Reflections for NUS CM3303 China Immersion Program

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The Beginning of a Journey

On 9th December 2012, we set off for a cultural immersion program in China for 25 days. It was somewhat awkward to sit in the midst of strangers and make small talk about the weather and packing lists.

After breakfast in the Changi Airport, I wandered towards the washroom and, as with all things in life, discovered something unexpected: a butterfly garden. Within it, there were feeding stations – stalks of blood-red flowers and pieces of pineapples. The flying bugs feasted on these supplied food.

It is strange, the intensity of attention that people lavish on butterflies. Why do people love them so much? They’re just bugs with coloured wings.

I must admit that I like butterflies though. These frail insects that beat silken wings are bugs with wings, yes, but they’re also quietly beautiful bugs with wings.

On the plane, I was assigned to a seat by the windows. It was strange, to be peering from a squarish peephole and to watch the world grows smaller. The Changi airport became increasingly small until it was a dot, then no more.

There were clouds casting shadows on the sea. Thick clumps of clouds casting shifting shadows on the gentle sea. I’ve often been happy whenever the clouds block the sun back in Singapore. Up till now, it has never struck me that I was actually living in the shadows of clouds. Thank you, dear clouds, for being there even when I weren’t aware of your presence and sorry, mister clouds, sorry for forgetting to express my gratitude all these years.

Butterflies, clouds and shadows. The three omens of a beginning.

Visits to Fudan and Shanghai Ocean Universities

Fudan University has a beautiful campus, with sculptures scattered all over its grounds. 古色古香 describes this campus aptly.

There are many rocks, large and grainy, with inscriptions of Chinese couplets and, at times, even complete poems.

Trees with bony branches line spacious roads. Cyclists travel freely on flat grounds. Buildings glow with a rich Chinese culture.

There are a great number of sculptures in Fudan University and I drooled over their craftsmanship.

There are beautiful ponds with aquamarine-blue waters. There, weeping willows dip languid branches into gently moving waters.

Such palpable and intoxicating Chinese aesthetics! How I wish that NUS is equally beautiful.

By contrast, NUS is a rojak admixture of boxy pragmatic buildings, interspersed with a few ultra-modern gleaming structures. In other words, quite painful to any architect’s eyes.

It could have drawn on Singapore’s rich South East Asian heritage to create a campus environment conducive for learning. However, at the founding moments of NUS, nation building was critical. Preserving and promoting culture were secondary.

Here’s a quick summary of how the current grounds of NUS came to be:

1968: UNESCO experts submitted a $150 million plan to restructure the University to meet Singapore’s economic needs in the 1970s, including moving the University to a new campus, the establishment of a Faculty of Engineering and the transfer of all the degree courses from the Singapore Polytechnic to the University.
1970: Professor S J Van Embden, UNESCO expert from the Netherlands, revealed the Masterplan for the new University of Singapore campus at Kent Ridge, where the University’s Faculties will all be brought together under one roof. The plan also included a new university teaching hospital related to the medical faculty.
1972: Dr Toh Chin Chye officiated at a ground-breaking ceremony for the new University of Singapore campus site at Kent Ridge.
1976: The Faculty of Architecture and Building was moved from its Ladyhill campus to the new campus at Kent Ridge, the first faculty to move into the new campus under the first phase of construction. Over the next few years, the construction of the different Faculties concluded and they moved in by phases.

During this 1970s period when NUS was consolidating, Singapore was in a state of turmoil. In 1968, Britain announced its intention to withdraw its armed forces from Singapore. This coincided with the PAP winning all seats in the 1968 General Election which the Barisan Sosialis boycotted. In 1969, the Race Riots in Singapore erupted when the tension from the 13 May Incident in Malaysia spilled over.

Given the turbulent times, the aesthetics of the NUS campus were hardly a consideration. Hence, it is understandable that the buildings of NUS are so pragmatic (and somewhat ugly).

We had the privilege of visiting Shanghai Ocean University as well. It is incredibly modern, with a tasteful combination of textures and colors. All the buildings appear to blend harmoniously because the entire campus is new. It struck me that China must be sloshing with cash to spend so much land and capital constructing a completely new campus for a relatively young university.

From their university administrators, I understand that the Chinese government has identified marine science, aquaculture and food technology as being critical to the burgeoning Chinese population and economy. Hence, governmental support for this university is unstinting. If my memory serves me well, half a billion RMB was spent on this campus.

To a Singaporean studying in NUS, the scale of this university is incredible. I was to discover later that this dramatic scale is fairly common in China, across various industries and education institutes.

The amount of effort went into welcoming us, a delegate of pesky NUS students, was incredible. We got to visit their topmost office where a 360 degrees view of the campus awaited. There was a tank of iridescent jellyfishes.

But what struck me the hardest was the effusive friendliness of the Shanghai Ocean University students. They were really happy to host us. I wonder if NUS students offer the same level of enthusiasm to visiting student delegates.

