Beginnings: To reach a port, we must set sail

By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence



December 4, 2021


The Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) new space at the Tanjong Pagar Distripark smells sharply of sawdust and fresh paint. Everything here is white, shiny, swept clean. No smudges or fingerprints on the windows or the walls. It feels like we’ve been hermetically sealed into a white cube gallery, or in some kind of sanitised spaceship hovering on the fringes of the tedium of industrial labour, trying to blend in. Outside, the Singapore port stretches in both directions, an interminable terminus. We are separated from the port by an inch of glass and a foot of concrete, and a thin barbed wire fence that warps in the wind.


Most of us have been isolated on this island for the past 20 months, but the containers stacked up in the no-man’s-land of the Singapore port have continued to make their way around the world. As the performers and creative team filter into the echoey meeting room, our voices bounce off the walls and concrete floor, and we linger by the long series of windows that offer us a tantalising panorama of the port.


The artists involved in Loading/Unloading (working title) are here for three things today:


  1. to get acquainted with each other and the role(s) we will play over the next six months,

  2. to collectively witness and reflect on the Singapore port as a site and space of performance and/or choreographic movements and gestures, and

  3. a lecture on Singapore’s maritime histories and movements by architectural historian, Dr Imran bin Tajudeen, followed by a group discussion.


After a round of introductions, P7:1SMA artistic director and choreographer Haizad offers us our first exercise of the day. We are going to carry our plastic folding chairs out onto the tarmac facing the port and sit there for 20 minutes as we encounter a ‘performance’ of human, machine and other organic labour. He frames it as an observation exercise, to open our bodies up to what we see, hear and feel as a process of embodiment. It’s also an invitation to think of the site as a collaborator, a way of building a relationship with our immediate environment.


As we file out of our institutional spaceship, a procession armed with notebooks and chairs, the warm wind whips around and above us, sending dust and litter into the air in small spirals. We each try to find a nook or vantage point for our 20-minute experience, eventually settling into groups of four or five in shaded pockets of the verandah and carpark. The towering container cranes—and anyone in them—seem impervious to our minor incursion, but the four dock workers who had been taking a languid smoke break slip away, quietly and immediately. It’s a hot day, and we are the most significant human presence on the tarmac. Almost everyone else is cloistered away in crane cabs or in the pick-up trucks, buses, and larger eighteen-wheelers rattling across the road. What is left is the detritus of previous human presences: discarded cigarette boxes, empty kopi cups, snapped cable ties. We are the interlopers here, as is SAM. Around us, the massive port machinery moves in time to choreography on an enormous scale: up and down, backwards and forwards, side to side. Everything here feels modular—things are assembled, or broken down into their constituent parts, like an enormous game of Lego or Tetris. Everything is lifted, shifted and set down with effortless efficiency, so much so that I initially cannot get a sense of the sheer weight of each object moving across my field of vision. Eventually I realise I can recognise weight by how it translates into sound, the way both empty and laden trucks amble across the uneven tarmac. The lighter vehicles rattle more; the heavier vehicles introduce a deeper, rhythmic bass. Above this bassline, warning alarms sound off at various pitches, frequencies and rhythms, telling us that something is about to move forward or retreat.


For many of us on the hot tarmac, this marks our first material encounter with the gestures of import and export on a macro scale. We are all unfamiliar with the semiotics of this industrial space. These are processes masked from us. We are the recipients of the goods that arrive at this port, but our interface is not the clang of metal and steel, or the invisible man-hours of low-waged workers in the burning heat—but the soft click of keys and trackpads as we ‘add to cart’, the crinkle of plastic wrapping deposited at our doors. This brief glimpse of this specific labour is exotic to us; this dalliance feels almost too fetishistic, a toe in the water, a polaroid of a tiny moment in time. At the same time, there’s something astonishing about unleashing a dozen artists in a new space and inviting a kind of porosity to the physicality and psychogeographic imprints of the environment. Later on, as we take turns to share our observations with the rest of the room, I’m struck by how we are beginning to piece together our shared experiences. Some sit alongside each other, others intersect and overlap and reveal the ways in which we process these encounters. Here are some verbatim fragments from those observations:


Syimah Sabtu (performer): “The wind excited me more than the machines. The rotation of the wind and how it lifts up the item and pushes the item. If you put it in context with everything happening at the back, things are being lifted and moved. The other thing that excited me was thinking about what’s within the container, in-between the containers... the space in-between. I was trying to imagine the air being pressed when you put down the containers.”


Hasyimah Harith (company manager): “Stones, sun, skin, writing, motor, sky, weight, fence, I lock you in or I lock you out, or you are locked out? Wind, kite flying, where are the humans, empty buses with nobody, where do you come from? What is inside all these containers? Cascade. The fence has lines like fishing nets... Within them, plants growing.”


