This last week has been quite a revelation. We are gearing up for the pre-production of our movie, ‘1965’. Casting for a movie is never easy, but for this movie, there is a need to speak Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English in a way they were spoken in the 1960s. There is also a need to speak some dialects for authenticity. Our younger generations do not speak dialect. They can always learn. But for this movie, when I have asked for everything to be real, from the smallest detail in a police uniform to the architecture of the time, the actors need to have a real feel for the dialects. While looking into ways to provide the look and feel, and the real voices of the 1960s, we invariably come face to face with the imposition of our official languages in the 1980s and its impact on our society today.
While I am eternally grateful that ours is a nation proficient in the most useful languages, last week, the impediment of our dialect deficiencies became a painful and reflective reality. It was my mother’s 90th birthday. There were gatherings when she was in the midst of young and very young people. I noticed she was always visibly happier when she saw her grand children and great grand children. But she needed to cross the dialect bridge. Try as I would, I could not wheelchair her to the other side of the language divide where English and Mandarin were spoken. I am sadly aware it will be the same for most senior citizens in Singapore. They cannot have meaningful interactions with the younger generations, or watch television programs and movies with the desired familiarity.
In the 1960s, like most de-colonised countries, Singapore began a search for an independent national identity. The Chinese in particular turned to the cultural products of films and music from Hong Kong for inspiration. This fascination with Hong Kong was also seen as a reactionary and feudal ‘Yellow Culture’ that was set out to oppose the ‘Red Culture’ still apparent in communist China. Canto-pop boomed way before the four ‘Heavenly Kings’ made their presence felt. That was when Chow Yun Fat started his ascent. Those of a certain age will remember his Cantonese voice in ‘Man In The Net’ and ‘Brothers’. Looking back, if our ‘Speak Mandarin’ and ‘Speak English’ campaigns were enforced fully, yet dialects were still allowed, would they have been any less effective?
I have always known what is the missing element in our entertainment industry. Why the characters in our stories lack the intimate cultural dimension that warms the heart. This element cannot be learned or acted out. Every time I hear a Hong Kong actor trying to speak Mandarin, I am reminded. For the longest time, the infamous accents of Meryl Streep could fool the masses but did not resonate with me. With Joan Chen, I would request we speak in Mandarin, because listening to her in the language closest to her heart, it was sexy and almost melodic. And I will never forget what Jackie Chan’s manager said of our actress, “Your actress cannot speak English or Mandarin. We had to provide two language coaches for her.” She was passably bi-lingual but a master of no language.
When an actor connects with an audience, an integral part of the connection is voice. It is similar to hearing our own inner voice. This voice is most primal to us, like hearing our parents speak. This is perhaps why it is known as mother tongue. No one can take it away. It is always in us. So when we speak it, it is not an act. Sometimes we may not understand a language someone is speaking, but we are still drawn to it because this person is speaking a native tongue. I remember watching this movie, ‘Shirley Valentine’. The lead actress spoke in English with a cockney accent. It was difficult to understand, but after a while I felt a connection with raw emotions. This is why some actors will never want their voices dubbed. A dubbed performance cannot be real.
Which brings me to my point. When can we proudly own the languages we speak? Soon Singapore will have gone through two generations of finding languages to call our own. Remember the ‘Speak Good English’ campaign? Are we going to accept we will never speak English like the Americans or British, Mandarin like the mainland Chinese? A friend, based in Taiwan for a while, was at a night market when he suddenly heard an unmistakable brand of English from afar. He turned around to see a group of his own countrymen. For him, it was “the most welcomed and unique sound” and felt for the first time “the beauty of Singapore English”. When we embrace the languages we speak, they will in turn speak up for us. For who we are. For how we have come to speak them the way we do today. Our cultural rite of passage.
I have, as I sometimes do, envision a young Singapore actor collecting an award on the world stage, speaking English as only a Singaporean does. The speech is charming and endearing in part due to his English. Later he would speak his brand of Mandarin with his friends and then dialects with his parents and grand parents. Caught on film, it shows our cultural heritage, cultural diversification and cultural journey. Our languages are exclusive to us. Our dialects, a subculture if you will, will never be popular with the pragmatic but it exist like a special art form. This is an ideal vision that is not impossible. For me, our society would have found its voice. One as rich and colourful as a young nation searching for a cultural identity.