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Vol 15 Issue 2

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This issue of BiblioAsia presents yet another selection of diverse and, hopefully, riveting essays for your reading pleasure. Writing is an art form that is increasingly sidelined in this digital world of truncated emails and text messages. Novelist Meira Chand looks back at her collection of written manuscripts – filled with random notes and scribblings on the margins – and ponders over their value in a time where writers have gone paperless. In not dissimilar vein, K.U. Menon pores over letters written by government officials in postwar Singapore as part of a declassification project by the National Archives, and rues the death of elegant writing. Still on the subject of authorship, Farish Noor’s essay on the violence inflicted by the British on the people and lands they colonised in Southeast Asia and its glaring omission in 19th-century writings – including those by Stamford Raffles – provide much food for thought.…

No great work of literature is completed in just one draft. In an age where writers have gone paperless, novelist Meira Chand ponders over the value of manuscripts, and what they might reveal about a writer’s thought process. As a young writer many years ago, it thrilled me to go to the Reading Room of the British Museum in London. This massive circular room with a soaring glass-domed ceiling opened in 1857, and it quickly became a mecca for writers from all over the world, who came here to research and write, and breathe in its rarefied literary atmosphere. Until its closure in 1997 and its transformation into an exhibition space in the British Museum, many famous writers and luminaries used the Reading Room, including the likes of Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, Sun Yat Sen, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name but…

History may be written by the victors, but what they conveniently leave out can be more telling. Farish Noor reminds us of the violent side of colonial conquest. “All conquest literature seeks to explain to the conquerors ‘why we are here’.” – Robert Bartlett,The Making of Europe (1993) Among the many outcomes of the colonial era in Southeast Asia – from the 18th to the 19th century – is a body of writing that can be best described as colonial literature. By this I am referring not only to the accounts that were written by intrepid European travellers who ventured to this region, but also the writings of colonial bureaucrats, colony-builders and administrators, and the men who took part in the conquest of the region by force of arms. The Justification for Violence It is interesting to see how these authors dealt with the issue of violence that often came…

Sara Siew examines the link between visual art and the written word through the fascinating story of Singaporean artist Georgette Chen. Artists express themselves in a variety of ways. Although art is the most obvious of these, some artists also rely on the medium of words as a means of self-expression. From private musings and working notes to published essays and interviews, many artists have chronicled their experiences, thoughts and feelings through the written and spoken word. Some writings, like manifestos and declarations, tell us about the ideas behind a certain style or about the context in which artists worked, while others strike a deeper, more emotive chord. The Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, for example, wrote 800 or so letters to his younger brother Theo, laying bare his private anguish and joys, and in the process painted a portrait of himself that is arguably as compelling as his…

The Wilkes Expedition – as it is popularly known – vastly expanded the borders of scientific learning. Vidya Schalk explains how this historic American naval mission between 1838 and 1842 is linked to Singapore.  In early 1842, almost 500 naval officers, sailors and scientists from the United States visited Singapore on their way home after an epic four-year voyage of discovery. They were members of the United States Exploring Expedition, part of the last All Sail Naval Squadron to circumnavigate the globe and the first-ever scientific mission mounted by the fairly young nation (the country had achieved independence in 1776). Few people have heard of the Wilkes Expedition, its more commonly used name, and fewer still about the United States Exploring Expedition – or simply the U.S. Ex. Ex. Although the expedition became mired in controversy, it nonetheless left behind an important legacy in its meticulous documentation of the earth’s…

Keppel and Sembawang shipyards are major players in Singapore’s maritime and shipping industry. Wee Beng Geok traces the colonial origins of these two companies. Singapore has always been highly prized for its location. Fortuitously positioned at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, at a key crossroad along the East-West trade route, its importance as a port settlement can be traced to the 14th century when the island was known as Temasek. In 1819, the British arrived on the scene, and were quick to grasp Singapore’s potential as an entrepôt and a base to spread its version of merchant capitalism in Southeast Asia. Land was leased from the indigenous rulers to set up a British trading post on the island, and in a treaty signed in 1824, Singapore was ceded in full to Britain. For the next 140 years, the British built institutions that would lay the foundations for the…

1988 has been held as the watershed year in which Singapore’s contemporary art took root with the establishment of The Artists Village. Jeffrey Say debunks this view, asserting that the contemporary art movement began earlier. “[T]he emergence of the Singapore artist collective The Artists Village. arguably marks the beginning of contemporary art in Singapore.” This assertion by curator and art critic Iola Lenzi reflects a view that has been long accepted in writings on Singaporean contemporary art. Art curator Russell Storer, in his discussion of sculptor and painter Tan Teng-Kee’s 1979 performative work The Picnic, dismissed it as “a flash of avant-gardism within a conservative artistic environment… a form that did not take hold in Singapore for another decade until the establishment of The Artists Village in 1988”. Similarly, Kwok Kian Chow’s Channels and Confluences: A History of Singapore Art (1996) points to the contributions of The Artists Village and…

Milestones in Singapore’s medical scene – among other subjects – are captured through fascinating oral history narratives in a new book written by Cheong Suk-Wai and published by the National Archives of Singapore.  Life is a race against time. That much was clear to midwife Sumitera Mohd Letak after she helped a patient with dangerously high blood pressure who had just given birth. “She was bleeding like hell,” Sumitera recalled. “Her baby was gasping away and I had to suck mucus out of her baby’s mouth… I had to, by hook or by crook, take them to hospital.” Alas, the mother, baby and midwife were on St John’s Island, which is about 6.5 km south of mainland Singapore. What was worse, it was the middle of the night. Sumitera added: “It was low tide, so I had to wake up the whole row of people in the quarters there to…

K.F. Wong shot to international fame with his images of Borneo, though not without controversy. Zhuang Wubin examines Wong’s work and sees beyond their historical value. In 1989, exactly 30 years ago, the late Minister S. Rajaratnam officiated the opening of a solo exhibition by photographer Wong Ken Foo, more popularly known as K.F. Wong (1916–98). Organised by the National Archives of Singapore, “Light on Historical Moments – Images on Singapore” featured 159 photographs that Wong had taken from the mid-1940s to the 1960s. This was a tumultuous period in Singaporean history: the British had returned after the end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945, and instead of being welcomed with open arms, they found a population resentful of their colonial masters. The political awakening among the people sparked a series of events that would eventually lead to self-government, and then full independence in 1965. In his speech, Rajaratnam pointed…

Nearly 70 years have passed since a committee was set up to look into the preservation of buildings and sites with historical value. Lim Tin Seng charts the journey. Historic and nationally significant buildings are among Singapore’s most important cultural assets, and the protection of its built heritage is an integral component of the nation’s overall urban planning strategy. The beginnings of the city’s preservation efforts can be traced back to 1950, when a committee was set up to look into the preservation of individual buildings and sites with historic value. In the ensuing decades, these efforts grew to encompass more concrete initiatives that emphasised both the conservation and preservation (see text box at the end of this article) of entire areas, along with a greater focus on heritage buildings and their relationship with the surrounding built environment. Early Colonial Efforts The idea of conserving and preserving Singapore’s built heritage…