Joseph had been away from Singapore a while. Back for Chinese New Year and having read about Marina Bay Sands, he wanted a post-prandial stroll around the bay to the casino-resort to see the changes to the skyline for himself. The walk commenced from the row of cafes at One Fullerton, taking us over the Esplanade Bridge to the promenade in front of the Esplanade Theatres.
I asked him about his doctoral thesis, and the conversation led on to how one would assess authenticity in material culture. Changes and modifications take place all the time, and for different motives. Especially for items made for tourism, the changes are often substantial in order to make the “exotic” product marketable to foreigners. At what point does it lose its authenticity?
Soon, we reached the (very ugly) bayside grandstand and the floating platform, on which River Hongbao was in progress. River Hongbao is an annual village fair organised by the Singapore government to mark Chinese New Year. It has carousels, rides and food stalls on the land side, and a collection of gaudy structures on the platform itself.
Among them was what looked to me like a three-metre tall paper mansion that the Chinese burn at funerals in order to send it off to the after-world for the benefit of the newly-deceased.
“Why on earth did anyone consider it appropriate to have a funeral offering on display at Chinese New Year?” I asked nobody in particular.
“It’s not,” said Joseph, “though it does look like one. It’s the Kwan Im temple, isn’t it?”
We looked more closely. Indeed it was a scaled-down replica of the well-known temple on Waterloo Street. Just then, a family gathered to pose for a photograph in front of it, and we had to get out of the way.
“Although one would wonder,” continued Joseph, “why anybody would want to pose before this copy version when they can pose before the real thing.”
Not far from the funeral offering — I still maintain it looked like one — stood a scaled-up version of the God of Fortune, easily twelve metres tall. Apparently, immensity is a surrogate indicator of his divine powers. It was all lit up in red, yellow and blue, bright enough to be perilous to air traffic looking for Changi Airport.
Around its base was a considerable crowd — mostly adults of varying ages. We didn’t pay much attention to what exactly they were doing, but I certainly didn’t get the impression that they were praying. Perhaps they were commenting on how beautiful it was — and almost certainly posing for more photographs.
Joseph and I continued our conversation, now veering into the question of kitsch. How is it defined? Why is it so loved? Is kitsch necessarily the opposite of art and authenticity? But if we think that way, is such thinking artistic and cultural snobbery?
We were soon interrupted by what sounded like an air gun going off, followed by a soft roar from the crowd. Turning our heads, we saw that from somewhere high up the God of Fortune, a flurry of gold-coloured glitter had been blasted into the night sky. The big guy had blown his top, so to speak. The flurry of glitter was softly floating down to the right of the statue, in which direction the crowd surged. Like excited children hoping to catch candy falling heaven, these grown men and women ran about, shrieking and shouting, arms up in the air hoping to snare some “gold dust” on their hands, their sleeves and their hair. A few were better prepared than the rest: On a cloudless night, they had brought umbrellas with them. Now, the umbrellas were opened, turned upside down to serve as extended parabola dishes, the better to catch more of the cheap tinsel shower. No doubt they annoyed other shriekers who would have felt that employing upturned umbrellas was not quite playing fair.
After fifteen seconds of frenzy, the glitter had mostly all fluttered to the ground and there was nothing more to catch. These grown adults then showed off to each other how much they had caught: Look at my arms. Oh, my hair too. And I have a little pile on my palm. And look, you have some on your nose.
A few others crouched down to the ground and, using pieces of card, swept and scraped the ground to pick up more of the “dust”. They would all believe they had been blessed by the God of Fortune and that 2011 would bring them luck and prosperity. I don’t think anyone actually said it quite like that, but you could guess as much from the giggles, laughter, the waving of arms and the careful husbanding of collected glitter in pockets and handbags.
“Speaking of culture,” I said, turning to my friend, “what we just saw is authentic.”
Joseph agreed: “Totally.”