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Visualising Local Identities: Post-war Graphic Design in Singapore.

Visualising Local Identities: Post-war Graphic Design in Singapore.

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Visualising Local Identities: Post-war Graphic Design in Singapore.


*University of New South Wales School of Design Studies PO Box 259 Paddington NSW 2021 AUSTRALIA, l.chan@unsw.edu.au

Abstract: The history of graphic design in a pluralist and relatively young society like Singapore is unconventional: the existence of a distinctive graphic identity or style is yet to be developed, although paradoxically the collective visual cultures of its three main ethnic communities - Chinese, Malay and Indian - span centuries of civilisation. Since achieving nationhood in 1965 the choice of English as the language for education, science and technology, and trade presents a problematic for Singapore which professes ‘Asian values’ but simultaneously, is wary of undesirable ‘Western’ influences especially upon the younger generation. Contemporary graphic design in Singapore shares similarities with major cultural centres such as New York, London and Sydney; it has its share of a visual language characteristic of a global consumer society. However, this paper aims to demonstrate that the post-war era offered a brief but significant opportunity for self-expression of cultural, political and racial identities for the people of Singapore during the transition from British rule to self independence in 1965. This paper examines graphic design and Singapore in the context of national experience particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, and argues that post-war regional and domestic political and socio-cultural issues which confronted the island state precipitated the consciousness of identity and nationhood. This research is based on visual analysis of archival print-based materials complemented by document analysis of historical records and government policy. This paper demonstrates that graphic design in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the production and consumption of knowledge about identity, nationality and race within the socio-cultural and political contexts of the era. Key words: Graphic communication, national experience, post-war Singaporean identity

1. Introduction The history of modern Singapore is about the social-cultural and political experience of itinerant workers and immigrants from China, India, Malaya and Indonesia who were attracted to the island because of its strategic trading location between East Asia and the West. Colonisation by foreign powers began in 1819 when Singapore became an entrepot of the Straits Settlements, part of the British empire, and the island remained under British Military Administration until 1946 in the post-war period. Self-government was attained in 1959, followed by the union with Malaya in 1963 to form the independent nation of Malaysia. The union was brief and on 9 August 1965 the island state separated from the Federation of Malaysia as a consequence of unresolved disagreement in political governance and ideology, and became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation. The Republic of Singapore was formed on 22 December 1965, and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations since 1965. The island of Singapore - 14 miles from north to south, and 22 miles from east to west - is located in South East Asia bounded by the Malay peninsula to the north, the Indonesian archipelago to the south and west, and Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei to the east. As a prosperous, multi-racial, Chinese-dominated, and

