The Singapore People’s Action Party (PAP) state’s adapted Euro-US modernist impulses were reflected not in high cultural achievements but in building construction. Since independence, the PAP has revamped Singapore’s colonial downtown into a conceptually empty postnational space filled with decontextualized buildings designed by famous foreign architects. While this uniformly high-rise environment and urban development is common among the high-economic-growth East and Southeast Asia countries since the 1980s, one difference in Singapore’s urbanism is a utopian belief that once existed in the advanced West—that rational design will make rational societies without superfluousness. The commercial downtown and successful public housing jointly become the embodiment of a uniform urban space of physical perfectibility.
An important part of the emergence of Singapore contemporary art practices has been the exploration in 1990s independent film of the suppressed nonelite subjectivities in public housing. Some filmmakers took public housing to be a space separate from the commercial downtown, and they suggested that this space represents an ambivalent site of modernity in its relationship to increasingly elitist capitalist development—they constitute a geography that indicates sociocultural difference. The filmmakers, in attempting to map an urban space capable of yielding knowledge of nonelite people, also attempt to delineate the interiority of a major part of Singapore’s city space, given that 80 percent of the population lives in public housing. The films inscribe city space by depicting the ordinary and the potentially tragic cultural meanings that are emitted from this place. They represent an interest in depictions of class, though not in class-based politics. Such films also mark the imaginative disappearance of a colonial “tropical” city for an urban world now thoroughly modernized.
The representative films undertaking explorations of class and the urban environment that form the focus of this article are Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995), Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng’s Eating Air: A Motorcycle Kungfu Love Story (1999), and Royston Tan’s 15 (2002). The filmmakers accept the “arrival” of the extended public-housing cityscape as a fait accompli and an iconic marker of Singaporean identity. However, they also look at public housing as locales where utopian impulses foster dystopic places that possess diverse cultures under erasure or suppression, and in which there is no past, only endlessly present space. Critical independent film, like much of the contemporary film since the 1980s, displays dissatisfaction with the stifling enclosure of a quasi-authoritarian late modernity, and from which a thematized break is longed for. This essay examines the similar and contrasting means by which three filmmakers present the city-state as a palimpsest of suppressed urban cultures.