Illusions of Memory
A lost pioneer's snapshots of a buried Singapore
By Ng Yi-Sheng
The Wayang at Eight Milestone
Alfian Sa'at got it right, as he so often does. We Singaporeans have a history of amnesia. Our society has been transformed so profoundly since independence — in architecture, in language, in wealth, in ethnic composition — that it is next to impossible for most of us to understand what it felt like to live on this island in the past.
My generation feels this especially when we try to imagine the years of our nation's birth: the 1950s, the '60s, the '70s. We are aware, objectively, that it was a vital period of our history, an age of great hope and great poverty, the best of times and the worst of times. But so much of what we hear seems like rose-tinted nostalgia or calculated propaganda — the nation-building poems of Edwin Thumboo and Robert Yeo, the disputed Channel NewsAsia documentary Days of Rage, the films of P. Ramlee, the cabaret musical comedy Beauty World, the interior design of Food Republic food courts, MediaCorp's period drama serials, the video footage of Lee Kuan Yew weeping that they play at every single National Day Parade. Perhaps the past has been rendered a simulacrum so many times that we cannot quite believe it: we never feel truly there.
But then there are the writings of Gregory Nalpon (1938 – 78). And perhaps it is just me, but his collected works in The Wayang at Eight Milestone seem to work as a veritable time machine, winding us readers back to the gritty world of old Singapore and immersing us in its saudade, its beautiful spirit of melancholy.
Last year, National Institute of Education lecturer Angus Whitehead contributed an essay to the January 2013 issue of QLRS titled 'Whatever Happened to Gregory Nalpon?', describing his quest to revive this forgotten author. Intrigued by a tale of Nalpon's included in the Heinemann Asia anthology Singapore Short Stories, Whitehead committed himself to a quest to track down his writings, thumbing through back issues of The Straits Times and Her World, eventually making contact with his children, Jacinta and Zero. He received a gift of unpublished manuscripts, hidden away in boxes after Nalpon's death, and set them forth in the collection I hold in my hands today.
And what delicious stories these are in here. They are dramas of Singapore's underclasses: of dock-workers and fishermen, cripples and widows and good-for-nothings. They are dark and full of shadows, and yet illuminated by unexpected beauty. Running through all this is a vein of magic, both horrific and transcendent. One encounters vicious black dog spirits in mango trees, or else discovers God in a square parcel wrapped in brown paper — a phenomenon Whitehead calls a 'Singaporean Gothic', but which I also find resonates with the magical realism of the Latin American Boom.
'The Rose and the Silver Key' is a story that encapsulates these themes magnificently. Notwithstanding its fairytale title, it plays out by a rubbish heap at Dhoby Ghaut, where a Pakistani sarabat stall owner named Hamid faces down a brazen sex worker named Fatimah. Central to their conflict is a red rose growing on the trash heap, which perhaps has the ability to bring the dead back to life.
But it is hardly the premise of the tale that makes it work so well. Rather, it is the lush, hypnotic quality of Nalpon's narration that I find so enchanting:
Whitehead notes in his introduction that this story was in fact taught to many Singaporean students as an O-level text, and yet they have little recollection of it. And perhaps it is the accumulation of Nalpon's stories that makes this volume so wonderful. Again and again, we encounter the divine and the profane in breathtaking ways, in tales like 'A Soul for Anna Lim', 'The Spirit of the Moon', 'The Mango Tree', 'A Box Labelled God'. Other pieces are less mythic, but more heartwarming: 'The Courtship of Donatello Varga' or 'Radin'.
Nor is the book wholly made up of stories. Other pieces feel like the mere beginnings of stories. There are also essays: a descriptive passage of life on Singapore's outer islands, a journalistic summary of the misfortunes that befell a one-eyed mother after the Bukit Ho Swee fire, a retelling of the tragic Malaysian legend of Mahsuri, a memoir of catching a pangolin with his bare hands on Borneo. Whitehead has jumbled these pieces up, regardless of genre, because together they paint a picture of a vanished Singapore, as well as of a way of thinking virtually obliterated from our collective psyche.
My favourite essay would probably be 'Gentlemen of Leisure', which unironically praises the men who hang around in coffeeshops doing almost nothing at all. Nalpon describes only a specific breed of youngish, healthy men who find themselves too intelligent to have the patience for menial work, and too strong-willed to cave in to societal expectations of upward mobility.
It is a delightful slap in the face of our Confucian-Protestant work ethic. It disregards race and class in a way that many of our early English language authors do not. Catherine Lim's 1978 short story collection Little Ironies describes the travails of the poor with somewhat more distance. Nalpon's treatment is more intimate, more in solidarity with this community, more cognizant of their dignity, perhaps more loving. It is this, in my opinion, that makes him a pioneer Singaporean storyteller like no other.
But perhaps one major reason why this book works so well for me is because of the mystique of its deceased author. Whitehead notes in his introduction that Nalpon passed away one year before Lee Kuan Yew's Speak Mandarin campaign of 1979, an event that was to devastate Chinese dialect culture, as well as setting the scene for a more Sinocentric society on this Southeast Asian island. Nalpon escaped these influences, not living long enough to react to them with bitterness, nor to recant or canonise these early works. His exhumed stories thus feel purer, less polluted than those of his contemporaries who survived him.
This is love at last sight — and perhaps this is why I am so willing to forgive the fact that there are a number of texts here that do not work very well, such as his melodramatic tale 'The Appointment'; or his essay 'My Say', a confession of what happened when he decided to christen his son 'Zero'. Rather, I value these scraps as evidence of the once living hand behind this collection — mortal, flawed, too embarrassed by his sense of imperfection to share his tales.
Singapore may be a nation of amnesiacs, but we are restless amnesiacs. This, I think, is why we have lately been excavating so many forgotten literary works: the radio plays and short stories of S. Rajaratnam, the pre-colonial texts of Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology, the translations of Cultural Medallion Award winners' writings into English. We do not remember yesterday, but we want to remember, so that we may know who we truly are.
Nalpon's The Wayang at Eight Milestone was able to fool me, for a few hours, into believing I remembered. And for that little miracle, I am truly grateful.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014