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Wong Kim Hoh
Sunday, Oct 5, 2014

Singapore

Paying homage to Singapore... and the Girl

The Straits Times | Wong Kim Hoh | Sunday, Oct 5, 2014

Singapore Airlines (SIA) air stewardesses at Singapore Turf Club on 18 May 2014 for the Singapore Airlines International Cup and KrisFlyer International Sprint.

SINGAPORE - It is the Singapore Girl all right in her distinctive sarong kebaya and batik slippers.

But wait, she is not strolling along the cobbled streets of Prague, Venice or some other exotic city.

Instead, here she is, at a fishmonger's stall in the Marine Parade wet market. And there she is, sitting pretty on a familiar old dragon slide in a Toa Payoh playground.

Singapore Airlines' iconic flight attendant is the subject of a new book, The Land Of My Heart, by one of Singapore's most celebrated photographers, John Clang.

Featuring images of Singapore Girls in heartland locations, it is one of 20 books planned for twentyfifteen.sg, a project started by photography collective Platform to mark Singapore's 50th jubilee next year.

Each book, loosely themed around Singapore, contains 15 works by local photographers, including Tay Kay Chin, Matthew Teo and Leonard Goh. Clang's is the ninth in the series.

Based in New York, where he lives with his wife, the 41-year-old explained why he decided on his subject.

"She is an important icon which bridges Singapore with the West. When we first moved to New York, very few here knew where Singapore was but they always seemed to know of Singapore Girls from Singapore Airlines," he said.

"When I travel, just the sight of the Singapore Girl makes me feel at home."

Instead of the exotic locales featured in the airline's advertising material, Clang placed his models in the heartland neighbourhoods where he grew up or spent a lot of time with friends, such as Toa Payoh, Bedok and Marine Parade.

"I also wanted to put an icon the world understands next to the real Singapore," he said. Besides, most Singapore Girls grew up in the heartland too, he added.

Working with his wife Elin, he spent nearly eight months organising the shoot. His models were all former Singapore Girls, recommended by friends. Flight attendants still in service are not allowed to wear their uniforms in public.

Getting models for his project was a cinch. "But all of them had one concern: whether they could fit into their old uniforms," he said.

The photographer, whose real name is Ang Choon Leng (or C.L.Ang as he was known in national service), described the project as a journey through time as the heartland conjured up many memories for him.

"Singapore may have developed very fast into a modern First World city, but if we look close enough, we can still see traces of our past."

Each photo in the limited edition book - 500 copies priced at $25 - reflects three time elements.

"The Singapore Girl is the everlasting icon of Singapore. Then we have the changing landscape of Singapore, which represents the present, constantly evolving. Then there's the past, which lingers in our memory."

The last comes in the form of text handwritten on each image.

A picture of the Singapore Girl at the Bedok Swimming Complex, for example, has this text: "Wake up Grandma. I will go buy char kway teow."

Clang whispered those words to his grandmother - who loved the fried noodle dish - when she was in intensive care at a hospital here several years ago. She died on the day she was to be discharged, and he never got to buy her her favourite char kway teow.

Each shoot lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. "The only difficulty was trying to keep the girls constantly cool because of the hot and humid weather. We also had to keep running to heartland cobblers to repair their shoes because they were old," he said.

He hopes to exhibit the images in other countries. "Then we can show the world another side of Singapore."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

John Clang will launch The Land Of My Heart at the National Museum on Tuesday at 7.30pm. Admission to the event - which includes the screening of a behind-the-scenes video - is free. For more information about twentyfifteen, log on to twentyfifteen.sg

This article was first published on October 5, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

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