By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)
Photographs by Joel Leong (20S03O) from Raffles Photographic Society unless otherwise captioned
So school closures have finally happened, but remember those early days when CCA being suspended was the biggest of our COVID-19 worries?
The extension of home-based learning till 4 May is just the latest in a series of increasingly stringent COVID-19 precautionary measures, one of the earliest of which was the suspension of all CCAs for Term 2. Because of the suspension of CCA, many Year 6s have not had the chance to meet their new Year 5 juniors, while a minority of CCAs have not held a single CCA session for their Year 5 members this year.
Given that the Year 6s will soon be leaving due to CCA stand-down at the end of Term 2, opportunities for inter-batch interaction and bonding look to be rather limited. It seems increasingly likely that the Year 6s will step down without forming any meaningful relationships with their respective CCAs’ junior batches.
What would this, then, mean for the continuation of CCA identities?
Looking back on my own journey in Raffles Press, my interactions with Press ’19 as a Year 5—through event coverage, weekly CCA sessions, and special events like camp and Pressing Ahead—all played a crucial role in shaping my outlook on the purpose of Press in RI and informing my role as one of the latest members in the CCA’s long history. Although we only had the Year 6s for one school term, that one term proved instrumental in establishing a sense of continuity for Raffles Press in my batch, giving us an idea of what Press had been in the past, what Press was now, and what Press could be.
But the Press ‘welcome session’ which was substituted for camp this year (held during the March holidays when COVID restrictions were slightly more flexible) was a completely different ballgame. Due to the three-hour limit on all CCA activities, our once twelve-hour long programme had to be scaled down considerably. Consequently, several activities from the previous year were removed—the whodunit storyline segment, going out to eat together on the first night, and a scavenger hunt at the Asian Civilisations Museum. With COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on CCA activities, I fear that my juniors won’t be able to have the same Press experience I did.
However, rather than being a new challenge created by COVID-19, the continuity and the creation of a CCA identity which spans across batches seems to be a perennial problem for CCAs at the junior college level, and one they have always struggled to overcome.
In secondary school, where there were multiple batches of seniors at any one time, there would always be someone around to tell newcomers of the ‘history’ of the CCA—the traumatic teachers-in-charge or coaches whom our seniors had suffered under in the past, the CCAs we had a friendly rivalry with, and our CCA traditions.
However, the fact that there are only at most two batches at any one point of time in a JC CCA makes it very hard for CCAs at this level to establish a fixed identity. Instead, CCAs seem to suffer from a form of collective amnesia, whereby CCA reputations and inter-CCA relations are constantly being redefined with each new batch at a dizzying turnover rate.
Here’s an example: old, expired Press feuds which no one would have known about if not for the fastidious records of my predecessors, written down in a notebook passed from one chairperson to another since 2007. As the notebook’s latest owner, it was with great amusement that I read about Press’ former ‘blood feuds’ with various other CCAs including Writers’ Guild, Students’ Council, and, strangely enough, Street Dance.
As a practice, the passing down of objects during times of transition is far from new to human history. Organisations endure, even as the individuals within them come and go. Whether it’s the Beggars’ Sect’s ‘dog-beating staff’ in the wuxia fiction of Louis Cha or the Sword of Gryffindor from Harry Potter, these objects do not belong to any one individual and instead, by being passed on, represent the passing down of a group identity.
Yet, it might still surprise you to know that just like the Press notebook, a sizable number of CCAs in RI possess an object which has been passed down across several batches, much like a family heirloom—a ‘CCA heirloom’, if you will. A poll conducted in late 2019 of 42 CCA Leaders (CCALs) revealed that about 40% of the CCAs polled owned such an object. The objects passed down often have some sort of conceptual relation to the CCA, although the nature of this relation varies wildly from CCA to CCA, from the blindingly obvious to the mind-bogglingly abstract.
Many CCAs pass down objects which are fundamental to the activity they engage in as a CCA; their relation to the CCA they represent is self-explanatory. For instance, Floorball possesses a floorball stick which has been passed down for around 10 years, Squash owns a squash racket with the names of former captains written on its grip, and Modern Dance has a pair of black jazz pants with the words ‘Modern Dance’ written on the left hip.
