Remembrance of things past


IN THE HOUSE OF GUAVAS, screened at the 2001 Singapore International Film Festival, a young Vietnamese man falls from a guava tree in his house and becomes mentally retarded. But he retains an abiding affection and memory of the old house, even as it - like the country around him - undergoes dramatic changes.

The stories my grand parents told me carry the vividness & validity of lived experience, with a force unmatched by any other medium of learning.

Speaking at the end of the film, director Dang Nhat Minh expressed hope that the audience could relate to the story about life, loss and memory in rustic Hanoi.

Could cosmopolitan, wealthy Singaporeans connect?

After all, our city incessantly reinvents itself to keep up with the latest demands and trends - from infotech to biotech, Fullerton Post Office to luxury hotel, national library to management university.

Small wonder that our young citizenry - weaned on a constant diet of the new - finds its national history a chore to plow through.

Why harp on the bad old days when what counts is the Next Big Thing on the horizon?

Not everyone in my generation feels that way. In his book A History Of Amnesia, young poet Alfian Sa'at argues that we have already forgotten far too much about our past and ourselves in the relentless pursuit of the new.

His beef: That we've discarded, too deftly and without regard, the side stories and little tales that make up our personal and collective histories.

Where are the early kampungs in the textbooks? Or the marginal figures in society, like performance artist Josef Ng, or former political detainee Chia Thye Poh?

Through what he's termed the ''poetry of witness'', Alfian hopes to help Singaporeans remember these oft-forgotten strands of history.

I have no such grand ambition - I know no kampungs: My earliest memories are of the grubby old HDB flats in which I grew up, now a spanking-new block of upgraded apartments; my old school has long since gone the way of the National Theatre.

The closest thing to a political prisoner I know of is my grandfather, who was slated to be shot by Japanese soldiers during the Occupation.

As the story goes, he fell backwards into the pit that the prisoners had been made to dig earlier, just as the rifles went off.

Under cover of night, he excavated himself from under the corpses and escaped unscathed.

The stories my grandparents told me about wartime and our nation's early days would never make their way into a school textbook - they are too individual, too small.

But for me, they carry the vividness and validity of lived experience, with a force unmatched by any other medium of learning. Who had time for cynicism in the face of raw history?

These everyday storytellers among us are precious repositories of collective history - artists and educators should find ways to tap their experiences in order to enrich us. And perhaps it's time the rest of us paid closer attention to the daily scenes, textures and movements of our own times, since our relative stability has been accompanied by dramatic changes in the national and social landscape.

Sure, it's our duty as citizens to understand the past. But it's also our responsibility, and ours alone, to remember, record and someday recollect the collective memory of our own generation - its challenges, achievements and way of life. For future reference, if nothing else.

© alvin pang
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