A song of two cities

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"Try to remember the shade of this shaft of light in the moment," a Cebuano expat in Singapore implores. "Because who knows, what you see today might be gone tomorrow." Art by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s Friday night, I’m having dinner out with a friend, and although the circumstances would suggest otherwise, there’s something about tonight that makes me feel like I am not too far away from home. Maybe it’s because I’m in one of Singapore’s many hawker centers, and more than any other place in this rapidly changing city, it’s the part that reminds me most of Cebu. It’s the part that reminds me of the cultural mix, the provincial urbanity, the good food of the city I grew up in. Cebu, which in spite of its rapid growth in the past decades, still retains the spirit of a small town, where everyone feels distantly related to each other, whether by blood or stubborn belief, and there is a sense that things are simultaneously changing (Is that a new mall being built around the corner?) and forever the same (Her favorite dress hasn’t changed through the years!). Maybe it’s because the sea is so near: ever moving, always there.

Perhaps it’s the hawker center’s leisurely ease that seems so familiar. Especially in the early evenings, when people are coming home from work, it’s where people sit down to talk and grab a bite before they return to their HDB flats to sleep — in Singapore a good number have dinner out. It’s busy, yes, don’t get me wrong. It’s crowded. And sometimes it takes both stealth and cunning, not to mention a quick hand, to grab a seat. But in highly urbanized Singapore where discipline is a pride of honor, and rules are if not set in stone then hard pressed into the mind of one’s manners, the seeming chaos and sense of recklessness could very well be a version of home. It has the ease of possibility. Anything can happen. In the Cebu way of both linger and surprise — lounging in the porch in the afternoon and then rushing out of the house because a friend is suddenly back in town — nothing need be as planned. One is assured always of finding something great to eat but there is also the opportunity of following one’s sudden cravings, one’s unpredictable hungers, one’s guts. Besides, in the evenings the hawker centers seem to be permeated with the energy of a huge, anonymous extended family dinner where everyone’s a cousin of a cousin, and this is a collective version of hot soup served by an invisible mother figure welcoming her sons and daughters from a long day out in the world.

Or perhaps tonight things seem especially familiar because on this Friday evening, while we’re having a cold beer in the middle of a crowded hawker center, a song from a nearby table trails its way, no, barrels its way into ours. It is familiar to my ears even if I do not know its words, even if it is in a foreign tongue — Malaysian — that is near enough to Cebuano that I can catch a few words I can understand, but different enough that I do not understand exactly what it wants to say. The music’s coming from the phone of an old-style 50-ish-looking rocker: tattered denim jacket, tattoos, a liter of beer that suggests the night is going to be long, or at least as long as he can stretch it. He has the swagger of men I have met in the past — rebellious boys who reject the civilizing impulse of adulthood. They hold their angers and discontents like badges of honor. They cup their sadnesses into their growls and use them to magnify their laughters. If they seem to refuse to grow up or fit in, it is because they understand that the very resistance to what is expected of men of their age comes from an allegiance to the big questions held dear in adolescence. Specifically: What am I meant to do in this life? How do I make the world a more liveable place for everyone? Where do I belong? Sentiments which, if they may not be expressed in words, then expressed in song — or at least versions of them in songs like the one I am hearing tonight.

Have I mentioned that it sounds like the love songs I grew up on in the Philippines? It is a rock ballad really, a kind of sentimental love song for the young. And while the rocker’s insistence to blast his feelings tonight vicariously through music makes him seem displaced in a country that appears to pride itself in keeping its sentiments in check, I suspect it might actually be the very reason I have assumed that the song he plays is simultaneously meant entirely for him alone and intended entirely for everyone else, including me who doesn’t fully understand it. I take a sip of my beer. I look at him from the corner of my eye as I continue a conversation with my friend. “How did we end up here?” she laughs. The volume of the song exposes the depth of the man’s longing, as it digs into mine.

