• Dan Koh

unhemming the old SG suit

Updated: Feb 8

"Cina wurung, Londo durung, Jawa tanggung." – description of Kapitan Cina Tan Jin Sing, quoted in Peter Carey, Destiny: The Life of Prince Diponegoro of Yogyakarta 1785–1855 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014)

i'm putting up at a friend's place at changi—a restful, tropical, and colonial building—and through him i discovered this series of fashion photography, "Following Suit: Old Singapore Revisited in Style", published by the Peak Singapore magazine in 2015, that annus horribilis of #SG50. the (unfortunately uncredited) photographer had superimposed new images of a pretty, skinny, white boy in slim-fit suits upon historical photos, taken between 1956 and 1984, of eight $ingapore landmarks—five existent (though mostly unrecognisable, or only with their shells "conserved"/"preserved") and three expunged.


inspired by the seminal Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History, edited by Alfian Sa'at [whose cowritten play Merdeka 獨立 சுதந்திரம் (2019, #SG200) this anthology is a companion to]; Faris Joraimi, who i'm convinced is a decidedly postcolonial reincarnation of scribe-scholars like Munshi Abdullah; and Taipei-based Singaporean historian Sai Siew Min, my thoroughly colonised mind started reflecting on the politics and complications of historical desire. if i could ever afford it, i would like to live like the colonials did here, primarily because their vernacular architecture (i'm not talking about the Swan & Maclaren blockbuster stuff) displayed a harmony with nature, respect for privacy and space, and love of beauty—it goes without saying, of course, that this luxury was built upon massacres, slavery and indentured labour, systemic and ongoing racism, and tremendous amounts of (mostly unaccounted for) suffering.


as a grandchild of a cook for the british men, and maid to the british women, i grew up in a household where english was the predominant language, where my grandmother (the former itinerant maid, who even gave birth in what's today the Istana) refused to teach me Hainanese, my paternal mother tongue. i grew up desiring whiteness (whitehood? whitedom.) and still do fetishise power, fragility, and privilege (are these not what that is, essentially, in most?). generations of brain-bleaching (my parents were both english teachers) have come together to produce my very complicated relationship with dreaming in a tongue my bones want to reject; with desiring to be in countries, or in places, or with people whose borders are very clearly demarcated, still; with seeing buildings and nature fall exponentially faster before my eyes, so that nearly none of my childhood memories are attached to places i can ever revisit, and as a result i hardly look up when i walk around, for fear of falling in love with more bricks and mortar and trees that must fall, for cardiac self-protection, for refusal to remember how things used to be, even in my short time here.


but then i come across a coconut fallen on the floor, a cat scampering away from crows, and i look up on my solitary, masked walks and recall something, somewhere. some other time ... in the meantime, in between time, here are some pairings of the Peak Singapore's photographs with some newspaper clippings, mostly. till Merdeka 獨立 சுதந்திரம்:


P/S: if anyone knows who the photographer is, please drop me a line. an artist friend would like to know too.



FULLERTON BUILDING, 1956


"From yesterday members of the public were denied the use of the only life [sic] at present working at Fullerton Building ... The lift, says a notice outside, is solely for use of members of the Singapore Club [an all-male, exclusively European members' club, established 1861].


Hundreds of people said nasty things this morning when they found themselves baulked by the Malay lift attendant who shook his head at them, [and] muttered 'Singapore Club orang seja.' ...


'We want to bring the Singapore Club to its pre-war exclusiveness, you know,' Mr. Stewart Cook added."


Free Press Staff Reporter, "S’pore Club Ban Public from Lift", Singapore Free Press, 29 March 1947, 1, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/freepress19470329-1.2.16.



NATIONAL THEATRE, 1984


"It may be because the people want to give the lie to the familiar jibe that Singapore is an island of barbarians who live for only one thing — to make money quickly and, if possible, ruthlessly.


"For years we have heard people say that Singapore is a cultural backwater — a place which lives by rooking tourist [sic] and even one another and by trading in sin.


