Thursday, May 22, 2008

The peverse core of Sameness

"[F]or a sufficiently different culture, the very understanding of what it is to be of worth will be strange and unfamiliar to us. To approach, say, a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier would be forever to miss the point. What has to happen is what Gademer has called a "fusion of horizons." We learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of formerly unfamiliar culture. The "fusion of horizons" operates through our developing new vocabulaties of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts" - Charles Taylor

In defense of my views of radical heterogenity and implicit difference, I hereby reveal that Taylor's Gadamer-inspired instructions to the future of ethnomusicology disguises a perverse totalizing ideoogy, albeit one intent on fostering common "vocabularies of comparison" which purports to erase fractured horizons of knowledge.

Taylor's allurng idea is by no means new to the field of critical studies. If Taylor had paid more attention to the French, perhaps Luce Irigaray would have rung multiple bells of consent. For Irigaray, disillusioned with phallogocentric models of articulation, the only exit from the symbolic universe of patriarchal knowledge production is through the fostering of a new language of commerce that simultaneously seeks to undo phallogocentric seams as well as politically rearticulate an agenda of egalitarianism.

Allow me to critique Irigaray, if you would (for I am not the first). Any totalizing symbolic system (or messily knotted discoursive tapestries) will inevitably create its own internal divisions of subscription and proscription. Ushuring in a new advent of a "language" that seeks to restore balance (or even undermind) an established heirarchy of power by tabling a flat political landscape will have to validate itself as a post-. This post-ness, by virtue of the Hegelian dialectic, can never recede to a choratic presymbolic realm (to use Kristeva in this debate), but must necessarily seek to incorporate, indeed disguise, the existing imbalance of power in order to legitimize its own agenda. What Irigaray's new language will do is (1) stratify differences between the old agenda and the new, creating a reflexive language of anxiety and taboos, and/or (2) seek new boundaries of otherness to clear-out its space of subscription.

This perverse core of Irigaray's "language" is a blunt rejection of phallogocentricism, but this rejection is not overcome, it constantly haunts the mechanisms that servs to legitimize the very use of the system. Lacan has reminded us of the shifting boundaries of the ego-Ideal, and the drive that constantly propels it towards alternative symbolic universes. Giving this a Zizekian spin (and I believe I'm the first to use the cheesy term "Zizekian"), the perverse political core of Irigaray's new language is a counter-drive to seek the stability of the political ego-Ideal, one that will restore presence to the marginal, and will install the decentered subject into history. Fancy hypothesizing, no? But Edelman reminds us that as long as new linguistic legacies are forged, the insoluble, traumatic kernal of the Real, that is, the subject's interminable lack, will forever be displaced onto another individual. Likewise, by act of dialectical incorporation, Irigaray's new language will have to sieve ideological plains for new scapegoats. Recall that guy named Derrida? Also recall it was as early as the 1970s when he remarked that:

"[T]he entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix [...] is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archÄ“, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject), alÄ“theia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth."

As Agawu has criticized, Taylor's inspirational address to the ethnomusicological community harbours not only a sense of politcal advocacy (which may be historically analyzed through the vehement and virulent aims of liberal democracy bent on world domination) but conceals the fact that the strategy of leveling difference has to be first predicated upon difference. Furthermore, who controls the terms of the levelling? As a dialectical mode of incorporation, the ones who figure difference get to propose the new paradigm, which paradoxically, rests on the position of power from which these policy makers are able to speak. For Agawu, the resulting "broader horizons" do not denote some form of Bakhtinian dialogue or agreement, where the negotiations of power are fluid, slippery and ever under question. Instead, these "broader horizons" are produced by the disciplinary field, and the discursive tradition of knowledge-production which lends it legs. It is indeed "our 'vocabularies of comparison' that will be enriched in the process" - as Agawu claims.

