INTRODUCTION TO SINGAPORE
The Republic of Singapore is an island city-state in Southeast Asia. Its entire area is just 719.1 km2, making it slightly smaller than Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley. However, whilst the San Gabriel Valley is home to about 1.6 million, Singapore is home to an estimated 5.5 million. The area around Los Angeles is home to about 5,000 Singaporeans, and their presence reflected in Los Angeles’s restaurant scene, in Hollywood film and television, and elsewhere.
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF SINGAPORE
Singapore began as Temasek, a outpost of the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire. In 1299, the Kingdom of Singapura was established as a port city. It was destroyed by the Majapahit Empire in 1398. In 1613, Portuguese raiders attacked the island, then ostensibly part of the Johor Sultanate. The British East India Company assumed control in 1819. Japan occupied Singapore from 1942-1945. Singapore gained self-government within the British Commonwealth in 1959 with Lee Kuan Yew assuming the position as the country’s first president.
Singapore achieved independence in 1963. That same year it merged with Malaysia, and was then expelled in 1965. President Lee managed Singapore with the tight grip of a third world strongman but its economy and development grew rapidly, leading to Singapore’s being regarded, along with Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan, as one of the “Four Asian Tigers.” The controversial leader remained in power for 31 years, at the time the world’s longest serving leader.
SINGAPOREAN AMERICANS & ANGELENOS
Prior to the 1968 enactment of the Hart–Celler Act — which allowed for much larger numbers Asian immigrants to the US — most Singaporeans came to the US on student visas and after completing studies returned to Singapore. Since 1968, Singaporean communities have formed in Ann Arbor, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Seattle, Brownsville, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Race riots broke out between Malays and Chinese in 1969, which impelled many ethnic Chinese to leave the country. Singapore is a multi-ethnic society and roughly 74% of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese,13% are Malay, 9% are Indian.
Most Americans rarely if ever thought about Singapore until 1994, when a tourist from Missouri named Michael P. Fay was sentenced to caning for theft and vandalism. The media turned its spotlight to the spotless, urban city-state, where chewing gum had been banned since 1992. The only Singaporean that I knew told me that caning is so routine in Singapore that her father had his own, mounted on the wall of their home and used it often. In the early 1990s, most American cities were violent, grimy, dangerous places and more than a few Americans were openly envious of Singapore’s strict law-and-order approach.
On the other hand, I doubt many Americans, even political cartoonists, experience envy at the thought of teenaged bloggers like Amos Yee being imprisoned for making statements that could potentially hurt others’ feelings. Criticizing wealth inequality, materialism, overwork, and government underfunding of social programs can all result in lawsuits and jail time in the stringently ruled Singaporean society. Perhaps there’s a sensible middle ground between lax and draconian, then. I know I could get behind two strokes of the cane for empathy-defying bad behaviors like littering, tagging, distracted driving, water wasting, manspreading, junk mailing, cold calling, badgering people for signatures outside grocery stores, and posting pictures of Starbucks beverages on Instagram.
The most pleasant introduction to nearly any culture is through its food and Singaporeans love their food. Many consider Hainanese Chicken Rice to be the country’s national dish and durian is the national fruit.
Singaporean cuisine reflects the influences of its indigenous people, its neighbors, colonial history, and immigrants. As such it draws from Malay, Chinese, English, Eurasian/Kristang, Indian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern, Peranakan, Portuguese, Sri Lankan, and Thai. Religion plays a role as well, with practicing Muslims eschewing pork and Hindus abstaining from beef.
Local Singaporean restaurants include Singapore’s Banana Leaf (Fairfax District), Chomp Chomp Nation (Anaheim), Chop Chop Grill (Walnut), Bugis Street Brasserie (the Financial District), Litz Restaurant (Monterey Park), QQ Kopitiam (Pasadena), and Savoy Kitchen (locations in Alhambra, Bunker Hill, and Chinatown). Gone but not forgotten are Kaya Street Kitchen, Singapore Express, and Grainivore Singaporean Cuisine.
Restaurants at least serving Singaporean items include Rowland Man Chan Cuisine (Rowland Heights), Fragrant Jerky (Rosemead), Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine (Alhambra), and Kaya Street Kitchen (Beverly Grove).
The first film made in Singapore was the silent melodrama 新客 (New Friend, 1927), directed by 郭超文 (Kwok Chiu-man). A decades long cinematic drought followed. The 1990s saw the emergence of 邱金海 (Eric Khoo), Glen Goei, 梁智强 (Jack Neo), and 唐永健 (Kelvin Tong). Perhaps the biggest production company was 星霖电影 (Mediacorp Raintree Pictures), founded in 1996, which produced some of Singapore’s highest grossing films including 跑吧孩子 (Homerun, 2003), 突然发财 (The Best Bet, 2004), and 小孩不笨2 (I Not Stupid Too, 2006).
