OLD PLACES out now on DVD
OLD PLACES, a documentary directed by Royston Tan, Victric Thng and Eva Tang, and featuring the voices of Singaporeans recalling their memories of disappearing places in Singapore, recorded the highest ratings for any documentary screened last year when screened on Okto last year. It is now available on DVD, from BooksActually and Objectifs
Below, in an interview recorded last year, Ng Yi-Sheng interviews Royston Tan, executive producer and co-director of the film, about the project, his work in general and his personal memories.
NYS: So tell us about this film.
RT: It’s called OLD PLACES. In Mandarin it’s called 老地方(Lao Di Fang). What happened is we started out with this concept of asking people to write to us or to call us with their stories about places that matter to them, and that probably will disappear very very soon. And from there on we recorded voiceovers and we went to shoot all the locations.
So we captured about 46 to 47 locations. It was supposed to be 50. A few of them couldn’t be captured because there was flooding or they were being destroyed halfway when we went over there.
It’s video documentation of the places overlaid with voiceovers of the telephone conversation of people who contributed their stories. Victric, Eva and I directed this whole thing together, each taking different locations. And over a span of ten days, we finished the whole thing. One day there was an average of like six locations, so 12-hour shoots per day.
NYS: Why did you propose this project?
RT: I wanted to capture all these places because I was born in the late ‘70s and we were the transitional generation. So I saw a lot of things disappearing. So what I cannot control in reality, I want to capture at least on film.
NYS: We’re the transitional generation? I’d always assumed we were the new generation: we were kids in the ‘80s, when Singapore was already a developed country.
RT: My situation was a bit different because I was the last generation to stay in a kampung. So I went from kampung to HDB.
But I really started to understand it when somebody from overseas asked me, “Can you bring me to your childhood place?” I told him, “It doesn’t exist anymore.” But he was insistent, so I took him to my childhood place in Lorong Chuan; it’s a new American school now. So I said, “I cannot even remember where certain places were.” And he saw me struggling to capture these little things. I feel like part of my life is gone.
YS: Can you tell us about the locations you’ve covering in OLD PLACES?
RT: For example, for Seletar Airbase, we have somebody talking about the hijack of a Vietnamese plane. Bobody knows about this! And we also capture the one and only Cantonese opera troupe in Singapore. It’s the Gong Hway Opera Troupe – the ban zu (director) actually took over from the father 20 years ago and nobody knew about their existence, nobody covered them. We also found out about the Wen Zou Clan Association, and how they got al the coolies together to do a five-men lion dance thing after the Bukit Ho Swee Fire in 1952.
All these are being documented. Also some of the more intimate spaces, like where are the last laces you can still catch wild guppies in the drain and things like that.
NYS: Guppies are now endangered?
RT: There’s not much left because of the construction of the sewage system. So now there’s like two places with wild guppies: one is covered, and the other is still a secret place, and if there’s a sequel we’re wondering if we should cover that because that one you can just use your hand and just scoop, it’s all there, there’s so many.
So all these are certain parts of layman history which are not in the museum, which are not anywhere else. And that is what we want to find.
NYS: Have there been any conflicts between the three directors in the project?
RT: Not so much, because obviously I chose to work with Victric and Eva because we have different sensibilities. Victric is visuals, I’m emotions and Eva is logic. So with these three elements together, it feels like we’re a perfect match.
But it’s been very mentally and emotionally draining – it’s almost like shooting a feature film, because of the way we wanted to shoot it: it doesn’t look like a TV show, there’s always big crane movements and even the tracking in is not zoom, it’s all tracking and all that stuff.
There is a responsibility this time to capture this, because it’s going to be gone. Some of the places that are inside here are going to be gone by October. Dover playground, where you can see the slide like a pelican and all that stuff, it’s going to be gone by October.
So all these are places that are going to disappear, and every time we go to the places we feel very sad, like you see old playgrounds where nobody plays. For every one of us, when we go there, there’s bits and pieces of our lives that we can register with the images. So we take the opportunity to film everything at any angle to capture this.
NYS: You’ve actually explored old spaces a lot in your other films, like Hock Hiap Leong, and The Blind Trilogy, where you explored Old Parliament House and Capitol Cinema. How come you’re so interested in nostalgia?
RT: Because I always feel that old places always have a lot of stories. Even a crack in the wall. I know it sounds very cliché, but every time I see something like a rusty lamppost or anything, I think there’s a story there.
It’s like when I did the Victoria theatre piece, No Admittance. That made me… the whole theatre made me feel like it’s a forest filled with secrets and stories. Like the basement below: probably nobody knows that it connects to the Singapore River. It’s a secret passage for those rich merchants in the past, so that nobody could rob their money or all of these things. So all these are little little stories which are very interesting.
NYS: That film was commissioned, right?
RT: No Admittance was commissioned by the Esplanade. But the brief was wonderful. “Do what you want, don’t give me official things.”
Like the National Museum’s commission, Old Man and the River, it was also wonderful. I presented the script to [Museum Director] Lee Chor Lin, and Chor Lin was like, “Royston, I don’t want a textbook. Can you throw all this away? I know you’re working with a government body, but do want you want. I want to see your flavour.” So I threw the whole thing away and I started to tell the story of my uncle, who worked as a coolie. So personal stories lah.
YS: It’s odd – looking at your persona, there’s like two Roystons. There’s the techno rebel, and then there’s this nostalgic guai hai zi [good child].
RT: A sentimental side, yes. That’s why many people say I think you have s plit personality. I think there’s more than two Roystons. There’s five different kinds of Roystons.
NYS: Would you like to introduce them?