In another essay, I critiqued Agawu's solution regarding "sameness", but I feel for theoretical reasons, it should be returned to this discussion. For Agawu, "There is no method for attaining to samenes, only a presence of mind, an attitude, a way of seeing the world" (My emphasis). So Agawu envisions an enabling attitude that may be adopted which figures the Other as equal, (but can promptly be dismissed at will). Exactly what constitutes this "presence of mind"? If we push Agawu slightly further, we would find that his "presence of mind" strays no further that Taylor's activistic agenda. This "presence of mind" in "seeing the world" tries to stifle its own historical baggage while claiming to be reflexive of its own history. Personally, a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude seems the most dangerous one of them all. This "presence of mind" for Agawu is "not sameness but the presumption of sameness" (!) Hurray, a ladder for crawling over the fence which doubles up as an instrument with which to hit the other with. Again, "strategic sameness" falls into the trap of having to articulate itself. Once again, with whose vocabulary should "sameness" articulate itself with? Perhaps we are being too generous in letting the Subaltern speak when, at times, we are unable to listen.

Academic disciplines oriented towards the production of knowledge attempt to knot the discursive through the discoursive, each affecting each other via a highly complicated and messy feedback system. The very fact that knowledge has to be circulated in certain receptive spheres in order to be validated as a kind of academic knowledge reveals the fact that academic knowledge is, by extension, a disguised configuration of power, embodying multiple strategies of enunciation. Any symbolic universe has to be supported by the discursive, and the discursive oriented by the Symbolic. This system of power generation and perpetuation feeds back into itself, orbiting about institutional centers which oppose themselves to other centers. Producing "emic" knowledge or any form of knowledge along the gradient between "emic" and "etic" inadvertently subscribes to a particular symbolic and discursive universe - usually a Western system of articulation, that is strictly coded with its own philosophy and guiding rules to the production of knowledge. How can "new vocabularies" be forged or incorporated without being tinkered as a productive arm of the same enterprise? In the end, all that is being produced are multiple possible sites of enunciation within the same discursive sphere, an endless concentric circle of production that, fatefully, may be only undermined by academic silence.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Disciplining Noise

“Singapore’s streets are always seething with life. The noise is indescribable. London, New York, Paris and other great cities are bad enough; but they are a haven of peace in comparison with Singapore.”

– W. Robert Foran, Malayan Symphony (1935)

Nearly one and a half centuries ago, a certain Charles Wilkes, Commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, expressed his simultaneous fascination and disorientation watching a street performance of Chinese Opera in colonial Singapore during a Chinese New Year festival. Writing in February 1842, Wilkes described the “stage raised about six feet above the street … richly decorated with silk hangings, and banners with many inscriptions, and illuminated with coloured lamps” . Encountering this intriguing “spectacle” as an outsider, Wilkes expressed amusement with a certain mock fight-sequence in which:

“The two combatants draw their swords or handle their spears, and began turning round and poking each other without closing, when suddenly one runs off; the other, after having evidently informed the audience that he is the victor, then makes his exit, accompanied with a most tremendous noise from both the music and audience. After the performance had closed, it was with difficulty that I could determine whether it had been comedy or tragedy …” (My emphasis)

For Wilkes and many other Europeans visiting or working in Singapore since its humble beginnings as a trading settlement in 1819, Chinese Street Opera represented an encounter with an exotic, illegible other, eliciting responses ranging from fascination and bemusement to plain disgust. Indeed for these Europeans, “noise” was more than a mere barometer of confusion or intolerance; noise as a discourse operated as a mode of knowledge-production about Chinese Opera and the Chinese, that ultimately reified a relation of power between the Europeans and the Chinese – albeit one that was asymmetrical, Eurocentric, and implicitly racist. This paper will explore the ways in which the discourse surrounding Chinese Opera and “noise” eventually led to the need to discipline Chinese-Opera-as-noise, and the various methods of containment and control exercised by the colonial powers to do so.

To Wilkes, the “tremendous noise” which he witnessed during the Chinese Street Opera referred to an act that was both performative (on the part of the Chinese orchestra) and participatory (on the part of the roused spectators). Indeed for Wilkes, “noise” existed as a boundary which he could not transgress; “noise” indicated the limits of Chinese Opera’s legibility (or intelligibility), a domain of knowledge to which he had no access to because of his exclusion from the opera’s language, historical, cultural and social significance. To another Danish traveler HV Pederson, the “four or five Chinese [that] took charge of the music … played their primitive and hardly harmonious instruments of wood and metal with a truly irritating perseverance.” According to his account, noise was less a method of de-scribing what could not be understood than a strategy of delimiting the difference between civilization and primitiveness.

