Tuesday, November 14, 2017

So Your Character is From Singapore ... Featuring Camillia @ Twenty Three Pages and Jia @ Film & Nuance

It's time for this week's So Your Character is ... Post! This is a weekly segment where I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country or having a disability. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last week's  So Your Character is from Bangladesh ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!

Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts are as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.

(None of the Images are Mine)

Hi everyone! My name is Camillia and I am a book blogger over on Twenty Three Pages. I live in Singapore and I am a journalist. I am currently doing an internship with my country’s flagship newspaper, The Straits Times and I am waiting to go to university soon where I will pursue journalism. In my spare time, besides reading, I love to write poetry and to binge watch the SacconeJolys and TV shows that have ended years ago.

Hey guys! I’m Jia Wei from Singapore and I live in Bukit Timah which is in the Central-West region of Singapore. Tennis is my first love and I live for indie and independent films. I love watching and reviewing movies as well. I love Literature, reading literary criticism, listening to jazz and rap, and hanging out with friends. I started university in August. 😊

You can find my blog at www.filmandnuance.wordpress.com where I write film criticism and movie reviews. Sometimes, I write poetry, book reviews and talk about anything from music to life. Thanks Victoria for having this multi-national/multi-cultural platform that not only creates characters that are a more accurate reflection of their social/cultural habitus but also raises awareness and promotes diversity.

What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?
Camillia: This is going to sound really weird but Singapore is very well known for being clean, green and strict. So our country is very clean. We have rubbish bins every few feet and you actually get fined pretty badly for tossing rubbish on the street and littering. That’s something I feel is quite unique because I’ve never really been to another country that is so clean. I mean I’m sure there are but I just have yet to see it.

We also have a lot of greenery here. We may be a concrete jungle but our government has done a lot to incorporate greenery and nature into everything, which in my opinion makes everything so pretty.

Finally, Singapore will fine you for literally everything. There are even fines for drinking alcohol in a public place after 10pm and chewing gum. Gum is actually not allowed here. It’s not sold and you get fined if you’re caught with it.

Jia: Singapore is unique in the sense that we’re still trying to determine and define our true identity. We’re a young country without the experiences of real crises that adequately challenges and forges the identity of a Singaporean collective and narrative. I’ll just say it right now that I would really much prefer to be living in Europe for many personal reasons but there are things to be grateful for living here. Marina Bay Sands Hotel (pictured) has replaced the Merlion statue as the public face of Singapore and it’s a cool place to check out. There are nice restaurants and bars to check out in Clark Quay and Orchard.

Tell me about your country's environment. What are some of your favorite places?
Camillia: Singapore is very hot and humid so being outdoors especially in the afternoon can sometimes be a nightmare. We are also a very small country (a tiny red dot on the world map) so we don’t exactly have the most amount of space.

That said though, I think we have made use of what space we have quite well. One of my favorite places to go is the beach with my family or sometimes the airport, which I know is really strange. I love the airport because all my life my family has gone there for meals and it just holds a very special place in my heart. Our airports also happen to be one of the best in the world so that helps.

I also really like Gardens by the Bay. It’s basically this huge greenhouse and flower dome and we usually go there with my grandma who loves plants. We used to take my grandpa too when he was alive so I really love it there even though it’s very touristy.

Jia: It’s pretty clean over here in general. There’s lots of trees wherever you go. I love the tennis court because I play lots of Tennis when I can. Clark Quay is pretty cool for its nightlife, bars and clubs and restaurants. Blu Jazz is my favorite bar. Orchard Road is the Fifth Avenue of Singapore and it’s pretty cool place to hang once in a while. Paulaner is a nice place with great German food and beer. Jones the grocer at Mandarin Hotel has some chill vibes and Din Tai Fung (pictured) at Paragon is my favorite Chinese restaurant because it’s has a very modern yet cozy interior (wood, rock and stone interior). The food is awesome as well. Extra points for getting to see the kitchen crew in the middle of the restaurant who prepare their signature Xiao Long Bao/meat dumplings. 

