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A “Cultural Orphan” lost in 2015

Words / Huang SuhuaiTranslate / Tung Ka Wai, Wei Shimin

This October, The Practice Lab and its 11 members presented 11 monologues through excavating their personal memories, family histories and cultural origins. Inspired by this journey in search of self, we are drawn to the term of “Cultural Orphan” in this issue of the Practice Journal…

The term “Cultural Orphan” was first mentioned by Kuo Pao Kun in the 90s. He described “Cultural Orphan” as “a sense of loss and alienation, and a kind of anxiety in the search for self”. There might be certain consolation on visiting the cultural homeland of our forebears but we are unable to identify this homeland as our cultural home. He felt that we are always in a wandering and searching state of mind. Some may even call this the consciousness of a person at the margins.

Today, 20 years after the birth of “Cultural Orphan”, we wonder if this is a key moment to re-examine the term. Back then, Kuo Pao Kun predicted two possible futures: (1) “Cultural Orphans” forget all the cultural heritage they had, including the fragmented parts of it. (2) The thirst of “Cultural Orphans” brings upon a strong capability to absorb the essence of different cultures. Based on their understanding and life experience, they construct a new culture – a culture that reflects the essence of fusing different culture in the world.

How much have we forgotten? How much have we absorbed? What does “Cultural Orphans” mean to us? What is its significance for the current generation? Is cultural homeland just a personal imagination or a kind of shared objective experience? Is there a destination to this wandering?

These questions spur us to delve deeper into “Cultural Orphan”. We invite arts practitioners and academics to share with us their views on this. 

Dr Ng How Wee (SOAS, University of London):

During a time when the world that is increasingly globalised, subjectivities more diversified, the Singapore national identity gradually maturing, and foreigners forming twenty per cent of the population, it is worth rethinking the presuppositions of Kuo Pao Kun's idea of "cultural orphans."

The word "orphan" implies loss of both parents and separation from one's mother. However, for a very long time, whether during peacetime or the outbreak of wars and natural catastrophes, people have been ceaselessly migrating on a large-scale. In other words, culture is in a constant state of flux. If one wishes to offer a strict definition of "culture," how would we trace the origins and where does the end lie?

More specifically, we also have to ask: who is representing these "cultural orphans" under what conditions? For whom are they representing? Who are the specific subjects being represented as "cultural orphans"? Whose culture? Do those represented agree with this positioning? To what extent is such an identification mutual--does the "mother" acknowledge the identity anxiety of the "orphan"?

Alvin Tan (Artistic Director, The Necessary Stage):

When I look back, I recall feeling guilt as a response to the term "cultural orphans". That was the period when Alex Hayley's Roots (both in book and tele-movie) dominated my psychological cultural sphere.  I felt obliged to feel a sense of loss or anxiety, and as if my love and alignment with English Literature has all been misplaced and a huge mistake.

Then I began to feel upset.  Because I thought the arts would be inclusive and would embrace people from all cultural standing, and that I shouldn't feel any less an artist just because I don't identify with what I should be associated with as my homeland.  

I searched myself until I was able to admit to myself that I do not consider China my homeland. 

Cultural orphans imply homeland in somewhere else. Fortunately, the peranakans consider Southeast Asia home and not China. Clearly for us, our intercultural heritage does not position us as orphan because we are the mixed child of Chinese, Malay and British sensibilities in the Southeast Asia crucible or womb. Therefore our home is here, in Singapore.  

Cultural orphan may ring true for other ethnic groups but not for me. If I was lost, I was searching for awhile but soon enough, I started to find what I'm about. And what I'm about is not an orphan but a cross-cultural hybrid.  If the notion of motherland is where you are and not where your ancestors come from, then you are being culturally composed where you are born. It is fine if you wish to find out the history of your constituents, but if you embrace your present soil as home, then that is where your cultural parents (albeit cross or mixed) are and always will be.    

“Cultural Orphan” and its significance aside, we think this search for self is no doubt a meaningful pursuit. When we revisit these concepts, in an attempt to redefine a “Cultural Orphan” that will bring us closer to our times.  

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 8 / December 2015:The Courage To Go Against The Current