THE docent at the National Gallery spoke with a careful, clear diction. Her script was well-paced and filled with insight not just on the painter’s vision, but the work’s social and historical context as well. As a first-time visitor at the National Gallery two Fridays ago, I couldn’t have timed my arrival any better. I wasn’t exactly an early bird, but early enough to have caught her just as she was about to guide the handful of visitors to Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class, the portrait I most wanted to see.
“Isn’t it interesting that there are more ladies than men in this class?” I said to her after her commentary, noting there were five lady students and four male classmates. “I wonder if there’s any significance.”
“I’m not exactly sure why,” she pondered and speculated that Chua was fond of drawing women and was more confident painting them. After all, one of the ladies in the portrait was his wife.
Next came a series of woodblock prints, just across Chua’s august portrait. The work she directed our eyes to was the 13th May Incident by Choo Keng Kwang. In this grim black-and-white portrait, made all the grimmer from dim lighting, we catch a glimpse of the Chinese middle school protests of 13 May 1954, a chorus of dissent against the British attempt to introduce compulsory national service.
The spotlight is on a schoolgirl falling backwards, her arms flailing, and a policeman raising his baton. “BAY-ton,” the docent says, and suddenly, my mind drifts to my own days as a schoolgirl when I would pronounce baton with bay rather than bat—the BAY-ton you receive with great anticipation from your teammate at a sprint relay, and the very same one you’d pass to the next runner.
A few portraits later as we weaved down the gallery, we arrived at Chen Wen Hsi’s Herons. This time, my mind didn’t travel down memory lane, but it tripped up. What did she just say? Heerens? The shopping mall, The Heeren, came to mind, and with it too, a wince of dismay.
Have I been pronouncing heron wrong all this while, or is there really something called heeren that I wasn’t aware of? Because presently, I was gazing hard at the portrait, trying to make out the shapes, like strips of origami cutouts, boldly pasted over the entire work, crowding out most of it except the breezier, more spacious bottom corner on the left.
I let the visitors trickle away down the hall to the right, and walked up to the portrait notes. Herons, of course. And as I stepped back, I began to make out the shapes of the slender-necked birds and their delicate beaks.
So, here’s heron—not HEE but a short HARE, as in HARE-ruhn.
And here’s baton—buh-TON (American English), or BAT-ton (British English), like pattern.
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