Definitely, check out Fat Boys for the most delicious burgers and the Far East Plaza chain lets you customize! For movies, I love going to The Projector which screens foreign selections, indie, and independent films. It’s the go-to place for indie film and has this old-school yet hipster dΓ©cor with beautiful fan-art posters, bean-bag seats and film selections that seriously put mainstream cinemas in Singapore to shame. But sometimes, I just enjoy relaxing with a good book and some tea at home. 

Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favorite dishes?
Camillia: Singapore is famous for our food. We have a lot of really awesome food here though a lot of it is hawker food, which in general can be considered quite unhealthy. 
So when I go out to a hawker center, for me that’s like going to McDonald's. It’s just like you accept that you’re going to have an unhealthy meal.

My personal favorites are chicken rice, fried kway teow and hokkien mee. Chicken rice is steamed or roasted chicken with rice that is cooked in a special way. Kway teow is basically flat noodles that are fried with black sauce and seafood and it’s so unhealthy but it tastes amazing. Hokkien mee is only slightly healthier. It’s yellow noodles in gravy with seafood. It’s delicious with chili. 

Jia: Singapore is famous for its hawker food which is basically food that hawker stalls in Singapore sell. It’s cheap and really gives you a sense of the raw and flavourful profile of ‘street’ food in Singapore. There’s just so many of these awesome places to try out and just too many to name. If you don’t mind putting on the calories, seek them out! I love Laksa (pictured), which is this spicy noodle dish with a curry-based chili soup. I love Char Kway Teow as well which is an indulgent but absolutely smashing dish with fried rice-cake strips, eggs, and various other things. For me though, my favorites are more Westernized and less local. I love steak, mac and cheese, and burgers πŸ˜‰

Tell me about any different speech patterns in your country. Slang? Idioms? Words for things such as “biscuits” instead of “cookies”?
Camillia: In Singapore, we have this thing called ‘Singlish’. Basically, it’s a mix of Chinese, Tamil, Malay, and English. This strange mixture, which has developed through the years, has created a sort of language that is so uniquely Singaporean that you will be able to pick it up anywhere in the world.

Words like ‘Lah’ and ‘Lepak’ and ‘Shiok’ are words that unite us. It’s quite funny because I’ve heard many foreigners come to Singapore and they try to use Singlish but there’s just something off every time. A lilt in their voice or the way they roll their tongue. They just can never replicate it unless they’ve grown up in Singapore.

Jia: The funny thing about Singapore is that because we’re so multi-cultural, Malay and Indian slang is often mixed with Chinese dialect jargon, that the English we speak in Singapore has its own unique vernacular and style. Some say it’s what makes us Singaporeans though I’m certainly not proud of it. Still, I can’t help but laugh (in a self-deprecating way) when foreigners don’t get what we’re trying to say. I don’t really have a ‘Singaporean’ accent when I speak but sometimes fall into it when talking with friends. ‘Lah’ precedes statements when we’re exasperated or lamenting about something…which is something Singaporeans love to do. 

Sometimes, we leave basic grammar at the door, it’s almost as if when we got our independence from Malaysia in 1965, that’s where we also bid adieu to proper language. ‘Where got’ is often used when trying to say ‘Really?’ or ‘Is that so?’ and ‘Why you so like that?’ sounds ridiculous but it’s a ubiquitous phrase used to convey ‘why are you behaving like that?’. Fascinating thing is that parts of minority languages (mainly Malay) have been integrated into the day-to-day speech that almost everyone (Chinese majority) also use them from time-to-time. 

Describe briefly a regular day in your country.
Camillia: Well Singaporeans work very hard. So usually primary and secondary school kids will be the first up. School normally starts between 7.15-7.30am here so I remember I used to be up at 5.30am every morning.

