Tan Pin PIn (left) and Debbie Ding (right) on the location set of "Yangtze Scribbler".

Her engaging tales on the uniquely Singaporean way of life captured the hearts and minds of all who have watched Singapore Gaga and Invisible City. When the National Library asked filmmaker Tan Pin Pin to make short films for the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), she seemed mildly surprised as ‘most government organisations don’t expect self-reflection!’ She examines the themes and memes of national identity, memory as well as nostalgia to come up with two videos Yangtse Scribbler and remember for SMP. Arts Librarian Michelle Heng coax out some hidden memories from the enigmatic director…

Michelle Heng (MH): First off, what are your memories of the National Library? Or rather, which library did you visit as a child or teenager/young adult and what do you remember about the physical space and/or the people you met there as well as the type of books/films you were reading/watching then?

Tan Pin Pin (PP): I visited the Toa Payoh Library and Marine Parade Library – mostly as a teenager because that was when I was old enough to take a bus on my own to visit these libraries. It was wonderful to be in a library … and I recall borrowing more books than I could read! I must have borrowed my siblings’ library cards so that I could bring home more books.

As for the National Library, I remember I was so surprised to find they had music scores and classical music books there – it was the first time finding new parts of the library for me because I didn’t know they carried music scores.

One more thing I recall about the National Library was The Singapore Resource Centre upstairs. At first, I didn’t know it existed because I was mostly downstairs reading but one day I went upstairs and discovered this place full of books about Singapore and Southeast Asia. One of the books that struck me most at the Stamford Road library was Marjorie Doggett’s “Characters of light: [a guide to the buildings of Singapore]”.

(Note: Author and photographer Marjorie Doggett whose book captured images of many colonial buildings that have since been demolished was featured in “Invisible City” (2007), a documentary about documenteurs driven by curiosity to discover shards of the Republic’s memory and history through their personal records.)

MH: What was the genesis your short film ‘Yangtze Scribbler’ and how did you get to know about Debbie Ding and her documentation of the graffiti?

PP: I came to know of Debbie’s work through her Substation exhibition (” The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline”) and when I went to the website about her exhibition, I saw archives of graffiti – that’s when I thought “Yangtze Scribbler” would be a great documentary.

It’s great that Debbie is documenting graffiti – they’re like cave drawings which were used to mark one’s territory. And the idea of the Yangtze Scribbler’s ‘cave markings’ ties in well with the National Library’s effort to document different memories. I wanted the audience to connect the notion of cave drawings to the stream of ideas depicted in this repetitive set of graffiti seen in different places around Singapore.

MH: Did you think it was a ‘void-deck’ communication of sorts for some unknown individuals or a ‘roving exhibit’ of one person’s public scribblings?

PP: It could be both. On one hand, these drawings looked like a sign of communication and on the other hand, it looked like someone was trying to leave their stamp.

MH: “Yangtze Scribbler” sounds uncannily like the late graffiti-artist Tsang Tsou Choi aka ‘Emperor of Kowloon’ who for 50 years wrote on walls, pillars and poles in a unique calligraphic style repetitive, almost obsessive lines about his purported royal ancestry, but whose works eventually achieved fame and national recognition as ‘cultural heritage’ . In your opinion, how does public vandalism become a mural masterpiece? And what does it say about our ‘strait-laced’ society?

PP: They are both repetitive but the ‘Emperor of Kowloon’ seemed to be doing it more obsessively than the Yangtze Scribbler.

Graffiti will always be vandalism in the eyes of the law both in Singapore and in Hong Kong. I think it is only recognised as more than that when people notice it – it is people’s reception to graffiti that makes a difference.

MH: How do you think the “Yangtze Scribbler” ties in with documentation for the Singapore Memory Project (SMP)?

PP: People deposit their memories with the SMP portal so maybe the “Yangtze Scribbler” is also depositing memories in his own stomping ground. Similarly Debbie Ding is an archivist in the same way NLB is too, working to geotag, taxomise and label her recordings online.

MH: What inspired you to tap on the thesaurus as an inspiration for your animation “remember”?

PP: “remember” was one of the short films that the National Library picked from amongst a few that I proposed. I thought that an animation using words would be quite unusual. A thesaurus offers many shades of meaning for a single word so I thought it was an interesting way of investigating and probing the ‘(Singapore) memory’ topic.

MH: You once mentioned in an interview that “different parts of Singapore hold different memories for different people”, and that for all its alien urban semblance, “Singapore teems with emotions and feelings beneath the surface,” what emotional maps did you find challenging to navigate while making “remember”?

PP: I had to look into myself to find out why I needed to remember and why I am a filmmaker.

MH: If the Singapore Memory Project metamorphosed into a gaming machine, somewhat like the ‘ UFO Catcher’ machine dispensing soft toys seen in gaming arcades, what memories would you try to recapture and hold on to? Which ‘prized memory’ would that be and what price would you pay for that?

PP: I don’t want to try to recapture memories though I am curious about the past. What’s past is past. The present is the most important.

“Yangtze Scribbler” premieres on 30 March at www.SingaporeMemory.sg. at our first Block Party at Toa Payoh, where you’ll be also experiencing other commissioned works by the Singapore Memory Project.

Michelle Heng
National Library (Arts)

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