The use of the family home as a setting for television sitcoms (situation comedies) has long been recognised for its ability to provide audiences with an identifiable site of ontological security (much discussed by Giddens, Scannell, Saunders and others). From the beginnings of American sitcoms with such programs as Leave it to Beaver, and through the trail of The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and on to Home Improvement, That 70s Show and How I Met Your Mother, the US has led the way with screenwriters and producers capitalising on the value of using the suburban family dwelling as a fixed setting. The most obvious advantage is the use of an easily constructed and inexpensive set, most often on a TV studio soundstage requiring only a few rooms (living room, kitchen and bedroom are usually enough to set the scene), and a studio audience. In Singapore, sitcoms have had similar successes; portraying the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in their home settings. Some programs have achieved phenomenal success, including an unprecedented ten year run for Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd from 1996-2007, closely followed by Under One Roof (1994-2000 and an encore season in 2002), and Living with Lydia (2001-2005). This article furthers Blunt and Dowling’s exploration of the “critical geography” of home, by providing a focused analysis of home-based sitcoms in the nation-state of Singapore.
The use of the home tells us a lot. Roseanne’s cluttered family home represents a lived reality for working-class families throughout the Western world. In Friends, the seemingly wealthy ‘young’ people live in a fashionable apartment building, while Seinfeld’s apartment block is much less salubrious, indicating (in line with the character) the struggle of the humble comedian. Each of these examples tells us something about not just the characters, but quite often about class, race, and contemporary societies. In the Singaporean programs, the home in Under One Roof (hereafter UOR) represents the major form of housing in Singapore, and the program as a whole demonstrates the workability of Singaporean multiculturalism in a large apartment block. Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (PCK) demonstrates the entrepreneurial abilities of even under-educated Singaporeans, with its lead character, a building contractor, living in a large freestanding dwelling – generally reserved for the well-heeled of Singaporean society. And in Living with Lydia (LWL) (a program which demonstrates Singapore’s capacity for global integration), Hong Kong émigré Lydia is forced to share a house (less ostentatious than PCK’s) with the family of the hapless Billy B. Ong.
There is perhaps no more telling cultural event than the sitcom. In the 1970s, The Brady Bunch told us more about American values and habits than any number of news reports or cop shows. A nation’s identity is uncovered; it bares its soul to us through the daily tribulations of its TV households. In Singapore, home-based sitcoms have been one of the major success stories in local television production with each of these three programs collecting multiple prizes at the region-wide Asian Television Awards. These sitcoms have been able to reflect the ideals and values of the Singaporean nation to audiences both at ‘home’ and abroad. This article explores the worlds of UOR, PCK, and LWL, and the ways in which each of the fictional homes represents key features of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Singapore. Through ownership and regulation, Singaporean TV programs operate as a firm link between the state and its citizens. These sitcoms follow regular patterns where the ‘man of the house’ is more buffoon than breadwinner – in a country defined by its neo-Confucian morality, sitcoms allow a temporary subversion of patriarchal structures. In this article I argue that the central theme in Singaporean sitcoms is that while home is a personal space, it is also a valuable site for national identities to be played out. These identities are visible in the physical indicators of the exterior and interior living spaces, and the social indicators representing a benign patriarchy and a dominant English language.
One of the key features of sitcoms is the structure: cold open – titles – establishing shot – opening scene. Generally the cold opening (aka “the teaser”) takes place inside the home to quickly (re)establish audience familiarity with the location and the characters. The title sequence then features, in the case of LWL and PCK, the characters outside the house (in LWL this is in cartoon format), and in UOR (see Figure 1) it is the communal space of the barbeque area fronting the multi-story HDB (Housing Development Board) apartment blocks.
Figure 1: Under One Roof
The establishing shot at the end of each title sequence, and when returning from ad breaks, is an external view of the characters’ respective dwellings. In Seinfeld this establishing shot is the New York apartment block, in Roseanne it is the suburban house, and the Singaporean sitcoms follow the same format (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Phua Chu Kang
External Visions of the Home
This emphasis on exterior buildings reminds the viewer that Singaporean housing is, in many ways, unique. As a city-state (and a young one at that) its spatial constraints are particularly limiting: there simply isn’t room for suburban housing on quarter acre blocks. It rapidly transformed from an “empty rock” to a scattered Malay settlement of bay and riverside kampongs (villages) recognisable by its stilt houses. Then in the shadow of colonialism and the rise of modernity, the kampongs were replaced in many cases by European-inspired terrace houses. Finally, in the post-colonial era high-rise housing began to swell through the territory, creating what came to be known as the “HDB new town”, with some 90% of the population now said to reside in HDB units, and many others living in private high-rises (Chang 102, 104). Exterior shots used in UOR (see Figure 3) consistently emphasise the distinctive HDB blocks. As with the kampong housing, high-rise apartments continue notions of communal living in that “Living below, above and side by side other people requires tolerance of neighbours and a respect towards the environment of the housing estate for the good of all” (104). The provision of readily accessible public housing was part of the “covenant between the newly enfranchised electorate and the elected government” (Chua 47).