So at about 7am, there’s usually the mad rush. Traffic is horrendous because parents are trying to get their kids to school and then head to work. That traffic rush usually lasts till about 9 when everyone has got to work. 

That’s when we go quiet. Singapore just really becomes quieter because everyone is at work. It gets a bit busier during lunch and then there’s a lull again till about 6 which is when people start going home (Not me haha. Newsrooms never stop). But the trains and buses will be so packed that sometimes you can’t even get onboard. It’s terrible during peak hour.
So that’s a basic day here. Honestly, Singapore is very hardcore especially when it comes to our education system so a lot of the activity in my country revolves around school schedules. 

Even on the weekends, mornings are the busiest because parents are sending their kids to tuition and extra lessons.

Jia: Singapore is a pretty boring place. For the most part, people are busy working day jobs and come home pretty late on average. Even people here don’t exactly feel happy or fulfilled. And I think it’s a lot to do with the stressful nature of Singaporean work culture and life, and the pragmaticism and extreme practicality and competitiveness that dominates society and pervades the mindsets and mentalities as soon as you enter school. It’s good…sure…when we keep a good economy, have our kids win international competitions and succeed in terms of material gains. There’s just too much pressure to win and to succeed instilled from such a young age that effectively kills the perspective of looking at life through a different lens and see happiness and fulfillment in non-material ways. 

There’s very few places to wind down and take a breather because the whole country is essentially a busy city. Many people take to drinking and eating as a form of release and pleasure, but I know people who do know how to truly engage in their passions during their free-time and stay ‘woke’ and fulfilled. There are communities of people involved in various passions from yoga to trekking. So there certainly are people who know how to keep a good work-life balance and really indulge in their passions which fulfills them.

How does your country compare to others, especially the States since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?
Camillia: Well, America is certainly more liberal then Singapore. Politically we have always been very sound. We have a party that has been ruling for ages now and most people are happy with it so we continue to vote for them. 

We don’t have as much freedom of speech. I mean we can say what we want but only to a certain extent. You absolutely cannot insult another religion or race. You will 100% be put in jail or exiled for that. Many people have had that happen to them actually.

The media is also required to support the government and it’s policies to maintain harmony. I know all this probably sounds terrible but honestly, I don’t mind it. I mean I see what’s happening in American politics and how racist people are online and I’m so proud that most of the people in my country would never stoop to that level.

We are very harmonious. Our government has a lot of things in place to make sure that in our living spaces, schools, and workplaces, we are constantly interacting with people of different races and religions. So over here we generally don’t see color. We befriend everyone and at any one time, it is not uncommon to see a circle of friends who are all of different races and religions. It’s really amazing and I love it.

Jia: Politically, we’re pretty stable. There’s only one dominant political party here so policies get moved and passed with ease and political gridlock is non-existent. They’re not perfect, but comparatively, our government is probably one of the better ones. I am, though, pretty upset with the limited amount of support for social services and welfare groups in Singapore like Children’s Homes. They are partially funded, but there’s so much more than can be done. It’s not like Singapore is struggling financially (we’re doing so well), and I just wished they did more to help vulnerable groups in society because they deserve the help that the country can easily afford. Singapore is culturally conservative (no LGBT rights and no freedom of speech or room for political dissent). 

We’re multi-racial but racism still exists beneath the veneer of racial harmony. Still, it has to be said that Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world and they do a great job, if not eradicating (which is impossible), controlling and deterring acts of violence and chaos from racial or religious animosity. 

Briefly describe three of your country’s historical events that you feel are important.

  • The Maria Hertog Riots- This was a riot held during the time when the British colonized Singapore. It started with a legal battle for custody of a white girl who was put into the care of a Malay woman when her parents were locked up as prisoners of war. It later escalated into a racial thing and that sparked the riots. This was a vital point in establishing rules about how we treat all races equally in this country. Rules that, as a minority, I am so happy exist today.
  • SG50- This was Singapore’s 50th birthday which was in 2015. That was an incredible year of immense proud amongst us Singaporeans.
  • Singapore separating from Malaysia- Singapore and Malaysia once joined up to become one country but we had very different beliefs and so we split up. This was a major thing in our history and I’m so glad that our government stuck to their values and split rather then to force something that was clearly not going to work. See, our differences were so big that it would have eventually resulted in huge problems.