                                                                     Speed limit

In the past few weeks, I have been visiting a nearby museum to watch a film by the Singaporean artist Tan Pin Pin, called “80km/h.” It’s a documentary she made in 2004, where she took a video camera and positioned it on her car window, and beginning at Changi Airport on the east of Singapore, she drove toward the western tip of the island while continuously recording. It’s a film, ultimately, about movement. What it means to live on an island where one can go from one end to the other in a matter of 38 minutes, traveling at its speed limit of — as the film’s title indicates — 80 kph. It is about what can be captured at that speed, what is possible to document with a camera at that pace. It is about moving, perpetually, like cars in a highway where to stop midway would mean that there must have been a terrible accident of the proportions of a truck ramming into a bus, but it is also about not moving. What does it mean to be able to traverse the entire breadth of a country in less than the time it takes to see a movie, that it could take the form of a film itself, intro credits to end credits, from one darkness to another? Assuming, of course, that one wasn’t tempted to digress and take one of the backstreets, or to make the sudden decision to pull over or out of the main course of things and linger in a part of the island that one had seen before and suddenly wished to see again, for no apparent or urgent reason.

Because there is nothing like nostalgia to fuel my thoughts, and because to fuel nostalgia is one of the ways I have come to terms with diaspora, I am thinking of the Singapore I remember from childhood vacations as I watch Tan’s film. Sentosa Island. The heat of summer. The notion that the ideal vacation is spending a week in another country where the weather is cooler. (So why are we in a place that is even more humid than Cebu?) My mother and father on a bus. My brother beside me. It is 2016 and I am watching a documentary film of a Singapore from more than 10 years back and I cannot help but wonder if a younger version of myself has been caught on camera. Perhaps there is a half-second shot of a bus where I am sitting by the window looking up at the high-rise condominiums with their green shrubbery, not knowing that many years later I will find myself back here as a writer. The fantasy that there is a fragment of one’s past that has been caught inadvertently on tape in the form of a film snippet, but also the hope that there are cities like this which hold within them a part of one’s past that one may have access to even if for just a moment.

The Singaporeans that are watching the film with me perhaps are looking at it through a slightly different lens. Faced with rapid infrastructure changes, where buildings are torn down and new ones are built, Singapore changes its face by the second. One is not surprised to find that where a week ago a barren piece of earth by the side of a street lay, there now stands, miraculously, a transplanted tree. Voila. When they watch this film, it is through the lens of a people coming to grips with what it means to live in a city that is changing before their eyes. Catch the view of this landscape before it disappears from your eyes completely. Try to remember the shade of this shaft of light in the moment. Because who knows, what you see today might be gone tomorrow. When a city changes at a pace that is faster than it is possible for the human heart to catch up, one hopes that there are other ways to document the day as it is fading. Perhaps that is the role of film today, the role of all art. I watch the orange light of sunset that streams from a window in the room where I watch a film as it comes to the end of a day from many years ago and I imagine that I am almost there. I am almost here where I am right now.

                                                               Somewhere nearby

To be a Filipino expat writer in Southeast Asia is to be a witness to ways in which versions of oneself are mirrored in landscapes that are different from and similar to one’s own. To suffer the weather of the same but also of the not quite. When I moved to Singapore after a few years of living in the U.S., I knew I was finally returning home to the region, but not quite. Cebu, finally only a quick plane ride away, was suddenly nearer for the first time in years, but also not fully within my grasp. When I visited Penang, Malaysia, a few months ago for a conference, I knew instantly when the plane touched the tarmac and I saw the vegetation of the island from my window that I had arrived in an alternate version of Cebu with its ethnic mix, its vibe of ease, its sidewalks that were untraversable because there were stalls selling all kinds of trinkets to the tourist, to the passerby, to the neighbor from a different island. Ah, yes.

But when what we have been used to is always to see oneself in relation to the somewhere far (the U.S., the U.K., Europe), it takes a while for the eye to adjust to what it means to look at something that is somewhere nearby. Close, but different. There, but near here enough to make one say: “Hey, isn’t that a version of myself I see in the rearview mirror? Isn’t that a song I used to sing but in a different language? Please tell me the words to the song that I know I should be able to sing but can’t. For now.”