Figure 3: Establishing shot from UOR
In UOR, we see the constant interruption of the lives of the Tan family by their multi-ethnic neighbours. This occurs to such an extent as to be a part of the normal daily flow of life in Singaporean society. Chang argues that despite the normally interventionist activities of the state, it is the “self-enforcing norms” of behaviour that have worked in maintaining a “peaceable society in high-rise housing” (104). This communitarian attitude even extends to the large gated residence of PCK, home to an almost endless stream of relatives and friends. The gate itself seems to perform no restrictive function. But such a “peaceable society” can also be said to be a result of state planning which extends to the “racial majoritarianism” imposed on HDB units in the form of quotas determining “the actual number of households of each of the three major races [Chinese, Malay and Indian] … to be accommodated in a block of flats” (Chua 55).
Issues of race are important in Singapore where “the inscription of media imagery bears the cultural discourse and materiality of the social milieu” (Wong 120) perhaps nowhere more graphically illustrated than in the segregation of TV channels along linguistic / cultural lines. These 3 programs all featured on MediaCorp TV’s predominantly English-language Channel 5 and are, in the words of Roland Barthes, “anchored” by dint of their use of English.
Home Will Eat Itself
The consumption of home-based sitcoms by audiences in their own living-rooms creates a somewhat self-parodying environment. As John Ellis once noted, it is difficult to escape from the notion that “TV is a profoundly domestic phenomenon” (113) in that it constantly attempts to “include the audiences own conception of themselves into the texture of its programmes” (115). In each of the three Singaporean programs living-rooms are designed to seat characters in front of a centrally located TV set – at most all the audience sees is the back of the TV, and generally only when the TV is incorporated into a storyline, as in the case of PCK in Figure 4 (note the TV set in the foreground).
Figure 4: PCK
Even in this episode of PCK when the lead characters stumble across a pornographic video starring one of the other lead characters, the viewer only hears the program. Perhaps the most realistic (and acerbic) view of how TV reorganises our lives – both spatially in the physical layout of our homes, and temporally in the way we construct our viewing habits (eating dinner or doing the housework while watching the screen) – is the British “black comedy”, The Royle Family. David Morley (443) notes that “TV and other media have adapted themselves to the circumstances of domestic consumption while the domestic arena itself has been simultaneously redefined to accommodate their requirements”. Morley refers to The Royle Family’s narrative that rests on the idea that “for many people, family life and watching TV have become indistinguishable to the extent that, in this fictional household, it is almost entirely conducted from the sitting positions of the viewers clustered around the set” (436).
While TV is a central fixture in most sitcoms, its use is mostly as a peripheral thematic device with characters having their viewing interrupted by the arrival of another character, or by a major (within the realms of the plot) event. There is little to suggest that “television schedules have instigated a significant restructuring of family routines” as shown in Livingstone’s audience-based study of UK viewers (104). In the world of the sitcom, the temporalities of characters’ lives do not need to accurately reflect that of “real life” – or if they do, things quickly descend to the bleakness exemplified by the sedentary Royles. As Scannell notes, “broadcast output, like daily life, is largely uneventful, and both are punctuated (predictably and unpredictably) by eventful occasions” (4). To show sitcom characters in this static, passive environment would be anathema to the “real” viewer, who would quickly lose interest. This is not to suggest that sitcoms are totally benign though as with all genres they are “the outcome of social practices, received procedures that become objectified in the narratives of television, then modified in the interpretive act of viewing” (Taylor 14). In other words, they feature a contextualisation that is readily identifiable to members of an established society.
However, within episodes themselves, it as though time stands still – character development is almost non-existent, or extremely slow at best and we see each episode has “flattened past and future into an eternal present in which parents love and respect one another, and their children forever” (Taylor 16). It takes some six seasons before the character of PCK becomes a father, although in previous seasons he acts as a mentor to his nephew, Aloysius. Contained in each episode, in true sitcom style, are particular “narrative lines” in which “one-liners and little comic situations [are] strung on a minimal plot line” containing a minor problem “the solution to which will take 22 minutes and pull us gently through the sequence of events toward a conclusion” (Budd et al. 111).