Jia: Given that Singapore around 50 years ago, there’s not much historical significance to be found. The independence in 1965 was an important event that really got us on a rough start because of no prior experience to governance but we landed on our feet and it turned out to be the right decision. 

What are some stereotypes about your country that irk you? What media portrays your country badly be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Camillia: Singapore rarely if ever gets mentioned in any sort of entertainment. We are a bit too small for that. But I think Europe and America have very warped ideas of Singapore that annoy me when I see them.

For starters, people seem to think we belong to China. No. Even though a majority of our citizens are Chinese, we are not part of China in any way.  Next people think we have no freedom. Guys, control is very important. When you completely let go of control, things go wrong. What may work for one country may not work for another. 

The way our government runs the country may seem strict or ridiculous to people in more liberal countries but we are a tiny country with so many races living together that we need these rules. These rules are the reason why our police force does not discriminate. These rules are the reason why you can see a Malay family living next to a Chinese family who lives next to an Indian family and they are all the best of friendsYes, we can do better. Censorship is still way too high in my opinion and I’d love to have chewing gum but it works for us.

Jia: Western media don’t portray Singaporean stereotypes or life in Singapore in general. But I guess Asian stereotypes that all of us are smart are somewhat valid but not entirely true. 

What media portrays your country well be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Camillia: Besides local books? No one mentions us for long enough to be considered portrayed well or even badly.

Jia: I can’t think of any mainly because only Singaporean media covers what goes on over here. For the most part, mainstream dramas pander to existing stereotypes and are contrived, shallow and do not portray real-life Singaporeans dealing with real-life problems. The social critique is non-existent. If they do cover real-life problems, it’s always disingenuous, comical and without a social-realist kind of punch that would make TV shows in our own country about our country actually mean something and provoke thought. 

Singaporeans are sometimes insecure and suppress are overly anxious and cautious, though I think the younger generation (me included) have vastly different attitudes and outlooks in life. Personal fulfillment is more important than starting a family (not necessarily a bad thing given it’s a natural reaction to seeing how stressed parents can be juggling a family with work and personal passions). Materialism is always at the core of the psyche, but it’s a compensation for the lack of fulfillment in other aspects of life + competitiveness. And if you’re writing about a character from a Singaporean/Asian character, don’t forget to find the positives beyond the negatives. Singaporeans do have heart and soul amidst a society which, sometimes, has little room for that. That struggle gives hope, and is true to life and should not be any less true in art. 

Who are your top three favorite characters native to your country in books, movies, or shows?
Camillia: Our country mainly puts out poetry and prose books. Less fiction as we are accustomed to seeing internationally. So I can’t even name one character that is native to my county let alone my top three.

Jia: I don’t have any favorite native characters mainly because books, movies, and shows in Singapore don’t get a lot of attention; Singapore’s arts scene is pretty weak anyway on a whole, though there are plays and a handful of movies that have garnered critical acclaim. But on the mainstream side of things, there’s really none that I can call a favorite. Check out films like Ilo Ilo and A Yellow Bird if you can 😊

Thank you, Camillia and Jia, for this very informative post! I hope everyone enjoyed reading it. Come back next week for So Your Character is from Vietnam ...!

Are you interested in participating in this project? Check out the tips archive to see which countries have been filled and if you're from a different country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail(dot)com. I'm especially looking for Spain, Denmark, Kenya, Argentina, Iraq, and Egypt.

Do you have any characters from Singapore? Did this inspire you to write a Singaporean character or set a book in Singapore? Are from this or been to this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for Camillia and Jia? Be sure to thank them!

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