Amsterdam University Press

Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: an interview with Steve Choe and Gerald Sim

Gerald Sim's new book embarks on an interdisciplinary tour of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia’s film cultures, discovering postcolonial epistemologies that encourage a reconsideration of prevailing tropes and prosecute a case for theoretical engagement. As the inaugural title of Critical Asian Cinemas, series editor Steve Choe and Gerald Sim discuss the book and its timeliness.
The reverential opening shot of Sir Stamford Raffles's statue in Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961, director: P. Ramlee).
Courtesy of The Shaw Organization Pte Ltd.

Steve Choe: Congratulations on your book Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability, I'm really thrilled that it's coming out. It’s very timely and deals with issues that have been long overdue within film studies and certainly within Southeast Asian film studies.

Gerald Sim: Thank you so much. You remind me of the need I felt to write the book. The dominant postcolonial theoretical approaches to these types of films never seemed to fit. The usual suspects in the canon could never fully account for local conditions and textual nuances, because the nature of colonial memory and postcolonial nostalgia in the region is singularly unique.

Steve Choe: I was drawn to that interest in postcolonial theory’s inadequacies and how Southeast Asian audio-visual media forces us to reconsider its deconstructive efficacy and epistemological limits. For example, when Spivak asks if the subaltern can speak, the question is philosophically bound to Europeanism in a way. You reconfigure the question when you ask whether the subaltern wants to speak at all.

Gerald Sim: That’s another thing I wanted the book to think about, to complicate what being a subaltern is commonly taken to mean, and to hopefully add nuance to the definition of a postcolonial subject. It’s too easy to assume that any sympathy or positive emotion within that subject’s understanding of their colonial identity is necessarily implicated in complicity, collaboration, or passivity.

Steve Choe: The book also interfaces with events happening right now, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, followed by the protests about systemic racism and ultimately, political contestations of statuary in the U.S. and around the world. Two particular statues of figures from the 19th Century were under contention recently, Stamford Raffles in Singapore and Francis Light in Malaysia. Some were asking why their identities needed to be defined in relation to the history of colonialism? Can you tell me your understanding of what's going on here?

Gerald Sim: Raffles is the colonial administrator recognized as the founder of modern Singapore. His name is a common moniker that connotes history and prestige on many local institutions, and his landing site is commemorated with a prominent marble statue in the Civic District. When Black Lives Matter protestors were toppling statues of Confederate figures, Christopher Columbus, of Edward Colston in the U.K., and of Leopold in Belgium, even throwing some in the river, a local academic historian and policy researcher suggested on social media that they should reconsider the prominence of Raffles in the historical narrative, and perhaps move his statue into a museum, echoing those in the States arguing that if Confederate statues have historical value then they should be housed in museums and not venerated in public spaces… You should have the full visual context: the statue stands in front of a concert venue named for Queen Victoria, and it adjoins a promenade named Queen Elizabeth Walk. This tendency to have rather fragrant memories of colonialism is uniquely Southeast Asian. So there was never any danger that Raffles would end up in the river, and the debate burned itself out fairly rapidly. The ground is shifting on this though. During the country’s bicentennial last year, the statues of four local pioneers were placed beside Raffles—a multicultural group that’s very much on brand. The display was only temporary, but not insignificant.

Steve Choe: But the academic was attacked ad hominem by a right-leaning politician, right?

Gerald Sim: Right, by a former politician active on social media and given to reactionary views. He sicced his followers on that researcher, which had the intended effect. The post was deleted soon after. Now it’s not surprising that this appreciation of the British as benevolent rulers who gifted native villagers and fishermen with modernity would be defended. It’s literally the textbook narrative that has been curated very purposefully. But elsewhere online, more interesting and revealing conversations were taking place. On one message board I encountered, someone commented that the statue’s value as a tourist attraction is more than sufficient justification for letting it stay. I’d only be partially joking when I say that nothing could be more culturally authentic than that kind of cold, calculated instrumentalism.

It’s inextricable from the social alienation that I discuss in the book, the detachment that people adopt in response to hardnosed and ruthless approaches to urban development. It’s a common observation of the city, usually connected to a negative critique of the place as an ahistorical, over-commercialized cultural wasteland. There’s undeniable truth to that, but I thought the book could comprehend it with more complexity. So for example, there are different ways to process the all-white aesthetic of those five statues. An uncharitable analysis would identify it as another instance of postmodern pastiche. But white is also the color on many other structures in that district, for public housing, and so on. It signifies modernity, it’s utilitarian. And so in turn, rejecting the colonial narrative sooner or later becomes a challenge to the discourse of the state, if not the state itself. Even on that message board, the atmosphere is thick with the presence of that power. Britain isn’t nourishing this ideology, a lot of it is derived locally.