It is important to note that the sitcom genre does not work in every culture, as each locale renders the sitcom with “different cultural meanings” (Nielsen 95). Writing of the failure of the Danish series Three Whores and a Pickpocket (with a premise like that, how could it fail?), Nielsen (112) attributes its failure to the mixing of “kitchen sink realism” with “moments of absurdity” and “psychological drama with expressionistic camera work”, moving it well beyond the strict mode of address required by the genre. In Australia, soap operas Home and Away and Neighbours have been infinitely more popular than our attempts at sitcoms – which had a brief heyday in the 1980s with Hey Dad..!, Kingswood Country and Mother and Son – although Kath and Kim (not studio-based) could almost be counted.
Lichter et al. (11) state that “television entertainment can be ‘political’ even when it does not deal with the stuff of daily headlines or partisan controversy. Its latent politics lie in the unavoidable portrayal of individuals, groups, and institutions as a backdrop to any story that occupies the foreground”. They state that US television of the 1960s was dominated by the “idiot sitcom” and that “To appreciate these comedies you had to believe that social conventions were so ironclad they could not tolerate variations. The scripts assumed that any minute violation of social conventions would lead to a crisis that could be played for comic results” (15). Series like Happy Days “harked back to earlier days when problems were trivial and personal, isolated from the concerns of a larger world” (17). By the late 1980s, Roseanne and Married…With Children had “spawned an antifamily-sitcom format that used sarcasm, cynicism, and real life problems to create a type of in-your-face comedy heretofore unseen on prime time” (20). This is markedly different from the type of values presented in Singaporean sitcoms – where filial piety and an unrelenting faith in the family unit is sacrosanct. In this way, Singaporean sitcoms mirror the ideals of earlier US sitcoms which idealise the “egalitarian family in which parental wisdom lies in appeals to reason and fairness rather than demands for obedience” (Lichter et al. 406). Dahlgren notes that we are the products of “an ongoing process of the shaping and reshaping of identity, in response to the pluralised sets of social forces, cultural currents and personal contexts encountered by individuals” where we end up with “composite identities” (318).
Such composite identities make the presentation (or re-presentation) of race problematic for producers of mainstream television. Wong argues that “Within the context of PAP hegemony, media presentation of racial differences are manufactured by invoking and resorting to traditional values, customs and practices serving as symbols and content” (118). All of this is bound within a classificatory system in which each citizen’s identity card is inscribed as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other (often referred to as CMIO), and a broader social discourse in which “the Chinese are linked to familial values of filial piety and the practice of extended family, the Malays to Islam and rural agricultural activities, and the Indians to the caste system” (Wong 118). However, these sitcoms avoid directly addressing the issue of race, preferring to accentuate cultural differences instead. In UOR the tables are turned when a none-too-subtle dig at the crude nature of mainland Chinese (with gags about the state of public toilets), is soon turned into a more reverential view of Chinese culture and business acumen.
Internal Visions of the Home
This reverence for Chinese culture is also enacted visually. The loungeroom settings of these three sitcoms all provide examples of the fashioning of the nation through a “ubiquitous semi-visibility” (Noble 59). Not only are the central characters in each of these sitcoms constructed as ethnically Chinese, but the furnishings provide a visible nod to Chinese design in the lacquered screens, chairs and settees of LWL (see Figure 5.1), in the highly visible pair of black inlaid mother-of-pearl wall hangings of UOR (see Figure 5.2) and in the Chinese statuettes and wall-hangings found in the PCK home. Each of these items appears in the central view of the shows most used setting, the lounge/family room. There is often symmetry involved as well; the balanced pearl hangings of UOR are mirrored in a set of silk prints in LWL and the pair of ceramic Chinese lions in PCK.
Figure 5.1: LWL
Figure 5.2: UOR
Thus, all three sitcoms feature design elements that reflect visible links to Chinese culture and sentiments, firmly locating the sitcoms “in Asia”, and providing a sense of the nation. The sets form an important role in constructing a realist environment, one in which “identification with realist narration involves a temporary merger of at least some of the viewer’s identity with the position offered by the text” (Budd et al. 110). These constant silent reminders of the Chinese-based hegemon – the cultural “majoritarianism” – anchors the sitcoms to a determined concept of the nation-state, and reinforces the “imaginative geographies of home” (Blunt and Dowling 247).
