SINGAPORE: Next month, the annual art walk OH! Open House heads for the Emerald Hill neighbourhood. And you can catch the sight of Sir Stamford Raffles being... grilled like kueh kapit?
Now on its eighth edition, the popular event – known for presenting artworks inside the homes of residents – will run from March 3 to 25. This year, works by 22 artists will be scattered throughout three different mini-tours as well an exhibition at nearby Orchard Plaza.
One of these artworks will be Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong's sculpture of Raffles. As part of a performance, it will be transformed into a charcoal grill, on which performers wearing sarongs will be grilling kueh kapit or love letter biscuits.
Curious and peckish audiences are then invited to munch on these delights with relish – as a ritualistic act of vengeance that touches on a contentious but lesser-known side of the founder of modern Singapore.
ALTERNATIVE VIEW OF RAFFLES
Before stumbling upon Singapore in 1819, Raffles was the man behind a brief British rule of Java, which resulted in a violent assault on Yogyakarta in 1812.
While he may have a more benign image here, that isn’t necessarily the case in Indonesia, said Ong.
“I was surprised to find a different reputation of Raffles in Java three years ago. This will be a performance about him in Java and not him in Singapore,” he said.
Ong, who now spends most of his time in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, added: "I’m offering an alternative viewpoint and perhaps we may recognise a hunger within us not told in Singapore colonial history.”
NUTMEG MANIA IN SINGAPORE
Ong’s work is just one of many that will offer alternative views to Raffles and Singapore’s colonial past. OH! Open House co-founder and artistic director Alan Oei hopes this year's event will kick-start the conversation ahead of next year’s bicentennial celebrations.
“Other countries pull down the statues and buildings of their former colonial masters; we put up new ones. Colonialism isn’t just a footnote to our history – it’s a set of ideas, attitudes, and institutions that still haunts us today," he said.
But Oei added that colonialism wasn’t just about statues and people. The humble nutmeg played a huge role in Singapore, too, and one of the mini-tours looks at the history of Emerald Hill and Orchard Road during a time when Singapore’s colonisers went nuts over it.
“What were the Dutch and British and the Portuguese doing (in the region) in the first place? It was about spices. From initial trade efforts, it became about territorial conquest that transforms large tracts of land into cash crop plantations – and nutmeg was the first and ultimate cash crop,” said Oei.
Originating in the Banda Islands, these were first sent to Singapore by Raffles in 1819. By the 1830s, the so-called nutmeg mania kicked off. At its peak in 1848, there were 55,925 nutmeg trees in Singapore. Many of these plantations were along Orchard Road.
ORCHARD ROAD’S NUTTY HISTORY
“Nutmeg mania gave shape to Orchard Road, but we don’t typically associate colonialism to Orchard Road. All the estates along Orchard Road – Oxley, Cuppage, Emerald – were named by or after their plantation owners. If you see these strange sculptures in Orchard Ion, and Orchard Central, now you know it’s because of nutmeg mania,” said Oei.
By the early 1860s, a disease caused by the local beetle, which had been slowly spreading for a decade, had wiped out every single nutmeg plantation.
Only then came the crops people now associate with Singapore and Malaya, like rubber and pineapple, said Oei.
Citing how the rubber industry was largely tied to the Botanic Gardens, he added: “Just thinking about botanical networks from Kew Gardens (London) to Calcutta to Singapore, you really see how science and botany aids colonial exploitation and expropriation. In that way, I feel like botany really opens up conversations about colonialism.”
For more details on OH! Emerald Hill, visit the website here.