Letters of note: the Singapore Bicentennial edition
The Chinese character on the pink slip of letter paper expresses the hardships of early life in Singapore for migrant workers. (Photos: Huang Qinghai, Quanzhou Overseas Chinese History Study Society)

Letters of note: the Singapore Bicentennial edition

Much ado has been made about the Bicentennial statues and the historical figures commemorated this year, as Singapore explores its past and its connection with the people who shaped the country. The lives of men and women who made a difference, their personal stories and the achievements spoken of in history books – these are in the spotlight throughout the year at talks and exhibitions.

It is these history books that The Future of Our Pasts Festival looks to go beyond, with a month-long arts and culture festival that explores the lesser-known stories of communities and places of the past and present. The festival, organised by Yale-NUS, runs until 17 Mar, with events held at various locations around the city.

Intimacies is one of the exhibitions in the festival. Put together by tertiary students and recent graduates, it examines the history of Singapore through the lens of remittance letters sent home by Chinese migrant workers in the 19th and early-20th century. Read between the lines of these remittance letters, often a few sentences long, and the worlds of early migrants in Singapore unfold vividly.

Instructions on what to spend the remittance money on reflect the value of hard work and what one could buy with it. The frequency of the letters shines a light on the fortunes made and lost. In many cases, the lines of writing and the money that accompanied the letters were also the only threads holding long-distance marriages together.

But the letters did not always narrow the distance between the migrant worker and his family back home; sometimes, they magnified the gulf between. Letters peppered with pragmatic notes about familial obligations and others, about the burden of toiling in a foreign land to provide for family – one has the Chinese character for hardship writ large on the page – show how the migrants’ lives were tied down by those they had left behind, their lives not theirs to own.

The exhibition also references Sir Stamford Raffles, with a video of an exorcism – a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of Raffles as a figure who looms large over public discourse about Singapore’s past, and whose haunting presence is hard to shake off from our collective memory.

While it is inevitable that Raffles will continue to be a part of conversations on Singapore’s early beginnings, exhibitions such as Intimacies raise public awareness of the different communities that built Singapore. The remittance letters in the show are artefacts that make up the unique tapestry of Singapore history and culture, and now is as good a time as ever to examine the contributions of those whose lives are told through the dispatches.


Details about Intimacies here.

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