The Foolish “Father” Figure in a Patriarchal Society
But notions of a dominant Chinese culture are dealt with in a variety of ways in these sitcoms – not the least in a playful attitude toward patriarchal figures. In UOR, the Tan family “patriarch” is played by Moses Lim, in PCK, Gurmit Singh plays Phua and in LWL Samuel Chong plays Billy B. Ong (or, as Lydia mistakenly refers to him Billy Bong). Erica Sharrer makes the claim that class is a factor in presenting the father figure as buffoon, and that US sitcoms feature working class families in which “the father is made to look inept, silly, or incompetent have become more frequent” partly in response to changing societal structures where “women are shouldering increasing amounts of financial responsibility in the home” (27). Certainly in the three series looked at here, PCK (the tradesman) is presented as the most derided character in his role as head of the household. Moses Lim’s avuncular Tan Ah Teck is presented mostly as lovably foolish, even when reciting his long-winded moral tales at the conclusion of each episode, and Billy B. Ong, as a middle-class businessman, is presented more as a victim of circumstance than as a fool.
Sharrer ponders whether “sharing the burden of bread-winning may be associated with fathers perceiving they are losing advantages to which they were traditionally entitled” (35). But is this really a case of males losing the upper hand? Hanke argues that men are commonly portrayed as the target of humour in sitcoms, but only when they “are represented as absurdly incongruous” to the point that “this discursive strategy recuperates patriarchal notions” (90). The other side of the coin is that while the “dominant discursive code of patriarchy might be undone” (but isn’t), “the sitcom’s strategy for containing women as ‘wives’ and ‘mothers’ is always contradictory and open to alternative readings” (Hanke 77). In Singapore’s case though, we often return to images of the women in the kitchen, folding the washing or agonising over the work/family dilemma, part of what Blunt and Dowling refer to as the “reproduction of patriarchal and heterosexist relations” often found in representations of “the ideal’ suburban home” (29).
One final aspect of these sitcoms is the use of language. PM Lee Hsien Loong once said that he had no interest in “micromanaging” the lives of Singaporeans (2004). Yet his two predecessors (PM Goh and PM Lee Senior) both reflected desires to do so by openly criticising the influence of Phua Chu Kang’s liberal use of colloquial phrases and phrasing. While the use of Singlish (or Singapore Colloquial English / SCE) in these sitcoms is partly a reflection of everyday life in Singapore, by taking steps to eradicate it through the Speak Good English movement, the government offers an intrusion into the private home-space of Singaporeans (Ho 17). Authorities fear that increased use of Singlish will damage the nation’s ability to communicate on a global basis, withdrawing to a locally circumscribed “pidgin English” (Rubdy 345). Indeed, the use of Singlish in UOR is deliberately underplayed in order to capitalise on overseas sales of the show (which aired, for example, on Australia’s SBS television) (Srilal). While many others have debated the Singlish issue, my concern is with its use in the home environment as representative of Singaporean lifestyles. As novelist Hwee Hwee Tan (2000) notes:
Singlish is crude precisely because it’s rooted in Singapore’s unglamorous past. This is a nation built from the sweat of uncultured immigrants who arrived 100 years ago to bust their asses in the boisterous port. Our language grew out of the hardships of these ancestors.
Singlish thus offers users the opportunity to “show solidarity, comradeship and intimacy (despite differences in background)” and against the state’s determined efforts to adopt the language of its colonizer (Ho 19-20). For this reason, PCK’s use of Singlish iterates a “common man” theme in much the same way as Paul Hogan’s “Ocker” image of previous decades was seen as a unifying feature of mainstream Australian values. That the fictional PCK character was eventually “forced” to take “English” lessons (a storyline rapidly written into the program after the direct criticisms from the various Prime Ministers), is a sign that the state has other ideas about the development of Singaporean society, and what is broadcast en masse into Singaporean homes.
So what do these home-based sitcoms tell us about Singaporean nationalism? Firstly, within the realms of a multiethnic society, mainstream representations reflect the hegemony present in the social and economic structures of Singapore. Chinese culture is dominant (albeit in an English-speaking environment) and Indian, Malay and Other cultures are secondary. Secondly, the home is a place of ontological security, and partial adornment with cultural ornaments signifying Chinese culture are ever-present as a reminder of the Asianness of the sitcom home, ostensibly reflecting the everyday home of the audience. The concept of home extends beyond the plywood-prop walls of the soundstage though. As Noble points out, “homes articulate domestic spaces to national experience” (54) through the banal nationalism exhibited in “the furniture of everyday life” (55). In a Singaporean context, Velayutham (extending the work of Morley) explores the comforting notion of Singapore as “home” to its citizens and concludes that the “experience of home and belonging amongst Singaporeans is largely framed in the materiality and social modernity of everyday life” (4). Through the use of sitcoms, the state is complicit in creating and recreating the family home as a site for national identities, adhering to dominant modes of culture and language.