Jonas Daniel Vaughan, a colonial official in the early Straits Settlements was similarly intrigued with the confounding spectacle of Chinese Opera in Penang and Singapore, where he noted that the Chinese in the 1850s were “ardent admirers of the drama and will night after night sit to see what happens to us unmeaning spectacles.” For Vaughan, the performances were simply too much to bear:

“During the performance the audience smoke and chat away at the top of their voices; when anything interesting is going on they sit very still and pay great attention to the stage … To a European one or two visits to the theatre suffice for a lifetime. The din, smoke and foul air within are somewhat too much for his sensibilities …”

The “din” and “noise” that both Wilkes, Pederson and Vaughan described most likely referred to the wuchang [military or percussive] section of the Chinese Orchestra which accompanies the performers onstage. Usually consisting of up to eight kinds of drums, clappers, cymbals and gongs , the wuchang typically punctuated intricately choreographed fight sequences to cultivate an aesthetic climate of excitement and activity by mimicking the sound effects of war drums and swords clashing. To any spectator unaware of the narrative content of the performance he or she was encountering would most likely mistake the clamor of the wuchang for spectacular chaos.

To these European observers, the condition of noise was less an immanent essence residing within the aesthetic of Chinese Opera, but a strategy of delimiting and controlling the unknowable, indeed a judgment call that allowed these observers to assert their power as bearers of the colonial enterprise upon the local Chinese population. Noise, Paul Hegarty shrewdly asserts, “is not an objective fact” , but is constructed through a dialectic. For Hegarty, noise can only be understood as “a negativity … it does not exist independently, as it exists only in relation to what it is not.” In other words, Chinese Opera as noise could only have been defined as such in juxtaposition with its other, that is, the tradition of European music that helped to define Vaughan’s particular “sensibilities”.

Till 1867, Singapore remained under the control, jurisdiction and governance of the British East-India Company before it came under the direct control of the British Empire as part of the Crown Colonies, placing Singapore and her neighboring colonized sisters under the direct supervision of the London colonial office. Together with the increase of Steam Ships to Singapore in the 1840s and a refashioning of colonial control, the traveling of artists and musicians between London and the Crown Colonies were greatly facilitated . As Margaret Shennan notes, Singapore’s Western musical climate thrived between 1880 and 1914, accommodating musical celebrities such as Edward Salzmann (once of the Royal Italian Opera Company in London), Marie Hall, CB Buckley, AP Ager and Abrose Cross . These prominent musical talents quickly established themselves in schools, organizations and churches, helping to organize amateur musical societies to cultivate a receptive climate for Western music. With the founding of the Singapore Philharmonic Society in March 1819, Singapore found itself struck with the history of Western music from Rossini to the show tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan (then widely popular in London) .

This burgeoning climate of Western music impacted Singapore’s musical landscape in multiple ways. Besides appealing to homesick expatriate families with a yearning appetite for the familiar, the introduction of Western music studies in numerous institutions in Singapore (most notably mission schools) helped to cultivate a receptive audience comprised of a particular social and racial class. This, in turn, led to a reinforcement of the previous civilized/primitive binary: the social classes in Singapore which had access to education mostly consisted of the children of Colonial officers and a smattering of wealthy Chinese merchants. The large majority of the Chinese working class had no or little education, and virtually no tools with which to navigate this new Western soundscape they were encountering. Inevitably, this led to severe social divisions fostered by differing musical tastes – while the colonial servants embraced Western music as “our” music – the music of an apparently educated and civilized social and racial class – other forms of music including that of Chinese Opera were construed as “other”, “primitive” and “inferior”.