RT: There’s the techno rebel one, there’s the nostalgic good one, there’s the very very quiet introspective person, you also have the flamboyant campy one you can see in every film, and the last one is I think a very critical observer. So these are the few things… and it doesn’t go quite well with each other, I think. Because they are so self-conflicting.
NYS: Do you see yourself as a Singaporean director?
RT: I think so, you know. Because I think I’m better at telling Singapore stories, lah. I feel for all the little little things and that kind of feelings you cannot have in any other places.
I try and shoot in other countries, and I don’t have that kind of connection. Like, for example we had a project in China. I realised whatever I was absorbing, I was always the third party. So you are almost seeing things from out of the picture. But when I’m shooting in Singapore, I’m inside the picture. There’s a lot of attachment.
NYS: What are your own special places in Singapore?
RT: One is already gone. In Lorong Chuan, where I used to stay, there used to be this really big tree. So every time I’d go to work I’d pass by CTE. So that tree was a reminder to me that hey, my existence of my childhood. And when the tree got chopped down and they altered the whole road only two years ago, that was a bit shattering to me. That affected me a lot.
NYS: Any others?
RT: Now, that’s still existing? I think Haw Par Villa is one of them.
NYS: Yeah! My dad was saying, “Haw Par Villa is so interesting, why did they knock it down?” And I said, it’s still there! You’re just too lazy to go and see it.
RT: It’s still there. Every time I go back there, it reminds me of the horror of every kid who went there. Because every time we’d go there we’d have nightmare about the 18 levels of hell, we’d start to evaluate our lives. It’s a very interesting kind of education!
And also another one is Katong Swimming Complex. Have you been there? It’s like a time warp. I hope they will not tear this place down. It’s like it’s stuck. Even the toilet is stuck like in an old horror army camp. And there’s like different animal fountains by the swimming pool. You have to go there, it’s amazing. It’s been there for 65 years, like the old River Valley charm, and they say they might just tear it down in five years’ time.
One of the biggest shocks [while filming] was when we went to Seletar Airbase and everything was gone. Everything was gone. My team just went out to do another shoot because we just… all the colonial houses and everything, all gone.
NYS: What are they building there anyway?
RT: An Aerospace Park or something. When I was there, my crew told me, “Whatever you want to shoot, it’s not there anymore.” And I thought, no no, the guys are just lazy, just kidding me. I want to go and see. So I went there. And it’s crazy. It’s all construction. The land is all flattened. And you can see like new highways being built.
I have a lot of fond memories because my ah beng friends, every time they’re under stress, they’ll call me, and we’ll drive to Seletar Airbase. And they’ll tell me, “This is a good place, because we cannot afford to go to Australia. But this place looks like Australia or UK.” Just the lamppost, it’s so colonial. So just driving around, I remember that the good old times, like after 12 midnight, then just go over there, and can see aeroplanes. Wow, we’re in some paradise. So it’s a shock to me, man, to see this.
NYS: You wonder what Singapore will become, after they’ve finished tearing down all these old places.
RT: These two years, Singapore is undergoing a lot of upgrading, a lot of old places being torn down to build condos. And also like new roads: the whole Tai Seng stretch will be gone very soon because they built the MRT line, and the land on top is not every stable. So eventually all the tenants will have to move out.
So there’s a big landscape change. I don’t know what it’s gong to look like next time. So at least I want to be sure I know what Singapore is now.
NYS: You even had to go to Malaysia to film the rural scenes in Little Note.
RT: Yeah, because there’s no more that kind of kampung left already, and I’ve filmed [Kampung] Buangkok like crazy already in 12 Lotus, and I don’t want to go back to the same place. And now Buangkok has also had a facelift. So the strange-looking beautiful bridge is gone, and now it’s all flattened to join to build a new jogging track.
RT: So it’s all gone. And that’s the place you can still catch mussels. Not polluted water, you know. You can eat them.
NYS: I thought we’d learned to value our heritage by now, and yet…
RT: It’s a conflicting thing I think, because you need to remove some old things to progress. But then again, some of the old things need means a lot to a lot of people. And Singaporeans, I think, these two years, are getting very nostalgic. There was a petition to keep a bus stop, and yesterday there waas another petition, very successful, to keep a particular staircase in Ang Siang Hill because it belonged to a school. They said millions have walked out of that staircase, so they’re going to preserve that staircase.
So it shows one thing: that Singaporeans still love Singapore in their own special personal ways. Maybe not in the big picture, but everyone has their own favourite little haunt, their own little space. And because we have so little space, it matters so much more to them.
NYS: Is there anything else you want to tell readers?
RT: I hope that… I hope that they will appreciate what we’re doing now because so much effort is put into this project. So much. It’s one film where we don’t earn much… (laughs) We’re throwing in more money of our own to do this.
Even the musicians… A lot of local musicians, when they heard about this, they wanted to be part of this film. The Tang Quartet is coming in. It’s not just a collective memory; it’s a collective piece of work with everyone who cares about memories.
NYS: Will it be showing anywhere else after this?
RT: Actually the next stage would be to make it an installation, with 50 projections in a room.
NYS: Do you have a location in mind?
RT: Not yet. We need a big space, man.
NYS: Aiyah, just knock down something and play it there.
Royston: (laughs) Capitol Theatre, that’d be nice. Zirca, maybe. (laughs)
Postscript, May 2011.
Royston on the success of OLD PLACES and the DVD launch.
“I was very surprised by the reaction from the public as there was a huge request for a repeat telecast the next day and after that, many many emails requesting a DVD. I think the public responded strongly because OLD PLACES captures their childhood and everyone seems to want to own a piece of the memories in some of the featured places.
We are currently raising funds to shoot a sequel and if it works well, it will be shot in August. You can support the project by buying the limited edition DVD, available only at Kinokuniya, BooksActually and Objectifs. Grab a copy and support us!”