SINGAPORE: It's another quiet day at the Armenian Church compound, where music conductor Gevorg Sargysyan is busy overseeing the construction of the museum and gallery.
Except for the occasional tourist, the place is mostly empty. The next time it comes to life is when Singapore’s Armenian community gather for a rare get-together, on the eve of Jan 6, the day they celebrate Christmas.
They will head down, perhaps with some home-cooked dishes such as khorovats, dolma or harissa. Someone might also bring along a bottle or two of the famous Ararat brandy, to loosen up limbs for some Tamzara dancing.
But it won’t be a big party. The population of the community from which sprung the founders of Raffles Hotel, a co-founder of The Straits Times, and the breeder of the country’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, numbers around 60 today. And many of them are, like their predecessors who planted roots almost immediately after Stamford Raffles set foot on the island, expats who have recently settled here.
“If we’re lucky, we’ll expect maybe 20 to 30,” said Sargysyan, who came to Singapore in 2008 and is a trustee of the Armenian Church.
Meanwhile, over at Havelock Hawker Centre, 55-year-old hawker Tan Bee Hua is getting ready for the lunchtime crowd.
The 55-year-old hawker, who runs Tan’s Tu Tu Coconut Cake, is preparing the ingredients for their popular kueh tutu. The traditional Hokkien rice flour cake is in her family’s blood. Her late father, a migrant from Fujian, had sold it upon coming to Singapore in the 1930s, and it was her late elder brother who would eventually established the stall she currently runs.
While making and selling kueh tutu is something she does with a passion, it’s been tough-going. With only her sister-in-law to help her, Tan has to shuttle between their two branches, the other being at Clementi.
“It’s a dying trade and it’s not easy to get staff to make kueh tutu. No one is interested because it’s very labour-intensive,” she said.
INTANGIBLE HERITAGE GETS A BOOST
Traditional kueh tutu and an Armenian community may seem as different as chalk and cheese, but they’ve got one thing in common: They’re examples of the so-called intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in Singapore that could be in need of some boost.
While other aspects of heritage such as buildings and places have been recently getting a lot of buzz, the idea of seriously looking into the idea of ICH hasn’t caught on as much.
Simply put, it’s a catch-all term referring to, well, all things intangible. These range from oral traditions such as folktales and traditional performing arts to traditional Chinese medicine and the lohei to, yes, the making of kueh tutu and the different practices by the local Armenian community.
Elsewhere, you can find other examples of ICH in UNESCO’s own wide-ranging list, which include everything from yoga and batik to, most recently, the art of making the Neopolitan pizza.
But despite the public’s unfamiliarity with ICH, it is looking to be the next big thing next year, thanks to Singapore’s Heritage Plan.
The milestone plan, which will be launched in April 2018, will be the very first national blueprint entirely dedicated to safeguarding the country’s heritage – including its intangible ones.
Last month, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu had announced Singapore’s intention to ratify UNESCO’s cultural heritage convention in the near future, effectively joining other countries in protecting intangible heritage.
The National Heritage Board has also been busy consulting various stakeholders, and recently, it launched a new website called Our SG Heritage, where the public can offer its views.
The country’s big push for heritage – and intangible heritage in particular – has been a long time coming.
“Many countries are now looking at this, not just Singapore,” said Yeo Kirk Siang, director for heritage research and assessment at NHB.
“You see the effects of globalisation, and changes in the pace of life is happening quite fast, that different countries are thinking of how to safeguard certain practices. And because many practitioners are also ageing, there’s also more urgency.”
Singapore Heritage Society’s vice president, Dr Chua Ai Lin, welcomed recent developments especially since, she pointed out, Singapore has come in a bit late in the discussion.
“Our close neighbours, such as Penang and Hong Kong, are well ahead of us in recognising intangible cultural heritage. But this is still a more progressive way of looking at heritage – going simply beyond buildings, it’s about social practices, a way of life, beliefs and knowledge, crafts, oral traditons and so on."
HERITAGE VERSUS NOSTALGIA
Among the big plans in the future is the establishment of a national inventory, a list of the kinds of intangible heritage Singaporeans deem important enough to highlight and safeguard.
And the NHB is expecting a lively discussion about this. Citing some of the feedback they received from previous consultations, Yeo said different people have different views regarding ICH.
“Young people are not so hung up about the past and want their own way of interpreting how relevant intangible cultural heritage is in their modern lives. But we also have people telling us we should be preserving this or that because of what they remember from their childhood,” he said.
He added however, that despite nostalgia playing a huge part in current discussions about heritage, it goes beyond that. “We draw some distinction with nostalgia. Heritage is learning from the past in order to live in the now, while nostalgia is living in the past,” he said.
Admittedly, once the ball gets rolling, there are other questions that would likely be raised – some types of intangible heritage are more popular than others, for instance.
Thanks to its universal appeal, food heritage attracts more people to the cause compared to, say, a less sexy example such as Ayurvedic medicine.
But ultimately, it’s about what people want to champion, said Yeo. “What’s important will emerge when people come forward to say they feel it’s important to save or practice this or that.”
However, Dr Chua added that there’s also a need to put in the spotlight things that are less popular.
“In terms of prioritisation, we really need to identify which ones are the most endangered – like if only one practitioner remains,” she said.
She also pointed out that as interest and discussion about intangible cultural heritage grows, there might be some aspects that could be overlooked or ignored – particularly within the government’s general heritage framework, due to certain cultural or religious sensitivities.
Dr Chua cited the sample of the Javanese kuda kepang dance, which, despite its uniqueness, is frowned upon by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), which considers some of its elements objectionable, including performers going into a trance-state.
NOT JUST HERITAGE BUT CONTINUITY
Another important thing to remember, she says, is that when talking about intangible cultural heritage, the public should keep in mind the different layers of issues surrounding each particular practice.
Citing how urban development’s impact on the decline of traditional trades, Dr Chua said: “People don’t live in kampongs and shophouses anymore. In the past, you live upstairs while your workshop and shop are downstairs. But if your workshop has been moved to an industrial estate and your family lives in an HDB estate, your kids won’t go to the workshop and have that automatic connection.”
Dr Chua things that one way of further enriching the discussion on intangible cultural heritage is to focus not just on the idea of “heritage” but more importantly the idea of “continuity”.
“Maybe that’s something we need to emphasise, whether you’re looking at a group of people, a particular practice or a place. How do we allow things to continue for as long as they can, and help these get to a certain point without killing these off prematurely? And there are times when things that look to be on their last legs are revived,” she said.
As the national conversation about intangible cultural heritage slowly begins, practitioners and communities directly involved in these do what they can.
Despite the uncertainty regarding their business, Tan Bee Hua and her sister-in-law continues to wake up early to prepare their kueh tutu for loyal customers. They’ve even tried to adapt by introducing hipper versions like chocolate filling.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Armenian community are also making sure their voices are heard.
An Armenian Heritage Ensemble, formed by Gevorg Sargysyan and his wife, continues to perform several concerts a year, which feature traditional Armenian music.
Sargysyan is also banking on the opening of the Armenian museum and heritage gallery for some buzz. They’re hoping to hold various lessons regarding their culture. There are also plans to hold a performance within the compound under the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
“We’re small in number but high in quality,” quipped Sargysyan. “We’re still contributing to present history in some ways. It’s not as visible or as recognised but it’s happening.”