We explore the parallel worlds of reality and make-believe – and the spaces in between – as we take a trip into our not-so-distant past in this issue of BiblioAsia. Ng Yi-Sheng mulls over the fine line between fact and fiction – the theme of this issue – in his essay on the culture of horror that has existed in Singapore since pre-colonial days. From spine-chilling tales of the pontianak, the female vampire from Malay folklore to The Black Isle, Sandi Tan’s 21st-century supernatural novel set in Singapore, the essay taps into our morbid fascination with all things creepy.
Likewise, the suspension of reality is what Nadia Arianna Bte Ismail explores in her essay on the rise of local sci-fi publications between the 1970s and 1990s. Besides the supernatural, it is violent and graphic murder cases (naturally) that seem to rivet the public’s attention: Sharon Teng recounts four of the bloodiest murders in Singapore’s crime history, some of which have spawned bestselling books in their wake.
Singapore was hailed as the “equatorial Hollywood” when Western filmmakers discovered this exotic Asian port city in the early 1900s. Fact and fiction blurred as fabricated scenes of Singapore were stitched together from stock footage and studio sets – never mind that these filmmakers never set foot in Singapore. One of the early exceptions was Clyde E. Elliott, the first Hollywood director who made three films here in the 1930s, as Chua Ai Lin reveals.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, says Kennie Ting, changed the face of maritime history forever and led to the advent of leisure travel to distant lands. On their journeys east, perhaps some of these Western travellers were able to separate fact from fiction; to see the exotic lands “East of Suez” through their own eyes, instead of relying on apocryphal tales of the Orient.
With all the fake news circulating these days – presented in ways that seem so real – one never knows what is the truth anymore. While the volume and speed at which news is disseminated in the modern world is unprecedented, lying (or whatever euphemism one might use), according to Farish A. Noor, is as old as history.
On the subject of history − built history, specifically − Swan & Maclaren, the oldest architectural practice in Singapore celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Started in 1892 by two Scotsmen, Swan & Maclaren was responsible for many of the city’s heritage buildings. What is a fact for certain is that the architectural firm was among the first to pioneer the Modernist architectural movement in Singapore, as Julian Davison tells us.
More echoes of the past can be found in the following features: Bonny Tan traces the lives of little-known female librarians in pre-war Singapore; Juffri Bin Supa’at and Sundari Balasubramaniam take a look at the post-1965 Malay publishing scene and Tamil short story writers between 1936 and 1960, respectively; Makeswary Periasamy highlights the National Library’s collection of rare early books and documents on Chinese secret societies; and Sharen Chua previews books on National Service from our Legal Deposit Collection − this being the year that marks 50 Years of National Service in Singapore.
Finally, don’t miss our latest exhibition, “Tales of the Malay World; Manuscripts and Early Books”, on level 10 of the National Library Building from 18 August 2017 to 25 February 2018. Curated by Tan Huism, the exhibition is a rare opportunity to see a selection of rare Malay manuscripts and printed books from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. On display are items from the National Library’s Rare Materials Collection as well as The British Library and Netherlands’ Leiden University Library, among other institutions.
We hope you enjoy reading this edition of BiblioAsia.
Mrs Wai Yin Pryke