The great musical-cultural division initially predicated upon subscription to differing musical communities therefore simultaneously reified racial differences between the Europeans and the Chinese. Indeed ‘noise’ originally attributed to mere sonic phenomenon became coterminous with the Chinese themselves, an essential category that was perceived by the Europeans as intrinsic to “Chinese-ness” which struck up images of disorder and chaos in opposition to European “sensibilities”. It must be noted that several other social phenomena fed into the fashioning of the “noise” paradigm. Although not all of them were interrelated nor did they have immediate associations with Chinese Opera, what must be stressed was the way in which these individual discourses concerning ‘noise’ came to inform and inflect upon each other, and, as a totality, had material and physical bearings upon the perception and attitudes taken up towards Chinese Opera and its disciplining.

As a sonic phenomenon, “noise” was generally used to describe much of the din and clamor that characterized Chinese celebrations during festivals. Following the Lunar Calendar, the celebration of festivals such as Lunar New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival gave occasion to the performance of Chinese Opera alongside several other traditional practices that were deemed “noisy” by the European community. One such practice was the lighting of firecrackers on the streets during Chinese New Year, usually in the hundreds, “[occasioned] so much alarm” that drove he British authorities to issue a ban in 1848. This move was countered by Chinese anti-British sentiments and “public disquiet”, forcing the authorities to lift the ban in the same year of its imposition . The frequent use of drums, gongs and cymbals during other celebratory performances such as “Lion Dance” (traditionally used in villages to attract other distant villagers) were deemed a “public nuisance” in the crowded cosmopolitan city of Singapore, which ultimately caused Chinese Opera (which capitalized on the use of similar percussive instruments) to be similarly classified as “noise”.

At the same time, the bustling environment of Singapore’s Chinatown struck many travelers new to the area’s chaotic street-life, which they took to be not a sign of the activity particular to Chinatown, but a condition of noise particular to an essential “Chinese-ness”. For Isabella Bird, a “mature, middle-class Scotswoman” who travelled to Singapore in the late 1870s, Chinatown represented a “heathenish” soundscape of “vociferation … [mingling] with the ringing bells and the rapid beating of drums and tom-toms, an intensely heathenish sound.” To another RCH Mackie, Chinatown was “a street of a dozen languages, but the people are mostly Chinese and the noise is like the roar of a cup-final crowd gone crazy.” This chaotic turmoil of noise perceived of the Chinese way of life was perhaps best captured by John Maccallum Scott who reflected on a dining experience in Chinatown:

“At one end of the room a Chinese Orchestra strummed away on an incredible variety of instruments, and produced a perfect bedlam of noise. Out in the street someone was honouring the occasion by letting off fire-crackers in a manner which seemed to bring Chicago dangerously near.”

It was these coexistent geographical, social and cultural activities that intertwined to represent the European’s experience and perception of the sonic worldview of the Chinese: a worldview that was characterized by dischord, disharmony, and noise. “Noise,” Hegarty also points out, is not merely a sonic phenomenon but is also “cultural” , a knot formed by the knitting together of various cultural discourses. “Noise” in the creation of the European perception of the Chinese, therefore also exhibited an extra-musical or non-sonic phenomenon that cannot be simply ignored. Indeed other forms of extra-musical “noise” played an indispensible role in weaving the complete colonial fabric of the imaginary Oriental other, which, in turn, affected the (imagined) cultural matrix in which Chinese Opera was viewed.

At the level of public peacekeeping, the local Chinese population was cause for much social “noise” in the form of unrest and gang rivalries. As early as the 1830s, the British authorities had much to worry about regarding Chinese secret societies – “kongsis” or “Chinese Hoeys” as they were called . According to a journal kept by Major Low from 1840 – 1841, the Singaporean Chinese settlers “[upheld] … the kongsis or Secret Societies of which the Emperor of China is so much afraid. […] The largest proportion of charges of felony is found on the side of the Chinese: who, in the main, at this island, are little better than the refuse population of China.” With a vast majority of Chinese migrating from the coastal strip of east Kwangtung and south Fukien – provinces notorious for their “bitter clan feuds” , the Chinese settlers in Singapore were quick to mobilize secret societies of their own, enacting their violent rivalries on local pastures.

