidental word that I use because what I want to say is that Singapore is run like a company. It's a very well oiled machine. If you look at Singapore in the respect of a country, and compare it to Apple, you see certain similarities. The next three to four years will determine where Singapore will go, just like the next three to four years of Apple computers. If you compare Singapore to Apple, you will have a better understanding of where we are. Who is richer, Apple or Singapore?
Apple is at it's all time high now. We can ask, 'What is the future of Apple?' But who knows? They have to keep inventing and re-inventing. One thing I know for sure is that we don't want Singapore to be like Nokia. Do you know Nokia? Nokia at its highest point was pretty famous. No one wants to end up like Nokia now. That is the current state of mind of people in Singapore. We want to move onward and adapt to the countries around us.
Singaporeans care less about the present. They think more about the past and they worry about the future. That's what Singapore is.
A lot of your work centers on your identity as an oversea Singaporean citizen, and the pain you feel being away from home. Some have been critical of the Singaporean diaspora, calling them traitors, and others have framed them as the "future Singaporeans." What is your opinion?
Why did I leave Singapore to come to New York? Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-three years old, Lee Kwan Yu said that all Singaporeans should leave Singapore, have a taste of the world, and bring the information back. When I was a kid I always wanted to cycle beyond the horizon, not knowing that there wasn't anything beyond the horizon. There will always be a horizon that you want to cross. I wanted to know what was out there and bring it back to my family and friends. Being a Singaporean doesn't mean you have to leave, but I think a lot of people who live outside Singapore have a lot to share.
Do you find yourself in a capsule of the time when you left Singapore?
Singapore is like a Kampung. Kampung in America... I don't think you'd understand. A Kampung is like a small village. My generation grew up in Singapore when it was still a Kampung. Now the village is no longer there, but we still miss the air and the accent. That's the reason why I never changed my accent. I like it when somebody hears my voice and says "Oh! You're from Singapore."
It's a good accent.
It's great. I hold on to the idea of Singapore when I left because I know those are the fundamental roots of Singapore. The current scene, of what I see, is more decorative—it's more of a façade. It's what we need to present to the world. Honestly, it's like dating. Does your partner want to know who you really are on your first date? They want to know how to dress, what you look like and what you smell like.
So, Singapore is dating the world?
Singapore is totally dating the world. We are trying to charm the world, but my thinking is that you can only charm a person so far. At some point the world will know who you are, so you better be prepared. We're not there yet, but we will, we'll get there. It takes time, 50 years is so short.
One on of your photographs in "The Land of My Heart," there is a written text saying "No, we do not go to jail for chewing gum." I found that quite amusing. Is a part of your collection's intent to counter common stereotypes about Singapore?
Yes, this was an actual statement that I made when I was young. When I first travelled to America people would ask me "Where are you from? Are you from China?" When I would say "No, I'm from Singapore" they would ask "Which part of China is that next to, Beijing or Shanghai?" Someone once asked me, "Is it near Sichuan?" For goodness sake, if you know where Sichuan is, you kind of know the world.
No one knew Singapore then. Even when Singapore was known to the world, one of the first things people know is that you cannot chew chewing gum. Sometimes I would say "I'm from that country, you know, where you cannot chew gum?" and they would say, "Oh, I know that country!" but would have no idea that it's called Singapore.
Are there any last sentiments you have to share about Singapore and its 50th anniversary?
Singapore is a country where I care about its past, I look forward to its future, but I never [think of its] present. The present slips past us every minute that we are talking. If you live for the present, then there will never be a future. Singaporeans care less about the present. They think more about the past and they worry about the future. That's what Singapore is.