Thursday, December 10, 2009

Authentic Azian Senzation™

'Happy Singapore Electronics Shop' so you know it's Singapore, yo!
In both Poultrygeist's awesome post on early absorption of racism and a comment left at Complaining Cow's missive on the embracement of insensitivity by certain people, it is proposed that the majority class will only begin to understand the problem with "harmless" stereotyping when the tables are turned on them.

I think they're absolutely right.

I'm totally reminded of an Australia and New Zealand Bank (ANZ Bank) TV commercial that ran on the Australian free-to-air when I was there as part of a Animals Are Friends, Not Food world tour a year ago.

The entire campaign peddled ANZ's apparently superior credit card security tracking system that picked up suspicious spending trends. In this particular ad, the example was Fiona Tyler's credit card that was used simultaneously in both Melbourne and Singapore. It starts from inside the ANZ security oversight office, before cutting to a scene of "Singapore" where the credit card fraud perpetrator is attacked by ANZ's campaign mascot.

Their idea of Singapore? Shops with large chinese signboards, hanging red lanterns, food hawkers along pedestrian walkways and what looks like our preferred mode of transport, the trishaw. Complete with old-school, yellow tint to the film and cue Chinese New Year-esque, chirpy Chinese mandolin and drum soundtrack for maximum Authentic Azian Senzation™!

(Er... I don't think Singapore has looked like that since the 1970s.)

And I really don't think it does anything to inform people of the realities outside of Australia. Information that, I figure, might be useful for its people since I learnt some things while I was there:

- Some people have impressions that Singapore is in South China, populated by only yellow-skinned people. And yellow-skinned people are bad in English.

- Being bad in English receives similar warmth (typically yellow-skinned) Singaporeans accord (other typically yellow-skinned) migrants in Singapore: leave the country if "you speaky no ingrish".

I got pats on the head and cookies for "speaking such good but accented English" and possessing "a really wide vocabulary". ("Why, thank you! Your English isn't too bad too! Where'cha learn to speak like that?") I'm "not like the other Asians"--you know, the two or three other Asian data points with whom your interlocutor has had extensive conversations to speak so authoritatively on. (No worries that I, a badly drawn, male unfeminist barnyard animal can talk at all, yo!)

- Some have anxieties quite alike Singaporeans--a loud quarter wants migrants to just "go back to your own country!" (I will, mate, once you return to your own country, since most of you shouting can't rightfully claim to be native.)

- It's hard to absorb that there're other skin tones from Singapore. If you're a slight shade of brown, then you must be from Malaysia or Indonesia. Darker and you're from India, and if you're from India then you have a whole different subset of problems. Somewhere between and maybe your family are boat people, and that you probably were a delinquent mall rat at some point. All in all, everyone gets treated with suspicion at some retail or F&B outlets, if not by staff then maybe clientele.

- Being Asian also means that if, like me, you shop at Alternative Lifestyle™, then you're a docile, subservient boytoy who only wants it up his ass, and wishes to be either dominated by an apparently white(r) partner, or handed with extreme care like an exotic, delicate flower that bruises to touch. Oh yeah... You also worship MONSTER COCK. (By the way, I don't think Magical Chicken appreciates her boyfriend being referred to as "monster".) All of which points to a really troubling conception of femininity and gender roles pegged to your race.

- Certain strangers feel they can take liberties with you like publicly manhandle you (lift you up, pinch your cheeks, pat your head, even touch you on more inappropriate spots etc), comment on your Asian cuteness, and how much they like your food. It doesn't matter if you're Singaporean, because that's just part of Asia and it's all the same since they can't tell all you people apart. (Though, seriously, why do you need to tell us apart? So that you can be selectively racist?) If you insist that being Singaporean should mean something--because we on the island like to tell ourselves that we're better than our Asian counterparts--but all you receive is knowledge that the interlocutor has been to Singapore too, "and it has a really nice airport."

Stereotypes don't only trap you in a certain mould complete with often false expectations of what and who you are. They also trap people absorbing it with a certain image of how you should be treated. For every person who thinks these images innocuous, there're many others who can't or won't quite differentiate fact from fiction. And unless you're out there convincing everyone that your approved stereotype is actually not wholly safe for consumption, then I suggest you jolly well not encourage it at all. Because so far, I haven't found a stereotype that benefits anyone.


  1. 'I got pats on the head and cookies for "speaking such good but accented English" and possessing "a really wide vocabulary".'

    Totally feeling you there BDP! I got that too! "ZOMG HOW DO YOU SPEAK SUCH GOOD ENGLISH?"


    Pah. They would have preferred it if i told them we lived in little mud huts and rode elephants to school. -__-

    - The Poultrygeist

  2. Well when I was in a Canadian high school, the English teacher expressed disbelief that I was proficient in English and sent me to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (ToEFL) in order to apply for college (because she refused to write a note verifying that my English was ok).