These students would have exams in the week after we visit. They assured me that they were not very well-prepared but the end-of-semester exams were no big deal. According to them, the Shanghai Ocean University is not a top-tier school and academic competition within it isn't that stiff.

At this point, allow me to paraphrase a conversation we had:

"Are you all here during school term?"

"No, actually this is our holiday period."

"Wow, so good. Our school doesn't have many opportunities for us to venture abroad."

"But why? I mean how about exchange programs with other universities?"

"We have some with other Japanese and American universities but the places are very limited. Only a few people can go every year."

"How about student-initiated programs? Volunteer trips? Cultural programs?"

"Our school doesn't encourage this. Last time, one student went missing on a student-led trip. Since then, the school requires teachers to accompany any trip and few teachers are willing to do so."

"Hmm, sidetrack. Does studying for a degree help you all to find better jobs next time?"

"No."

"Huh? Then why are you all still studying? Too much money?"

"No, hahah. It's because we are not rich that we must study. Those 富二代 can afford not to study. In fact, I know someone who is a 富二代, working now with only a high school education and is earning a salary much higher than I'd expect with a degree."

I've often heard about such social inequities from my Chinese friends back in Singapore. However, it's a completely different experience to hear it again during a casual conversation in China.

I’ve signed up for this cultural immersion program for many reasons. I wanted to have a reprieve to look forward to after a year-long scientific research. I wanted to discover Chinese motifs, textures and aesthetics to use in my art. I wanted to be in a place that I've heard of, dissected and written about but not visited.

Never had I expected that I'd encounter such beautiful grounds and wonderful people. I've also realised that studying in NUS is a privilege for there are numerous opportunities for overseas exposure. Very much thankful for having this opportunity to visit China.

David, our Hangzhou tour guide

David, our tour guide in Hangzhou, is a fiercely patriotic Chinese citizen. At times, he would share stories about Chinese traditions, sayings and histories. At times, he would become frustrated at our ignorance of the Chinese culture – ignorance shown by both Chinese Singaporeans and Chinese nationals alike.

Chinese, he likes to say, should be aware of their roots.

Yet, from one joke that David said, we could deduce that he wasn't an unthinking patriot parroting the beliefs fed to him. Here’s one joke that he told our tour group:

“Daddy, daddy, what’s the meaning of politics?”

His dad thought for a while and tried to use terms that the little boy would understand. “I’m the Capitalist as I earn money to feed the family. Your mother is the Government as she controls the expenses. The nanny for your one-year old brother is the Working Class because, erm, she works.”

“What about my brother and I?” The little boy piped.

“Your brother is the Future and you… you’re the People.”

The little boy couldn’t quite get it. Politics could be rather confusing.

That night, the little boy woke up to the cries of his brother. To the boy’s horror, his brother has soiled his clothes with poop. He quickly slid into his parents’ room. His mother was sleeping, oblivious to his tugging fingers. His dad was not in bed. He then pattered to his nanny’s room. The room was locked and light shone through the keyhole. The little boy peeped through the keyhole and saw his father lying above his nanny.

He didn’t know what to think and how to react. So, like the little boy that he was, he went to sleep, befuddled.

The next day, the little boy tried to make sense of the word ‘politics’ again. “Daddy, I think I know what ‘politics’ is. It’s when the Capitalist is screwing the Working Class, the Government is sleeping, the People are ignored and the Future is in deep shit!”

Politics, it isn’t always clean.

Within Madame Tussauds Museum

The Madame Tussauds Museum in Shanghai displays waxworks of film stars, sports stars and pop stars. It also exhibits sculptures of historical, political and royal figures.

Now, why is this museum so popular? Why are there satellite Madame Tussauds Museums in cities from Las Vegas to London, Bangkok to Busan and Shanghai to Sydney? Why do the waxworks appeal to us so much?

They appeal to our egocentric human instincts. Standing in the company of the powerful, famous, rich, beautiful and intelligent beings, we can exercise our imagination. Perhaps these people could be personal friends and not just people whom we read about in tabloids and fantasy about at night. Perhaps the gap between us weren't that big. Perhaps we could be like them.

So who is Madame Tussaud?

Marie Grosholtz was born in 1761, the daughter of a housekeeper. After marriage to civil engineer Francois Tussaud in 1800, she became known as Madame Tussaud.

She was a skilful artist and this opened many doors for her. Her ability to create realistic waxworks has even saved her from execution! At different points of her illustrious life, she was a Royal tutor, a master figure maker and an astute businesswoman.

When she not even 20 years old, King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, invited her to the court. Her waxworks were recognised for her consummate craft. For nine years, she lived at Versailles, supervising the artistic education of the King’s sister and enjoying the splendour of court life.

However, political unrest and social discontent was spreading across France, a reaction to frivolous, absolute monarchical rule, and she was recalled back to Paris.

But alas! Fate wasn't kind. Paris would become the centre of a bloody Revolution that would send tremors throughout Europe. Everybody came under the scrutiny of revolutionary leader Robespierre and his bloodthirsty henchmen, and Marie’s connections with the Royal Family made her guilty by association.

