Guan Yin takes photographs offstage.
The movie ends with Guan Yin looks at the photos of the Papaya Sisters in happier times.
This is followed by a dream / fantasy sequence of Little Papaya in a glittering white getai costume, sitting on a crescent moon “in heaven.”
Is 881 an exercise in self-exotization? The Papaya Sisters dressed in short Japanese yukatas, flanked by traditional Chinese lion dancers, during their battle with the Durian Sisters.
Aunt Ling as the fat unruly woman, thrusting her pelvis and laughing in a comic dance to cheer Big Papaya up, after the latter is banished from home.
Aunt Ling, the jokemaker, calls a stray cat in the streets “techno cat” when the animal ignores her. Aunt Ling misuses English words as she is not proficient in English.
Zhou Xuan, in her most famous songstress role in Street Angel (1937).
Ge Lan as Kailing, a cheerful student from a middle-class family, in the Cathay / MP & GI musical Mambo Girl (1957). Kailing later finds out that she is actually an orphan adopted by her foster parents, and her biological mother works in a nightclub.
Yang Guimei, who plays the main female character in The Hole (directed by Tsai Ming-liang, 1998). In this fantasy sequence she is dancing in a lift, to Ge Lan’s song I Love Calypso. The movie is a tribute to Ge Lan’s songs, as the film closes with a statement from Tsai Ming-liang: “The year 2000 is coming, we are thankful that Ge Lan’s songs are still with us.”
Another song-and-dance segment in The Hole, with Yang Guimei dancing in the hallway to Ge Lan’s I Want Your Love. Yang hugs a fire extinguisher and dances tango with it, signifying the loneliness and isolation of urban dwellers in Taipei.
The working-class females in this film do not only speak, but sing, in Hokkien. Hokkien has been a “suppressed language” in Singapore,[open endnotes in new window] because the Singapore government designates Mandarin (based on northern Chinese dialect) as the official language for the ethnic Chinese community in the country. Chinese immigrants in colonial Singapore were mostly from southern China and spoke a variety of dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and so on. Mandarin was not their native tongue, and Hokkien was the dialect with the largest number of native speakers amongst Chinese Singaporeans. In 1979, the government launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to adopt Mandarin as the common language in the Chinese community. Hokkien, along with other dialects, was thus banned in television and radio in Singapore. Television dramas and movies imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan had to be dubbed in Mandarin, from Cantonese and Hokkien respectively.
The existing linguistic hierarchy in Singapore is such that English, being the official language for business and public administration, offers its speakers the greatest economic and political advantage; Mandarin is the official “ethnic language” for Chinese Singaporeans but is considered of little importance to educational and career achievement; while Chinese dialects are systematically marginalized. The annual Speak Mandarin Campaign has been running for the past 30 years, and the Mandarin policy is so successful that the younger generation of Chinese Singaporeans (below 25 years old) have lost the ability to converse in Hokkien.
From the 1990s onwards, dialects were allowed for artistic purposes in certain films and theatre productions, as they no longer threatened the status of Mandarin. Although Hokkien has never been prohibited in everyday speech, it has now been “reduced to a language of the lowest-educated section of the working class and the illiterate,” typically used when ordinary Singaporeans order food in the local coffee shops or from food hawkers.
Press discourse surrounding 881 credited the movie for reviving the dying Hokkien language in Singapore, as it had sparked interest in Hokkien music and getai concerts amongst young people in Singapore. Part of the appeal of the film, therefore, lies in its “Hokkienness.” In fact, 881 follows after the commercial success of Jack Neo’s Money No Enough and I Not Stupid, both of which are known for heavy use of Hokkien in the films’ dialogue . Chua Beng Huat has pointed out in a media interview that using Hokkien in films creates a “rebellious effect” for it signifies a “return of the repressed.” The viewing pleasure of the audience (especially if they are Hokkien-speaking heartlanders) is heightened when they hear a suppressed language such as Hokkien being spoken in a locally-produced film.
However, in Jack Neo’s box-office hits, the adult males speak Hokkien and Mandarin, while the main female characters are middle-class and Mandarin-speaking. With Royston Tan’s 881, the Singaporean working-class female is finally able to break her silence in the realm of popular cinema, through the singing of Papaya Sisters and Aunt Ling’s extensive use of Hokkien in the film. The film places the Mandarin speakers and dialect speakers in alliance, and emphasizes their struggle against the English-speaking Singaporeans, reiterating a theme that has run through Jack Neo’s Money No Enough, I Not Stupid and I Not Stupid Too, as well as Royston Tan’s 15.
The local Chinese community in Singapore is bifurcated between the Chinese-educated / Chinese–speaking and the English-educated / English-speaking. Such a division was a result of the co-existence of English-medium schools and vernacular schools in Singapore during the colonial days. The vernacular schools for the Chinese, Malay and Indian students were important institutions in maintaining ethnic identities and boundaries.
After independence in 1965, the Singapore government established integrated schools which housed students from different language streams within the same compound, and introduced compulsory bilingual education for primary and secondary schools. All students were required to study two languages, English and their “mother tongue,” that is Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay for the Malays and Tamils for the Indians.
At present there is still a divide between the English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans, and the Chinese-speaking Singaporeans who speak Mandarin and dialects. As English is the official language for government and business, the English-educated / English-speaking have access to better jobs with higher pay, and appear to be the elite occupying key positions in government. However, the Chinese-speaking community still constitute the majority, as Mandarin and dialects are still the most frequently used languages at home for 70% of the Chinese. The Chinese-speaking community is further subdivided into a few groups: a) a small number of highly-educated bilingual Chinese who are well-versed in both English and Chinese languages, and are still able to secure well-paid jobs; b) older Singaporeans who were educated in Chinese-medium schools before the 1980s; and c) dialect-speaking Chinese who do not understand English. The second group experience frustration and resentment towards being discriminated in employment and being excluded from the ruling class, while the third group belong to the poor alienated underclass.
