“Why and how can a rock band like The Observatory exist in such a silent dream state?” Yan Jun discusses censorship amid the noise and silence of Singapore
The best way to mute crows is to shoot them. The sudden and stimulating noise of guns can also psychologically suppress the survivors. And nobody will have any sympathy for the carrion once you announce that crows sometimes attack humans. In that case you may even get some professional help to kill them, attracting volunteers in the shape of those gentlemen belonging to shooting clubs.
Which is what the Singapore government did.
The crow is my favourite bird. I enjoy listening to their distinctive caws when I travel to different parts of the world. I call their caws “axes of the air”. I am fortunate that crows are everywhere, in great diversity. But in some cultures the crow is a symbol of bad luck. Such symbolism still exists in people’s lives, more or less, here and there. Because of this I have a personal problem with the government of Singapore – I feel there is an officially sanctioned conspiracy behind their brutal response to the crow as a symbol. A society that thinks this way cannot really be modern (even as that raises a question for myself: what is modern?). If Singaporean society has not moved beyond such traditional symbols and superstitions, it would appear to still be at the agricultural stage. Perhaps it doesn’t care about the crow’s symbolic meaning and is more concerned about ensuring its people’s security? Then, the city state of Singapore still views certain other symbols with great suspicion, such as men with tattoos or those wearing long hair. Indeed, it was not so long ago in the 1970s that the Japanese new age musician Kitaro was stopped at the Singapore border. He was told to get his long hair cut or go home. He cancelled the concert and returned to Japan.
Singapore still has issues with the voice and its symbolism. In its Indian community’s Little India district, street marches are allowed during traditional festivals but no musical instruments can be used. On top of that, strict laws have been recently put in place against alcohol consumption during these festivals.
The reason why I write about Singapore is because I was asked by a Singaporean friend to do so. He asked for my impressions of his homeland and whether I’d consider immigrating there to join him? The Singaporean passport is visa–free for 182 countries, while I, with my Chinese passport, spend days and days of my life preparing ridiculous visa applications in order to travel abroad. Three years ago I undertook a two month residency in Singapore. I had a great time there. It was like a retreat – it was quiet and almost nothing happened, like the -lite version of a soft drink. But I was thankful I didn’t have to live there all the time.
My Singaporean musician friends often hung out at Substation, a venue connected to a small art space. Unusual music and performance art events were occasionally presented in a garden next to the building. They lost this garden before I arrived, but Substation is still a nice place. At my residency a sign reminded me every day that ‘Littering is a heavy crime!’, which made me all the more amazed to see all the cigarette stubs thrown on the floor outside the venue. I take the mysophobia (the extreme aversion to dirt) expressed by the No Litter sign to be the result of the struggle for a better life – despite the reality of human nature that I saw at the venue.
Another of the reasons why I wanted to spend time in Singapore: I was curious why people would want to live like they were pets – where society provides protection and economic security yet they are not allowed to think or act differently. This young country is like a dreamland to many Chinese: it is clean, safe, rich... and nothing much happens. Maybe there have always been too many things happening where I am in China. It’s really not safe, and it’s also too uncertain. I have the feeling that everybody in China needs a retreat at some point.
The next question follows naturally. Why and how can a rock band like The Observatory exist in such a silent dream state? Of course, there are punks, improvisors, hardcore, harsh noise and bits of almost everything in Singapore. The Singlish hiphop groups are raw and bold and make ironic and political jokes. But The Observatory are of special interest to me; they are more modern than any Chinese rock band I know. The Observatory’s music is rooted in blues rock and psychedelic rock, but it grows within an ever-changing free structure. I think they can present a poetic feminine power because the male singer is supported by female musicians performing masculine blocks of noise and rhythm. The atmosphere is dark, but never romantic. This is not the reflected shadow of a remote modern (or postmodern, if you like) world. It’s a mirror inserted into that reality. I wrote up a long interview with The Observatory member Yuen Cheewai (who’s also my bandmate in Far East Network aka FEN), in which he gave me no analytical answers, just facts. He told me a lot of background stories tracing back to the independence of Singapore in the 1960s, and the state's tricky international relationships with China, Malaysia and Indonesia; and about an identity based on money and the power of money. Many of his answers made me reflect on my own country and reality. It’s never just about some angry girls and boys and poets who simply love music.
But this is not just another complaint against censorship. Music can be simplistic when it is heavily censored; also, it can be censored, but not muted. Before an outdoor festival in China you have to submit the lyrics of every song to the authorities before you can perform them. But only one band (Cun Tie) have refused to play on such large stages rather than submit to this requirement. Perhaps they think too much? Perhaps there is a musical form that can reflect a simple desire to play, as well as the complicated process of obtaining permission to do so? I am not close enough to that scene to know any, but perhaps there are many musicians like them?
How do you compose and listen to music in such a dream world like Singapore? Despite a few top rappers showing their loyalty to authority, hiphop was banned in China. Then a year ago tattoos were banned on TV and at outdoor festivals. I wish those who simply love music could just perform. But why are the crows aggressive in the dream world? The question is: how to survive and scream, even if your voice is not harmonious?
Special thanks to Edward Sanderson for his help with this piece.