Month: February 2017

Exploring Yangtze: Not visible but not invisible

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One and half years back, I explored the (now-closed) Yangtze Cinema. I posted something on Instagram, but did not think to write a post about it. I’m writing to share my experience of the place as well as my thoughts.

Yangtze Cinema is (was) a famous softcore porn cinema showing R-rated films, and the last of its kind in Singapore. Because it was unable to compete with the other cinemas in the late twentieth century, it needed to differentiate itself if it wanted to stay in business. They started with “skin flicks, of the light-hearted Asian variety. Art-house sauce from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea was gently introduced at first, became popular, and then that’s all they showed.”[1] The cinema is a known wanking-den for old men in the heart of squeaky clean Singapore.

I stepped into the complex. It was eerily quiet because most of its tenants had already moved out. The place resembled an L4d2 set with its empty corridors and shop spaces. The cinema was on the top floor. There was a small lounge area next to box office where guests could purchase snacks and drinks. Men were already sitting around, with cups of tea and coffee, waiting for the next show to begin. They were silent. The only noise came from the TV in that lounge area, playing a random film that everyone’s eyes were glued on. I don’t think they were actually interested in the film – it just gave them something to pass the time before they could enter the cinema halls.

I wonder what went through their minds as they waited. Was it anticipation? Loneliness? Yes. The place reeked of loneliness.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting so I stood around the box office as I looked around. It was a deeply uncomfortable experience because some of the men kept glancing over at me. Others blatantly stared. I was an object of their gaze and I could feel it on my skin. I was out of place there – too young, too energetic, too… female?  I realised the source of my discomfort was partially rooted in that fact that Yangtze was a male-dominated space. As a young female brought up in a largely patriarchal culture, men were not taught to not objectify with their gaze. Instead, we (as women and even girls) were taught not to put ourselves in positions where we would become the objects of said gaze. If he’s looking at you, it’s probably your fault for being there. I thought it was quite brave of me to venture into the highly gendered space of Yangtze Cinema, but my bravery had limits. I explored no further than the box office.

I pondered deeply on themes revolving around gender, sexual deviance, age, and its intersections with spatial practices. If these old men knew how to use the internet, would they still require the cinema? Why was the cinema male dominated? Did older women not require sexual gratification as well, or did their loneliness manifest in other spaces? Yangtze cinema occupies a physical space, in the heart of Singapore, and gave old men sexual comfort and refuge from loneliness. Singapore has been presented as a ‘clean and green’, morally conservative, city. However, dingy spaces like these expose the dark underbelly of lived experiences and deviant meanings that coexist amidst the superficial ‘cleanliness’ of a city.

According to Foucault, heterotopias are spaces of otherness that function under non-hegemonic conditions. I think this cinema qualifies as a Foucauldian heterotopia.

Yangtze cinema is a heterotopia of crisis and deviation where norms are suspended and the forbidden is embodied. The cinema is filled with mostly old (retired?) men, and functions as a space where certain deviant activities are performed out of sight. Being of old age, these men are in a state of ‘crisis’ in relation to society. Their activities are deviant insofar as it is not sanctioned by the conservative social and moral norms in Singapore. The cinema is a space that is isolated but not entirely public (a ticket is needed for entry). It is site for the men’s forbidden ritualistic practices where they are able to relieve themselves of loneliness and sexual frustration. The cinema also has a quasi-eternal character in relation to the changing urban landscapes of Singapore. Since it started showing R-rated films in the last twentieth century, not much has changed in terms of its spatial characteristics (i.e. its practices and appearance) – It is a relic of the past existing in the present.

Perhaps some find Yangtze a contradictory space that challenges hegemonic representations of Singapore. While I agree that it challenges hegemonic representations, I suggest that it is no contradiction. It merely exposes a different facet to Singapore. Like brothels, illegal rave parties and gambling dens, these facets of deviance all coexist but do not appear to those who do not seek it.

What is not visible is not invisible.

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Photo credit: Jing Hui, via Photo Journalist
[1] https://coconuts.co/singapore/features/curtains-yangtze-cinema-sticky-end-chinatowns-last-public-wanking-den/
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Closure and letting go: After 8 years

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Yesterday was a particularly emotional day for me because I ran my last race with a school jersey upon my back. There are no perfect beginnings, no perfect endings nor circumstances and conditions. It was a terrible race (and a terrible way to end my competitive running life), but there is much to be reflected on that transcends the results of the race. After 8 years of competitive running, it is time for some reflection.

