visual excursion (may 2017)

SAM @ 8Q

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Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

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Reflections on Siem Reap

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Over the weekend, I went on a trip to Siem Reap. This post documents some of my thoughts, observations and reflections from the trip.

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Anxiety and introspection

This trip marked my first time flying, transporting myself to and fro airports, and spending a day/night alone in a foreign country by myself. For most of my peers, they would say that it’s no big deal – especially for people who have gone on exchange. I’ve also been told that it is liberating to be able to wander as you please, but for someone like me who has been plagued by anxiety problems over the years, unfamiliar environments are generally far from liberating.

I am someone who mentally rehearses a food order while waiting in line and I get nervous when I have to talk to strangers for an extended period of time, so you can imagine that this trip was a real step for me.

The anxious individual is always a crucible for worry, with thoughts situated in events of the past and scenarios of the future. Unfamiliarity of the territory makes every dark alley more sinister and every stranger more scheming. It amplifies the need for well-thought exit plans and contingencies. The dangers need not be an objective reality, but a subjective one clouded by our fears and clinging to attachments e.g. wealth and health etc. Despite taking precautions, there is that big ‘what if’ lurking in the background.

Even when I was wandering alone, I still texted some friends and kept in touch with my family along the way. I think this connectivity was really helpful in alleviating my anxiety. Yet, why do we turn to the external in the face of anxiety? So that we feel less alone? What’s wrong with being alone?

When you fully immerse yourself in the present moment and the impermanence of what we perceive as our reality, it brings comfort. Yet, it is so much more difficult to practice this than to simply revert to the tried and tested habit of finding comfort in other things and other people. Instinctively, we turn to the flicker of our devices by scrolling our Instagram feed or typing a text to a family member.

Why do we struggle to find comfort and contentment introspectively?

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This trip has also revealed the true restlessness of human nature. We crave travel, we thirst for adventure. But even when we are on an adventure, we still derive instant gratification that comes with the flickering screen of our devices, a symbol for connectivity. We are restless souls that cannot be in the present. We consume endlessly and forget how to be alone with ourselves in the present moment.

When HC left for Phnom Penh, I wandered the streets alone – ate my meals alone and did not attempt to make conversation with lone travellers. I was made aware of what it truly means to be comfortable with being alone. It is not just surviving (physically) by yourself, but also being at peace when you let go of all the tethers to your social networks.

When you are on holiday, everything you do is outside of your regular routine. Flux and changes in stimuli from moment to moment become dizzying. Michael Brendan Doughtery asks us to recall the last time “there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysterious sympathy of existence itself.” Can you enjoy a sight without immediately whipping out your phone to post it on Instagram? Can you savour a meal without having to document it on Snapchat? Can you people-watch without texting a friend? Basically, can you focus on one damn thing at a time?

No, you cannot.

I too, cannot, but I will try harder.

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Transience and beauty

During this time, I also observed the transient nature of tourists.

I was at the Night Market/Pub Street area and it was filled with tourists. They are a collective of individual lives and stories but together, they form the body of people that is indifferent to the specificities of each human life. In the crowd of both locals and tourists, I blend in, and yet I do not belong. Who truly belongs in that space? Who gets to decide the criteria for belonging? There is something humbling about being by yourself in a place that is not truly your own; where your presence/disappearance is insignificant.

These tourists stream in after dark. Like what Kazuo Ishiguro writes in Artist of the floating world and its pleasure quarters, “the best things… are put together of a night and vanish with the morning.” The transitory nature of the night has bittersweet nodes – beauty can be captured in particular time-slices, but it is also ever-drifting. It is the same with sightseeing spots. People desperately try to immortalise their memories using cameras and paintings, but perhaps that misses the point of its beauty. Can beauty ever be eternal? In these spaces, we are all pretenders – pretending that the beauty is indeed eternal when it is in fact fleeting and fragile.

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It was a really short trip, but it gave me much loads of food for thought and inspiration. I think I have raised more questions than arrived at conclusions, but if anything, it has shown me that there is still much self-improvement to work on.

Exploring Yangtze: Not visible but not invisible


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.

Photo credit: Jing Hui, via Photo Journalist