Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Singaporean Diaspora?

Impressive first collection of stories about leaving Singapore

Lions in Winter
Wena Poon
(MPH Group Publishing, 2007)

AMONG THE STEREOTYPES surrounding Singaporeans who leave the country, two are prevalent: someone who leaves the country is either an overachiever seeking greener pastures abroad, or a wastrel running away from responsibilities back home. In this respect, Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter, a collection of 11 short stories which largely portray the lives of Singaporeans living abroad, is important for the challenges it poses to such stereotypes. Here, a comparison can be drawn between Poon’s Lions in Winter and Simon Tay’s Stand Alone. While Tay’s collection is about the coming of age of Singapore as a nation, Poon’s collection, published 16 years after Stand Alone, tells the tale of the coming of age of a shifting, fluid and disparate group of people whom could be termed a ‘Singaporean diaspora.’

Poon’s stories are populated with characters living in cities in Canada, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Even as they negotiate the unfamiliar terrain of their respective host cultures, Singapore continues to loom large in their minds. A love-hate relationship between Singapore and the individual characters is a constant motif. The following question posed in Lions in Winter sums up this conflicted relationship: “Why do we constantly turn our prows to distant shores? When do we know when to leave, and when to return? Could we really, really bear to leave those we knew behind, even if we no longer loved them? … Too hot, too cold. One had to find a world that was just right …”

The volume’s title holds a figurative resonance: on the one hand, the tropical climate of Singapore, popularly known as the ‘Lion City,’ is felt by the characters peopling the stories to be uncomfortably warm; on the other hand, to live anywhere else, for example, in cooler climes, is to inhabit a foreign environment.

Poon’s stories are rich with ambivalence, which lends a thematic complexity to her writing. A personal favourite, ‘The Man Who Was Afraid of ATMs,’ explores the theme of xenophobia. Chang is a retiree living with his son’s family in Ontario. As a Chinese-educated former teacher, he has many difficulties adjusting to his host culture. When Chang is confused by the instructions on an ATM screen, a man behind him in the queue utters, “God, don’t you love these people?” in exasperation. Yet the story does not allow us to sympathise with Chang. Readers are told that back in Singapore, he was as critical of foreigners as the man standing behind him: “He used to say ‘these people’ when he was in Singapore. He used the phrase to refer to the Indian immigrant workers who lined the streets of Little India on weekends; the Filipino maids crowding the front of a shopping mall in Orchard Road. ‘These people are really too much,’ he used to say, whenever he drove past them. ‘So noisy.’ And now, someone was referring to him in that tone.”

The irony here would not be lost on the reader.

In many ways, Lions in Winter is a letter to Singapore from abroad, which also takes on the country’s emerging social issues. ‘Addiction’ recounts the story of Alistair, a homosexual male in London whose life is at odds with the familial and social expectations of upper-middle-class Singapore. As his cousin tells him: “You guys are the new generation that have to bear the burden so that more people like you can be accepted back home for who they are. You’re paving the way for future kids.”

These stories also demonstrate the generation gap between Singaporeans in their thirties who are based overseas, and an older generation of Singaporeans who have remained. In “Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not,” Joanne, who has migrated with her family to Australia, muses upon what she perceives to be the provincialism of everyday life in Singapore: “She looked over the inky-blueness of Singapore in the twilight. Thousands of orange-white dots blinked in the endless kingdoms of HDB flats that stretched as far as the eye could see. Tiny people leading tidy little capsuled lives.”

In contrast, for Madam Teo, who has lived through World War II, the contemporary Singaporean ‘heartland’ is a haven compared to what she has experienced: “They were just relocating from one housing estate to another. They were getting a new flat. How could this be sadness? Sadness was war, was famine. Sadness was seeing your father-in-law in China lose all his rice fields when the Communists took over. Sadness was watching your father crawl home after being bayoneted by Japanese troops in 1942. Sadness was watching your pregnant mother contract malarial fever in occupied Singapore, not having any drugs to allay her fever …. Sadness was finding her drowned pregnant form by moonlight, and knowing that you had to be the one to run home to wake your father and tell him the news.”

Between the Madam Teos and Joannes of Singapore, between those who choose to leave and those who stay, there is a gap to be traversed.

In terms of technique, discreetness is Poon’s strength. She does not draw undue attention to her language; rather, the stories are mainly character-driven, and words are used with skill and economy. A good example is ‘Dog Hotpot,’ which manages to humorously convey through a series of dialogues the underlying anxiety of Chinese Singaporeans living abroad over being trapped within media stereotypes of Chinese people.

There are two moments in Lions in Winter I wish to highlight: first, when the story’s narrator Freddie uses the word ‘patois’ instead of ‘Singlish’ to describe everyday informal speech in Singapore; and second, when he refers to women in Singapore who “did not complete high school.” The choice of the word ‘patois’ indicates a glossing-over of the term ‘Singlish,’ implying that Freddie’s words are aimed at a non-Singaporean audience, while ‘high school’ bears relevance more to North American and Australian contexts rather than to the Singaporean. One may speculate whether these moments are illustrative of Freddie’s alienation from Singapore, or whether these were genuine slips on the author’s part. Poon’s stories would be much more poignant if the latter were the case, for this would demonstrate that her struggle as a writer is a function of the tensions which pervade her stories, in that she is negotiating multiple readerships much in the same way that many of her characters are negotiating multiple cultures.

Lions in Winter is an impressive first collection with much to offer its readers, sitting comfortably within an emerging constellation of works such as Fiona Cheong’s Shadow Theatre and Hwee Hwee Tan’s Mammon Inc., which explore the predicaments of individuals whose identities and allegiances are dispersed among various transnational locations.

Reproduced from Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Vol. 7 No. 2 April 2008

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful review! I enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

Thursday, May 15, 2008 6:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, read and thoroughly enjoyed Lions in Winter so I concur with the positive review here. Wena deserves to be nominated. My favourite story is the abused wife stuck in the deserts of America. Zarina

Monday, May 19, 2008 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks, Zarina. I believe Wena would be happy to know that you enjoyed reading her collection of stories.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 6:12:00 AM  

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