Sound is a one of our most powerful senses. A small tinkle, a laugh can bring forth memories, associations and expectations.
Recently, Singapore’s filmmaker Royston Tan was in California to talk about his films and his career. One of the projects that he was involved in was 7 letters, an anthology of short films by Singaporean fimmakers. He shared with the audience his film in the anthology titled “Bunga Sayang”.
“Bunga Sayang” means “Flower of Love, or Flower of the Heart” in Malay. It refers to the title of a song that has a central role in the film.
Royston explained that the film was inspired by the sounds of his childhood.
One of them was the sounds of the traditional Chinese opera. The opera was often staged in a public area where everyone could come and see. (It was also a part of my childhood. Like most children, I was drawn to it when it was staged in my neighborhood. For me, what was most fascinating were the shiny, colorful costumes, especially those with the long, flowing sleeves.)
Another inspiration for the film was the sounds of a song.
The main protagonist in Royston’s film is a young boy, around 10 or so. A normal day, after school, brought a small crisis. The tap in his flat suddenly stopped when he was taking a shower.
The boy called his mother, who was away working, who then instructed him to go to his neighbour’s house and to request if he could finish his bath there. The neighbor, an older Malay woman, couldn’t speak English, and the boy spoke broken Malay, but somehow they communicated.
After the shower, he found himself drawn to the kitchen where the woman was preparing food, while her radio filled the flat with the song “Bunga Sayang”. The sounds and notes of that song formed a strong memory of that day for him. And soon a friendship developed between the two of them.
“Bunga Sayang” is a heartfelt film because, I believe, it was made from the heart. Watching it made me think of the sounds of my childhood. And what comes to my mind, without hesitation, is the sound of fish frying in my childhood home.
Our big extended family was run by my grandmother and grandaunt. They would start cooking around 10 or 11 am in the morning. I would often hang around in the kitchen, being in their company, or enjoying doing some coloring.
One dish that was often served in our home was deep-fried chunks of tongkol fish, which is a type of tuna fish. Oil was heated in the kuali, a deep frying pan. And when the first chunk of fish hit the hot oil, it created a pristine sizzle and hiss. So clear that one could visualize the hiss rising up, winding up, from the pan.
That sound, together with the fragrance of the turmeric spice coating the fish, leads me back to my young days, in our sunny, warm kitchen in the tropics.