Present and past intersect in haunting counterpoint in Yeo Wei Wei's debut story collection
By Philip Holden
These Foolish Things
There's something particularly Singaporean about short stories. Short fiction was the most important genre at key moments in the development of literature in all four official languages, as it was throughout Southeast Asia. The short story isn't just apprentice work for the novel, or a genre for readers with short attention spans or small snippets of reading time in busy lives. Rather, it's a flexible genre, moving easily between languages and across publication platforms. It's also a public genre that many Singaporeans have experience of writing, as all those story competitions organised by government agencies and ministries in the last century show. In the last few years, as short fiction has returned to prominence worldwide, there has been a parallel growth of short story publication in Singapore, with a host of new collections from Ethos, Math Paper Press, and Epigram.
Yeo Wei Wei's debut collection These Foolish Things (Ethos) is very much part of this movement, and yet it is also significantly different from its contemporaries and predecessors. Some of the best short story collections in Singapore, both recent and past, have been published by young, emergent writers: Philip Jeyaretnam's First Loves, Claire Tham's Fascist Rock, Alfian Sa'at's Corridor, and Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry of Moral Panic. Yeo might plausibly qualify as an emergent short story writer, but she comes to writing after a career in the university, schools, and in the arts, and her stories thus have a greater historical depth and self-reflexive interiority than those in most debut collections. Many of the stories in These Foolish Things begin in the present, but they are infused with the traces of proximate, personal pasts: of 1970s and 1980s childhoods, and then the expanding space of 1990s Singapore. Memories of Ellenborough Market jostle up against Sesame Street. Families make visits to Tokyo Disneyland. Chinese Singaporeans renew contact with relatives from China after the Cultural Revolution, and let them slip again. Middle-class children read literature in English, and develop fantasy worlds of Englishness that are damaged but not quite shattered by the experience of overseas study in Cambridge or London.
Readers of These Foolish Things are immersed in such memories. The songs of Teresa Teng mix with lyrics from the Carpenters and, as the title of the collection suggests, Eric Maschwitz's "These Foolish Things" through its seemingly infinite number of cover versions from Billie Holiday's to Rod Stewart's. Unlike the present, this is a world of production, rather than consumption: there's a tangibility in descriptions of making tang yuan, or the moulding of clay on a potter's wheel.
Yet these stories are not about the 1990s or before: they are set in a contemporary world, whether in or outside Singapore. Characters in this present are nomads expelled from foreclosed dwellings in the past. They are no longer young, and are scarred and broken, often through the failures of past romantic relationships or the fracturing of familial ties. The familiarity of the past returns to the present through memories, through spectral hauntings, and through metafictional devices woven into complexly layered plots. A woman approaching marriage, missing her honeymoon because of a work assignment, is drawn by a coincidence into an extended memory of her lover during her student days in England. Another woman finds herself, in transit in airports, continually stalked by the spectral figure of a man she met in Prague twenty years before. A young man, enchanted by a woman he meets through a dating app, comes to realise that he is a character in a story of which she is the author.
The collection, like any first collection, is not without flaws. The best stories, for this reader at least, come first. "These Foolish Things" describes the haunting of a newlywed couple by the ghost of the husband's former wife, drowned in Thailand in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. "Branch", rather like an embroidering of Ian McEwan's Atonement on a miniature scale, focuses on a moment of childhood vindictiveness that has lasting consequences and yet ends in an affirmation of familial love. "The Art of Being Naked", featuring a Georgette Chen figure, centres on the experience of a museum curator called to examine newly discovered paintings by the famous artist, who finds a forgotten yet intimate personal past reproduced in the artwork itself. In contrast, some of the last stories have the underlying structure and feel of drafts. In "Beauty Is in the Eye", indeed, a character confesses to her date that she is using him as raw material to "finish a collection of short stories. I have nine stories and I need one more." Here, the metafictional knife perhaps cuts too close to the bone of expedience.
The strengths of the best stories in These Foolish Things are best illustrated in a close reading of a single story. "Here Comes the Sun", like the title story of the collection, draws its title from a song – here from the George Harrison number in the Beatles' Abbey Road album. Its opening is, as with many of Yeo's stories, unsettling. Mdm Goh Lai Peng stands on a bridge, watching a mynah sing, incongruously, the words of the song. The language and the setting somehow hint that the structure is something more than a physical bridge: we have a mynah, not magpies, but there's still something curiously mythical or figurative about this opening scene. The narrative then becomes recursive: we see Mdm Goh in a residential home, feeding animals and birds that visit her. Then the plot pulls us further back, to the fall that ended Mdm Goh's independent life in her HDB flat, and then further, to her relocation from kampung to HDB as part of Singapore's post-independence development. What's interesting in these memories that are woven into the present is their focus on animals that inhabit, albeit uncomfortably, the fabric of everyday life. Mdm Goh's mother, we learn, brought chickens from the kampung into her HDB flat, and raised them there: as a child, she kept white rabbits in the same flat. Her aged dog's barking attracts the attention of neighbours after her fall, and she quietly feeds him an overdose of Panadol to prevent his being taken away by the SPCA.
As the story progresses, birds and animals begin to take on associations with transitions between life and death. Part of this effect is achieved through Mdm Goh's consciousness – in her memory, as a schoolgirl, of conducting a mock funeral for a dead sparrow, or in her speculations on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. The convergence, however, also operates at the level of metaphor. In the seventh month of the lunar calendar, ashes fly in the air like "the shed skins of crows". As the narrative reaches its conclusion, Mdm Goh returns to her bridge again, and we now recognise it as a place of transition between life and death, her crossing paralleled by that of animals. There's no Dantean forest here, only the remnants of a forgotten plantation: rubber trees have been cut down to prepare for the new wing of the home, but their ghosts still rustle. The tag from Mdm Goh's dog, which she carries, slips to the floor, to be buried under the concrete floor of the new extension. The story ends quietly, its conclusion pulling readers back to its beginning. The parallels between different narratives remain softly focused, never quite resolving into anything as precise as allegory; the material present is haunted by a past that hints at, but never quite achieves, transcendence.
In These Foolish Things, the modern past of Singaporeans – whether inside or outside Singapore – persists as a trace in the present, at times consciously and comfortably inhabited, more often seen out of the corner of an eye. A ghost travels folded in a yellow umbrella: blue bunga telang flowers, now unused for cooking, run wild. The best stories operate as a kind of stereoscope, with two congruent scenes placed in conjunction, giving a new sense of depth. The stories are allusive, but they are not burdened by a conscious attempt to signify. The past in Singapore in the last ten years has become a contested country that we seek to map out, to know things that have been forgotten, often wilfully. Yeo's collection reminds us that the pain of forgetting, or at least the partiality of memory, is as central to identities, whether personal or public, than total recall.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015