Outcry over samsui woman with cigarette mural in Singapore: URA requests delay in changes as it reviews stance

Singapore-based American artist Sean Dunston was scrambling to modify his work as the URA issued a July 3 deadline. - Photo: ST

SINGAPORE: The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has asked the artist behind a controversial mural of a cigarette-holding samsui woman to delay any changes to his work while the authority reviews its stance on amending the mural.

On June 21, The Straits Times (ST) reported the online outcry over URA’s order to erase a smoking cigarette from the mural, located at 297 South Bridge Road, opposite Maxwell MRT station.

The URA also cited an anonymous complainant who compared the depicted woman to a “prostitute” and called the mural “offensive”.

Singapore-based American artist Sean Dunston was scrambling to modify his work as the URA issued a July 3 deadline for a new proposal and cited the potential loss of the temporary permit of the business operating there, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which expires on July 27.

On Instagram, Dunston had then suggested drawing over the cigarette with a kitten, a taco or an opium pipe.

But the URA has temporarily asked for the mural of the smoking samsui woman – which was defended on a Reddit thread citing archival sources as historically accurate – to stay on the walls of the historic area where the pioneering migrant labourers once lived.

Many online commenters said the mural was a recognition of samsui women’s labour and lives, and erasing the cigarette in the mural amounted to historical revisionism.

One Reddit user questioned: “Why are we trying to change history?”

Indie Singapore Tours, which runs tours in Chinatown, commented on Dunston’s Instagram post that the samsui women “do back-breaking work, with their only respite their laced ciggies”.

The mural is one of their guests’ favourites, the group commented.

In an e-mail update to the landlord, who is represented by Shepherd Asset Management, dated June 21 and seen by ST, the URA said it had “taken note of additional feedback regarding the mural”.

In the e-mail, the URA asked the landlord “to delay any works to the mural until the review is completed”.

The e-mail did not provide a timeline for the review.

In response to ST’s queries, the URA emphasised that while the mural was “completed without prior approval”, the authorities are re-evaluating its stance in the light of recent public feedback.

Shepherd’s spokesperson previously told ST it had not applied for prior approval for the mural, which was completed in early April, but made a submission on April 19.

The URA responded on May 8 identifying smoking as an issue and requested that Shepherd resubmit a proposal by May 22.

Shepherd did not meet the latter deadline.

Prior to this re-evaluation, the URA had determined that “the depiction of smoking on the unauthorised mural is not aligned with Singapore’s anti-smoking policy” after consultation with stakeholders and relevant agencies.

Arts Nominated Member of Parliament Usha Chandradas told ST that the mural has value as a talking point for important social topics and welcomes the URA’s move to re-evaluate its stance.

She said: “This particular work speaks to the migrant worker experience in Singapore, which is very much a contemporary concern.

"I can see value in it being presented in such an unvarnished way as it prompts reflection and conversation about how we view and interact with migrant workers in our society today.”

Chandradas urged the authorities to conduct a more “holistic assessment” by factoring in the artist’s intention and historical context, and not make decisions “based on comments or feedback from the public which may be made on less considered terms”.

She added, however, that applications and approval processes for public murals need to be respected.

Other online comments dismissed the misogynistic nature of the anonymous complaint by a member of the public cited in URA’s e-mail to the landlord.

Singaporean activist Kirsten Han wrote on Facebook that calling the depicted woman a prostitute “says so much more about how you view young working women than it says about the artwork”.

Non-profit organisation Project X, which provides support to sex workers, rebuked the discrimination against sex workers and commented on Dunston’s Instagram post: “Sex work is work.”

Speaking to ST, Dunston said of the URA’s decision-making process: “It’s good to have boundaries, but a generic template for enforcing rules on art is damaging.

"The policy stance on cigarettes is well founded if it’s an advertisement, endorsement or advocation. This mural is not any of those.”

The artist said he had received even more positive feedback from the public since the controversy with the URA.

On the authority’s decision to re-evaluate its stance on the mural, he said: “I’m hopeful that they’ll take the context and history into consideration.”

He said he will not be modifying the mural for now and will await more information from the authorities. - The Straits Times/ANN

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Singapore , Outcry , samsui woman , cigarette , mural , URA , delay , review


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