George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 10 May 2007
Alex Horne – 10th May 2007
With five international appointments scribbled into today’s diary and four still to be written up from earlier in the week, I think I can be forgiven for being a bit muddled this morning. In fact, I was forgiven for being a bit muddled this morning after I completely forgot that Nicholas and I had arranged to meet in the Café Nero on Bishopsgate, not outside Liverpool Street tube where I’d been waiting for the last twenty minutes. Thankfully, when I finally realised where I ought to have been, Nicholas wasn’t angry, hadn’t departed, and after I’d bought a couple of apologetic coffees we kicked off what turned out to be one of the most creatively inspiring meetings of the project so far.
I should warn you, by the way, that I may become a little gushing and euphoric whilst writing this entry. I make no apology but am well aware that I probably sound a bit naïve and prattish.
Nicholas is a film-maker/photographer/visionary (the last one, my word, not his) from Singapore. His first feature film had its world premiere in Cologne last March and is being released in cinemas over here from August. He moved to London last year in the wake of his girlfriend, a lawyer in the City, and is currently filling in time between projects doing an MA in photography to enable him one day to do what he loves best, teach.
Over the course of our chat I learnt that Singapore is not only the second most densely populated country in the world*, but also boasts one of the highest migration rates. ‘Do they come back?’ I asked. ‘Not really’, he replied and went on to echo Indonesian Andrew with the view that pretty much every city in the world is more relaxing than Singapore; ‘we officially have the world’s fastest walkers and the world’s fastest texters! It’s a small country, with big ambitions, but in the wrong areas’.
Back in the 1950s, he told me, Singapore was considered by many to be the Paris of Asia. But at some point there was a national shift towards making money and away from the arts which meant Singapore today boasts one of the strongest economies in the world alongside a slightly backward attitude to popular culture. ‘Until recently everyone conformed. If you had long hair you were a rebel,’ Nicholas explained. He went on to recount the tale of Kitaro, a famous Japanese string musician, who was fairly recently refused entry into Singapore by customs officers on account of the length of his locks. I saw this as a good moment to unload one of my own stories, of a trip I’d made to his homeland in 2003 during which a comedy show I performed was greeted by a particularly modest response. ‘Oh yes, that’s normal’, he nodded, instantly easing my four year old anxiety. ‘Everyone is still afraid to participate’.
Nicholas’ generation seems determined to break that mould. ‘It’s changing now, but it takes a long time for things to happen. My parents would still tell me not to do things like stand up at a rock concert. People are normally very reserved. At least in front of other people.’ Singapore today, we decided definitively, is a little like London in the 1950s. ‘But it has so much potential’, he told me, keen not to write his country off completely. ‘It’s in the centre of Asia, everyone speaks English, it’s in the perfect position to one day become like London is now.’
With intercontinental culture past, present and future settled, we forgot that we were from these different countries and went on to discuss our own current projects and ideas. ‘For me’, he said, ‘film and photography are complimentary. Some people see the progression as photography first and film second, but I think they go side by side’. Nicholas seems to thrive on seeing and doing things differently. ‘With indie films you usually produce them first and try to sell them after – we did it the other way round’, he explained with just a hint of pride. ‘We first put five scenes up on the internet and then encouraged the public to respond. They did and we tuned the film accordingly. It was very interactive.’
You can have a look at the result, Becoming Royston, if you follow this link here, but you might also want to check out http://www.sinema.sg/, an indie cinema news blog site set up by Nicholas for like-minded film makers and lovers in Singapore and through which he’s planning to set up his own art-house cinema in 2008. He’s an ambitious man. And he now sees his stay in London as a chance to bridge the gap between Europe and Asia by linking what he calls the capitals of each continent. Well, why not?
I asked him if his film has a happy ending. ‘There are no absolute endings in life’, he tells me. ‘If you end up on one path, there’s still that other path you didn’t go down’. And so he’s planning to have alternative endings shown on different screens so that viewers can choose how they want his/their film to end. Again, it’s inventive and democratic and his steadfast belief that anything is possible was well and truly starting to rub off on me.
We don’t know how our project will end. When we set out we didn’t know that we’d find even 67 people. It’s an organic process – we write about what we find. There was always an outside chance we’d meet 192 very dull people with no story or spark about them at all. Unsurprisingly, that’s not been the case and, as we’d hoped, our ‘delegates’’ stories have become our story and our own lives are becoming the putty in between, adapting to fit the different shapes of people’s tales and doing its best to hold them all together.
I got very excited during our chat when I discovered Nicholas was precisely nine days younger than me. I like things like that: that we’d both been alive for almost exactly the same length of time and were now sitting together outside a café passionately discussing something we both believed in. When Nicholas first got in touch with us he mentioned that he might be interested in taking portraits of each person we found. Keen to grab the moment I asked him if he’d still like to get involved, and maybe even film some of the adventure. Immediately he said yes: ‘When I read about your idea it made a lot of sense to me. It’s about people converging in this melting pot – that’s the reason people come to London. And school’s pretty quiet right now…’ Fantastic. We toasted the idea and I know I got a little carried away envisioning some collaborative film/slideshow/masterpiece/thing created by strangers from all over the world, who’d come together to display the diversity of human life all represented within the walls of one magnificent city – a raw piece of art grown spontaneously from disparate seeds blown in from distant fields – and despite knowing full well how utterly ridiculous that all sounds I can still feel that fervour now.
Nicholas’ whole ethos and enthusiasm had quite a profound effect on me. It might be that I was slightly drunk on meeting so many different people from so many different places, or just that I’d consumed far too much coffee with them all, but this meeting in particular made me think our undertaking was definitely a worth while thing to do. ‘I don’t do projects to make money’, he told me, ‘I do them to make the world a better place. People say that you’ve got to get cash so you can eat, but I say that if you make enough friends, you won’t go hungry’. I agree, happy to share this idealistic moment. Yes, I think, if I’ve got 192 new friends from around the world, surely that’s enough to keep me happy and not hungry. I felt a bit like those people who miss out on a big win on Deal Or No Deal but are just pleased to have had such a memorable experience and to have made so many wonderful new friends. I don’t need money, I think, I just need to meet more people. And with that thought I set off back towards Gresham Street to meet a Paraguayan - who might just buy me lunch.
*Singapore’s 4.5 million inhabitants are squeezed into 264 square miles giving it an official density of 17,797 people per square mile, only beaten by Monaco with 42,649 (whose enormous figure must be taken with the pinch of salt that is the fact that Monaco’s population is only 31,987). Better to compare Singapore’s concentration with the likes of Suriname, Canada, Iceland and Mauritania who each boast a lonely seven inhabitants per square mile, or the Mongolians, who share one square mile between just four. And yes, this is all very useful data for the forthcoming World In One City Top Trumps Game that will doubtless one day accompany this blog.