My running journey began when I was 13. The Cedar cross country team exposed me to many values and lessons that shaped my identity today. Perseverance, integrity, diligence. To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. I don’t think I had much of a gift –if anything, I was far from gifted. I was just a relentless young girl always hungry for progress.

I moved on to other pursuits in JC when ‘progress’ took the form of other (non-sports related) things, but the lure of running eventually pulled me back in. In university, I was back at it again and with greater intensity than ever. I planned my life around my training schedule and weekly mileage. This included food –what to eat and when, sleeping times, arrangements with friends and ex-lovers, lessons etc. In retrospect, I cannot say that I regret the commitment but I often wonder how different my life would have been without running. Running taught me many things, but privileging it over other experiences meant lesser time for other adventures and learning opportunities.

It has been particularly difficult to consolidate and coherently pen down these very personal thoughts. There is just so much to think about and too much to say, but I’ve decided on two broad points:

  • Far from seeking answers, closure is about being at peace with the process and knowing I gave my all for what I was given to work with.
  • When it is time to let go of something, it will always be a process and a negotiation.

Running is a curious loop

I remember being 16. I had a fever, but desperately wanted to run my last race wearing the yellow Cedar singlet. I remember my vision blurring and my nose running during the run. My legs felt like jelly and my hands were cold. I remember the crunch of the gravel, each crunch a promise that the pain would be over soon.

The past weekend was so emotional for me because here I was, being close to 23. There were 7 years between my last race as a Cedar runner and my last race as a university undergraduate. Yet, so many things still remained the same. I ended the run with a terribly unsatisfactory timing. I could not feel my legs, my vision was blurry, my head felt like a balloon about to pop, and I wanted to throw up. I didn’t feel accomplished –I was not ready to let go of the sport with that kind of ending. Waves of disappointment, self-pity and anger crashed against me. Why did I have to have a viral infection for weeks before my last race? Why did I have to be given this body that gave me so many problems? How could everything loop back to the same anguish?

I don’t wish to rant about my health afflictions over the years and how it has affected my responsiveness to trainings. These details are irrelevant. I’m not trying to justify the poor and inconsistent performances I seem to always loop back to. My concern is not with offering answers for why I fall short of my expectations. There are so many questions that will be unanswered, but answers are not what I need. What I need is closure.

When the initial emotions of the race settled, I found a clear head to reflect. I remember that toward the end of the race, a friend yelled “You can do better than this!” He’s right. I can do better than to ask why I was given such circumstances in life. I can do better by rising above my bitterness. This means acknowledging that there are many things beyond my control. I realised that what you are given does not matter. What matters is what you give despite what you have been given.

Repeat it until I believe it: “I have given my all, for all that I was given.” That has to be enough at some point.

Letting go: A dialectic

Running has been constitutive of my character and personality. I have learnt to be alone with myself without being lonely. I have been taught (the painful way) that effort can sometimes betray you because we exist as mortals without perfect knowledge nor complete control over our circumstances. I have also learnt to love pain – Pain is sometimes a promise of better things to come. Nothing worth having ever came easy, and if it’s easy it certainly isn’t worth doing. However, a wise person once said, “Love, even when it is most sincere, is part of the shackle.” Love binds us to things, and this can be either a boon or a bane depending on the nature of the relationship. When the relationship becomes toxic, it is time to let it go. In an earlier post, I wrote about letting running ‘kill’ you (in a metaphorical sense), but not consume you.

Letting go means not giving it the power to consume me. Letting go of it as a primary source of meaning, I learn to not build my life around it. I learn to make sense of my worth without attaching it to specific notions of progress.

Letting go is a process, and it is a bittersweet dialectic –a non-linear trajectory involving a negotiation between two poles:

  1. Being entirely indifferent and apathetic towards the role of running – this is not something I would want for myself, because running after all, is very dear to me.
  2. Clinging to the familiar routines and emotional investment –this doesn’t seem like a viable option either if it has become an unhealthy relationship.

The product of this dialectic is the ongoing process of letting go –the changing meaning of ‘running’ and a journey of self-improvement. This does not mean that I’m never going to run again. Instead, meanings continue to overlay and the symbolism of running evolves. It is characterised neither by apathy nor fervent passions.