In addition to providing new settlers with a sense of brotherhood, community and protection, the power of these underground societies were used to “maintain or consolidate certain lucrative businesses such as mining, opium and spirit farms, gambling and prostitution.” As CM Turnbull notes, clan-based Secret Societies and gangs also flourished in the late 19th Century alongside these associations (usually closely related), some of which reenacted longstanding feuds from China in Singapore, leading to a series of unruly fights and casualties in 1824 . By 1840, it was reported that the Triad Society (a notorious political secret society) had some five to six thousand members who were responsible for “much of the violence and crime which plagued Singapore” . To make existing matters worse, the secret societies demonstrated open hostility to European religions, especially Christianity. In 1851, the hoeys instigated the island-wide slaughter of Christian converts, killing almost 500 Christians and destroying 30 agricultural settlements.

Further troubling the authorities was the intimate relationship between Secret Societies, prostitution and Chinese Opera. Since Chinese women were initially forbidden by tradition to emigrate , early Singapore’s Chinese demographic was predominantly male, creating a climate conducive for industries of the flesh. According to Terence Chong, Cantonese Opera in particular “thrived alongside prostitution” by the end of the 19th Century, with brothels blossoming “side-by-side with other businesses, including opera troupes and teahouses”, serving as a geographical one-stop-shop for pleasures of all kinds. For Chong,

“It was customary for prostitutes and their clients to frequent operas together, and opera actors regularly patronized the brothels as well. Furthermore, the accessibility of the Cantonese opera made it a communal activity closely related to other activities such as social eating, drinking and, in this case, sex.”

Prostitution, on the other hand, was closely controlled by the numerous secret societies in Singapore, who provided a constant influx of Chinese woman through illegal trafficking . For Ching-Hwang, the link between secret societies and brothel keepers was not completely clear, since “some of [the keepers] were secret society members turned into brothel keepers [while] some were businessmen, who joined the secret society ranks because of instant benefits” . While the revenue collected from prostitution helped to fund a significant part of the societies’ activities, Chinese Opera came to serve as a mark of the societies’ wealth and distinct dialect identity, thriving on the support of wealthy Chinese merchants who were themselves members of secret societies .

All these activities were thus instrumental in constructing a complicated web of sonic and social “noise” as perceived by the colonial powers, a manifestation disorder, anarchy and, above all, a form of misbehavior and resistance in the eyes of the colonial parent. This web was the ascertained cultural matrix in which Chinese Opera was inevitably part of, a ‘noisy’ cog in the machine of Chinese unruliness, threatening the hegemony of colonial rule. “Noise”, Hegarty explains, “threatens [the subject and] is part of the other I define myself against. Noise is a phenomenology of noise, insofar as it exists in relation to individuals, who define themselves as being subject to noise” . This total matrix of “noise” of which Chinese Opera was seen to be a part of was subjected to being perceived as threatening. This noise, therefore, had to be disciplined not only to remove it as perceived threat, but also to rearticulate the hegemony of Colonial power over the local Chinese. To exercise discipline on the various forms of Chinese “noise” was to reaffirm a discourse of dominance over the Chinese, and, to correspondingly (and actively) construct the Chinese as racially inferior. In order to sustain and reproduce the colonial fantasy of superiority and Eurocentrism, it was necessary to prove that the disciplining of noise was both necessary and the Chinese “noise” deserved to be disciplined, serving a particular language of colonialism that reinforced notions of (European) parenthood and (Chinese) infancy.

In 1837, an acerbic article appeared in the Singapore Free Press regarding the disorderly circumstances in which Chinese celebrations were held. Criticizing the unchecked liberal usage of firecrackers, the writer (presumably European), likened the “little Chinese urchins” to “boys everywhere else who are allowed to have their own way”, arguing that the “customs of the natives” should “be restricted at least to particular hours and places” . Consequently, in 1850, the authorities issued a set of restrictions on public street performances and street processions in a bid to maintain public order, which sparked an outcry from the local Chinese population . Despite a petition submitted in February by 83 Chinese businessmen and well-regarded personalities, the government implemented the Police and Conservatory Acts in 1856 to “further restrict assemblies and processions, including wayang [Chinese Opera]” . To protest the Acts, Chinese shops, markets and transport workers staged a strike on 2 January 1857 , claiming that the Acts “had been brought into force without their objects properly made known to or understood” . 2 months later in Penang, when colonial police attempted to stop an opera performance, a fierce riot ensued which culminated in several casualties and deaths . Despite these clashes, the colonial authorities failed to relent, and it became necessary for all organizations to apply for public licensing from the police to stage Chinese Opera – a practice which still continues today.