Chong Li-Chuan (sound designer): “There are a lot of textures or gestures in soundscape study. The gestures, of course, are iterative sounds. Over time, it numbs your senses and becomes a texture. The gestures can become textures once they’ve gone beyond a certain point. There are textures you don’t really notice until you shut the door, like the hum of the air-conditioning units from different containers forming a chorus that’s constantly there. There was a distinctive G-A note drone. On top of the drone there’s an alternating arpeggio going on.”


***


If our first experience with the port focuses on the physical and the tangible, architectural historian Dr Imran bin Tajudeen’s lecture invites us to dwell with the abstractions around what we know to be true—but also what we speculate and reimagine about our personal and regional pasts. He prefaces his talk with a caveat about history and the now, and how the past is always a foreign country: “We only know what we can directly experience. We can reconstruct the past all we want, but we won’t know it the way we know the present. Whatever we reconstruct of the past is informed by our biases and what we’re interested in.” What ensues is a whirlwind, whistlestop tour of Singapore and the region’s watery connections, from indigenous maritime navigation to the material remnants of Afro-Asian trade routes to how local places connected to the sea have been named and renamed.


Dr Imran devotes some time to thinking about what we mean by “mapping” the archipelago, particularly because the driving force behind European mapping was colonisation and the exploitation of resources that moved by sea. “How do we peel away from a Euro-centric story?” he asks, noting the European cartographies that have depicted but also erased and replaced names and narratives of Southeast Asian origin. But the story and the network of the Malay archipelago far precedes colonisation. For thousands of years, the world’s largest and most heavily inhabited archipelagic region has been a site of intense maritime exchange, from the isthmus of Kra (Kedah), down the peninsula, into the Philippines and the Pacific Ocean. The Austronesian language group, including the Malays, the Javanese, the Bugis, the Filipinos, the Polynesians and the Micronesians, have long and prominent histories of seafaring. Dr Imran describes how cloves produced in a specific part of Egypt have been found on the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia, and how musical scales, instruments and a number of cultural traits in West Africa also have a significant and inexplicable affinity with our part of the world.


This project by P7:1SMA is still at the beginning of a long process of emergence, but already we are fumbling towards what it means to chart the seas and the labour it holds from a different vantage point. Dr Imran invokes the Malay term for “map”—peta—and points us towards its Javanese etymology, petha or pepethan, which can mean “shape, imagination, visualisation, idea, notion, concept, mode of action”. We linger on the final phrase: “mode of action”. To map something as a mode of action, to bring it into being. We are here, mapping. Dr Imran points out the term xabandaria on Portuguese maps of the 1500s and 1600s, a bastardisation of the term shahbandar or “lord of the harbour” in Persian. The shahbandar was a kind of harbourmaster or portmaster, and Singapore was the portmaster station in which you had to disembark and register yourself formally in order to sail up the Johor river. The shahbandar were often foreigners given power by local rulers after earning their trust, and they were both gatekeepers and intermediaries, who might collect custom duties and manage rulers’ investments, or resolve disputes between foreigners and locals (HistorySG, 2014). We’ve inherited this in-between position, this fulcrum between maritime Southeast Asia and mainland Southeast Asia.


In her recent book on urban life in the region, historian Su Lin Lewis traces the cosmopolitanism of port cities in Southeast Asia in the mid-20th century and the complicated positions they occupy both as extractive “vectors for the exploitation of raw materials” from the colonised region, but also as dynamic and influential societies that profoundly influenced modern life, and housed shifting demographics of migrants and locals who would eventually witness the growth of not only intellectuals but a creative class of artists and cultural workers (2016, 4). Our lives and histories are deeply intertwined with Singapore’s maritime and port trajectories, whether our families were indigenous to this region and relied on its robust sea networks, arrived here through some kind of rantau, were diasporic settlers from China and the sub-continent, or indentured labour from other parts of the region. The port and its entanglements have shaped the island that we are, and the art it produces.


Over the course of the lecture, we pepper Dr Imran with questions and observations, some of which fall outside of his area of expertise, but still offer us points of contemplation:


  • Has the port infrastructure been inspired by Malay ideology or historical significance?

  • What are some notable movements, contributions, livelihood, symbols, objects, songs from the Orang Laut communities living in the port area?

  • What are some land politics in history that came with the development of the Tanjong Pagar port?

  • What is the historical relevance of the name ‘Tanjong Pagar’ to the people who used to live by the beach there?

  • Is there a parallel between the labour of port workers and the labour experienced by the Orang Laut?

  • What are the physical rituals in this space, and have they evolved over time?

  • What are the unseen and unspoken ‘loads’ that have been carried into the space and left traces? What has been unloaded, whether forcibly removed, taken away or is slowly disintegrating?

  • What or who can only exist in transient permanence, like a port? (I’m thinking about this in relation to the politics of migration, of choice versus circumstance.)

  • I’m interested in examining or understanding the physical gestures and actions of the people who work and live at the port vis-a-vis the physical gestures and actions of people who work or live at sea. What emerges from labour for efficiency? What emerges to fulfil a spiritual yearning? What is invented, inherited or remixed? What connects one to the land or sea?