secular nation, Singapore lies within a neighbourhood with the largest Muslim population in the region. Racial harmony is recognised by the Singaporean government as one of the most pertinent issues for security and survival in the region, and it has been influential in the development of the nation’s identity, ideology and policy. Moreover, most of the natural environment and space on the island has been developed for state and commercial use, public and private housing, public amenities, light industries and recreation; Singapore’s only natural resources are its citizens. Three inter-related social constructs are significant to the post-war development of ideology, identity and nationhood in Singapore and they form the basis of many government policies which influence the nation’s collective psyche: multi-racialism, bilingualism and ‘shared values’. This ensemble of social meanings and relations is presented to the individual citizen as an image and definition of Singaporean society, and may well act as a set of guidelines for the model citizen. This paper focuses on the Chinese immigrants during post-war Singapore by analysing contemporary print designs from the era which reflected the experience of the diaspora and its various manifestations of social, cultural and political identity. In contrast to the social construction of identity by the state in the post-war nation-building process, the production and consumption of graphic designs by the Chinese diaspora offered a different perspective of the Singaporean experience and the communication of a sense of belonging. 2. National Identity and Graphic Representation The graphic image has been significant as an instrument for mass communication in politics, particularly in the representation of nationalism and national identity. Nationalism is based on feelings of identifying and belonging to a group which subscribes to a common set of ideals, goals and values, represented as the ‘nation’. The nation is in fact an ‘imagined community’ since there is no single culture which is common for all members in a society residing within the boundaries of the state, and yet in the minds and aspirations of each lives the image of a common belonging [1]. The use of imagery in the process of defining and depicting the formation of nations and nationalism has its precedence at the turn of the century particularly during the period leading to and after World War 1, and the practice continues to the present day albeit in multiple modes of mediation. Central to this relationship between imagery and the social construction of the nation is ‘(t)he notion of a modern nation is an abstract concept arising from particular historical circumstances, and one where human agency and imagination play an important role’ [2]. 2.1 The State and Nation In the ideology of nationalism, the state can deny the former colonial order and withdraw from the culture of the past in its attempts to conjure romantic myths about ‘folk heritage’ and national traditions. Indeed states actively manufacture cultures as part of the wider construction of a nation-state and national identity. In the context of newly independent Singapore, the culture of the ‘selective’ past is a central concern of the state in its attempts to unify, manage and rule the newly franchised populace. The state relies mostly on historical and cultural symbols to rally citizenry in a collective ritual of nation building and national unification. The impact of the visual splendor of state ceremonies is just to jiggle the collective memory in reminding its citizenry of some things or historical events which need to be remembered. Thus the collective memory of a ‘National Day’ celebrates the liberation from colonial rule and cements people into new efforts of social and economic reconstruction. More often than not, such state rituals seek to transform loyalty to the previous authoritative order

into allegiance to the new order. Since 1959 the People Action Party (PAP) has governed Singapore, and the PAP graphic identity has not changed at all during the period. The graphic symbolises the ideology of the party and labour origins of the party: the red lightning represents action, the blue circle stands for solidarity and the white background refers to purity (Figure 1). The symbol has been identified as a part of the national history of modern Singapore. In post-1965 Singapore, graphic design is employed by the government and private enterprise to promote the identity and ideology of the nation albeit for different reasons - the communicating and reinforcing of institutional policies in the case of the former, and government compliance plus access to wider markets for the latter. Local Singaporeans experience this communication process in the public environment via the spatial display of images in electronic and print media such as government campaign graphics and commercial advertisements in magazines and newspapers as well as the internet and
Fig 1. Election poster, 1957 © People Action Party, Singapore.

television. Public campaigns are also communicated by the display of posters and banners in prominent designated spaces which are encountered by locals as well as visitors, for example train stations, bus shelters, and tourist precincts. Campaign graphics which are aimed specifically at the domestic ethnic populations can be seen at local community centres, police stations and public housing areas. The Local Environment Act prohibits the attachment and display of non-authorised graphic designs in the public environment, particularly state-owned spaces. Official displays of graphic designs embrace the ideals of multi-racialism, bi-lingualism and ‘Shared Values’. In 1991 a government White Paper defined a set of values - ‘Shared Values’ - which drew on the different cultural heritages of the island state in an attempt to define the characteristics of the Singaporean identity [3]. 2.2 The Chinese Diaspora The Chinese language comprises a dozen or so dialects and their regional variations, each with a specific system of pronunciation. The variation can be so pronounced that it is not unusual for a dialect to be rendered unintelligible to a non-speaker. Speakers of different dialects can communicate with each other in writing as the script is the same. The Chinese immigrants who settled in Malaysia and Singapore during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century come from various provinces in southern China. The socio-economic distribution of the various dialect groups was determined by the types of specialised occupation and trade offered by each group, access to clan associations which provided support for fellow immigrants from similar provinces in China, and economic opportunities [4]. The geographical distribution of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia is also characterised by the patterns of settlement by dialect groups in specific locations, for example the dominant dialect group, the Hokkien, which is well represented in present-day Singapore. Ethnic Chinese make up 76.7 per cent of Singapore’s multi-racial population of close to 3.2 million, and the majority are from a Hokkien background [5]. National identity concerns a vast majority of South East Asian Chinese who have to contend with a fluid mixture of changing identities based on cultural, political and legal perspectives. For the diaspora the concept of Chinese identity can viewed from the perspectives of culture, nationality, location, history, ethnicity, political and