Thus, by the late 1850s, street Chinese Opera was both spatially and temporally disciplined. In order to perform, troupes had to seek permission from the police, who issued licenses based on time-slots in which these troupes were allowed to perform, at pre-destined locations that were deemed suitable for performance. Facing sudden obstacles in the freedom of performances, Chinese Opera was forced to make the transition from street to indoor stage in order to find alternative performance spaces. In 1887, a Chinese diplomat by the name of Zhen Jie noted that there were already four to five permanent theatres erected for the performance of Chinese Opera . The relocation of street Opera to indoor venues were valuable in the colonial disciplining of noise for several reasons. Firstly, the sound produced by the opera troupe was contained as opposed to exposed, greatly reducing Chinese Opera’s audibility on the streets. Secondly, the limited sizes of the theatres effectively restricted the number of spectators that could watch the opera at any one time, thereby reducing the possibility of social chaos within such contained quarters. Thirdly, the move from outdoor to indoors drastically reduced the immediate visibility of Chinese Opera, removing to the realm of invisibility. This geographical disciplining of Chinese Opera’s performance spaces was therefore a material manifestation of the social and cultural divide between the Europeans and the Chinese communities, helping to keep their cultural worlds as far apart from each other as possible. Although these restrictions did not entirely efface street performances of Chinese Opera, it greatly reduced the number of troupes performing on the streets. For the Europeans, the movement of Chinese Opera indoors was also a method of containment, indeed a way of controlling of the Singaporean cultural soundscape which – in their belief – rightly belonged to them.

If the spatial disciplining of Chinese Opera were not enough, in 1896, the Municipal Commissioners drafted and effected the Theatre Ordinance Law to regulate and control all native theatres. Under this law, municipal committee had the right to evict theatres that did not meet their standards of cleanliness and safety. Buildings used as theatre halls were required to possess certificates of fitness issued by the committee if the building adhered to the conditions specified by the commissioners . By 1917, the supervision over native theatres was tightened, and the colonial government found ways to make their disciplining essentially a productive one. During the performances, since theatres used kerosene and oil lamps for lighting, theatres were required to employ government-owned fire brigades to be on standby. Jokingly called the “fire brigade watching theatres”, the revenue collected by the government from the theatres rose from $2,025 in 1915 to $5,146 in 1924 . Such tight control meant that certain buildings were made unsuitable for the performance of Chinese Opera, which further limited the number of spaces troupes could perform in. To make matters worse, the fees demanded for these “fire brigade watching theatres” made Chinese Opera a pricey endeavor, creating economically difficult circumstances for the staging of Chinese Opera. As a result, only theatres run by wealthy Chinese merchants were available for renting; naturally, these rental fees were extremely high. As Opera actor Chang Tik Ying recalls,

“You had to pay rent to the owners of the theatres and there was no guarantee that you could recover that cost from your revenue.”

Under these disciplinary conditions up till the early 20th Century, it appeared Chinese Opera hit a brick wall. Had these practices continued to stand without intervention, the presence of local opera troupes in Singapore were likely to have completely vanished were it not for a new phenomenon of “amusement worlds” in the 1930s, opening up lucrative new spaces for performance which led to a mini-revival of the genre.

Despite its freedom from colonial tyranny, Chinese Opera in Singapore today has been perceived by many to be on the decline. Indeed, owing to a different set of political circumstances particular to Singapore’s post-colonial history, Chinese Opera became subject to a different kind of disciplining that was unforeseen by her forefathers. Liberated from her colonial parent in the 1960s, Singapore’s homegrown leaders scrambled to construct a sense of shared ethnic identity coupled with a new cultural aesthetic, leading to the valorization of “indoor” amateur opera troupes over “outdoor” professional troupes . The decentralization of Chinese living quarters in Chinatown into multi-ethnic high-rise flats forced more non-Chinese speakers into closer proximity, leading the government to issue tighter performance regulations which echoed the early 1856 police Acts. Furthermore, with the decline of the use of dialects by second generation Singaporeans , Chinese Opera has once more returned into the obscure shadow of unintelligibility from whence it once emerged. Indeed for these second generation Singaporeans, Chinese Opera became associated with a different form of noise: that of generational noise. Younger citizens who have come to embrace English and standardized mandarin as their language of commerce perceive not only linguistic distance from their dialect-speaking forefathers, but also a sense of alienation from dialect-dependent art forms such as Chinese Opera . For many of these citizens, the cultural importance which Chinese Opera once represented has faded into a ghost of a distant past, lodged somewhere between ossified or museumified artifact and a persistent noise haunting the city-scape of modern Singapore.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

