Creative Non-fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

On Looking, Acting and Thinking Otherwise

by Eddie Tay

Is it possible for a camera to be regarded as a tool for preserving one’s autonomy? Time and again, I come back to this series of images taken in Singapore:




Public housing in Singapore is managed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), a statutory board of the Ministry of National Development. Singaporean citizens could purchase these new and subsidized flats directly from the government provided they meet various criteria. The housing policies are generally pro-family, pro-marriage and heteronormative. Given that about 80- 85% of Singaporeans live in public housing, you can see, then, how Singapore reinforces its middle-class, pro-capitalist and multicultural ethos on its populace. Public housing is in many ways an ideological state apparatus. In films such as Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys, and Jack Neo’s Money No Enough and I Not Stupid, HDB flats are symbols of middle-class, cookie-cutter culture.

It is easy to portray public housing in such a way, but I want to suggest that there is a potential for transformation and newness as well out of a homogenous and typified existence:



A tree could explode against the facade of a HDB flat, signifying life, disruption and change. Public housing, and by extension, most urban spaces are functions of organized and rational thought that slots people into heteronormative and stratified social classifications. We are always interpellated as consumers, committed citizens, and workers. I am also reminded of Simmel’s point that

[t]he deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, …of external culture, and of the technique of life. (Simmel 409)

The act of writing poetry and the practice of street photography is such that the urban space can also be a background for another way of looking, thinking, and acting. How may we look, act and think otherwise?

I wish to highlight the following passage by James Elkins:

Every field of vision is clotted with sexuality, desire, convention, anxiety, and boredom, and nothing is available for full, leisurely inspection. Seeing is also inconstant seeing, partial seeing, poor seeing, and not seeing, or to put it as strongly as possible…seeing involves and entails blindness; seeing is also blindness. (Elkins The Object Stares Back 95)

I want to be able to see my blindness, or to know there are things I am looking at but do not see. Is the following photograph about commodity fetishism, about the power of brands in conferring and confirming one’s station in life? Or is it about a gaze that is appropriative, in which street photography seeks its vengeance on advertising photography, subjecting its persuasive power to critique? Advertising photography is a work of art, in as much as the viewing of advertising photography is also a work of critique. Again, I seek to be poetic, not documentary. This is not a document that testifies to the power of commodity, but (I hope) a poetic rendering of another way of seeing.


Editors' note:
"On Looking, Acting and Thinking Otherwise" is included in Eddie Tay's Anything You Can Get Away With (Delere Press), to be launched in Hong Kong in November 2018.

ImageEddie Tay is a poet, street photographer and literature professor at the Department of English, Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he teaches courses on reading and writing poetry, children’s literature, autoethnography, photography and social media. He is the author of four volumes of poetry. His first, remnants (2001), consists of renditions of mythic and colonial history of Malaya as well as an homage to the Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai, Du Fu and Li He. His second volume, A Lover’s Soliloquy (2005), extends his interests in Tang Dynasty poetry through renditions of the poetry of Li Shang-yin. The volume is also about the modern cities of Hong Kong and Singapore. His third, The Mental Life of Cities, is a winner of the 2012 Singapore Literature Prize. In it, he experiments with bilingual (English-Chinese) poetry. His most recent collection is Dreaming Cities (2016), featuring his street photography and poetry. He is the Reviews Editor of Cha and an editor of the first academic journal devoted to Hong Kong, Hong Kong Studies. [Cha Profile]
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