“Because jazz pants [are] something that every dancer will have. I think the seniors […] just bought one just for the CCA, and it’s quite old already. I’m not so sure how old, but it’s pretty old,” said Modern Dance chairperson, Jerlynn Chia (20S03D). The jazz pants are not worn by her for practice; their purpose is purely symbolic.
In the same vein, Soccer (Girls)’s artefact is a prime example of a practical object whose role has since faded into symbolism. It’s an armband with the word ‘Captain’ on it and, like Jerlynn, Zitin Bali (20S06D) has never worn her item either.
“You’ve never worn this?”
“No, no, you can’t!” said Zitin in response to my (offensive) insinuation. “It’s supposed to be around your arm, right? But the minute you put it around your arm, it would just […] fall off. It’s not functional. And our coach gives us a new one every season [in April].”
She also pointed out that the armband, which the captain got in 2004 from the team’s training jersey supplier, serves as a visual reminder of the leaps that have been made in armband technology since then.
“You see these things?” she said, pointing to the strings on the armband. “You don’t have them anymore. It just shows how far armbands have come, actually, in terms of fashion. Because now, it’s just one loop and you just put it around your arm but last time, you had to strap it on, things like that. […] I think it could use a wash but I’m very worried that if I wash it, it would… yeah.”
On the other hand, Guitar Ensemble’s heirloom requires a little more explanation before it starts to make sense to the uninitiated. For one, there are two of them: a ukulele, and a framed apology letter from 2016. And rather than receiving the items from their predecessors, Guitar chairperson Lisa Truong Dam Linh Giang (20S03G) and her Exco actually stumbled upon the heirlooms by accident, while cleaning the guitar storeroom one afternoon.
“To be honest, the framed apology letter… it was just a running gag, I guess,” said Lisa. “It’s basically about an Exco member who was also an OGL and instead of going for CCA, he attended something that was, like, optional, as an OGL. […] From what I know, he probably got punished really, really badly. At that point there was this practice of writing apology letters, I guess. The CCA probably found it funny and they probably framed it up. I mean, from reading it, you can tell there are some sarcastic undertones.”
To some, being asked to choose between the two items would be like being asked to pick only either Chill waffles or claypot from the Y1–4 canteen. But Lisa had no such reservations about telling me which item she preferred.
“I mean honestly, I would say I kind of prefer the ukulele, because I don’t personally know the person who wrote the apology letter. Like, I’m just not in on the gag and I feel kind of left out. But […] [the ukulele] has a lot more meaning because all the Exco members from at least the year 2014 have signed on it. And it’s really cool to see that.”
Other CCAs such as the Visual Art Club pass down objects which display their chairpersons’ skills and well wishes.
“So what’s so special about this is that, compared to passing down a pen or a palette or something like that, we can write encouraging messages as well as the hopes that the previous chairperson has for the next one,” explained Zhang Yihan (20S03B), the chairperson of the Visual Art Club.
“So it’s just like the passing down of responsibility as well. But along with that, being a sketchbook, we can have our own unique sketches inside so that when it’s passed down, the future generations can take a look at how the different art forms have developed over the years. It’s a [tangible} item but it also brings along more encouraging messages. […] In Year 1–4, we passed down a brush pen. As compared to that, I think that this [sketchbook] has a more interactive and personal feel to it.”
When I last spoke to him in October 2019, Yihan was already busy planning and drafting his sketch to add to the sketchbook.
“From my year onwards, I’m trying to incorporate something new to it. This is the sketch I have done of [the previous chairperson]. So I’m trying to incorporate this new thing where the new chairperson does a sketch of the previous one. And it can be either pasted inside here or directly passed down.”
And finally, the most abstract CCA heirloom belongs to the Mathematics Club. Unlike the other CCAs, the club’s heirloom is the intangible tradition of creating 3D structures out of origami.
“So there was a senior who […] was quite creative, so he started this idea of trying to make origami. And then ever since then, these origami pieces have appeared, and some of them disappear, but then more get built, and so on. Many have been made, but this one, the ring, has been made multiple times. Our seniors made it as well, but apparently that [particular] ring doesn’t exist anymore because it was broken and built into other stuff. But it’s the idea of this ring that remains,” explained Aloysius Ng (20S06J), chairperson of the Mathematics Club.
“During the session some time in March this year, we sat down with the senior batch and created this one.”
Building the structures is often a team effort which takes the entire CCA.