The smell of the track will still trigger mixed feelings –it has been home to a whole spectrum of emotions for many years Above all, it is a familiar, comforting scent. It will remind me of a long-time friend that I’ve shared much of my life with. Like every healthy friendship, it should provide me the space for growth and grow with me.

The two metaphors you need to get through life

We are all on bicycles, pedaling furiously. We are unable to stop. The moment we do, we crash or fall, and worse –others pass us and we are left behind.

We live in a society that demands so much from its individuals: to be more productive, more prepared, more of this and less of that. We were born to strive from cradle to grave, and we were taught to ceaselessly hurl ourselves forward if we wanted to be ‘valuable’. What is our ‘worth’? We place our worth in tangible and intangible things. Impermanent things, all the same.

What is the relationship between identity and worth? Three weeks of poor health, disrupted routines, immense disappointment and anxiety has led me to reflect deeply on this subject. I was made painfully aware of the tendency to build my identity around the things I can (and cannot) do or achieve. What I could do defined my identity and what I was worth. If I ceased to do what I used to be able to do, everything crumbled. On that note, I found myself contemplating the fragility of ‘worth’ and asking questions like ‘How can we make sense of our lives in such a demanding world?’ More fundamentally, when we strip away all the demands and pressures that our society exerts on us, we are left with a more profound question of ‘What does it even mean to ‘be’?’

I return to the original metaphor that I began with –the bicycle. It is a bleak metaphor for existence, perhaps paralleling Weber’s iron cage and the imagery of workers being merely a cog in the bureaucratic machine. This post will offer two alternative metaphors for getting through life: the river, and the mountain.

Before I explain these metaphors, allow me to borrow some concepts from Buddhism that I find very useful in supporting these metaphors. The concepts are ‘impermanence’ and ‘emptiness’. Firstly, life is suffering because we cling to impermanent, fleeting things. These impermanent things range from whether or not we run a sub-10 minute 2.4 to whether or not we get on the Dean’s list. If we tie our identity (who we are) to impermanent things (things that we can easily lose in an instant), who are we without these things? We are empty. This brings me to the second concept of ‘emptiness’. Everything is ‘empty’. At this point, I find that many people misunderstand me. ‘Emptiness’ is not a void, nor is it intended to be negative. It has no value in itself, and is all-encompassing. Our existences are ‘empty’ not because life has no form. But instead, life has no permanent form.

River

Earlier last year, I got a tattoo of a great white shark on my ribs. It was supposed to symbolise strength and being forward-moving. The great white shark breathes by ram ventilation –it has to keep swimming in order to breathe. I was captivated by the idea of always being on the move in order to survive, and I still am. It is important to me to keep moving along, but it should not be reduced to mindless thrashing. Moving forward and striving for things that I care about is only part of the story. It is also important to flow.

The metaphor of the river is perfect here –it is not entirely directionless, after all, all rivers lead to the sea. Yet, it forces nothing. The flow of a river is neither a push nor a pull. It simply is. Similarly, what it means to ‘be’ is to flow. This means not clinging on to things that are beyond my control, and learning to let go.

Mountain

I consider myself to be more emotionally volatile than people realise. This is why the metaphor of the mountain is very helpful when I am coping with negative feelings or desires. The mountain is not shaken during the storm, and it stands indifferent to all the seasons. It may be shrouded in clouds, but the presence of the clouds do not change what it is. The mountain simply lets the clouds come and go. This is exactly like how I want to treat my feelings and emotions. I let them come, and then drift away. Like everything else, it passes.

This post has asked ‘What does it mean to ‘be’?’ and I wish to end off  by clarifying a few things: I do not claim to hold all the answers, nor do I have answers to metaphysical questions regarding our higher purpose in life. More importantly, this post serves as a reminder to myself (and to share with any readers out there) that we are formless and persistently clouded by impermanent things. Being a very anxious individual, I am fully aware of the difficulties in simply ‘being’. I too, am easily overwhelmed by emotions, circumstances and desires that cloud my vision of what we really are –i.e. we are fundamentally the same, ‘empty’, beings traversing the universe. However, I hope to make use of these metaphors to make sense of and cope with impermanence. I believe it is the first step I can take to nurture healthy mental states and grow as an individual.