class [6]. Of principal concern are three identities with which the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia negotiate according to appropriate circumstances – national, cultural and ethnic. Singapore inherited a social stratification of its population into Chinese-Malay-Indian categories from British rule since the early nineteenth century. Since independence in 1965 Singapore has enshrined this multi-racial character of its society as a national ideology. In multi-racial Singapore, all citizens negotiate a national/cultural/ethnic identity. The national identity legitimises the rights of the person as a citizen of the state, and is for public and official use. The cultural identity is much broader and includes the history, traditions and values belonging to the individual and community. Ethnic identity is used for determining racial origins in official census. 3. Representation and the Diaspora Experience During the early decades of the twentieth century in Singapore, education and access to imported and local Chinese publications provided the connection for the diaspora to the motherland. Teachers, writers and editors with mainland training became the cultural and political interface between China and the diaspora in South East Asia. Textbooks were imported from China, and instilled Chinese culture and history in the locals, while Chinese newspapers with a focus on news and events from the mainland bridged the gap between the itinerant Chinese and news from home. 3.1 Lessons from the Motherland In Singapore, the dialect of the Chinese community represents the mother tongue which can also differ from the language of education, administration and commerce. British colonial policy played a determining role in the direction of education and language in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. In Hong Kong the British provided employment opportunities for the local Chinese and the use of the Cantonese dialect in education as a result of rising Chinese nationalism as a political force, and changes in the British attitude towards the colonies [7]. From the mid-nineteenth century till 1920 British policy in Malaya and Singapore funded education in English and Malay schools only, but failed to recognise the social and educational consequences as a result of the lax attitude to education, and consequently the Chinese were left to provide for their own schools [8]. Early Chinese education in Malaya and Singapore was based on models from China as qualified teachers were recruited from the mainland. Lessons were conducted using textbooks imported from China with stories and images which were relevant to the local Chinese populations within a historical and cultural context. For the local reader in tropical Singapore during the pre-war era, textual and graphic references to the winter flowering plum blossom in Beijing would be merely symbolic as the opportunity for real experience of the subject was negligible. In 1920, political action by Chinese Singaporean students in response to the Japanese invasion of China led to the introduction of stricter control by the British administration on Chinese education. In 1955 an integrative approach to education in the different ethnic communities was introduced in Singapore. It proposed the principal of a national curricula and equal treatment for all vernacular education among several recommendations. Since achieving independence in 1965, Singapore has continued with a bilingual education system which is considered necessary to balance Asian values and Western pragmatism. 3.2 Pre-war Chinese Publications in Singapore Most of the Chinese publications about South East Asia during the period 1900-1946 were written by mainland Chinese writers and scholars for a readership in China. The interest in writings on South East Asia can

