Singapore in 8 Poems: Learning about Singapore Culture through Literary Encounters
The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought us many challenges over the past two years. From health woes, prolonged absences from school and the loneliness brought about by weeks of HBL, this new world order has given many of us new perspectives on some of the pre-COVID luxuries we took for granted.
Take for example, the humble field trip. Outside of being an enjoyable experience, the ability for students to physically and mentally immerse themselves in their learning is a valuable part of their education. The opportunity for them to also instantly apply their knowledge into a real life experience effectively connects their classroom to the real world, one of the critical components of the IB Middle Years Programme.
When the Year 11 cohort embarked on a new unit on Singaporean poetry last school year, our team of Year 11 English and EAL teachers felt that a field trip to the very locations written about in a carefully curated selection of Singaporean poetry would be an excellent way to experience the texts. The premise was simple. We mapped out an oft-written about area of the island - the historic district - and selected eight poems that were written about specific locations in this area.
Our first stop was Chinatown.
After reading Postcards from Chinatown by Terence Heng and Samsui Women by Andrew Yip, the students learned through their surroundings about how Singapore’s colonial history has shaped our cultural enclaves as well as how migrants from all over the world such as the samsui women (female construction workers from China) have travelled to Singapore in search of opportunity. We asked the students to think of the struggles faced by these early migrants and write a poem that encapsulates the sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown as well as a tableau illustrating the strength of migrant workers.
A tableau representing female unity and strength created by a group of students.
Then we headed to explore the colourful shophouses of Tanjong Pagar.
There we read Arthur Yap’s poem Old House At Ann Siang Hill which spoke of the nostalgia of the Peranakan families that lived in this area and the way modernization has eroded many of the community’s cultural artefacts. The students then used photos they took of the numerous restored shophouses to base an original poem contrasting the old with the new in the form of a twin cinema poem.
After lunch at the famous Maxwell Hawker Centre where the students were encouraged to sample Singaporean dishes they might not have tried before, we took a long walk across the Central Business District towards Boat Quay.
Once there, the students read two poems about the Singapore River that contrast in the poets’ emotional expressions about it. Lady River by Andrew Yip is an ode to the vibrancy and life of the river when it used to be a bustling hub for trade, while Singapore River by Lee Tzu Pheng is a lament for this more authentic version of the river that no longer exists. A sacrifice of history in the name of societal progress. The students explored the poets’ use of extended metaphor to write such a poem themselves while basking in the lovely breeze coming off the river banks.
From there, we moved on to The Cenotaph - a war memorial for those who perished during World Wars I and II.
Cenotaph by Toh Hsien Min and Notes from a Colonialist, 2065 by Amanda Chong are both poems written by young Singaporean poets who both speak of the past (in Toh’s poem) and a possible dystopian future (in Chong’s poem). They discuss the dangers for young people to disregard a seemingly irrelevant past such as our colonial history but also that of ignoring modern concerns such as that of climate change. In their reimaginings and their observations, these poems and the peaceful meditative surroundings of the Cenotaph provided the students with ample inspiration to write a cinquain commemorating a loss they had suffered. Some wrote about leaving behind their MYP years for the DP, others wrote about friends and teachers departing the school. This was quite an emotional stop in our journey.
Class photo at the Cenotaph
Before we went to our final stop at Merlion Park, we read Alfian bin Sa’at’s aptly named poem, The Merlion. This poem is a snarky piece about the poet’s dislike for the Merlion, “this lesser brother of the Sphinx” as a symbol of the nation. For the students’ final task, they created a vlog as they walked the length of the bridge to the Merlion arguing for and against its historical and artistic merits as a symbol for Singapore culture.
Students recording their vlogs.
Being the first field trip after two long years of isolation and social distancing, this journey was perhaps epic in nature and a tiring day for all concerned. However, the rich learning gained from this expedition was worth the effort. Some students who have lived in Singapore all their lives said that it’s the first time they have experienced their home for so many years in this way. Many who arrived in Chatsworth in the midst of the pandemic appreciated the tour they got of the historic district and their first foray into Singapore history and culture. But more than most, it was the unique perspectives provided by the poets’ voices transcending time and space to reach us that breathed new life into these locales that we thought we knew.
At the end of the field trip. Tired but enriched.
At Chatsworth International School, our learning approach is a powerful artery of inspiration, education and enlightenment to develop well-rounded and internationally-minded individuals. Book a tour of our campus or call us to find out more about why Chatsworth is the school for your child to learn and grow.
Athanases, Steven Z. “Diverse Learners, Diverse Texts: Exploring Identity and Difference through Literary Encounters.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 30, no. 2, June 1998, pp. 273–296.
Choo, Suzanne S. “Fostering the Hospitable Imagination through Cosmopolitan Pedagogies: Reenvisioning Literature Education in Singapore.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 50, no. 4, 2016, pp. 400–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889942. Accessed 11 Jul. 2022.
Elliott, V., Nelson-Addy, L., Chantiluke, R., Courtney, M., (2021) Lit in Colour: Diversity in Literature in English Schools. The Runnymede Trust and Penguin Books.