Thursday, July 21, 2016

Peeling Away the Layers of History

My Mental Map of Singapore, 21 July

An hour's bus ride from our housing at N.U.S. is the Malay Heritage Center at Istana Kampong Gelam.

     You could be forgiven for thinking a small island would be easy to traverse. In Singapore, it's easier to get lost.  My solution is to form a map of places I visit, so that I have an association with place names.  I'll keep track of this for you on the paper above.
     I wanted to begin with Singapore's beginnings, so I took myself, on the Number 33 Bus, to the Malay Heritage Center. This was an hours journey from the National University of Singapore's tree-filled, high-rise filled campus into older parts of the city.  
     Place names are so revealing.  Kent Vale: so English.  Istana Kampong Gelam, where the museum is housed, tells an old story.  The Istana, or palace, was built for the Sultans of Jahor in the early 19th Century. Kampong is the term for Malay village.  Gelam refers to the former plantation of tree grown for the use of its bark for caulking ships.  The landscape which surrounded the Istana was that of a tropical plantation, enclosed by a wall.  The architecture of the istana could be called tropical Palladian, most likely designed by George Drumgold Coleman, an Irish civil architect who designed much of colonial Singapore. He incorporated the pyramidal roof of traditional Malay limas
     Thru Colonial machinations, the Kampong became the property of the British Crown, and state land at Singapore's independence.  In 2004, the Istana was refurbished to serve as the Malay Heritage Center.  As a North American, used to broad expanses of land, I struggle to imagine the watery world view of the Malay Archipelago.  Eric Tagliacozzo's lecture at the Asian Art Museum and his book help. The age and complexity of maritime trade in this part of the world is humbling to one who considers herself cosmopolitan. The term Malay itself is as about as precise as European.  Malay describes a wide range of peoples and languages of Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula, a realm sometimes called Nusantara.
     The list of things I don't understand about Singapore's Malay heritage is endless.  Maritime trade and its role as a hub for Muslim pilgrims made Singapore an important center of the Malay world centuries before the legendary Sir Stamford Raffles arrived.  In the late 19th and early 20th Century Singapore was a center of Malay intellectual and cultural production.  Kampong Gelam was a center for printing and publishing.  The famous Hong Kong film company, Shaw Brothers, had a Malay subsidiary, and made more than 150 films from 1949 to 1967.  At the museum I watched clips from several different genre: romantic musical, horror, and social realism.  (I have a feeling that the Asian Film class I'm taking this fall will be nothing like what I learned at San Francisco City College!)
    The Heritage Center has a series of exhibitions called Se-Nusantara, which feature one of the sub-groups of Malays of Singapore.  At the moment it's The Heritage and Culture of the Javanese in Singapore. Tomorrow night we'll attend a performance of wayang kulit, the famous shadow puppet theatre, at the Heritage center.  As for Javanese food, you'll have to read about it my food blog!

No comments:

Post a Comment