"Now that we are running this island ourselves, it is natural for us to want to explode this humiliating myth."


– Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam, speech at the opening of a friendly badminton match to raise money for the National Theatre Fund, Singapore Badminton Hall, 21 January 1960, quoted in "'We Want to Explode This Myth'—Mr. R", Straits Times, 21 January 1960, 4, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19600121-1.2.58.



ARAB STREET, 1960


"Slavery, [Eric] Williams argues [in Capitalism and Slavery (1944)], was abolished in much of the British empire in 1833 because doing so at that time was in Britain’s economic self-interest – not because the British suddenly discovered a conscience. ...


In great detail, he lays out the scale of the wealth and industry that was created in Britain ... It was all this wealth created by slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries that powered the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, Williams argued. ...


'A racial twist has been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery,' he writes."


– Donna Ferguson, "Groundbreaking Work on Slave Economy Finally Back on UK Shelves", Guardian/Observer, 23 January 2022, theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/23/eighty-years-late-groundbreaking-work-on-slave-economy-is-finally-published-in-uk.



NEW WORLD AMUSEMENT PARK, 1979


"With Lantai T. Pinkie [T. Pinkie's Floor, 1996] I think I remember the early fifties or the late sixties when I lived in Serangoon Road and at night I was always at the New World [Amusement Park]. To put it nicely, at that time, in the New World, I too was one of the 'gangsters' frequenting my 'base' around Maude Road, Syed Alwi Road, Olwen Road, Kerbau Road, Hindu Road, amongst others. This area is a whole busy world unto itself with hotels and the entertainment district, and there were gangsters all over! I still vividly recall this world.


"I was in this world in an unconscious manner and I do remember Su'aidin who was the chief gangster at that time. From my reactions and illusions he headed a group that struck terror and was greatly feared. What I most remember is this gang called the 'Gang Jambatan Merah' (Red Bridge Gang). It operated around Newton in Singapore where a lot of Bawean people lived. Officially or unofficially, Su'aidin had power over the entertainment district, like the Eastern Joget, which was located right in front of the Victoria Institution, my old school.


"At the New World, both inside and around it, especially at the Joget Bunga Tanjung, I had a specific task: I had to collect money. That's how I got to know very well the lives of these joget dancers. Once a week, or each time after the joget dancer finished her dance, she would be paid, and I would collect a part of that payment ... I can't remember how much now ... as protection money – remember I was one of the gang – that was my duty."


– A. Samad Said, "Interview with National Laureate A. Samad Said", interview by Solehah Ishak, in T. Pinkie's Floor: A Nostalgic Play (Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia, 2010), 120–21.




SENTOSA MUSICAL FOUNTAIN, 1982


"[Dr Bill Frankland, imprisoned by the Japanese on Pulau Blakang Mati], and many others, would refer to Blakang Mati as 'Hell Island', and there is more than a hint of irony that this name has a medical derivation from the 19th century. ... It is believed the name was given by settlers on the island when, in 1840, many died from malaria; the few who were barely alive fled to the safety of the mainland from this 'island of death'. A military hospital, the first in Singapore, was opened on Blakang Mati in 1909. I had a very short life, closing in 1912 ...


Blakang Mati had more recently served as an animal quarantine facility, for goats imported to provide food for men of 3 (Indian) Corps. During 1941, several thousand goats had been imported to the island, but as some displayed signs of rinderpest, all had been slaughtered by government veterinary officers."


– Paul Watkins, "Blakang Mati: Hell Island", in From Hell Island To Hay Fever (Bath: Brown Dog Book, 2018).




CHANGI VILLAGE, 1972


"In October [2021] the Observer revealed the first hard evidence that British officials secretly deployed black propaganda in the 1960s. The material purported to come from exiled nationalist Indonesians. In fact it was written by Foreign Office psychological warfare experts working from a comfortable chalet in Singapore in cooperation with MI6. For five decades the Foreign Office has denied any involvement in the murders."


