Singapore in a Thousand Guises: An Interview with Toh Hun Ping
As urban expansion continues to eat into old, enduring spaces, films offer greater value in terms of immortalising some of these spaces. Visual artist Toh Hun Ping has emerged as a strident voice in promoting our understanding of these lost spaces. Over the years, as a visual artist, Hun Ping has developed a stable of video works and short films that involve various forms of image manipulation. He is one of the most innovative and inventive contemporary video artists in Singapore and his works have been screened at international experimental film festivals including Bangkok and Paris.
The Singapore Film Locations Archive (sgfilmlocations.com) is an extensive online resource documenting all the films that have been shot on-location in Singapore, either entirely or partially, from the turn of the 20th century to the 1990s.He recently had a retrospective of his video and short film works showcased at the 27th International Film Festival.
Ahead of his talk ‘A Thousand S’pores’ on 10 Jan at the National Library Building Plaza, SINdie spoke to Hun Ping to uncover the extent of his knowledge about locations and places here in Singapore, as they have been represented in various films.
You have an exhaustive list of films in your archive. How did you go about compiling it? How long did you take? Did you get the support of organisations in this effort?
I began this research into Singapore's history of film production about five years ago. Early in the research, I read Jan and Yvonne Ng Uhde's 'Latent Images' and Raphael Millet's 'Singapore Cinema', and they both come with filmographies, of what was produced in, shot in or had referred to Singapore. I started from there, especially Raphael's list, which is already rather exhaustive.
I added to the list by doing my own research -- scouring the internet and film archives' online catalogue (eg. Hong Kong Film Archive), browsing old local newspapers, reading books and essays on Singapore cinema, Southeast Asian cinema, Asian cinema, world cinema, looking for traces of "Singapore" in film. I limited the scope to films released in the 20th century, ie. 1900 to 1999.
I did almost everything independently, though I received SG50/iremembersg funding from NLB to do the Singapore Film Locations Archive (SFLA) website. Before that, I run 'SG Film Hunter', a personal blog on Singapore film locations.
Along the way, I got to know Ben Slater, Warren Sin (NMS), Jan and Yvonne, people at Asian Film Archive, Wong Han Min & Su Zhangkai (both are movie memorabilia collectors). They shared what they knew with me.
Have you watched most of these films?
The filmography in my SFLA website includes both existing and lost films. I have watched a majority of the films that are still existing. Watched everything that are in my video collection.
Are some of the older films (first half of the century) available for viewing or did you just get your information off written records?
Yes, some are available for viewing. Eg. 'Bring 'Em Back Alive' (1932), Samarang (1933), Booloo (1938), Tay Garnett's Tradewinds (1938) are on DVD or available for download from the Internet. I shared screengrabs of the films in my website and wrote about their filming locations in Singapore. Some of the WWII Japanese propaganda are also on DVD. Aselection of the early local Malay films produced by Shaw Brothers before 1950 were on VCD.
For films which are lost or not available for easy access (eg. films at BFI), I got the information off the archives' catalogue, old local newspapers, old movie trade magazines, and books/essays written about them. As far as possible, I provide the source of the information in my website, under 'Further Reading' in each of the posts.
Why the fascination with sg locations in film?
I was practicing as a video artist/experimental filmmaker before I got into this research. Had wanted to make a new video work about my parents in their youth. The narrative concerns the making of a film set in Singapore 1950s to '70s, with the filmmaker scouting for acting talent and locations, ie. a film within a film. I thought of appropriating old films for the parts where the filmmaker goes location-scouting, so I began collecting old films made in Singapore.
As the collection expanded and the more I watched, the more I found the films fascinating in themselves. Also came to realise that not much is known about them. I thus diverted from what I was doing originally (making my video piece), to do research, write and attempt to fill in the gaps of this history (Singapore film history and history of places in Singapore through film).
What are some of the most fascinating film locations that have already disappeared?
The kampongs and the former coastline of Singapore. Lost to urban redevelopment and land reclamation.
Massive transformation on the coastlines of Singapore. Kampong Siglap (now a condo), Kampong Padang Terbakar (now a golf course and Changi Business Park), Kampong Tanjong Kling (now Jurong Shipyard), Kampong Koo Chye (once a "floating village", now Boon Keng HDB estate). From watching the films, you realise that kampongs do not all look alike (and they are not "slums" as some would like to claim), many have distinct terrains, landscape settings, and architectural characteristics (eg. ornamentation).