Both she and her mother were arrested and imprisoned, sharing a cell with future Empress Josephine. Their heads were shaved in preparation for grisly execution by guillotine, a fate they only narrowly escaped…

On release, Marie’s loyalty to the Revolution was severely tested - she was asked to prepare the death masks of executed nobles, including former friends from her time at court, and her one-time employers, the King and Queen. The only reason she was spared from the guillotine was due to her waxworking skills.

Life after the Revolution also presented problems. By 1800, Marie was married to Francois Tussaud, with two young children. She also inherited an ailing business from her mentor. Madame Tussaud then made the bold decision to take her exhibition of figures on tour; in 1802 she left her husband and country for Great Britain. She never saw either again.

[Text credit: Adapted from the biography of Madame Tussads by Ben Lovett]

I could only imagine the tumultuous nature of her life, being swept about by higher powers, being controlled by forces beyond her control, being a woman in an era when gender equality was unheard of.

She must have been one lady with spunk.

As my friends and I pranced about the galleries, taking photos, I became increasingly quiet and wondered about the nature of fame.

How is it that these people become famous? Through what the media industries dictate? Are we worshipping the wrong ideals - looks and money? Are we behaving like mere cogs in the omniscient consumerist cycles dominated by mega industries?

Do we recognize that there is more to being?

At that time, no one was interested in debating this question with me. The interest revolved about making the most of our time in the museum by posing with and kissing Prince Harry. Anyway, we paid for the entrance fees already - it'd be a shame not to take more photos.

It has been gratifying to notice that there was at least a smaller gallery dedicated to sports stars.

There was an even smaller gallery dedicated to scientists. Albert Einstein even posed like a Victoria's Secrets Angel.

There was also a gallery dedicated to politicians, including Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton. They are influential figures in the global power hierarchies. This brings us much closer to them than we could ever be.

Thus far, the hyper-realism of the sculptures were amazing. Skin was carefully rendered. Hair was pushed with a needle into scalp. There were even wrinkles on faces.

Out of idle interest, I pointed my DSLR under Bill Clinton. To my surprise, that was no nostril hair stuck into the nostrils. Perhaps the Madame Tussauds sculptors believe that no one would bother taking photos of nostrils. In this regard, I've proven them wrong.

It was interesting to notice the large numbers of Chinese nationals presented in the wax museum. Does the contract stipulate that? Or is this a conscious decision to play up the Chinese cultural heritage?

On hindsight, it does make more business sense for the museum to display more waxworks of Chinese nationals. After all, this museum is based in Shanghai, a blazing Chinese metropolis, and it ought to reflect the personality of this place.

The Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (Shanghai) has been an eye-opening experience, both literally and figuratively.

As we lay our eyes on these famous people, it is necessary for us to examine our strong attraction to them. Are we respecting the film stars because they're famous? If so, why are they famous?

Are we worshipping the sports stars because they're rich or because they've shown us that it's possible to breach human physical limits?

This Shanghai museum evokes emotions. It remains pertinent for us to be reflexive about these emotions and what they reveal about our personal paradigms.

On Photographing Every Cranny

The compulsion to photograph at every nook and cranny, in front of every engraved rock, on every bridge and under every weeping willow… It was frustrating, extremely frustrating, to see fellow students ‘cam-whoring’.

Taking a few photos as keepsake, that’s reasonable and expected. After all, we’re tourists. But is there really a need to take that many photos?

At the architecturally interesting Suzhou Museum, I heard something which drove me nutty.

“This museum is so boring,” one girl said. “Not as many stuff as the Shanghai museum.”

“Let’s find somewhere to cam-whore,” her equally bimbotic friend replied.

I was absolutely incensed. How could they behave that way? I hissed, “we’re in a Suzhou museum and, in all likelihood, surrounded by people from Suzhou. Be sensitive. Your inability to appreciate the intricacy, history and aesthetics of Chinese ceramics does not mean that these ceramics are boring. It means that you’re dull, shallow and silly. Please don’t pass off your inadequacy on others, even if they’re non-living pottery.”

They looked at me, at the crowd of tourists staring at them, and started to sob. Tears, a lot of tears.

Okay, that didn’t actually happen. I didn’t say what I was thinking and they didn’t cry. They went off happily to somewhere pretty to take ‘pretty’ photos of themselves. I still wish that I had said it though. My life is littered with wasted opportunities.

This episode reminds me of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. Her slim book explores the damage that tourism has done to Antigua, a Caribbean Island. Two particular paragraphs are of note:

‘An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness.

Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go -- so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.’

As tourists, we visit different places to enrich ourselves. We encounter events and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible. We meet people that teach us lessons - sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly. We acquire paradigms and perspectives that would allow us to see the world in a different light. In short, tourism is an inherently self-centric activity.

This, however, does not grant us the freedom to behave in spectacularly ugly ways.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m glad and grateful for this opportunity to experience a different world. China has been dynamic, beautiful, dazzling and perturbing in equal measures, a place far more different and heterogenous than the stereotypes layered on it.

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