Censorship fears as Singapore moves to scrub ‘offensive’ cigarette from Chinatown mural

Artwork depicts a historic Samsui woman holding a smoking cigarette, authorities say it sends ‘wrong message’. — SCMP

An order by the Singapore authorities to erase a cigarette from a Chinatown mural has sparked an online controversy about street art censorship.

The mural, which depicted a young Samsui woman holding a smoking cigarette, was completed in early April, according to The Straits Times of Singapore.

The city state’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) told the landlord in an email dated May 8 that the mural is “not aligned with Singapore’s anti-smoking policy stance”.

In a subsequent email on June 18, the URA also cited anonymous public feedback that the woman depicted “looks more like a prostitute” and was “offensive”.

URA issued a July 3 deadline for a new proposal and warned of the potential loss of the temporary permit of the restaurant operating there, which expires on July 27.

The artist who created the mural, Sean Dunston, a 50-year-old American based in Singapore since 2009, shared the incident on Instagram.

The mural depicts a young Samsui woman holding a smoking cigarette. Photo: Instagram/@seanpdunston

He suggested drawing over the cigarette with a kitten, a taco or an opium pipe.

However, many people have been critical of the URA’s decision, saying the cigarette in the mural is historically accurate and serves as a recognition of Samsui women’s labour and lives.

“Why are we trying to change history?” said one online observer.

The term Samsui women, also known as “red headscarf women” in Chinese, refers to a group of Chinese females who immigrated to Singapore between the 1920s and 1940s for industrial jobs.

They hailed mostly from the Sanshui district of Guangdong, a province in southern China.

It is well-documented that the women smoked cigarettes as a form of recreation after their hard labour and even stored cigarettes under their trademark red headgear.

The women primarily resided in the area where the mural is now located.

“Normally, Samsui women are portrayed as old, but when they came to Singapore, they were young and you don’t really see that kind of depiction.

“I thought it would be nice to change it up to show a younger woman and catch them in a situation when they were not working,” the artist Dunston explained.

He told The Straits Times that the authorities should “try to find a little more balance”, as censoring the work outright was “too rigid and too draconian”.

“The people who make these rules are afraid of offending people or sending the wrong message to kids, and I do understand that.

“But sometimes you can’t avoid it when you are talking about certain subjects and talking about a historical subject,” Dunston said.

The mural would have been a good talking point for tourists to illustrate Singapore’s history, said Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, a licensed Singaporean tour guide who conducts tours in Chinatown.

Phillips also questioned if public complaints are given too much weight in censorship decisions.

The controversial mural was painted on a wall in Singapore’s bustling Chinatown district. Photo: Shutterstock

Activists also criticised those who portray the women as prostitutes as being discriminatory towards sex workers.

Murals on conserved shophouses have to be “appropriate to the character of the area”, according to guidelines on the URA website.

A spokesperson from Shepherd Asset Management, who represents the landlord, admitted the mural was completed without prior approval from the URA.

After the controversies, in a June 21 email update to the landlord, URA asked the artist to “delay any works to the mural until the review is completed”, as it had “taken note of additional feedback regarding the mural”.

The email did not provide a timeline for the review.

Dunston has stopped modifying the mural for now and is awaiting more information from the authorities.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll take the context and history into consideration,” said the artist. – South China Morning Post

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