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Unearthed: Surveys Of ‘Ground’ in the Heterotopic Chinese Grave

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Qibao Kenneth Koh
National University of Singapore | Singapore
In the physical processes of reclamation and urban renewal in Singapore, ground can be seen as a geomorphic entity that is endlessly shaped in accordance to a nationalistic vision. However, when the Chinese burial grounds in Singapore are repossessed for new usage, a contestation ensues between the contradicting values of land as a national resource and the landscape as a cultural entity.

This dissertation seeks to recast the Chinese burial grounds in Singapore as heterotopia, a Foucauldian space of ‘otherness’. It will do so by identifying the unique spatial configuration of the Chinese grave that is anomalous to its surrounding environment, proposing that this particular reading hinges on the politics of ‘ground’. It is therefore asserted that ground is a datum that has to be read in both its physical and symbolic potentialities. The Chinese grave is explored as a distinctive space arranged in accordance to strict topological laws of geomancy, inextricably connected to ‘real’ spaces of the living. Thus, ground performs a crucial role in constructing an elaborate relationship between the physical and projected aspects of heterotopia. When the ground of the Chinese grave is broken into, these fragile relationships are disrupted.

Tan Pin Pin’s evocative short film Moving House and Kuo Pao Kun’s play The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole are adopted as vehicles discussing this disruption of the Chinese burial ground.

Several surveys of ground will be conducted, plotting the interlinked spatial and ideological tensions between state and heterotopic Chinese burial ground. The nationalistic milieu is investigated in 1960s government propaganda film, revealing ground to be commodified as ‘land’ in utopian projections. The cultural complexities of the Chinese burial ground are mapped, unsettling the assumptions made in these visions of rational homogeneity. Finally, the physical razing and manipulation of ground is traced when the Chinese grave is exhumed and reconfigured in the columbarium, a ‘degenerate utopia’. The aim of these surveys is to demonstrate that the Chinese burial ground’s heterotopic qualities, while seemingly fixated in the immutable landscape, can be easily destabilized and dispelled by an order contrary to its own.

Qibao Kenneth Koh

Unearthed Surveys of ‘Ground’ in the Heterotopic Chinese Grave by Kenneth Koh Qibao
discusses Singapore’s process of urban renewal and land reclamation by examining how the frequently benign notion of ‘ground’ is implicitly questioned and contested in ongoing traditional Chinese practices of burying their dead.

Drawing impressively from national statistics on land reclamation, archival propaganda film of mid-twentieth century island-wide urban renewal schemes, and two more recent projects touching on the sensitive nature of Chinese burial practices – a short film ‘Moving House’ by award-winning Singapore documentary maker Tan Pin Pin and a play ‘The Coffin is too Big for the Hole’ by prize-winning Singapore playwright Kuo Pau Kun, Koh has woven together a fascinating argument that pitches the cultural complexities of Chinese burial grounds against the rational homogeneity of state-sanctioned land reclamation efforts.

Theoretically, the dissertation develops Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopia’ by suggesting that the burial ground is a space of ‘otherness’ which simultaneously advocates an imaginary structure (of a desired afterlife as demarcated by Chinese geomantic principles of fengshui), as well as reflecting what is real (the need to circumvent and re-negotiate state ideologies in the reconfiguration of the physical landscape in order to achieve an idealized state of burial).

Espousing a critical methodology, the argument is cogently aided by fluent writing and well-organized chapters. Each chapter begins with a narrative ‘survey’ of a different burial site. The surveys delineate the quiet but extant dispute between the national urge to grow and modernize, with an individual instinct to maintain a sense of continuity and tradition. Overall, the dissertation problematizes a binary view of the situation. It emphasizes a heightened consciousness of the cultural value of ‘ground’ as much as the present recognition of its physical and economic faces.

The work is outstanding in that it has approached an issue of national importance with fresh critical insight and a lightness of touch. It has also drawn effectively on a wide range of sources normally unexamined in the given context. With these qualities in mind, I highly recommend it for consideration in the 2010 RIBA President’s Medal Student Awards.

Lilian Chee
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