It was just fifty to thirty years ago when they still existed. Now all gone without a trace. Little documentation as well. Many films from the golden age of Malay cinema were shot in these places.
Which film have you watched that, in your opinion, offers the most surprising and shocking impression of Singapore? And why?
I'm tempted to write 'Saint Jack', but it has been and is getting the attention and exposure it deserves, so I should mention some less known but noteworthy titles.
'God or Dog' (1997) by Hugo Ng. It's subversive, dirty and thrilling all at once.
'Jiran Sekampong' (1966) by Hussain Haniff. Amir Muhammad has compared this with '12 Storeys'. I haven't got my hands on a English-subtitled version, so I merely watched the film with a rough idea of the narrative. Set in a hilly Malay kampong, there's a scene of a voyeur peeping at his neighbour through his binoculars and then walking over to rape her on her bed, followed by a match cut to the victim's boyfriend prostrating, performing the sholat. That left a deep impression. The audacity to do that; mixing voyeurism, exploitation, gender relations, power and religion all in the space surrounding a cut.
Why were the five films selected for state of motion out of your extensive list on your website?
It was a collective decision between Kent Chan, Kay Wee and myself. Last year for State of Motion, we did the locations of Cathay-Keris local Malay films. For this year, Kay Wee wanted to explore foreign productions shot on location in Singapore. I came up with a list of titles for them to choose from, some better known than the rest.
'Saint Jack' is a must pick; it would be a major draw. 'In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia' was not one of the better known titles in Shohei Imamura's oeuvre, so I thought why not. Not many knew about 'The Wild Eye', but it's a good film (it's reflexive and well-crafted) and deserves more attention. 'Ricochet' is in because of David Bowie and his passing last year (the politics behind the making of the film is intriguing for us as well). Kent Chan suggested 'Ring of Fury' and we thought it's high time the audience here watch this once-banned-for-23 years film again, especially bringing it on for the younger folks among us (the last screening was more than ten years ago, I think). Though it's a local film, but the image of Singapore it portrays is unfamiliar, uncanny and strange. Hence the theme for this year's edition - 'Through Stranger Eyes' (Kent came up with it).
The HDB flat is the most ubiquitous 'character' in contemporary Singapore films. Which films do you think have presented HDB flats in the most interesting way?
I don't suppose I'm ready to answer this question because I've not watched and examined closely enough of films shot in HDB flats. Merely more familiar with the titles made in and before 1999. I watched Abdul Nizam's 'Koridor' at the SGIFF recently. The final episode 'Episod Terakhir' is rather a critical take on HDB-living and neighbourly relations in Singapore public housing. A very much overlooked series of films.
What other existing locations in Singapore do you think will be interesting to feature in films?
I'd choose Pulau Sekudu (Frog Island), a rocky islet off Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin. It was a popular film location used by local filmmakers from 1950s to '70s. 'Hang Tuah' was shot there. So was 'Hang Jebat' and even 'Ring of Fury'.
If the film narrative calls for a scene where the protagonist ponders over his existence or contemplates revenge (there are boulders facing the sea to sit on), or a location for a battle or fight scene in natural, maze-like settings, Pulau Sekudu it is.
Or the crumbling Haw Par Beach Villa on Coney Island. 'Wit's End' (1969) was shot there. I dare filmmakers to make a movie there, where the walls are cracking, floors are falling apart and the mangroves surrounding the villa on the verge of devouring it.
Can you share a teaser about what you are going to do discuss in your upcoming talk?
It's titled "a thousand s'pores". It would be a romp through the slew of "Singapores" -- (mis-)representations, allusions, real or imagined -- that I've tried to tracked down (I'm still in the midst of discovering) from the history of cinema.
Interview by Jeremy Sing
Back for a second year, the Asian Film Archive's State of Motion (SOM) Tour bring participants on a bus tour to locations featured in 5 vintage films that have featured Singapore. Commissioned art works are featured at each of the locations.
Get your SOM17 guided bus tour tickets now at som17tours.peatix.comand visit www.stateofmotion.sg for more details!