You know there's nothing quite like the stranglehold of the unilinear narrative when it takes thirty-odd years before anyone publishes a photo of our country's founding father looking furtive.
Skyscrapers are usually stronger than history and horizons. The last time I saw a proper horizon here was at Lim Chu Kang cemetery during Qing Ming.
When anything is designated as an Enhancement Project start worrying. Or in other words, whenever people see photos of places here that haven't been touched yet, they say it looks like another country.
You don't understand.
In the end, a thing is a thing.
Shakespeare is alive, but canons are coffins.
I can't write straight shit. The impulse to order is too strong.
Doyens are patriarchs. National Living Treasures are half museums. Do you like museums? I enjoy some good ones. Sometimes the dead are alive. But many people find museums dead. Even deadly. Common wisdom is hardly ever absolute, but often wise. An aspect of the true.
Writing for me is so hard a way to escape the linearity. Even poetry can hardly flee the desire for the reader's connection.
It should be about images not thoughts but i'm unable. It should be tactile, rhythmic, sensual, smelly but i'm not sure how. It should be metaphors and symbols. It should be fun. It should be a ride.
Too many rites, too little ritual.
Sometimes i use "the", sometimes i use "a". Sometimes neither is better.
Sometimes inverted commas are too clear.
Trapped by the rhythm of some time.
Intellectual claptrap. Digging my own grave. But actually my heart is no different from my head. Both are bulbous with the life of the dead.
There is a third organ invisible.
This is on paper but i'm thinking of it on internet. email is anonymous fleeting the power is enormous fleeting.
If undiscovered can i still be a genius?
If undiscovered can still genius?
wind blows down my temple
my faith goes like weather
a new construction begins
the mosquitoes start to breed
One thousand years in waiting (Reading Abbey, UK)
There are still people waiting (Arab St, Singapore)
"Why would you die for this country?"
I asked Sang Nila Utama the question and he told me to knock it down until I found my answer. So I stared down at the forest floor, looking for an answer in the waxy green blades of grass, and the shiny black bodies of tree ants. I felt the coolness of the ground, and each grain of sand and stone, hard and naked, press up against my palms with each push up.
What a lampa-palan question to ask. And according to 2SG Sang Nila, the answer lay in my punishment, knocking it down in between the rubber trees.
Around me, the rest of my Platoon 4 lay on their backs, dead. Someone in my platoon had killed everyone with the lazy throw of a pebble.
Platoon 4 was dead, dead in the same way as when you get shot by blanks, or knifed by the rushing air, caused by the thrust of the bayonet. Platoon 4 was doing its National Service, simulating an attack through the rubber plantation. Platoon 4 was dead because someone thought the stone in his hand was not a grenade, and threw the stone as he would throw a stone -- indifferently.
The stone had arced through the air and landed next to 2SG Sang Nila Utama.
Sang Nila Utama came from Palembang, yet we were eloquently reprimanded in Hokkien. And since Platoon 4 was dead, he made us all lie down on the forest floor, and stare at the sky, crossed by the branches of rubber trees.
"Now, can anyone tell me what you all just died for?" 2SG Sang Nila asked.
"Sergeant, zhao lor si peh sia suay."
Sang Nila thought for a while before he spoke. "Good answers." He paused. "Good enough for Pioneer magazine."
Which meant they were the wrong answers for us.
What was the point of this exercise in the simulation of death? What was the point when the simulation of death served the simulation of a war to be fought by a country, in itself, simulated and artificial?
So I asked.
"Sergeant, why would you die for this country?"
I asked Sang Nila Utama the question and he told me to knock it down until I had an answer. But I did not find it on the forest floor. All I saw in my field of vision were my two hands, splayed across ground, slowly turning white, drops of sweat feeding the ground. The answer was not in the blades of grass, or the black, bottled bodies of tree ants scurrying among the dried leaves.
Then 2SG Sang Nila ordered me to get up and show him my hands. I stood before him, in the midst of grey trees and slain bodies.
Silently, Sang Nila Utama reached out and held my hands. Slowly, he turned them until my palms faced the sky.