– Paul Lashmar, Nicholas Gilby, and James Oliver, "UK’s Propaganda Leaflets Inspired 1960s Massacre of Indonesian Communists", Guardian/Observer, 23 January 2022, theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/23/uks-propaganda-leaflets-inspired-1960s-massacre-of-indonesian-communists.




CAPITOL CINEMA, 1978


one of my fave films, and the "first war picture made by a Malayan film company", is Sarjan Hassan (1958), directed first by Filipino Lamberto V. Avellana [Anak Dalita (1956)], then completed by Datuk P. Ramlee – a hint, of course, of how truly international (because regional is international too) the golden age of Malayan cinema (roughly 1947–1972, but really the 1950s) was. it's a pretty dark and pioneering war film, sure. as Jaffar Mali of the Straits Times pointed out, Avellana staged the finale battle with "grim realism". though the Singapore Free Press criticised the entire story as "terribly weak", it's the first two thirds i'm most drawn to, when the titular character, an orphan played by Ramlee, who's doubly left behind in his adoptive kampong by the Royal Malay Regiment, is mocked for his supposed cowardice, alone as the only grown man remaining in the village, and desperately in mutual love with Ms. Salmah (played by Saadiah – whatever happened to her?). so they hang around and sing songs; it's down time, the calm before the storm: nothing happens, everything does.


besides announcing the arrival of Datuk Jins Shamsuddin, Sarjan Hassan is also notable as a – and this is my completely unproven, probably wishful-thinking theory – a tribute to and resurrection of war hero Lieutenant Adnan Saidi [This theory has been rubbished, it is almost certainly inspired by Kapten Hassan Haji Othman, see this video commentary—Ed.]. the glorious B&W film premiered in August 1958, and there was a charity screening supporting the Royal Malay Regiment's Welfare Fund held at the Capitol Theatre then – the Regiment assisted in production. seared into my brain, here is a timeless clip of the same song, "Tunggu Sekejap" (composed by Ramlee – the most emotional, i think, from his stunningly diverse discography), sang thrice from different parts of the initial sections by multiple characters. i love the infectious and sweet melancholy, the visual blacker-than-blackness, yearning ("Jangan mengenang orang jauh"), everyday life amidst war, communal singing, shots through windows and doors, a distant, shy smile, and the rain the rain the rain, separating us, bringing us together. feel free to Google the lyrics and Google Translate them if needed, or just feel it lah. let's wait awhile: youtu.be/E_AHSci6hhA [Faris recommends Rafeah Buang's cover from 1973. It conveys a "conveys a different kind of desperate sadness", he writes.—Ed.].



STAMFORD HOUSE, 1983


"It is alleged by the prosecution ... that on the night of Mar. 12 or 13, [Captain Douglas] Marr [Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, Singapore Fortress Command] was driving a car and stopped in Stamford Road where he invited the youth, Sudin bin Daud, to enter. ... he then took Sudin to his room on the ground floor, where an offence under Section 377 (a) of the Penal Code is alleged to have been committed. ...


[Marr's lawyer Mr. Walters]: It's a word ['brothels'] Singaporeans don't like, but we know what you mean. You know that the padang and Stamford Road area is an area for male prostitutes?


[witness Major Castor, Assistant Provost Marshal, Malaya Command]: Yes.


[Walters]: You know of the order that all soliders are not to ride in rickshaws with male Asiatics?


[Castor]: This is an old order, promulgated long ago. They are not allowed to ride in rickshaws with male Asiatics not in uniform."


– "Officer of Military Police Charged", Straits Times, 16 April 1941, 12, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19410416-1.2.89.


"'About 11 or 12 p.m.' [Marr] said. 'I thought of going home, but at the back of my mind was some idea of getting at the root of the homosexual type of vice and I thought, as it transpires very foolishly, that it would be a good idea to question a catamite and to try and find out to what extent soldiers in different regiments were involved.'"


– "Officer Acquitted in District Court Case", Straits Times, 17 April 1941, 12, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19410417-1.2.94.