On Solitude

This week, I got dinner with a friend of the professor advising my project, and I felt a solidarity in my research experience. She too had spent hours in the NUS library, the National Library and the National Archives conducting research on a BA thesis related to the “social problem,” meaning prostitution, in 1920s Singapore. So, she understood my frustrations working with the materials I’m working with, and trying to account for the experience of a historically “voiceless” population that doesn’t really leave archival materials behind (and if they do, it’s in a language I don’t read).

Out of curiosity, I looked up her thesis in the NUS archives and decided to read it after we’d gone out, trying to see just how she got at those “voices” to construct a cultural history of colonial intervention in a local enterprise. My favorite part about reading the BA theses I’ve read from this library is their acknowledgements; it gives me an idea of the intellectual journey that a thesis is, and makes me ponder whether the research is something I could actually consider as a career. This author described her experience as solitary and pensive, with “just a dash of despair.” She related that if her experience writing a thesis were translated into photographs, a photo of her in the Central Library’s dark and sad (my words) microform-viewing room would be on the cover.

I can really, really relate to that right now. And that’s not to say I’m not still finding the experience informative, and even fun, sometimes, when I come across the “grains of gold among the sand” (okay, maybe not EXACTLY what Tolstoy meant) in the archives. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a solitary experience, and spending as many hours of my trip as I am in the microform-viewing room can be draining. If I’m being honest, I’m also experiencing a lot of worry: worry about how I’ll be able to find direction in this project, where a 40-60 page thesis will coalesce from these primary sources, worry that I’m simply repeating a dissertation that has already been done. That worry culminated when I arrived at the National Library this week to find out that the film magazines I had reserved, “Singapore Cinema Review” and “Malayan Film Weekly” had been “damaged or destroyed.” Yes, the librarian actually used the word “destroyed,” which stung. These would have likely been quite rich sources for my project, and another researcher has used them within the past few years.

I am still finding useful material in the Malaya Tribune, though, especially among boys, girls and young women who wrote into the Tribune for their respective columns. In the early 1930s, there was a “Boys Corner” “Girls Corner” and “Women’s Corner” in the Tribune, where these groups could write letters to the editor about topics important to them, and this ranged quite a bit, from “ghosts,” to the “modern woman,” to “choosing a hobby,” to, yes, “cinema-going.” Today, I came across an argument over the course of a few weeks in 1931 between a number of boys in the “Boys Corner,” about whether “talkies” (sound films, notably originating in Hollywood) were sinful. One argued that “cinema going is just as bad as smoking,” because boys go there to “show off,” whereas K.K. Yam argued that cinema-going is a frivolous means of spending money. Meanwhile, one writer into the “Girl’s Corner,” Wee Alk Hock, thought that through watching talkies “one might obtain the best knowledge concerning the present occurrences of the world.” This editorial feud that spanned a few weeks demonstrates that opinions amongst anglophone Asians about cinema-going certainly weren’t uniform, and weren’t always concerned with modernity or America, as other authors have argued. I hope that as I continue my research, and later establish primary sources in the U.S. to supplement what I have done so far, I can explore further the impression that Hollywood films left on Singaporeans in this period, and what that might have meant for the potential status of America as an “empire of the mind” in Southeast Asia. On a lighter note, here’s my new view from the downtown library:

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Not all of my time has been spent alone – another mutual friend took me to the Singapore Garden Festival where I saw some truly other-worldly garden art….I don’t have any other way of describing it, so hopefully these images will suffice….

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The bottom- right image is of the “flower dome,” I haven’t been inside the “cloud forest” yet. See, I told you its other-worldly.

And today, I moved housing from the NUS campus to the YMCA on Orchard road. Orchard Road is sort of Michigan Avenue on steroids – huge span of malls and very high-end stores. Two Louis Vuitton’s within one block of each other, and that’s not counting the one in Singapore that exists on it’s own island – yes, that’s a thing.

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I’m feeling a little bit like I’ve been seeing the sights of Singapore in reverse order — in the past couple of weeks, I’ve visited a lot of smaller neighborhoods, nature reservoirs and areas on campus, and now I’m venturing into the big-city, where a lot more of the tourist attractions, museums and shopping malls are. I also can’t complain, because as solitary an enterprise as research can be, I’m really enjoying the alone time and the ability to move through the sources and sights at my own pace. Stay tuned for the metropolitan life:

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