Before the days of the remote control, my grandpa used to send me scuttling to the television and back to manually change the channels and adjust the volume. We’d sit, three generations all told, and watch Gao Xiao Xing Dong (‘Comedy Night’) – the Chinese variety TV show with Jack Neo playing Liang Po Po, the little old woman version of Mr. Bean.
I associated the chime of the six o’clock news on Channel 8 with the rising smell of cooking from the kitchen, and followed the 7pm and 9pm dramas with rapacious avidity with my family. We giggled at Phua Chu Kang and its more atas counterpart, Under One Roof. We’d aim air kicks at the television when Huan Zhu Ge Ge (‘My Fair Princess’) didn’t go the way we wanted. We picked boys from Meteor Garden to cry over.
In other words, I was a tiny TV-watching fangirl whose obsession with Chinese drama serials was justifiably fortified by the immediate community around me.
But that was a good 10 years ago. Does any family still watch things with such casual communality nowadays? In an age of streaming, smartphones, tablets, and rising media savviness when even my mum catches replays of Channel 8 drama serials on xinmsn.com, the consumption of media has now become an increasingly private act. We’re watching Game of Thrones and Sherlock and Suits on our laptops instead of in our living rooms.
Our TV-watching schedules have fallen out of an easy, shared rhythm. Media becomes easily detachable from space: watching TV no longer literally means sitting together and facing a television. We’ve come a long way from the first televisions in Singapore when people would gather in huge groups to watch programmes in community centres or the homes of richer neighbours.
Maybe it’s because we’re older now and it’s harder for us to come home every night for dinner. Maybe we’ve become better, more discerning TV-watchers (has MediaCorp put out anything good in years?). Maybe it’s just a side effect of our increasingly atomized and alienating society: the dystopian vision of young people glued to individual screens, faces lit blue and ears plugged by the mindless, frivolous chatter of TV.
Another argument I find tired, boring, and alarmist: it’s a derivation from the same argument about how technology inevitably erodes human community. Physically watching television together, which can be seen as a symbol of family togetherness, was once derided as a threat to the fabric of Singaporean society. A letter to the Straits Times in 1963, presented in the National Museum’s 50 Years of Television: An Exhibition, snootily points out:
Dinner period in the average Malayan home is between 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and family togetherness at dinnertime is an essential part of household discipline, especially among Chinese families. This age-old pattern of the Malayan family is now being torn with the introduction of television when we have Television Singapura, for some reason or another, finding it necessary to start its daily transmission at six in the evening.
The introduction of more things to watch, as well as more ways to watch them, is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, it’s a breakaway from the monotonous one-note Singaporean programming where, for instance, women in Channel 8 dramas are either faultless martyrs or sly sluts. And it’s vital to have alternative news sources.
For another, community is not dissipating rapidly into the ether, but rather simply taking on a different shape. Sure, commuters are sitting in MRT trains, watching Korean dramas and not making eye contact, but what do you expect them to do otherwise? In a crowded space where strangers are breathing down each other’s necks, are people actually expected to strike up friendly conversations with the man who refuses to stop leaning on the bloody pole? We’re going to want to preserve as much autonomous space as possible in our 20-minute transit, and the show that you’re watching on your iPhone is the same show you’ll be texting your friend about with desperate agony later on: “Have you watched the latest episode of Elementary?!”
We romanticise community, or rather, a particular and narrow vision of community. We think of ‘community’ as the nuclear family sitting in the living room watching television together. I present to you an alternative vision: the extended family sitting in living rooms during Chinese New Year in painful silence watching whatever awful movie is on, before getting up and driving to the next living room to watch whatever awful movie is on next.
We miss the invisible streams of communication that technology affords us; the way my mum and I watch Glee on different platforms at different times (she’s on StarWorld, and I’m on dodgy streaming sites) but we still connect over the devilishness of Sue Sylvester. It’s the way a fan community responds online to a TV show with the making of .gifs and fanfictions and elaborate speculation about what will happen next. The frenzied, hysterical tweeting that Grey’s Anatomy can inspire (complete with deliberate and masochistic links to clips of tear-jerking moments and character deaths).
I do still think there is a charm in watching something communally in real time; there’s that sense of shared physical reaction and interaction, which is why we still gather for movies and football games. But I also think that it’s untrue that the loss of communal TV-watching necessarily equates to a loss of community. The way we watch TV has changed, but community reshapes and settles itself down around it.
Or maybe it’s just time for local TV to give itself a proper makeover to get people to sit in front of their TV sets again. In the meantime, I’m still a TV-watching fangirl whose obsession with drama serials continues to be justifiably fortified by the immediate community around me – whatever shape that ‘community’ now takes.
E V E N T D E T A I L S
50 Years of Television: An Exhibition celebrates the arrival and development of the television and how it has shaped entertainment and lifestyle habits in Singapore from 1963 to today. The exhibition examines the social and cultural changes resulting from the advent and growth of television broadcasting and consumption, and the role of the television in recording and reflecting the nation’s defining moments. While the social settings around the television have evolved, the television still remains highly relevant in today’s ever-changing media landscape.
Date: 23 November 2013 to 19 January 2014
Venue: Stamford Gallery, Level 1, National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road