In 881, the getai battle between the Mandarin-speaking Papaya Sisters and the English-speaking Durian Sisters is an allegory for the long-standing tension between the Mandarin / dialect speaking Chinese and the English-speaking Chinese in Singapore. By extension, it is also an allegory for the class-based contradiction between the working-class heartlanders and the middle-class English-speaking cosmopolitans. Contrary to expectations, the Papaya Sisters do not triumph in their singing duel against the Durians — Big Papaya loses her divine power and Little Papaya collapses from her illness. Royston Tan holds no fantasy that in reality, the English-speaking will still remain dominant in socio-economic position in Singapore society.
But the musical genre has three fictional worlds that are closely intertwined: the stage, the dream, and the “real” world; the stage and the dream world allow the free expression of fantasies and emotions that are not possible in the “real” world. Hence Little Papaya is resurrected as a ghost at the end of the film, and goes on stage to sing together with Big Papaya. The final scene shows Guan Yin looking at the photographs of the Papaya Sisters and going into a reverie, leading into a fantasy sequence of Little Papaya dressed in a glittering white performing costume, sitting on a crescent moon in “heaven.” In the “real” world, the Mandarin-speaking have lost the battle, but in the dream world the resilience and the determination of the oppressed lives on.
Of course, it is easy for critics to say that this is merely an instance of symbolic resistance from the working class, rather than real social change for the subordinate groups in society, just as Jane Feuer has commented on the genre of the Hollywood musical,
Yet such a judgment of the musical genre fails to take into account that musicals could have implications for liberation in the realm of personal politics, and the deeper consciousness towards class conflict generated by the themes of musicals. Furthermore, Chuck Kleinhans has argued that we should not ignore small commonplace acts of resistance, for they are the starting-point for the cultivation of solidarity amongst the subordinated classes. Kleinhans explains this in terms of the subversive potential of the slave plantation cakewalk in the United States:
Royston Tan himself is from a working-class background — his parents are food hawkers who speak in Mandarin and Hokkien. Tan is the proverbial working-class boy made good, as he has managed to garner critical acclaim at various international film festivals as a director. Royston Tan has called 881 “a celebration of tackiness and tacky music and tacky fashion,” even though terms such as “tacky” and “kitsch” are employed by the middle-classes to denigrate the cultural products and styles associated with the working-class.
As Chuck Kleinhans has pointed out in his 1994 essay, people from subordinate classes often borrow symbols, words and styles from the dominant class only to turn these elements around to mock at the beliefs, values and practices of the powerful groups in society. In the same way, when Royston Tan says that his film celebrates “tackiness,” it is an act of cultural appropriation. By dressing the Papaya Sisters in feather-laden and loud-coloured stage costumes, which could be decoded as excessive and tasteless by the middle-class, Royston Tan is also mocking at the “stuffiness” and pretentiousness of the middle class in their preference for more discreet styles in fashion. In another scene where Guan Yin and the Papaya Sisters are eating at a coffee shop at night, Big Papaya sits with her legs wide apart in a deliberately vulgar act that seeks to offend middle-class standards of propriety.
The film 881 is also a vehicle in which Royston Tan challenges hegemonic discourses of the working class in society. In her book Class, Self, Culture, Beverley Skeggs has discussed how the working class has often been represented as unmodern by the elites, with spatial fixity (or the quality of not being mobile) functioning as a signifier of the unmodernity of the working-class. For example, living in public housing estates or residing in a certain district automatically marks a person as working-class, and working-class persons are named by the locations they come from. This is already employed by the Singapore government in designating the working-class as heartlanders, as those who are living in public housing estates, who can only make their living in Singapore. The geographical fixity of the heartlanders is then contrasted with the mobility of the well-educated cosmopolitans who are comfortable working and living anywhere in the world.
881 plays upon this image of the spatially fixed and immobile heartlander. The Papaya Sisters have to rush from one getai stage to another in various locations in Singapore. Guan Yin drives the girls around as they move from one getai to the next. As Guan Yin’s car drives on, blocks and blocks of HDB flats recede from view as Guan Yin drives past them, and the blocks never seem to end. No matter where and how much the Papaya Sisters move, their movement does not in any way alter their location in the “real” world. They are merely moving from one HDB residential district to another; they will never be able to leave Singapore. They are merely moving from one getai to another, but working as getai singers will not move them upward in the socio-economic hierarchy. However, on the getai stage (the sphere of fantasy in the musical), the Papaya Sisters can “travel around the world” through dressing up in costumes from different cultures, such as Japanese yukatas and Native American headdresses, thus undermining the discourse of immobility of working-class people.
Not only has 881 been able to appeal to the masses in Singapore, it has also attracted the attention and enjoyment of the English-speaking middle-class cosmopolitans, allowing the latter to take a closer look at the getai culture of the Hokkien-speaking working-class, which has hitherto been marginalized and ignored. This is no mean feat in itself. But one must note that curiosity and interest towards getai culture amongst movie audiences does not always last very long. Royston Tan released another movie in 2008, 12 Lotus, as a follow-up film to 881. 12 Lotus is another melodramatic musical film about a getai singer who is abused by cruel and heartless men throughout her life. The film only managed to gross about US$681,924 at the box office, compared to 881 which took in more than S$3 million (approximately US$1.96 million). We will have to wait and see if the bad boy of Singaporean cinema returns to more controversial topics in his next feature film.