I stared but did not recognize them. Tiny dimples, caused by the individual grains of stone and sand covered the surface of my palms. I had been marked by the land. He looked at the depressions of skin, and then at me.
Winter light (Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, UK)
Mercy through a window (Arab St area, Singapore)
He thinks his body was born afraid
his empty soap-bubble head
would burst so it gorged itself with voices.
Girls', silver-thin and mocking as
fading chips of moonlight in Madrid,
pouring into the hole they cut afterward
in his skull. His father's, clanging
in the black bell of his mother's mourning
that plated the absence of the word
insane that now fills his head
along with words he would never say.
Words like yo el Rey.
* Don Carlos (1545-1568) was the eldest son of the sixteenth-century Spanish king Philip II. Due to excessive inbreeding, he was born with a huge, pumpkin-like head on a frail body
Two points at sunrise (Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, UK)
Welcome Service from 9.00AM-9.00PM, Absolutely in 1999 (Arab St, Singapore)
It all started with pity. When she was just a teenager she thought about how many lonely people there were in the world, and how much they needed to be loved. And not love from a distance, love of telepathic caresses and bouquets of prayers, but love as presence. Mercy is when you use your own body to shade those of others', casting your shadow over them. Sometimes she thought she went further than that -- she allowed them to find shade in her body, even consented to them depositing their shadows in her.
She started with those she thought were the easiest ones: the blind. She had a strict policy not to insult them by always dressing nicely for appointments, applying eye shadow down to the use of the tiniest brush, combing her hair and spraying it with various aerosols (if they couldn't see the effort put into her appearance, they would at least smell it). She wore tight clothes whose buttons, when unfastened, would release the palpable sumptuousness of flesh as she inhaled, exhaled.
She also bought a thesaurus. She used a variety of words to describe her body to them, often ending her sentences with harsh monosyllables. Tactfully, she avoided using colours in her descriptions.
They were gentle with her. And she always felt her body transforming under their caresses; it was now mapped differently -- her moles erased, birthmarks like wine patches disappearing under miracle stain removers. She knew to them her skin was a uniform sheath, smooth, interrupted only by various checkpoints: the powdery roughness of her elbows, sometimes the sweaty stickiness at her throat, the wetness of her pubes like the slick fur of an otter.
She had to admit to a secret preference for the blind. It was the way she was touched by them, as if all her contours were roads that needed to be carefully traced by all manner of night-time travellers: fingers, palms, tongues, and the surprise that came unerringly when there was a bend in the road (from her neck to shoulder, the crook of her knee), or a pothole (her lips, parting slightly). And when it was time for the climax, she felt her whole body hardening, becoming more solid, as they grabbed her tight, almost as if she were a raft, or the edge of a cliff. Never before had she experienced someone else's orgasm like that: as pure vertigo, with her body as the only spider-thread which connected the black vacuum of their world with one infinitely more real.
Of course she moved on to other customers, other handicaps. For the paraplegics she learnt how to manoeuvre her body such that immobility never became a hindrance. She trained herself to be hyper-flexible, practised yoga, and figured out how a disciplined control of her breathing transferred the element of air, almost, to her bones. Sometimes as she performed one of her unbelievable contortions, she imagined that she was channelling air through the marrow of her skeleton, and making music, like breath through a network of flutes.
Once, though, she encountered someone who claimed, in a strange tone that combined vulnerability and arrogance, that he had 'osteogenesis imperfecta'. She knew immediately that he had bones like chalk, that would break under the slightest exertions. And so she only worked on two parts of his body, both boneless: his stiff member, his leathery tongue. By this act she effectively re-wrote evolution: all their other body parts were redundant, joining other vestigial organs like tail-bones and foetal gills.
Her list went on: hunchbacks, the clubfooted, the amputees, the burn victims, the ones with crooked spines or webbed necks, those with cleft lips and glass eyes. Whatever deficiency they felt they possessed, she always kept a spare part in her catalogue. She was an acrobat to the paralysed, a prosthetic to the incomplete, and for the asymmetrical ones, her masterful double-jointed embraces felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Her fame spread wide. She was always in demand, this woman who was solid to the blind, whose caresses were like water, who had air moving through her bones. And she was fulfilled by the work she was doing; even though she was a commodity in a transaction, the gratitude she received was palpable.