  • How does large-scale diasporic labour (indentured labour, convict labour, migrant labour) contracted to work at structures such as the port exist alongside indigenous labour connected to the rhythms of everyday life? How do these various forms of labour interact with and/or displace each other?

  • How do different indigenous and informal approaches to migration and movement, e.g. merantau or mudik, intersect and/or collide with formal structures of mobility i.e. the port? What new forms of voluntary/involuntary migration emerge along with the establishment of port structures?

  • What material and tangible connections with trade and exchange have we lost? What traces do remain? How might these object connections be cultivated and maintained?

  • Names of places change over time. Can we pinpoint when and how the change happens? How does that erasure occur? When do we start to forget the names of things?

  • What are the ethics of talking to and/or interviewing the people who are working here, or people who are indigenous?


Several themes emerge from these questions and reflections: erasure, invisible and forgotten labour, movement and transience, indigenous and migrant histories, and embodied and inherited gestures and rituals. Many of the performers and creatives in the room ruminate over how we cannot seem to sense the sea beyond this industrial fortress, even though we know it is there. Dr Imran extends this into a discussion of how Singapore could have developed a robust system of water transport. The 1963 Koenigsberger Plan, for instance, envisioned Singapore with mass transit by both rail and sea, a ring city structure with coastal and riverfront nodes. What if we could take water taxis from Sungei Api-Api or Sungei Tampines right to the Central Business District? Why is it that we do not have a single form of water transport—except those that get us to the offshore islands of Pulau Ubin or the Southern Islands? Over time, our connection to riverine and coastal veins of water has eroded. While new towns in Singapore were initially oriented to rivers and the waterfront, Dr Imran observes that they have also become a “disciplining mechanism” in the Singaporean context, where we are really living in regimented workers’ housing called public housing: “You are reordered and numbered, and even your blocks are all numbered.”


This is not the only architectural disciplining that the nation-state does: it can also regulate and discipline things into or out of existence through legal frameworks. Dr Imran brings up the mobility restrictions imposed on nomadic communities such as the Orang Laut or the Orang Seletar, who must now stamp their passports or documents to cross bodies of water they could previously move through at will. I am reminded of theatre company Drama Box’s Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts (2019). The performance included a piece of verbatim theatre detailing the disenfranchisement and dispossession of the Orang Seletar, and the crushing consequences of development in Johor’s Iskandar development region, in which Singapore is complicit. By 2027, the Singapore port we are currently gathered at will be moved to Tuas, and this area will be known as the “Great Southern Waterfront”. We wonder aloud at the names that will fall into disuse or will be forgotten as dramatic changes sweep across the Singaporean landscape. Which names will remain? Which will become obsolete? Which will no longer be tied to the physical manifestations of their origin?


***


In Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking work on indigenous knowledge production, Decolonizing Methodologies (1999), she lists 25 indigenous projects that radically rethink how research is done. These methods emphasise “cultural survival, self-determination, healing, restoration and social justice” over extractivist research projects that mine indigenous subjects for information without reciprocity or benefit. Some of the methods that feel deeply aligned with the work P7:1SMA is attempting to do includes “remembering”, “reframing”, “creating”, “discovering” and “sharing”. P7:1SMA is no stranger to site-specific projects and intervening in disciplined urban environments. They have brought celebration and joy to the popular Tampines round market as they built relationships with the long-time hawkers in the space, navigated the stacked corridors of Hong Lim Complex, embraced the textures of procession through Geylang Serai.


At the same time, I often wonder about who we displace and who we welcome into site-specific interventions and activations throughout the artmaking process. How do our intimate engagements with space and the people who inhabit it plug into the broader sweep of voluntary and involuntary migration, movement and displacement? What are ethical ways in which we might engage with the diversity of people we encounter in each site? How do we reflect and remember contested pasts while intervening in the present? We magpie artists often have an instinct for what is shiny that is also overlooked, obscured or just out of reach. But we may do well to also heed the Maori wisdom of Smith’s work so that we do not remain elite outsiders who drift into a new site, extract its aesthetic pleasures, and then skip out shortly after. I’m looking forward to exploring the methods that P7:1SMA has been practising with each new site-specific project and the ethos of respect, patience and curiosity that they bring with them when they embark on a new work in a space dense with prior context.





Further reading


Hasan Mat Nor, Abd. Rahim Mohd Nor, Katiman Rostam, Aishah@Eshah Mohamed, Zaini

Sakawi (2009) “Mengapa kami jadi begini? Konflik masyarakat Orang Seletar dan Pembangunan Iskandar, Johor Bahru, Malaysia”, Malaysian Journal of Society and Space 5(2), pp. 16-26.


HistorySG (2014) “Shahbandar of Singapura” ​​https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/55490594-acf6-411d-853c-85116506ef69


Lewis, Su Lin (2016) Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.


Said, Nabilah (2019) “Translating Homeland: Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts”, ArtsEquator, October 9 https://artsequator.com/tanah-air/


Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London & New York: Zed Books; Dunedin: University of Otago Press.



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