Steve Choe: Your mention of tourism brings me to the statue of explorer Francis Light, which stands in Fort Cornwallis, a tourist attraction in Malaysia. It was defaced recently.

Someone threw red paint on it, pictures went out on Twitter, and some sympathetic chatter followed. I don’t think there was much possibility that the statue would be torn down there either, the paint was cleaned up pretty quickly. But again the reception of what happened is the most interesting part. The coverage made the obvious connection to global anti-racism protests, but it was largely treated as merely one of many possible reasons. Arguably one of its most important newspapers didn’t even make any reference to it. Much was given over to the possibility that this was the work of Chinese loan sharks, who are known to splash red paint on the houses and cars of delinquent borrowers. There’s no reason to think that the act is related to anyone’s debt, it makes no sense. The obvious interpretation in the current context is that the red paint signifies blood, right?

Steve Choe: I guess the loan shark angle makes sense in a certain way, but this apparent avoidance, not acknowledging other possibilities is amazing.

Gerald Sim: If it were about debt, then this would be a demand for British reparations, or a message to colonizers that they’re covered in blood. But the red paint was never explicitly read that way. Instead there seemed to be this constant effort to minimize or refuse the political, to treat it as merely vandalism or mischief. And there was also an inevitable jab towards the Japanese. One report mentioned that the statue used to have a sword, but it was removed by the Japanese during the occupation.

Steve Choe: That phenomenon is definitely true for China, Korea, and throughout Asia, this tendency to identify oneself in opposition to Japanese imperialism.

Gerald Sim: So much gets displaced onto those atrocities, the Japanese are such mythical villains. Speaking of which, I needed to acquaint readers with all those cultural tensions very quickly. That’s why I started by parachuting readers into the middle of these curiosities, to illustrate this odd vibe on the streets, in the colonial architecture, at a soccer game, in a museum, in a cab. It must be very strange to many people but it also makes sense somehow. And it’s easy to misunderstand; a former correspondent for the Financial Times also wrote a column about the Raffles statue. It’s rueful and indignant in all the usual ways, and seems to suggest that local racism is attributable to a colonial hangover. Colonialism did operate with a racial hierarchy for non-whites, but it’s not like people needed Europeans to teach them how to be racist. That’s clear even on the message board, because commenters were mocking the academic, who is Indian, by asking if he would replace Raffles with Modi, Gandhi, or the Indian video game character from Street Fighter. At the same time, although Chinese privilege is real, it doesn’t translate to much cultural affinity with China. It’s a mistake you can see committed in film studies.

Steve Choe: Finally, one of the things that I really love about the book is the critique happening on two levels. One is about the relationship between the text and empirical reality, but then there's also the critique of the largely Western modes of analysis that forges this relationship between representation and history. You do that by being self-conscious and vigilant about your own privilege as a someone speaking about the region while in the West, and the license that comes with that.

Gerald Sim: I was following the lead of others I cite, who make clear that it's important to remain self-critical, I think for obvious reasons. But it also happens to be thoroughly appropriate when you’re talking about what colonial power means for a set of cultures that live geographically, economically, and therefore culturally at a crossroads, in a region defined by the Cold War. It’s the best lens to use over this petri dish.

About the book

Postcolonial Hangups in Southeast Asian Cinema: Poetics of Space, Sound, and Stability explores a geopolitically situated set of cultures negotiating unique relationships to colonial history. Singaporean, Malaysian, and Indonesian identities are discussed through a variety of commercial films, art cinema, and experimental work. The book discovers instances of postcoloniality that manifest stylistically through Singapore's preoccupations with space, the importance of sound to Malay culture, and the Indonesian investment in genre.

Order now and receive a 20% discount using the promo code Pub_PostcolonialHangups at the checkout. Valid until 1st November 2020.

About the series

Critical Asian Cinemas is a timely series that includes studies that critique the aesthetics and ontology of the cinema, but also the concept of Asia itself. They attempt to negotiate the place of Asian cinema in the world by tracing the distribution of films as cultural products but also as aesthetic objects that critically address the ostensible particularly of Asianness as a discursive formation.

Thursday, August 20th, 2020