Film in Southeast Asia

Topics: Chinese Singaporeans, Busking, Singapore Pages: 10 (3034 words) Published: August 22, 2013
I remember Victor and Charlee from my teens. I spent those years in Batu Pahat, a fairly large town in Johor, that had the advantage over many other towns in that state for being close enough to Singapore to receive the country’s TV and radio signals. As a result, I knew all the lyrics of televised Singaporean patriotic songs, like Stand Up for Singapore; and I got to know Singaporean entertainers like Brian Richmond, Roger Kool, and the ventriloquist Victor Khoo and his puppet Charlee.

Khoo and wooden sidekick were never considered cool by anyone I knew. I did not grow up in Singapore so I don’t know if, had I attended one of his performances, I would have reacted with as much excitement as the children shown screaming in Tan Pin Pin’s short film, Singapore GaGa.

In fact, Charlee still looks rather sinister to me, perhaps because I associate him with the “insane ventriloquists” and their practically-possessed dummies (Davis 136) featured in popular culture. Khoo, however, with his mullet and shoulder-padded jacket, seems unbelievably cheesy. Could it be true that Singaporean children really love the duo so much?

The shouts and cheers at the Multiracial Children’s Lantern Festival Party seem genuine enough and director Tan herself says, on her website, that on the way to film the event, she “felt excited, unsure what it would be like to meet after all these years” (Singapore GaGa, website) … almost as if she was on her way to see an old flame. The signage showing the name of the event makes, I feel, an ironic statement. Look out at the sea of children and they comprise mostly ethnic Chinese. Thus, if Singapore GaGa is Tan’s “statement about multicultural Singapore”, then she is saying that, like the signage, the island state’s multiracial identity is a somewhat false one, the picture skewed.

In a paper published in 2008, Alexius Pereira cited Singapore’s then most recent census figures, in which the Chinese made up ‘seventy-five per cent’ (351) of the population. Tan’s film reflects this racial majority. Footage of MRT stations shows a predominantly Chinese public. Non-Chinese Singaporeans are few and far between, and easily-missed.

I don’t believe Tan included Charlee, the ventriloquist’s dummy in her film to make a point about multiracialism. In fact, her point may be that the multiracial image projected by Singaporean authorities is misleading.

Charlee talks about how the children he’s entertained for 50 years have not changed at all: They laugh at the same jokes. This might be a significant remark, pointing perhaps at how an icon like Charlee (he compares himself to Mickey Mouse) unifies children of all races, across generations, but although it may be true that Singaporean children through the decades all love Charlee, their racial diversity is not at all obvious to viewers.

I do think that Victor and Charlee’s inclusion in Singapore GaGa is suggestive though. In an interview (available on the DVD of the film), Tan describes the film as a documentary about Singapore presented through the ‘sounds and music of Singapore’ (Singapore GaGa, film). In another interview, with popular podcaster and blogger Mr Brown, she says that she had always been aware that there was a Singapore she knew ‘that was never articulated’ and that she wanted to ‘describe it and share it with others’ (Mr Brown).

Tan’s familiarity with Khoo as a performer leads me to believe that she chose him and Charlee partly for nostalgic reasons. After all, Tan does say that the film is ‘curiosity-driven rather than deliberate’ and it would seem probable that she is referring to personal curiosity, provoked by her own experiences.

I do think that, in addition to this curiosity about the act, she wished to use Khoo’s profession as a ventriloquist to make a point about her movie as a whole. First of all, I believe that Tan’s film, whether by design or accident (she mentions, several times, during the above-mentioned podcast, the...

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