    Her rationale was that if it was, then getting up at 7am on a Saturday and paying $250USD for the privilege wouldn't be an issue because I would "do alright". I was treated like a whiny exaggerator when I described how MY ENTIRE EDUCATION TO DATE WAS CONDUCTED IN ENGLISH as well as how my parents don't really speak any other language at home.

    -Cat in the Cream

  3. I remember this ad!!! It put me in cognitive dissonance for a bit. If you look carefully at the trishaw, it more resembles those in Malaysia than in Singapore anyway. (BTW, the busstop sign on the post is a dead giveaway that this was taken in Australia, but whatever.)

    My NUS-Unimelb friend had her final essay grades withheld, and had to see the tutor. Upon meeting, she was accused of plagiarism and/or ghost-writing because the tutor couldn't believe she would be capable of writing such a well-argued essay, footnoted accurately and all. But since the tutor couldn't find any proof nor solicit an admittance of guilt from my friend (perhaps because, well, she fucking wrote it herself?), the grade was eventually but begrudgingly awarded to her.

    At RMIT, where I studied, I had tutors who liked to check that I knew the meaning or history of the terms I used in class. In case, you know, I'd just learnt them off Sesame Street and needed help constructing sentences with them.

    - mark

  4. Wow, this post and the comments are incredibly powerful. And the mandolin music in that ad is like shit icing on the garbage cake. (It seems to be my fate to populate our comments threads with appetite-suppressing metaphors.)

    Perhaps I'm pessimistic, but I don't know that exposure to racism from Western, white-majority non-Singaporean countries is all that effective in getting Chinese Singaporeans to acknowledge the reality of racism in their own country. The existence of white racism against Chinese is a platitude among Chinese Singaporeans. But then they'll argue, we Chinese Singaporeans really can speak English well; whereas that Malay kid, they say, is genuinely lazy, so it's different.

    I do think the first-hand experience of racism directed against oneself, of being treated as less-than, does genuinely prompt some to pause and reassess their response to others, where the theoretical idea of it did not. But some also respond by becoming defensive, or insisting - especially in the case of overseas tertiary students - that "I rose above it/dealt with it" (in what I knew would be a temporary stay in a foreign country cushioned by the privilege of attending a tertiary education, minus the experience of actually growing up around this) "so why do those brown people keep complaining?"

    Don't get me wrong, I think more information is always better. We can't know beforehand what someone's 'click' moments in being attuned to these things will be, and seeing the tables turned definitely presents a perspective some won't have considered before. I guess in the case of those for whom multiple, extensive privileges are so firmly entrenched, it's just there are a hell of a lot of tables that need turning.

  5. It was particularly galling because I was actually drafted to the debate team at the time despite having only been at the school for a fortnight.

    A month later I was representing the region at province-wide debates.

    Still had to prove that I was ok with English, being that it's a foreign language, y'know...


  6. @Magical -

    Your pessimism v.s. my optimism! ^^

    Actually, I do somewhat agree with you here. I did wonder midway through the post, and figured that people might also to point to this post and say that White-on-Colour or White-on-Jewish racism is The Real Deal™, whereas the others are just harmless racism. But then I think (or at least hope) that if we can trace the root to why the table even turned when one goes abroad, then we can discover the stereotypes that underpin. And isn't it just where most of the shit begins, from little disinformative stereotypes? It isn't so much about survivability of racism big or small, but how certain ideas stay alive and get passed on over and over again.

    I'll try to post something from that paper on everyday racism in Singapore and revisit this topic again.

    Meanwhile, does your BF approve of "MONSTER COCK"? LOL. I think it's farnie! X)

  7. @ Cat -

    Fwah. You have the strangest experience....

  8. Aw man, this reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother who was asking if white guys really are bigger.

    Not that I had a point of comparison, but what the hell, I said yes.

    She spent the rest of the day looking wistfully into the distance and dropping non-sequiturs about how lucky I am.


    -Cat in the Cream


    Ahahahahahahaha, Oh Cat!! You really, truly have the strangest experiences!!!!!!!! Trotters down!

  10. LOL at Cat. That is truly surreal!!

    BDP - I just got this instant message quoting your line about MONSTER COCK and going "Wha'???" I had to spell it out for him: "Chicken --> Cock", lest he get carried away with the idea that I had been sharing inappropriately ;)

  11. i find i experience more overt racism in singapore (i'm a brown boy) than in western countries, australia included. notice i said overt. covert- dunno. i think it's understandable, though obviously not justifiable, for people in countries where it's not common to see other colours that often or where it's a recent phenomenon, to exhibit (c)overt racism. for people to do it in places like singapore just speaks of silly-mindedness, ignorance and irrationality.

    interestingly, i've received special attention in places like china and japan. special attention of the positive kind. particularly japan, where brown is exotic enough to be seen as attractive!


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