Despite a fairly healthy cinema scene, Singaporean films don’t seem to get much play in Los Angeles, either at cinemas showing Chinese language films or at film festivals. One exception was Faeryville, directed by 唐荣均 (Tzang Merwyn Tong), which made its world premiere at the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles after being picked up by local distributors Eleven Arts.
Cal Bellini was an actor of Malay background whose “ethnic ambiguity” led to a long television career playing characters of various ethnic backgrounds, although most often Native Americans. His first role was on the 1960 CBS series, Diagnosis: Unknown, on which he played a character named “Motilal Mookerji.” His final television role was as “Tommy Lemanna” on a 1986 episode of Riptide. His biography is suitably ambiguous too — according to most sources he was born Khalid Ibrahim in Singapore in 1935 and is 80 years old. According to IMDB, however, he was born Michael Joseph Bellini in San Francisco in 1937 and died, aged 77, in in Pebble Beach, California in 2014.
Local newscaster Sharon Tay was born in Singapore in 1965 and moved, with her family, to Connecticut when she was seven. Tay received a Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcast Journalism, with a minor in International Relations, from Boston University. There she wrote and produced a cable news show before relocating to KCCN in Salinas. In 1992 she came to KTLA, where she remained until 2004 at which point she moved on to MSNBC. In 2007 she returned to local Los Angeles news, this time at KCBS/KCAL.
Gwendoline See-Hian Yeo (杨时贤) was born in Singapore in 1977. Her family moved to California when she was eleven and she graduated from St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco. She was appointed Miss Chinatown USA in 1998. Yeo later moved to Los Angeles, where she graduated from UCLA. In 2001 she narrated a half hour program on KCRW’s The Politics of Culture, where she narrated a performance, accompanying herself on the guzheng. Yeo also has a diploma in classical piano from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She’s known to television viewers as Xiao-Mei on Desperate Housewives and as Dr. Kelly Lee on General Hospital.
Desmond Chiam is an Australian Angeleno actor of Singaporean descent. He was born in Melbourne and holds a law degree from the University of Melbourne. He later moved to Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree in screenwriting from University of Southern California.
Thien Thanh Thi Nguyen, better known as Tila Tequila, was a MySpace celebrity and reality television star with her own show, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. She was born in Singapore in 1981. At sixteen she moved to New York City. In 2001 she moved to Southern California to find fame in “the industry.” She changed her stage name to Miss Tila in 2010. Based upon her career I doubt many would’ve characterized Nguyen as a particularly stable person but in recent years she’s used her soapbox to declare that the world is flat, post pro-Hitler sentiments, suffered a drug induced aneurysm, and endorses Donald Trump for president.
Singaporean music can be roughly divided into folk/traditional Singaporean music and contemporary pop music. Traditional music encompasses not just the indigenous musical traditions of the Malay and other smaller ethnic groups but those of Chinese, Tamil, and other immigrants.
In the pop scene, rock, punk, and mainstream pop predominate. As far as I know, my introduction to Singaporean Pop came at Monterey Park’s JJ Hong Kong Cafe. The televisions — which are always on — were showing a video of the song “夢游” by 孙燕姿 (Stefanie Sun), which had a charming video and infectious melody. This was a few years before the release of Shazam, which made figuring out the artist and song quite a task. Although known as the the “Singaporean Mandopop Queen,” she lives and mostly records in Taiwan.
Corrinne May was born in Singapore. She graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and afterward relocated to Los Angeles. She debuted with the album, Fly Away (2001). She followed with Safe in a Crazy World (2005), The Gift (2006), Beautiful Seed (2007), and Crooked Lines (2012).
SINGAPOREAN ORGANIZATIONS & EVENTS
There are several Singaporean organizations in Los Angeles, including Club Singapura (founded in 1976), the USC Singapore Students’ Association, and the UCLA Alumni Singapore Network. In San Diego there’s the Singapore / Malaysia Club of San Diego. The office of the General Consulate of Singapore in Los Angeles is in the Miracle Mile neighborhood.
The first Malaysian – Singaporean Culture Night 2015 (MAS and SSA) was held at the UCLA Ackerman Grand Ballroom in 2015. The Malaysian Singaporean Cultural Night 2016, still free, returned to the same venue in April 2016.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!