Stage Fright and Various Failures: A Conversation with Ho Tzu Nyen

Ho Tzu Nyen, He Zhiyuan


Ho Tzu Nyen, interviewed by He Zhiyuan

He Zhiyuan (HZY): For most Singaporeans, the history of the island-state begins in 1819 with the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who established it as a trading port for the East India Company. But you chose to begin your artistic career in 2003 with Utama – Every Name in History is I, an installation of paintings and a film about Sang Nila Utama – the neglected and forgotten pre-colonial founder of Singapore. Was this beginning at the pre-colonial beginnings of your country a deliberate choice?

Ho Tzu Nyen (HTN): There is a story about Raffles that I really like. In 1823, while living in his newly constructed bungalow on Bukit Larangan in Singapore, Raffles suffered from a bout of tropical fever. In the throes of his delirium, he received a vision or perhaps a visitation by the Malay kings who had come to this island some 500-600 years before him. It should be said that Bukit Larangan, in Malay, means the Forbidden Hill – so named because it was the sacred burial grounds of the ancient Malay ruling dynasty. Upon waking up, and still depressed, Raffles wrote to his friend William Mardsen, saying that the tombs of the Malay Kings are close at hand; and that if it is his fate to die here in Singapore, he shall take his place amongst these. Just as he has walked in their footsteps in the ‘founding’ of Singapore, he now dreams of following them to their graves.

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