Belonging by Tan Shzr Ee

Shzr Ee is an academic, freelance writer and guerilla accordionist based in London. She also provided the voice of the narrator for TIONG BAHRU, which is screening at the Singapore Writers Festival, Dublin Contemporary and the Travelling Sydney Film Festival in October.

In my recent history of doing voiceover work in the UK, I’ve been called upon to affect different Chinese accents.

“Never mind what you say or sing… it just has to sound vaguely Chinese, you know?” – was how two sound engineers making a faux-Oriental ad for a men’s deodorant put it.

They added: “Some kind of mysterious voice from Shanghai; with a 1920s feel.”

Then: “We want an accent that indicates you come from Taiwan – although I suppose nobody here can tell the difference. But it still has to be intelligible enough to British audiences,” – went another media executive.

And finally, a documentary producer working on a TV show about the world’s tallest woman: “Um… that was very good but it sounds too polished. Too American-Chinese. Could we have a bit of the foreign feel please? It has to really sound as if you are from China.”

I’ve been living in London for more than 10 years. And while friends and colleagues have long gotten over the fact that the Singaporean in me is not so much buried away than code-switched into parallel mode (I’m back for a month every year on behalf of work anyway), they still wonder where I really come from, where I truly belong; what sort of passport I hold; whether I call myself Singaporean, Chinese, or, simply, a Londoner.

More recently, I was invited by London-based filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy to assist on voiceover and translation work for TIONG BAHRU as part of the Civic Life project, the DVD of which you now hold in your hand.

“But what sort of Mandarin should I be speaking?” I countered, mindful of the fact that different variations already exist in Singapore.

A Beijing-bred warble in putonghua wouldn’t do, although I’ve been told newscasters in Singapore have been requested to model their voices upon this international standard.

A drawly Taiwanese slang – which I found myself picking up in the course of working on the island for a year – was inappropriate, even as Mandopop strands imported en masse from that subtropical island continue to prevail over Singapore’s TV and radio waves.

And just as I thought of tweaking my accent to approximate your regular gregarious Qigong-practising Auntie who shops at NTUC-FairPrice, I suddenly remembered that this film was to be screened at the official-sounding National Museum as part of a programme on home and belonging. The immediate re-tailoring of my voice, then, to fit this consideration, subsequently brought on immense guilt at the thought of my having wanted to mimic the Qigong auntie at all, now inadvertently cast into a stereotype marked by social class in my sonic imagination.

But the thing is, as Joe and Christine’s film featuring real-life characters have shown, one single place can bring together an incredible mosaic of different accents, different conversations, different life stories and different individuals.

My initial hesitation at using Mandarin to overdub the thoughts of a very real Tiong Bahru inhabitant, the Malay teenager Veronica, was assuaged by the revelation that Veronica could actually speak a quite bit of Mandarin, as I also remember to be the case of many of my multilingual Malay friends today.

Then, there was schoolgirl Sherilyn’s halting attempt to read her class assignment aloud, a document which was in turn written in a formal language 11-year-olds wouldn’t normally communicate in. It struck me as unnatural – until I remembered my own schooldays which featured a very anxious Mum presiding over and polishing my own Chinese homework before submission to teachers the next day.

Finally, there was Amah, who still doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin today, but somehow manages to convey everything she needs to – with the gentle prod of her hand; with the ghost of a wince; with her slow, shuffling footsteps.

These real people are all part of Tiong Bahru – a place I thought I knew well enough over two decades of having lived in Singapore, but also a place that continues to reveal new secrets and fresh faces, from So-Ugly-It’s-Beautiful carparks to weekend-only Indie designer stores.

But if a place can be a geographical intersection of so many distinct cultures and personalities, can the same also be said of a single person? Can one’s personal identity – one’s sense of belonging; one’s imagination of home – be divided into as many different facets?

Today, I spend most of my time in King’s Cross, London, renting a bedsit in the British equivalent of an HDB flat from a landlord who was born in Gloucester, taught English in Nanjing and now researches African political economies.

One of the former inhabitants of this flat – now since moved to the North of England – did a PhD on Singaporean migrants working in London. A more recent flatmate has just come back from a spontaneous documentary-making sojourn to Mexico, where he recorded more than 150 hours of time with a cancer-stricken American who had abandoned his birthplace to live his dying years in whisky-and-cigarettes degenerate bliss, away from the saccharine nursing homes of Miami.

Back in London, we joke and refer to ourselves as poor “transnationals.” We don’t know where we’re going next, but we know where we have been. Unrooted and transient as we may seem, we carry the joys and sorrows of our (young) lives lived so far in our terabyte hard-disks of once-analog-now-digitalised photos. We mark different chapters of our personal histories through Ikea Billy bookcases assembled-and-demolished and re-assembled with each flat-moving exercise. We get jerked into the past-turned-present through a Friend Request from a classmate from Not-so-long-ago (but really Too-far-back-to-remember), thanks to the overwhelming tentacles of FaceBook.

It’s not so much one single place we belong to today, than how, in our short histories of living in an ever-changing world, we have also given parts of ourselves to multiple homes; to multiple eras – multiple favourite bands; multiple TV programme addictions; multiple different love affairs.

While I consider myself lucky enough to have travelled to and lived in different places around globe, you don’t even have to do that in order to get in touch with your many different selves.

Tiong Bahru, for one, is a place of multiple eras, multiple stories and multiple lives. And even from the perspective of a single resident walking through its newly-landscaped parks and retro-mod food stalls, it remains a home of many different homes – not simply because of threatening evils such as urban development, but for the fact that we ourselves are changing, in different ways (and also alongside) the beloved environments we make our pasts and futures in.

I return to my opening rant on Chinese accents around the world, Singaporean accents in Tiong Bahru, and voiceovers in London.

On the final day of recording for TIONG BAHRU filmmakers Joe and Christine suggested taking the following approach towards finding the right pitch: “Just speak as if you are talking intimately – almost whispering – to a dear friend.”

I took a deep breath and imagined myself transported into my favourite 1980s SBC* TV serial, where everyone spoke an impeccable Mandarin – a Mandarin which no one in real Singapore ever could muster regularly, but would surely recognise as that ideal accent of “home”; of “Singaporeanness.”

Was my “dear friend”, now, really a character soap opera?

You get to decide of course – but I’ll have to warn that my vocal cords were truly, only technically primed after a few good gulps of that all-calming and oh-so-English cup of PG Tips tea.

*Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (1980–1994)

TAN SHZR EE

Shzr Ee is an academic, freelance writer and guerilla accordionist based in London. Born in Singapore but cursed with the travel bug, she grew up in Japan, studied classical piano in the UK and has lived among the Amis aborigines of Taiwan, with whom she conducted her doctoral research. She is also the author of Lost Roads: Singapore (SNP) and the narrator of TIONG BAHRU.


This essay features in the booklet accompanying the DVD of TIONG BAHRU, available from all NLB branches.

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