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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Quebec & Singapore: Preserving a proud heritage

Quebec & Singapore: Preserving a proud heritage

Denise Chng Lisan
Artist & writer


'TRAVEL is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living,' wrote Miriam Beard.

Life in Quebec is now my teacher, pointing out my knowledge gaps and honing my ideas of living - be it language, culture, life-skills, or the environment.

I came to the Quebec province of Canada armed with a French language diploma, thinking that language would pose less of a barrier than other adaptations I would have to make.

I was quickly proven wrong as Quebecois - as the people of Quebec are called - throw at me a dizzying array of colloquial and idiomatic expressions that even traditional French speakers find difficult to understand. While snooty Parisians might describe their slurred accent as 'peasant French', my Quebecois friends passionately point out to me that they are speaking 'Old French' preserved in its purest form brought by early French settlers.


My favourite lesson that this culture teaches me is its spirit of strong independence - a sense of savoir-faire. I admire my new friends in Quebec who are often ready to roll up their sleeves to do things themselves - house repairs, car repairs, carpentry, cooking, washing, gardening, crop-growing.


Amidst this old linguistic brew, one would find a hefty sprinkle of modern English-inspired expressions like C'est cool!, C'est le Top!, C'est cute.

While many Quebecois today are born into bilingualism, they are fighting tooth and nail to keep their mother-tongue and culture alive. Quebec French, being the cornerstone of their identity, is ingrained in the province which enacted laws such as the famous Bill 101 in 1977 which, for example, dictates that KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) must be translated as PFK (Poulet Frit Kentucky). Even though such extreme measures are causing businesses headaches, Quebecois are proud to assert their identity and their 400-year-old heritage.

In the face of such conviction, I am learning to discover the meaning of my own Singaporean identity and heritage. Would we Singaporeans have as much conviction about asserting our identity, if we faced the danger of losing it one day? Would we know then what we would lose and what we should protect? I have no doubt that these are questions Singaporeans must answer in due time as we integrate more foreign workers and cultures into our society. Perhaps 43 years is not long enough, but we must surely not wait 400 years to search our souls.

Celebrations The Quebecois celebrate everything, with festivals ranging from music, dance, food, to floating woods, falling snow, and even humour. I am learning how Quebec keeps its culture alive and on the streets, instead of showcasing heritage artifacts in museums. Quebecois sing, write and compose songs about who they are. They know that as long as they continue to express their art, their culture will live.

To ensure the continuation of the Quebecois identity, the provincial government has funded institutions aimed at fostering culture, including the Ministry of Cultural Affairs that helps finance more than a hundred theatres, ballet and musical companies.

Such cultural investments have in turn brought more tourists and jobs, creating what the supporters call the 'creative economy'. This is how Cirque du Soleil, the Just for Laughs comedy show, and Celine Dion become Quebec's biggest and most successful cultural exports to the world.

Quebec has taught me how important it is for Singapore to continue to celebrate its artists, arts and culture. Celebrating our own voice is imperative to creating a cohesive Singaporean society with shared values, loyalty and pride. The value of such shared identity is beyond calculation.

My favourite lesson that this culture teaches me is its spirit of strong independence - a sense of savoir-faire. I admire my new friends in Quebec who are often ready to roll up their sleeves to do things themselves - house repairs, car repairs, carpentry, cooking, washing, gardening, crop-growing.

Although this self-reliance evolved from the early days of craftsmanship and farming, Quebecois today still retain this independent spirit with pride. I wish the children of our next generation, who grow up in urban comforts (that often come with a maid in tow), will also develop this self-reliance, not just in financial terms, but also in their confidence and ability to find their own resources to solve the problems they face in life.

Life in Quebec has opened my mind and changed my everyday ideas of living. It has also taught me more about my own identity and what it takes to preserve and nourish it.

The author is a Singaporean artist and writer currently based in Montreal.

We invite Singaporeans living overseas or posted abroad to write about life, culture and doing business where you are.

1 comment:

fern said...

Hi Wee Cheng,

I chanced upon ur website after reading books on Siberia. It's great to know there's someone like you in Singapore. While I don't know when I can ever go to those places, you inspire me to continue dreaming.