Chinatown snake sculpture reminds people of death

From ‘Good designs are sensitive to cultural norms’, 19 Jan 2013, ST Forum

(Dr Tam Chen Hee): I READ with interest the report (“Chinatown snake sculptures may slither into S’pore record books”; Wednesday) on the negative feedback some Chinatown residents gave about snake decorations in the area.

One cardinal rule of good design is that the design must be in keeping, rather than in conflict, with the implicit norms and cultural understanding of the local community and/or habitat. Hence, some research and understanding of the local customs and heritage should have been done, and some thoughtful consideration exercised when deciding to introduce avant garde ideas (which are clearly to be welcomed but need to be sensitively and creatively tailored to the local context).

The students were trying to be creative, which is good, yet they also need to be taught to create sensitively and with care to local knowledge. This will serve them well when they design for overseas markets. The Chinese, even the Peranakans, avoid sharp edges (for instance, a round dining table is preferred) and indeed, the cubic lantern boxes in the snake sculpture (above right) do remind the older generation of Chinese of funereal objects.

Another lesson from this episode is that good designers should always look out for good examples by others. In the report, one student said that as the snake is symbolically ambiguous, unlike the dragon, it is harder to design decorations appropriate to it.

I saw one good snake design in Taiwan recently – snakes circling around pillars (showing movement and vitality) and looking skywards with their jaws open, spewing golden showers of coins for the new year or cherry blossoms for new growth. I hope the students have learnt something useful from this and take the well-intended criticism in their stride, so they can better themselves next time.

8-bit snake

8-bit snake

In an earlier feature on the potentially record-breaking snake design, the SUTD students were told by elderly folks that they didn’t like to have ‘snakes all over the place’. I wonder how they would feel if it weren’t the Year of the Snake but the RAT instead. Then again, you already see live rats any time of the year in Chinatown, not just during CNY. I’m no expert in art and crafts but the boxy sculpture looks like it was inspired by an 8-bit Nintendo game. Giving the snake a ‘pixellated’ look may nullify the primal fear we all have of a slithery mythological creature that has inspired centuries of dark villainy, sorcery and Samuel L Jackson swear words. But if you overdo it and give the fearsome Serpent a smiley face like the other hovering Chinatown snake, you risk having people mistaking it for an overgrown flying tadpole, or a happy Sperm deity. It’s a Chinese Zodiac icon, not a Japanese sex festival mascot. Even the resident Pokemon reptiles Ekans and Arbok look more terrifying than this.

La Mamba

I don’t know about the Taiwanese Snake, but it sounds like a rip-off of the Caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession. Entwining pillars may signify ‘movement and vitality’, but that’s also the way the reptile suffocates its prey. More like ‘torture and death’, especially if you’re at the receiving end of a snaky cuddle.

Not one to follow customs or shy away from taboos even though I’m a Snake Baby myself, I’m not sure if traditional Chinese refrain from sharp lines or using sharp objects only during auspicious festivities or run for the hills (not mountains, these have jagged edges) every single time we sit at a square jutting table as the writer suggests. In spring cleaning rituals, the use of sharp objects like scissors may ‘cut off’ your fortune. But I’m not aware if there’s a taboo over dining tables, boxes or HDTVs, though some Chinese may take offence towards PLANTS. In 2011, a pair of squabbling neighbours were deflecting bad luck off each other with curtain hooks and pointy leaf blades. Guess I should start checking on my neighbours’ flowers to make sure the thorns aren’t facing my doorway.  That explains the sharp pain in my skull every time I step out for work. I should also avoid walking behind people with earrings. Damn you plants and jewellery!

This fear of edges explains why wedding banquet tables are round but I haven’t seen any couple cut the cake with a truncheon (rather than a knife), signed off their marriage certs with thumbprints instead of pens, nor has anyone banished forks or bony fish from the dinner package. In fact, I don’t think one can even live without sharp edges or objects unless you live in a ballpit. As for lanterns, they have been used as skyborne vessels for well-wishes and good fortune too, not just to light up a trail for visiting spirits at a wake, something I’m sure the writer should know having visited Taiwan. But wait, maybe there IS one thing with sharp edges that every married adult should avoid during the New Year: ANG POWs. Those dreaded things can give you the most gruesome papercuts other than burning holes in your pocket and can be used in place of Ninja throwing stars. If this superstition is to be applied across the board I think we should do away not just with the scissors and other pokey things, but also over-crisp 2-dollar notes, red packets, expensive bak kwa, and give out coins, balloons and pineapple tarts instead.


One Response

  1. […] awkward at this juncture, even though JEM rhymes with ‘(caught in a ) JAM’. Maybe all the sharp pointy leaves as part of their green replacement strategy has something to do with […]

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