Those of us who live in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia will be familiar with the words of the folk song, Rasa Sayang, (pronounced [ˈrasa saˈjaŋ], literally, “loving feeling”) and its pantun quatrains. It is probably one of the first songs that children of all races learn in schools and if, as we grow older, we forget the other lines, we all at least remember its delightful refrain: Rasa sayang eh, Rasa sayang sayang eh, Hey lihat nona jauh, Rasa sayang sayang eh! (The lyricism of the lines are somewhat lost in translation, but the meaning of the refrain, literally translated, goes: Feeling love, feeling love; hey see the young lady in the distance, feeling love.)

Sayang is also the theme of this year’s Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from 4 – 13 November 2016.

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As part of another art installation, The Great Wall of Sayang (see our Facebook post @pluralartmag) BooksActually invited 6 authors to contribute short stories interpreting the festival theme and this publication is provided free – go get yours, at The Great Wall of Sayang, while they’re still available!

A word that is common to various languages in the Malay archipelago (Malay, Indonesian, Tagalog and Sundanese, to name a few) with multiple layers of meaning, it is used as a verb, meaning, to love; a noun, meaning love or affection; and as a term of endearment, as in, dear one, beloved or sweetheart (here, again, the literal English translation seems inadequate to convey the tender nuances of the endearment, especially when said in the soft, sing-song, manja tones of the original language, to address a loved one.)

Sayang can, however, also have an almost opposite meaning. When said with a sigh and a descending intonation, it is an expression that is used to convey a feeling of regret, pity or loss, like the lament “alas!”, signifying unfulfilled desire, thwarted dreams and missed opportunities. (Interestingly, in Tagalog, sayang only has this meaning, and is never used to mean love or affection.)
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Text: Gopal Baratham, Sayang. Image: Wong Maye-E, Phuket, 27 December 2014.

Here at Plural, we write mainly about the visual arts – so what are we doing covering a Writers Festival, you might ask? Well, it so happens that the Festival also features a lovely little exhibition called Shades of Sayang, that serves as a conversation between the words of various Singapore writers writing, not just in English but also in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, and images by photographer Wong Maye-E (check out her uber-cool Instagram account here.)

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Of late here in Singapore, we’ve enjoyed a veritable smörgåsbord of openings, new exhibitions and mega-shows, not the least of which have been the Singapore Biennale 2016 and the National Gallery Singapore‘s international exhibition, organised in collaboration with the Tate BritainArtist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies. These are exciting, exhilarating, larger-than-life shows and … don’t get me wrong … they’re wonderful shows, definitely not to be missed. But I have to admit, I’ve sometimes felt almost overwhelmed by the tidal wave of excitement and sensation – by how much there has been to experience – to see, sense and feel, all at the same time.

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Visiting Shades of Sayang this weekend proffered an opportunity to spend a quiet, thoughtful time, at a much smaller show, that nonetheless yielded simple pleasures that soothed and nourished the spirit. The extracts, from writings by both well-known and lesser-known local writers thoughtfully selected by curator Lisa Lip, were paired with Wong Maye-E’s moving and evocative photographs in a variety of different formats, making for a layered, nuanced experience for the viewer. While some texts and images were presented on large poster boards along one wall, other images were presented on long, scroll-like cloth banners along the other side of the gallery space, with the texts superimposed on them and, at one end of the gallery, a 5-minute slide show presented yet other images and texts.

Wong and Lip described a collaborative back-and-forth process, in which Lip first selected the texts (from an original list of hundreds!) and then Wong, reading them and accessing the memories, thoughts and feelings they evoked, selected photographs from her extensive archive, that she felt resonated emotionally with the texts. Wong, who works professionally as a photojournalist with the Associated Press, found that many of the images she selected were photographs taken for her personal Instagram account, with an iPhone, rather than the ones taken with her SLR camera, that she uses for her work. These are mostly personal photographs, shot on her own time, when going about her daily life and where people reacted and responded differently because she was taking the picture with a mobile phone rather than a large, professional-looking camera.

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Texts: Theophilus Quek, Smile and Suchen Christine Lim, My Two Mothers. Image: Wong Maye-E, Marina Bay, Singapore, 10 March 2016.

While some of the images work with the texts in a direct and literal way, others are more subtle, making the work a more open one, allowing the viewer to find her own entry points. The texts selected evoke sayang in its various facets – in the above work, the love a child observes between his parents and the bond connecting two aging amah jiehs (read this article, if you’d like to find out more about the amah jiehs.)

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Text: Pooja Nansi, French Fries. Image: Wong Maye-E, Buona Vista, Singapore, 5 January 2015.

A particular favourite of mine, the extract from Pooja Nansi’s French Fries evokes sayang in its youthful, romantic incarnation, with all its turbulence and wild, reckless, passion and abandon. Wong chose this image of a quintessentially Singaporean couple at a fast food restaurant – “…but the instant noodle dinners you make me are better than McDonald’s french fries … ” ” … and watching bad soap operas with you makes me feel happier than I would be in the front row of a Guns and Roses concert …”. You couldn’t find a more perfect pairing of text and image than if Wong had read the text first and then gone out to shoot a photograph to fit it!

The good folk at The Arts House have extended the Shades of Sayang experience in various ways. Viewers can curate their own scrapbook of the exhibition with materials provided. They can also participate in Secret Sayang sessions (there are four upcoming sessions on 11, 12 and 13 November) where they will get to meet and spend time with some of the writers whose works feature in the exhibition. There are only eight spaces per session and the location and identity of the writers are secret!

It’s, like, if you’re suffering from sensory overload after watching a series of blockbuster Hollywood studio movies (fabulous though they may be) and feel like watching a quiet, thoughtful indie film for a change, well … Shades of Sayang is the visual art equivalent. It’s only on for a short time, so do catch it if you can.