It was only when this gratitude extended into yearning that she felt a terrible burden on her shoulders. As she cradled a man one day, patting his thigh, carefully tucking in all the vulnerabilities she had pulled out like coloured streamers in the anarchy of ecstasy, she caught the deep meaning in his eyes and shivered. An appeal was etched in those irises: "I want you to be my wife. I want you to carry my children. I want you to give birth to perfect children in a perfect world where the likes of you would never need to exist."
The headstone is leaning to the right (Heptonstall Church, Yorkshire, UK)
The empty school is open (Chong Pun Girls’ School, Singapore)
Grappling with the Transnational Post-Colonial Fashion Statement
I like to think of myself as your average run-of-the-mill transnational post-colonial female subject. I listen to the BBC news, buy European clothes and shoes on sale, eat the uniquely American invention of meatless chicken patties, argue with my grandmother in her southern-Chinese dialect, and never seem out of place in most places with my almost accentless English. I read French post-structuralist theory, take courses in classical Chinese poetry, am a closet fan of Johnny Hartman, attend Roman Catholic mass religiously and still muse whimsically about the dumplings in my hometown. In fact, you might say, I had become dangerously complacent in my transnational self, slipping effortlessly into any language or accent of my choice, neglecting any subject placement.
Unfortunately, I was jolted out of my cosmopolitan reverie just recently. Walking into a vintage clothing shop in a beach resort town in Northern New England, I went through the usual retrograde chic of picking through racks of American housewives' discards from the seventies. It was then, as I was about to pay for my carefully considered purchase of a white sundress circa 1975, cheerfully painted with multi-hued tulips, when I saw it in the window.
At first I thought it was a cheongsam a la Suzie Wong, which might have made a whimsical ironic anti-Orientalist statement. But not this garment. It wasn't even Chinese, although it might have fooled anyone not brought up in Southeast Asia. It was cut like a cheongsam, yet looser, in a lighter material and it came with voluminous black pants. All in a thin silk with a delicate weave, unbearably soft to the skin, the pattern at turns embroidered and woven into the actual material. The clasps were numerous minute faux pearls trimmed with fine gold spirals, highlighting the usual asymmetrical drape of the collar-line.
"It was a wedding outfit," remarked the salesgirl helpfully.
"Well then, it definitely isn't Chinese, since only red is ever worn at festive occasions," I clarified hopelessly. "It probably comes from someplace like Vietnam or nearby anyway." Not that she would really understand.
Of course, it fitted effortlessly, leading to my inevitable dilemma. It was obviously a well-made outfit, and a steal at 65 dollars for all the craftsmanship that must have gone into it. It was even obvious to my untrained eye. (There was also something virtuous in buying used clothing, something to do with recycling and not contributing to child labor in the third world). With that in mind, and my reflection in the mirror before me, I swallowed my flippancy and said,
"Where else and when else am I going to find something like this? I'll take it."
When and where else indeed. On the bumpy, disabled-friendly bus-ride home to my charming fin-de-siècle albeit slightly run-down New England apartments, reading the post-colonial, transnational tract "Writing South-East Asia" by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, I became aware of a growing dislocation and indeed, alienation from my impulsive purchase. One burning question began twisting itself in my mind, where and when would I wear it?
I began a mental checklist in my head, and was dismayed to find that there was almost nowhere where this outfit would not be stared at in a decidedly unfashionable light. Not in the southern New England ivy-league campus that I called my own, not in my seemingly suitable native tropical climate and certainly not in the coastal Chinese city where I had decided to spend a month of my summer holidays.