RE: Wayang

JN wrote
at 12:15pm

dude it might be out of the scope of your discussion but chinese opera is wayy more alive in hongkong and china. The Wayang as we know it in a modern theatre with smoke and lights and lip-synced and all the pantomine physical comedy sorta thing with VCDs, KTV albums and major merchandising for the auntie crowd. Was at one of those shows (for work) and the audience is not particularly any better behaved, (nuff to make any western theatre director cry at the insult, can't hardly blame them though, think the audience is old enough to have their ears and bladders long gone)

but for the struggling Singapore wayang troupes, it i simply 7th mth for the Gods and Gods and random ah ma, ah pek alone.

HT wrote
at 12:22pm

You are absolutely right, I'm not construing Wayang to be a privileged form in Singapore. On the contrary, I am fully aware that Hong Kong and China's treatment of Wayang has been much more receptive. There is also a long history in Singapore about the professionalization of the early postcolonial wayang troupes, and the politics between indoors/outdoors as cultivated by a constructed NAtional Aesthetic that had severe repurcussians on the troupes. What I am inerested in is the cultural "space" wayang occupies today, partially museumified, partially ghettocized, but always in a trapartite relation to Getai (which is itself a fascinating phenomenon), and theatrical forms of representation. Wayang has had a rich and complicated history in Singapore that threatens to withstand categorization or convenient narrative. There are implications to what you say about "Wayang as we know it in a modern theatre with smoke and lights" - and this transitory phenomenon was not accidental at all.

JN wrote
at 12:40pm

'cultural "space" wayang occupies today, partially museumified, partially ghettocized'- hmmmm very interesting line and very true for singapore.
yup even wayang has gone mainstream. Is this part of your coursework, cos it sounds like a one hell of a project. Especially if your tracing it from its migrant roots of individual threads of culture (dialects, systems of community control) and against the colonial control. National Asethetic? gee, its almost a misnomer, like describing the beauty of sterile concrete. Still, lacking asethetic is still not no asethetic especially for a nation that once declared that 'we have no time for poetry' (LKY, 1967 speech).

I bitch. Nahhh sounds like your onto something :) sweet.

HT wrote
at 2:12pm

Haha, the history is so complicated I'm not going to be able to cover everything. What I'm probably aiming for in talking about the cultivation of a national aesthetic is nothing implicitly jingoistic. In fact, cultivation already implies intervention, and in the 1970s, the intervention of Confucianism as a discursive viability had real consequences for the funding of opera troupes in Sinapore, followed by the reguation, control and marginalization of certain kinds of Opera. It is a mistake to conceive of Wayang as a nominal essence, easily forgetting that it is intrinsically so diverse, bearing multiple histories under a single umbrella term. Wayang has come to signify partially through feats of spatial disciplining by the government as well as certain socio-political affiliations.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Noise: Making a din about Wayang

After prolonging my research to cater to other scholarly needs, I returned to the study of "popular" Wayang in Singapore, as viewed through the tripartite relation with professional outdoor troupes, amateur indoor troupes and the steady rise of Getai (literally translated: song-stage) as a potent contender to the entertainment of those-that-cannot-be-seen. One thing that struck me during my research was how neatly Chinese Opera tended to develop along lines of restriction and policy. There are many ways to theorize Chinese Opera today that drastically calls into question the "ethno" in ethnomusicology. For a postmodern collage state continually re-negotiating the boundaries of identity, how does "ethnicity" (itself initially begotten of Diaspora) seize history, ossifying and commodifying it into National property, so to speak?

