Creating Communal Narratives in Later Life: Old Age, Meaning and Memory in Asia

Title: 1212 | Creating Communal Narratives in Later Life: Old Age, Meaning and Memory in Asia
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Benny Tong, National University of Singapore, Singapore (organizer, presenter)
Veronica Sau-wa Mak, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Hong Kong (presenter)
Akemi Minamida, Kobe University, Japan (presenter)
Gordon Mathews, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong (chair)


In fast aging Asian societies, becoming old is a highly complex juncture in the life course. For older Asians, who are aging more healthily than their predecessors, finding sources of meaning and identity is increasingly paramount. Although they share important backgrounds and experiences in maturing and growing old in the socio-political and economic environment of post-World War II modernization, older Asians are ultimately a diverse group with differing life experiences, trajectories and desires. However, existing popular and academic discourse has largely portrayed them as a monolithic group from a medicalized viewpoint of care and support, and only recently have researchers sought to understand from an emic perspective the conditions and motivations of older people themselves. This panel engages with such nascent critical discussions, by comparing various contextual settings in which older Asians construct communal narratives that address issues of memory, meaning and identity. Mak studies the narratives of well-being surrounding the interpretation and consumption of milk products as ‘functional foods’ by older Hong Kong Chinese. Minamida investigates how residents in Japanese senior care facilities react to wartime songs in their group singing activities. Finally, Tong details the individual and social life narratives that influence older Singaporeans’ participation in leisure activities. Juxtaposing these work-in-progress fieldwork studies, we highlight the variety of and tensions between communal mnemonic narratives constructed through different older Asians’ interpretations of diverse individual and social life experiences, and invite panel attendees to join us in debating their complex conceptualizations of communal memory and identity.

Panel Abstracts:
Meaning-making and Identity-work: Older Singaporeans' Construction of Life Narratives of Leisure Participation
Today’s older Singaporeans were mostly born during the post-war baby boom in the late 1940s to 1950s, encompassing what the Singapore government has termed the 'Pioneer' and 'Merdeka' generations. With a life expectancy of 83.2 years, these generations are the first to experience old age in extremely large numbers, and for much longer than their predecessors. Although the government has launched the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation subsidy packages aimed at enabling these Singaporeans to lead better lives in old age, the benefits are directed almost solely at healthcare needs and disability assistance. However, qualitative research (eg. Kong, Yeoh and Teo 1996; Thang 2005, 2006; Ang & Malhotra 2016) has revealed that beyond health issues, older Singaporeans, many of whom are still physically and mentally fit, are also greatly concerned over questions of meaning, identity and memory. This paper investigates how some older Singaporeans address such questions through leisure activities and lifestyles, an under-researched perspective in studies of older populations. Using data from ethnographic fieldwork conducted at leisure activities in Singaporean public spaces from January to May 2020, I situate these older Singaporeans’ enrollment in leisure activities within larger life projects of meaning-making and identity-work in old age (Mathews 1996), and uncover the individual and social life narratives that influence their leisure participation. Through this approach, we can understand how the participants construct communal narratives about the past, present and future, as interpreted through individual and social life experiences and attitudes towards leisure participation.

Food, Memories and Narratives of Well-Being: A Case Study of Milk Consumption among Seniors in Hong Kong
One recent phenomenon in contemporary discussions of eating is 'functional foods', i.e. foods marketed as promoting health or reducing the risk of disease. However, this modern concept of food as a kind of preventive medicine is ancient in China. This paper analyses senior Hong Kong Chinese consumers’ understandings of cow’s milk, which is promoted as a kind of health product in Hong Kong and China, by examining the ways in which older health-oriented consumers remember and make use of milk as a functional food for enhancing well-being in the context of Chinese culture. This paper is based on data collected through semi-structured interviews held with ten senior milk consumers and participant-observation at milk selling locations. Their narratives indicate that the older consumers interpret functional foods, healthy bodies and well-being from a variety of of bodily perspectives. These perspectives include: (1) focusing on how milk becomes a mnemonic device in the remaking imaginaries and social class; (2) the different roles healthy food, functional food and ways of 'yangsheng' play in enhancing well-being; (3) the dilemma of eating for health or for pleasure; and finally (4) milk knowledge as cultural capital in building social status and personal life projects. These perspectives illustrate the ways that interpretations of milk products as functional foods are entangled especially with individual trajectories, collective memories and self-identity, in conjunction with the mediation of pharmaceutical companies.

Loss, Memory, Cultural Commons: The (In)effectiveness of War Songs in the Community Music for Older Japanese and Their Families
The Basic Act on Culture and the Arts was established in Japan in 2018, and included a proposal to promote arts for and by older communities. However, arts programs for older Japanese have proved difficult to establish, due to a lack of planning and documentation. This paper explores how a ‘cultural commons’ (Chikisouzo 2014) can be created for older Japanese to share their memories with family, friends, and neighbors. Particularly, I examine the effectiveness of ‘war songs’ in creating a ‘cultural commons’ for older Japanese who experienced World War II, keeping in mind that most Japanese regret the cultural programming then used as propaganda. Based on participant-observation and interview data collected at two music sessions (called ‘music cafés’) I presented at an adult day care center in Nishinomiya City in September 2019 and May 2020, I detail: (1) the needs of the beneficiaries and residents in Nishinomiya City, (2) the ‘beliefs’ stakeholders (musicians, managers, and family members) must have, and (3) the kind of music most effective for preparing for the loss of family and friends. Using Nakamura’s (2016) intersectional community music approach of ‘Context, Contents, Memory Box’ and Low’s (2018) person-centered approach to analyze participants’ life stories and the effectiveness of the music, I argue that although ‘war songs’ are typically shunned in public spaces, these songs are an important part of the memories of older Japanese, and can potentially create a ‘cultural commons’ for the intra- and inter-generational sharing of life stories

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 04 - Room 2

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