A set of perplexing ironies started to become apparent to me. Firstly, that this piece of clothing had nothing to do with my aforementioned cultural heritage, it had never been worn by my mother's mother or her mother before her. Yet, if I were to venture out in it in any Western country, I would face the ineluctable and cliched fetishization of the Asian woman subject. Some might even erroneously conclude that I was Indo-Chinese, when I belong to an entirely different sub-group born and raised in the Straits of Malaya. In an Asian country, I would either be viewed as backward (with exceedingly bad taste) or simply misguided, propagating some myth of the Asian woman as a subdued and submissive mannequin.
However, if I was anything but indefinably yet distinctly Sino-Asian, if I was white, black, brown, or any of the various misnomers we choose to give an increasingly mixed world populace, it would be completely different. I would be either charitably teased or looked on with a sort of partisan humor. I might even be complimented on recognizing the quality of the exotic garment that I had chosen to purchase and put on. In a Western country, I would be undeniably fashionable, a little naughty orientalist perhaps, but nothing appalling. In an Asian country, I would either be laughed behind my back in the friendliest sort of way, or just dismissed as another thoughtless foreigner. Yet I am none of these things, and I still couldn't think of the occasion and place to wear my beautiful acquisition.
Why was it that I couldn't put on a garment that might be somehow, no matter how distantly, related to my indigenous culture? In this age where we strive towards tolerance and pluralism, why have I been relegated to the universal uniform of corduroy and cotton? How has a piece of culturally specific clothing become such a dangerous signifier when it is worn by someone vaguely, if somewhat tenuously, geographically related to its culture? It is as if we are insisting that we must put away some dangerous plaything of the colonial memory, an authentic piece of clothing representing the cultural heritage during a period of time where Western clothing was associated with power, fashion and modernity. Now, Western clothing is still associated with these things, and above all else, a kind of insidious hegemonic conformity.
And yet, it was just a suit of beautifully and lovingly made clothes, that I bought at a bargain, no more, no less.
The Western fashion industry borrows constantly from what they call "the Eastern influence", in certain unmistakable styles, fabric prints and sensibilities. From the lowbrow appropriation of kanji characters on cheap tee-shirts to the "Japanese-influenced" prints of the latest Les Garçons collection. And as any self-respecting neo-hippie can tell you, it's the Indian ethnic print skirt that ties the look together. But, when faced with the authenticity and historicity of a garment like the one I purchased, and placed on a Sino-Asian body, there is an inexplicable double take, a look and a quickly averted gaze. It is as if there is some fear of accusation that what is beautiful will be recognized. That it shouldn't be treated as something else than an oddity. It is the combination of culture, place and timing that renders the situation so uncomfortable.
There has been some revival of traditional clothing in Asia among the young. But at best, "traditional costumes" as they are called, are only seen at specific festivals and celebrations. Never to be thought of as practical, let only beautiful. At worst, they are equated with a kind of cultural nationalism, hinting at xenophobia and an improper sense of pride for one's culture.
It is the double standard of this fear that puzzles me the most. Why is it considered elegant, in some quaint fashion, for a non-Asian person to wear something similar? Furthermore, most of my peers will never have this dilemma and never be confronted with these inconsistencies. It could be that I've taken one too many a theory class, and I have began internalizing their discourse, transplanting their conclusions on my frivolous concerns. It could be that I'm just shy or have atrocious fashion sense. Still, whether you are Sino-Asian or non-Sino-Asian or any of the various degrees in between, tell me whether or not you're uneasy when you see a Chinese girl wearing a traditional costume outside of some festival or funfair or period drama. Tell me whether or not some unavoidable stereotypes don't come up. And I'll tell you that if you answered no to these two questions, you're a one in a million (or billion if you look at some of the recent population statistics).
Meanwhile I still haven't come up with an appropriate place and time for my latest style triumph. I suppose I'll continue to boil my Chinese herbs, listen to my Velvet Underground and bicker in French with my boyfriend.
Do we have to work in heaven?
"You can't pick up the bartender by buying her a drink."
untitled © 2002 mynameisalive
Sang Nila Utama Does NS © 2002 Justin Ker
Don Carlos, photos © 2002 Teng Qian Xi
The Liaisons of Disabled-Friendly Girl © 2002 Alfian Bin Sa'at
I Am Not What I Wear © 2002 Joanne Leow