be attributed to the growing interest in foreign countries, events and culture among Chinese scholars as well as the inspiration of Chinese travellers who were enroute to Europe to recount the experiences of the diaspora in the region. On a practical note, the literary interest in South East Asia can be viewed as a practical way of shoring up capital from the diaspora to fund revolutionary political factions in China, and for the development of infrastructure and education in China [9]. It was inevitable that the Chinese writers in South East Asia aligned themselves closely with the intellectual, social and political concerns of the mainland during this period. Chinese daily newspapers and monthly magazines of the era include Nanyang Siang Pau, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Sin Kuo Min Jit Poh which featured editorials, literary reviews and news compiled and written by immigrant staff from the mainland. Similarly the illustrations and advertisements of the period also featured designs which were influenced by the prevailing graphic styles emanating from Shanghai. 3.3 Post-war Chinese Publications in Singapore The number of Chinese publications in Singapore and Malaya grew dramatically during the 1950s and 1960s. This can be attributed partly to the intense period of growing consciousness in the South East Asian Chinese diaspora of the political events which were unfolding in the region after World War II – the revolutionary changes in China, the gradual independence of the former British colonies of Singapore and Malaya, the partition of British India, and the growth of nationalism in Dutch occupied Indonesia. Some of the experiences which were written during this period related to personal accounts of suffering during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. The publication, Heian Zhi Nien (The Dark Years) by Si Ma Chunying includes cartoons with commentary on the Japanese Occupation, and features a cover design with illustrations and typographic designs influenced by contemporary designs from the mainland (Figure 2). This intense period of political consciousness paralleled the added pressure on the Chinese in Singapore to make the ultimate decision to remain in the adopted country or to take up the Chinese nationalists’ call to fight for the motherland. For the Chinese who decided to remain in Singapore, living and surviving in the new homeland added further complexity in the need to choose between Chinese and English for the education which would best equipped the offsprings for their future. English language training was perceived as providing better and more prestigious job opportunities in the future, whereas a Chinese language education would retain cultural ties with the motherland. The strongest supporters of the Chinese language in education came from the intellectuals and scholars who maintained that a ‘local’ Chinese education would nurture a Chinese-Singaporean culture adapted to the local milieu. The fate of Chinese publications was tied to the continuing survival of the Chinese language and education system. To a certain extant, this binary relationship has been and will continue to be influenced by the political, economic and socio-cultural trends in Singapore. The literary supplements of the newspapers were opportunity outlets for young writers and artists, with the promotion of competitions for language and literature. This is particularly significant for Chinese newspapers, literary supplements and magazines which grew profusely during 1920 and 1959. After the war many of the weekly magazines were modelled on similar but older magazines from Shanghai. The Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pao produced a weekly magazine, Xing Qi Liu Zhou Kan (Saturday Review) which was inspired
Fig 2. Heian Zhi Nien (The Dark Years) by Si Ma Chunying. Cover design, published by Xinjiapo Guolian Chuban Gongsi, undated © National Library of Singapore.

by the famous Shanghai magazine, Li Bai Liu (Saturday). The cover design of the launch issue of Xing Qi Liu Zhou Kan features an illustration of multi-racial Singaporeans relaxing in a local park with distinctive clothing in the local modern context (Figure 3). The political events in China affected the supply of imported Chinese magazines into Singapore and the local Chinese magazines were purposefully produced to fill the gap by supplying Chinese Singaporean readers with news on local events, culture, sports, short stories, cartoons and entertainment with photographic images. Although modelled on Chinese equivalents and aimed primarily at the middle-class urban Chinese, the content of magazines encouraged the sense of a local Chinese culture. 4. Representing Identity Cultural diacritica can provide the most immediate form of codifying the sense of ‘belonging’ to a community, nation or race, and the associated
Fig 3. Xing Qi Liu Zhou Kan (Saturday Review). Launch issue, published by Nanyang Baoshe, 3 September 1949 © National Library of Singapore.