In the early history of Chinese Opera, Diasporic identity was closely intertwined with clan associations. The strategic Rafflesian spatial allocation of living quarters of foreigners in early Singapore of the 19th Century allowed the Chinese community to enjoy close proximity to other natives from mainland China. Within the temporary space of relocation, identity was forged via dialect and district - the Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese and Hakkas all performing difference through their individual unique take on Chinese Opera - partially inherited from their specific region from mainland China, and engineered to fit the constraints of new territory. The first signs of control exercised over the public performance of ethnicity was expressed through the 1895 municipal bill passed to regulate "the construction of theatres and for the control and supervision thereof" by Alex Gentle - then the Municipal commissioner. Apparently, the colonial powers expressed concern over the overcrowding situation in theatre halls as well as the dire sanitary conditions they were in. Initially born out of a desire to cultivate an colonial vision of the obedient native, supervision over local theatres were tightened from 1917 onwards as the Chinese population swelled in size, clearing away a space for surveillance by introducing doctrinal guidelines for "correct" performance under the eyes of the colonial parent.

The most interesting remarks made by colonial masters in Singapore were their bewildered confusion at what seemed to be an unintelligable spectacle, indeed a ghastly din of sorts. The earliest mention of Chinese Opera in colonial Singapore came from a certain Charles Wilkes, who was the Commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, examining the colonial successes of the British empire in the 1840s. At a loss for words, Wilkes likened the performative dialogue to "a kind of recitative" which was accompanied by "beating with two small sticks on the bottom of a copper kettle of the shape of a coffee pot." For Wilkes,

"The two combatants drew their swords or handle their spears, and began turning around poking at each other without closing, when suddenly one runs off; the other, after having evidently informed the audience that he is the victor, then makes his exit, accompanied with a most tremendous noise from both the music and the audience. After the performance had closed, it was with difficulty that I could determine whether it had been comedy or tragedy"

Of course the local Chinese community were deeply aware of their linguistic and performative Otherness - Wayang not only allowed them to perform, ritualize and reify their commonalities, but demarcated a space where they could be contrasted against the local colonial British powers. These were more than acts of symbolism, but also acts of Symbolic resistant that resists (and rebukes) intelligability by the spheres figured by colonial knowledge. Reveling in these performances by the rabblement was thus, in a way, rebel-meant. Cheers of heroic triumph meant restaging the script of personal history so intimately linked with Diasporic nostalgia; for a history that was all the more cherished in opposition to one that was being constructed along Colonial sentiments. For the foreigners witnessing the Opera, noise was a heavily weighted sentiment. According to another colonial officer Jonas Daniel Vaughan (writing in the early 1850s),

"During the performance [,] the audience smoke and chat away at the top of their voices; when anything interesting is going on they sit very still and pay great attention to the stage ... To a European one or two visits to the theatre suffice for a lifetime. The din, smoke and foul air within are somewhat too much for his sensibilities..."

Another early traveller, HV Pederson had much to say about the racket:

"Throughout the entire performance, they [the musicians] played their primitive and hardly harmonious instruments of wood and metal with a truly irritating perseverance."

Here, an emerging implicit discourse was being formulated about unintelligability and the Other. For these early initiates to the din of Chinese Opera, the 'unharmonious" persistance of the Opera stirred up mixed feelings about the craft. However, fueled by the Orientalist impulse, the condition of "noise" quickly aspired to the condition of characterizing the Other. For Vaughan, the "noise" was not simply the performative idiom of Chinese Opera. "Noise" was the combined phenomenon of audience participation and the action onstage. "Noise" came to embody what was exhaustingly confusing or flabbergasting to foreigners who encountered Chinese Opera: how could these natives stand such spectacularly crass forms of entertainment that so offended the hypothetical "European"? Unlike the early anthropologists who thronged Bali, there was thus no serious attempt to understand Chinese Opera in Singapore by visitors and local Colonial authorities alike. To them, "noise" was a strategy of distancing, a strategy of naming what cannot be made intelligable in their Symbolic-discursive sphere. Or, musically put, "noise" was a strategy of making musically intelligable what they could not listen to.