Tag: Globalisation

Non-travels from Singapore to Shanghai

shanghai-to-singaporeShanghai, Singapore, Similar Cities

It felt like a 6 hour bus ride to a future extension of Greater Singapore, a city in a city, but I was in Shanghai, a drab-grey city, where I looked a part of, but felt so estranged from.

The problem with city-traveling is how similar a pscyhe they all have. Most cities are laid out in a grid-like fashion and the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers while its underbelly hosts the tension between the old and the new. In cities, similar gated enclaves thrive: the expatriate community and their exotic re-imaginations of home; shoppers in the malls dominated by global brands; tourists in the cultural districts and their attempts to encapsulate history, time and culture in one broad stroke. This was my problem with my six-day trip — Shanghai was a jaded expression of my impression of the city state, and as if reflecting my state of mind, the weather was foggy and I hardly saw the sun. In fact, the most colourful moment I had was when it rained — the streets were filled with all sorts of colours, the people brandishing their umbrellas and raincoats as if in some theatrical performace to wash off the grey that enveloped the city.

The Great Wall of Consumerism and Capitalism
To call Shanghai a modern facade of China would be a bit too harsh, but this expression is well-manifested in how it arranges its residential and commercial spaces. The facade facing the streets were shops, while in between every few shops one would find “弄”, an equivalent to alleys, that led to residential homes. It’s as if China built a modern wall of consumerism and capitalism to protect its culture and identity inside. What the people did in the residential spaces was private, gated and protected by a security guard who could sniff out residents just by looking at you. Or so I thought. I never dared trespass.

What was clear to me was that Shanghai lacked the strict urban discipline that so exemplifies Singapore. There was an air of spontaneity to the distribution of spaces, I could be standing along a street of old shops and the next corner I would find a office tower.

I am a Chinese lost in China
While I looked the part, a Chinese in China, I had never felt so alien and silent. Shanghai was probably a much more modern view of China today, but even so, my comfort in American and European culture was seriously exposed during this trip. I was always taking an extra effort, or reacting a second slower to my surroundings. I felt like a Singaporean Chinese, and this expression only serves to expose the absurdity of the racial model we have here; of this desire to paint imagined roots to a Chinese culture that is no longer recognisable to China’s.

During my trip, I also spotted and heard many Singaporeans. Yes, we do have a look. There came a point during a jaunt in a cafe where the table across mine hosted two Singaporean couples back-to-back. In their words, “Wah piang eh!” One thing I never figured out was what stereotypes the Chinese had of Singaporeans. In a strange way, knowing stereotypes gives us a sense of comfort in the day-to-day dealings with people, as if some identity theater, where you knew what the expectations were and how you could exploit them to your advantage.

Mao for sale
One thing that struck me was how commodified communism had become in China. Popular culture had appropriated a failed ideology into fodder for pop-art, and one could find it all over its clothings and art. And as if a nod to its newfound art in piracy, even the paintings for sale in galleries that I came across were copies! Two images are striking: one was revolutionary paintings plastered with brand names, while another was photos of grey Shanghai spaces photoshopped to accentuate the colours of certain items. To me, they were respective artistic responses to my observations of the commodification and greyness of the city.

And so that is what I can make of my short stay in Shanghai. I never felt like I traveled somewhere different, merely somewhere further. To the person, who told me that Shanghai was at least two years ahead of Singapore, I’m not sure what you meant. The future development of a city like Singapore? Then I’ll disagree, because Singapore is ahead.

Why we should create


Today’s Sunday Times lifestyle had an article about Mr Goh Poh Seng, a “cultural maverick” of early Singapore who wrote If We Dream Too Long in 1972 about a young man’s quest for identity in the newly independent nation. I have yet to read the book, but this sense of the importance of culture creation is something that I find increasingly lost amongst our generation.

While the need to build a sense of nationhood for a young was imperative to this drive for culture creation then, it is the effects of globalisation today that drives this need to build a Singapore culture. Another intellectual of Mr Goh’s generation, architect William Lim wrote in his book Alternatives in Transition that culture creation was vital against the tide of globalisation. “The most effective instrument to handle this cultural intrusion is the strengthening of our own cultures, values and identities in order to provide a strong filtering mechanism.”

Another issue with regards to culture creation is that we cannot leave it to the government to do it alone. By letting the government dictate cultural production in the last 40 years, it has only resulted in apathy because its products are viewed with suspicion or totally ignored as propaganda. It is not the government support but more its tight regulations that has stifled interest on local culture and also a whole generation of local culture producers. This is one reason why many Singaporeans today do not support local products or feel it is inferior to foreign ones and also why we have only been seeing the same few faces in the scene.

Ultimately, we should create culture that we can call our own because it is how we can empower ourselves and the community. Rather than let the government or globalisation dictate the form of our culture, we can only truly relate to culture if we all engage in its creation rather than just be recipients of it.