This year’s National Day is all about the bicentennial, bicentennial, bicentennial. On one hand, it’s a buzzword being waved around by many organizations (albeit less than “SG50”), but on the other hand, our recent work has helped us to scratch the surface of the truly a rich, diverse past of Singapore.

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In particular, working on the video series “From the Stacks”, featuring the National Library’s Rare Materials Collection, was an eye-opening peek into the lives of Singaporeans before Singapore even existed. Among the many artifacts featured were 2 which I particularly loved – 华夷通语 and Fotoalbum Singapore.

While just a dictionary in form, the existence of 华夷通语 shows the ingenuity and determination of Chinese migrants to assimilate with the local population.

As a former civil servant involved in working on population issues, it would be easy to feel discouraged that the problem of assimilating immigrants has not been “solved” after so many years. However, I think what 华夷通语 shows is that integration is not a one-off, one-sided activity, but a process that requires ongoing efforts from both sides. 

Fotoalbum Singapore on the other hand, caught my eye as I’ve always loved old photographs. I’ve spent a couple of fond afternoons at a daguerreotype exhibition in Cornell University and at the George Eastman Museum, the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography. 

So to see such a collection of photographs of Singapore from the 1800s was to me, simply amazing. But not just because it’s a beautiful, well-preserved visual record; More importantly, Fotoalbum demonstrates the true impact of photography – by selecting certain scenes over others or staging them in a particular way, the photographer not only reveals how he views the local population, but also lays the foundation for European perception of our island at that time.

Beyond “From the Stacks”, we also had the opportunity to work on 2 videos for Zhonghua Secondary School and St Anthony’s Primary School respectively. Each school has a history spanning over 100 years, but the two have very different roots – while the former was started by the Catholic Portuguese Mission of Singapore, the latter was founded by members of the Chinese community in response to Dr Sun Yat-sen’s call to provide education for girls in Singapore. 

Both videos however, are a reminder of the difference that communities can make, with or without government support. The foundations of both schools were established long before Singapore had gained independence, and were strong enough to weather events like the Japanese Occupation. Ultimately, what this foundation was made up of are the small contributions from the many, rather than big contributions from the few.  

As content producers, we create videos for our clients and their chosen audiences. But every video is also a learning process for us and in this case, creating videos for National Library and the schools has enabled us to have a better appreciation of the value of celebrations like the bicentennial – it’s not just the commemoration of a particular time period or particular individuals, but an acknowledgement of the complex, myriad dynamics that make up the Singapore story. 

Every single story told, whether by video or other mediums, is another piece of a puzzle that will never be finished. But without gathering these pieces and fitting them together, we could never get any closer to really understanding who we are and where we came from.

— Ash

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