PRESERVING HELLENSIM THROUGH CONFUCIANSIM
A young boy growing up in the last vestiges of traditional rural Singapore, witnesses his ancestral village being razed to the ground in order to make room for a freeway. His family is relocated to a drab apartment block on Singapore’s outskirts and almost immediately, he finds that all of the traditional Confucian values he has been reared with, respect for culture, tradition and the past, are superceded and useless in a country that despite the Lee Kuan Yew rhetoric, has embarked on a vigorous monolectic of materialism, largely discarding the philosophical underpinnings of its substructure. The young boy, his own understanding subsumed by the demands of a racy, acquisitive and aggressively competitive culture, longs for the lost harmony of his childhood. He sets about taking photographs of whatever reminds him of the past, in order to re-construct it, something that in perpetually fluctuating Singapore, is tantamount to a quest for the Holy Grail.
I first learned of Ray Chua, photographer extraordinaire, via a frantic phone-call from Spiro Caras of Caras Music. “You got to meet this guy. He is absolutely fantastic. Imagine, a Kinezo photographing the Greek community.” I met him in an appropriate setting, the rear of Spiro Caras’ shop, replete with a stock of unsellable but priceless John Tikis CD’s, tsarouhia and various other ‘Greek’ paraphernalia, relics of the kitsch eighties, currently dormant and awaiting a comeback.
Ray Chua gingerly removes the cover from his box, and shows me the photographs he is exhibiting in Se.gue, the RMIT Photography Graduate Exhibition held at Federation Square’s Atrium between 13th November to 27th November. All of them are brilliant and inspired, an atmospheric capturing but not imprisonment of light, shade and shadow, the undulating and transitory dark or lighter moods of humanity or nature. Photography is by its very nature a dialectic of impressionism. Like Monet, it seeks to capture a specific moment in time but further, seeks to record that moment for posterity.
Ray Chua’s contribution to the dialectic of photography is decidedly Confucian. His work invariably captures his impressions of a moment in time but there is a monumentality and durability to it that not only renders it life-like and textural but further, dogmatic, unadulterated and absolute. Here then are the absolute, unchangeable truths, the li, the natural order that governs the world.
Even more remarkable, given Ray Chua’s quest to regain the lost lĭ through the photography of its trace manifestations, is his choice of subject matter. For incongruously enough. He has chosen as his subject matter, the Greek Community of Australia. He smiles as he is asked how his first contacts with Greeks: “I won a competition in Singapore to visit Greece in 2000. I visited Athens and several of the islands. I was completely taken aback by the complicity and authenticity of Greek culture. Here were the elements that I sorely missed from the dislocated culture of my homeland: a close family bond, the integration and free communication between generations, a sense of reverence for a belief system and a natural, uncontrived adherence to tradition. The simple sight of seeing a donkey, or watching a child run around the yard as his grandmother completed the household chores brought tears to my eyes. This humanity and bond with the past has defined my own personal quest and attitude to art.”
A few years later, Ray Chua, a sinised Odysseus, found himself walking down Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. “I had heard of the Greek precinct and decided to take it in. To tell you the truth, walking past the souvenir shops and restaurants, I gained an impression of a tokenistic, plastic presence that did not inspire me at all.” What was the clincher however, was the Antipodes Festival: “So many people, of all generations, getting together to celebrate their culture. What struck me was the natural way in which the community participated in the festivities. I knew immediately that I was dealing with a vibrant, authentic culture with real meaning for its adherents. You weren’t just paying lip-service to the past. Everything around me was relevant, from the dancers, to the musicians, the stalls…to see young people dressed in their national costumes and perform folk-dances…simply mind blowing. In Singapore, this is almost exclusively the preserve of the older generation and very uncommon….”
Ray Chua embarked on a voyage of discovery and ended up discovering himself in the process, through the Greek community. He set about documenting photographically, as many fundamental aspects of Greek culture as possible, using them as a parallel to his own Miltonian Paradise Lost, in the romantic aspiration that, the Greek paradigm points to it being regained. Ray spent the next four months infiltrating the most intimate sections of the Greek community, those that exist for our own eyes only, beyond the public facade: parties, celebrations, weddings. Of particular interest to him was the Greek Orthodox Church and his photographs of both the mysteries and churchgoers have an iconic Byzantine intensity and spirituality that Panselinos would envy. That in this changeable world of deconstruction, where all realities are fluid and in question, the fact that a pillar exists to secure people to those that have come before them but also, more importantly, to an ultimate Truth, is a concept that captivates Ray. I tell him about a friend of mine, a Singaporean convert to Orthodoxy who is now a cantor in the Antiochian Orthodox Church. “I’m not surprised,” he comments. “Whether you subscribe to the doctrines or not, you have a direct link with thousands of years of history and culture. We have 5,000 years of Chinese history but in Singapore, a very young country, it is slipping away rapidly. He points to a photograph of a line of students waiting to take communion. “There,” he says, “continuity encapsulated.”
Perhaps the most atmospheric, as far as portrayal of human nature is concerned, are Ray’s photographs of the frequenters of the slowly vanishing kafeneia about town. Ray’s discerning eye captures our first generation at its most uncontrived and unassuming. Action shots of card playing, a miniature of the greater game of life are thoroughly inspiring, as is the attention to the detail and expression on their care-worn faces. Every line, every wrinkle, every frown is a direct link with the natural order and continuity that Ray so craves. Capturing the native beasts in their natural habitats requires the patience of a David Attenborough and is not without its own dangers, as Ray explains:
“I had arranged with the owner of a kafeneio to visit and take photographs of its patrons. When I got there though and started taking shots, there was uproar. The old men did not want me there at all and were trying to kick me out. At first I thought it was because I was younger, not Greek and had invaded their personal space. Instead, as the owner explained to me, they wanted to have the chance to decorate the kafeneio and dress up so that the photographs could turn up nicer. Either that or they didn’t want their wives to know they were there.”
The photograph, by virtue of its corporeal form, is essentially a superficial art that can only purport to provide one with a key or pretext for fathoming the depths of what it purports to portray. Given the old men’s response to it, I ask Ray whether he noticed or suspected any disparity between the manifestations of what he was able to witness of the Greek Community behind his lens and its essence, a typically Buddhist concept. Did he for example, notice the crumbling, cheapening or erosion of any portion of the Helleno-Australian lĭ?
“Maybe you don’t realise how authentic your tradition is,” he replies in Mandarin Chinese. “Where else can you find such a heightened, vital intercourse between the generations? The Greek questions himself in the context of those who have come before him. This personal development still has the tradition of humanity at its core.” The arbitrary discarding of custom is what hurts him, not its evolution. For evolution presupposes an unsundered link of antecedents, while the materialistic world of his superimposed Singaporean reality, is the abomination of desolation.
As I left Ray Chua, whose Greek experience has given him the strength to return to Singapore, determined to fight for the retention of his noetic Paradise and the resolve to document the lives of the Greeks in Singapore, I pondered on how similar and how different we were. For it was in seeking to understand my own tradition in the context of the wider experience of humanity, unfettered by the constraints of nationalism, that I undertook the study of the Chinese language, music and philosophy, years ago. Ray Chua’s foray into the Hellenic world by exchange, was not a Gnostic one, but rather, a soteriological one. The quest for li, which unites and damns us, is diffuse as light viewed through a prism. And yet the tangible insight of Ray’s great soul, in the form of the photograph, is exactly that, pure light. No community has ever had a greater and more humble admirer.