“This couldn’t be independently created… […] This was a rather collective effort. Our CCA usually ends around 6.30. That night, we stayed until 7, the security guard came to chase us out, and it still wasn’t done. So the next day, some of [my batchmates] came back to continue building this.”
But as COVID-19 rages on and CCA remains suspended, will simply passing down objects be sufficient to ensure the continuity of CCA identities?
It’s worth noting that Guitar Ensemble’s framed apology letter would not make much sense to the CCA without the accompanying backstory. This is an even bigger problem for Math Club, whose heirloom would quite literally cease to exist if an inter-batch CCA session on making the origami units does not happen some time in the near future, leaving behind only the empty husks of the pre-made origami structures in place of the fun CCA tradition that they used to represent.
This underscores the point that what is being passed down goes beyond the objects themselves. Rather, it’s the stories and traditions associated with the objects which differentiate them from mere pieces of junk and make them treasured objects worth passing down. With the limitations COVID-19 has placed on gathering outside of one’s household, it would be tragic if the objects were simply shoved into the hands of successors with nary a word on their fabled histories. It would be an even greater disaster if, instead of being passed down, these objects remained in the cupboards and junk drawers of the CCALs of Batch ‘20 and were lost to future batches forever.
Furthermore, while the objects might lead to feelings of continuity and history between the chairpersons of one batch and the next, these feelings are not necessarily transmitted to the rest of the CCA, unless they, too, are made aware of the object. However, it appears that for most CCAs, this is not the case.
Of the 42 CCALs surveyed, more than half claimed that the rest of their CCA-mates did not know about the object’s existence or even what it looked like. And as a CCA chairperson myself, I personally wasn’t even aware that my own CCA heirloom existed until three months into my term, when my predecessor arranged to meet up over marshmallow toast at the Professor Brawn Cafe to pass it to me.
In times like these where COVID-19 has limited opportunities for inter-batch bonding, the passing down of CCA heirlooms becomes all the more important. Now more than ever, they symbolise the tenuous link between one batch and the next, as well as the persistence of a CCA’s identity.
As the saying goes, “a country without a history is like a person without a memory”. It is only by knowing where we come from that we can know who we are. It is only through understanding our relationship to a greater timeline of students who once faced the same troubles and joys we currently do that we can begin to unpack our roles as soccer players, guitar ensemble members, dancers or writers in this community.
Even for CCAs which don’t have an heirloom, the great thing about traditions is that they have to start somewhere and with someone. For example, although her CCA does not currently have a CCA heirloom, the Gavel Club chairperson, Sia Xinyu (20A13A), is planning to start the CCA heirloom tradition in her CCA this year by passing down a gavel to her successor.
In fact, it might even be the case that CCA heirlooms and traditions require constant tweaking and modification in order to remain relevant to the successive batches of students that they are passed down to.
For instance, while she will be passing down the armband to her successor, Zitin also has plans to start a new tradition of her own for Soccer (Girls).
“I was also thinking of doing something else as well. Like, in my old CCA, they had a sports bottle, and then each batch had signed and written a small note. So yeah, I want to do that too.”
“Immediately after elections—while everyone was still there, actually—our coach brought it up. And then he was like, ‘So this has been here for a very long time and [the previous captain] wants to give it to you now.’ And it just happened. We took a photo and that was it.”
“We just happened to find it, because we were cleaning the storeroom. And it was quite funny because I think we weren’t supposed to find it? Our previous chairperson had just come down that day to see how we were doing because she was doing her A Level prep. And when she got down, she saw us holding the ukulele and she was like, ‘Oh! Yes! The ukulele!’”
Visual Art Club
“The previous chairperson just passed it on to me during the Year 6 farewell session. I was quite shocked because most of the CCA members don’t really know that there’s this CCA item. We don’t really, like, take this out to show other people, right? So I was quite shocked at first. And then I started flipping through and I saw some of the messages from the seniors of 2016 and their drawings. It just gives me this sense of responsibility and the duties that I have to carry out to lead the CCA well.”
“Yeah, the previous chairperson just told me not to touch it ever again. Just pass it straight on to the next one. […] I was a bit confused, because I didn’t even know there were jazz pants just for the CCA. My batch doesn’t even know about this.”
“Own? They’re just left in here, we’ve never bothered to wonder whose they are.”