iconography can be developed to emphasise identity at its various levels - ethnic, cultural, socio-economic and political. In its most rudimentary form cultural diacritic may include distinctive visual elements such as costume, flora, or architectural forms to denote a specific cultural group, although this can amount to the generalisation and stereotyping of characteristics. An analysis of the image in terms of the socio-cultural, political, ethnographic and historical contexts is essential in reading and meaning making process since text and images are used in graphic representations which create ‘meaningful situations of use’ for the intended audience [10]. 4.1 Chinese Identity and Local Culture A significant feature of many of the post-war cover designs of Chinese magazines and books is the inclusion of elements which are representative of the local and vernacular culture, for example the Malay language and pictorial forms from the natural environment. In a period during which the political situation in China was instable, coupled with the decision of many Chinese immigrants to remain in Singapore, the cover designs of the locally produced magazines and books reflected the changing nature of the editorials and features in the publications, a move towards material which focused on local content and interest. Articles promoting Singapore, Malayan, and western culture were introduced to the local Chinese readers for example, the history of the Malayan rubber industry, Stamford Raffles and the founding of Singapore, new scientific knowledge, strange happenings in the world and travelogues. Complemented by cover designs and illustrations which described the local natural and built environment, the editorials presented a sense of the local Singaporean culture as distinct from that on the Chinese mainland, and an awareness and appreciation for the indigenous (Malayan) and western (British) cultures. The post-war period was also a time when Chinese artists and designers looked towards the local environment for inspiration and ideas for cover designs and illustrations to complement nanyang (south sea) fiction which was based on local stories and experiences. With their training background from China, the artists, designers and writers looked to their local experiences for creative expressions. This is manifested in the borrowing of the vernacular language (Malay) and a visual language based on local forms. The cover design of a collection of stories published in 1952, Ganbang Zhi Chun (Spring in the Kampong), depicts a woodcut illustration of a Malay

kampong or village (Figure 4). The illustration shows the influence of a graphic style and method popular with similar designs for publications inspired by the May Fourth Movement in China - stylised woodcut treatment of a realist subject matter [11]. The use of the term, ganbang, in the title of the publication typifies the introduction of Malay concepts and words into the Chinese vocabulary by phonetic translation, and in this case, graphically supported by the illustration of a traditional Malay village complete with the local architectural forms. The use of the local vernacular in Chinese graphic communication is also illustrated by the cover design of an issue of Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Fiction Monthly), a collection of ‘colourful’ Malayan stories (Figure 5). The illustration shows a group of local Chinese engaged in the sale, preparation and consumption of durian, a tropical fruit, at a roadside stall. The scene records a national past-time and the popularity of the local fruit enjoyed by the ethnic communities in Malaysia and Singapore. A Chinese male
Fig 4. Ganbang Zhi Chun (Spring in the Kampong) by Ding Bing et al. Cover design, published by Nanfang Wanbao, 1952 © National Library of Singapore.

customer in a modern Western suit and tie squats next to the vendor and consumes the freshly opened fruit. The vendor, clothed in typical singlet and short trousers for the tropical climate, concentrates on opening the spiky fruit cautiously for the customer. A wealthy Chinese female customer dressed in the combination of a Malay blouse, baju, and wrap-around cloth, sarong, looks on with interest and contemplates her purchase. The scene is completed by a banner defining the space with Chinese characters proclaiming, ‘Guaranteed eating! Genuine jungle durians. Come, come. Good buy!’ The Chinese characters, shanba, and liulian, are phonetic translations of the local vernacular for sampah (jungle) and durian. The local cultural experience is conveyed to the Chinese reader by the phonetic adaptation of the vernacular language, and the narrative of the scenario replete with graphic coda. 5. Conclusion In the modern era, graphic design has been instrumental as tools for the
Fig 5. Xiaoshuo Huebao (Fiction Monthly) edited by Tang Qisheng. Cover design, published by Xiaoshuo Yuebaoshe, undated © National Library of Singapore.

ruling elites in political and cultural schemes to construct identity and ideology for nation states [12]. Contemporary official graphic design in Singapore communicates the national identity and ideology of the island state: multi-racialism, bilingualism and ‘Shared Values’; the graphics are a subtle reminder that the Chinese diaspora in the modern nation state continue to negotiate a fluid national/cultural/ethnic identity. In contrast, postwar regional, political and socio-cultural issues which confronted the island state precipitated the consciousness of identity and nationhood for the Chinese diaspora in Singapore. Consequently, the graphic design of the post-war Singapore offer a brief glimpse of the production and consumption of knowledge about ‘Chineseness’ and national identity within the socio-cultural and political contexts of the era.

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