Home An Evolution
By Zhang Ruihe
All Singaporean poets write airplane poems. Taxiing, taking off, landing air travel as metaphor has a way of drawing out the lyrical in the Singaporean soul. Boey Kim Cheng, Alvin Pang, Toh Hsien Min, Cyril Wong, Yong Shu Hoong They've all written airplane poems. Good ones, too. I said this once to a poet friend, and years later, after he had moved from Singapore to New York City and obtained his green card, he wrote a poem about airplane poems, and dedicated it to me. Now the cadences of his words sing and echo in the words set down here.
Perhaps our obsession with air travel is only to be expected. We are a nation of immigrants the blood that flows in our veins has its sources elsewhere, in China, India, Saudi Arabia, England, Portugal, Armenia Our very existence as a city is predicated on movement, transit and exchange: established as a trading port by the East India Company in 1819, Singapore has long served as a gateway between East and West, a little red dot on the map, situated at the tip of the Malay Peninsula enroute between China and India. The British clearly knew a good thing when they saw it: they laid claim to this island, taking possession of it by some clever sleight-of-hand and leaving the poor Malay Sultan who originally owned it thinking he had gotten himself a good bargain. The rest, as they say, is history. Whatever that means.
Maybe our origins explain our restlessness, the way people book their annual leave months in advance to attend the annual NATAS travel fair where they can get cheap deals on tour packages to anywhere-but-here. One of the things we are best known for is our airport voted the World's Best Airport by a hundred travel magazines a hundred years in a row, Changi Airport is a veritable city within a city, boasting all manner of entertainments and luxuries designed to make your travel experience as seamless, and as unreal, as possible. Singapore may possibly be the only country in the world where locals treat the airport like a neighbourhood shopping mall the tax-free shopping means that, on weekends, Changi is flooded with Singaporeans doing their groceries at NTUC, eating out with friends and family at the 24-hour food courts. We love our airport. Even in stasis, movement is never far from our minds.
Singaporean that I am, I've been tripping the light fantastic across airports from Taipei to San Francisco, and now I'm here, in the heart of hipster-land, on a summer writing programme at the University of California, Berkeley. I did not come here to think about my country. Far from it. Being in a foreign place can be an all-consuming experience even in the most quotidian of ways adjusting to a different accent, figuring out the currency, learning to look left instead of right when crossing the road and I came here to be consumed, to let strangeness jolt me to wakefulness. I want to see if writing can be a home for me, away from the parochial demands and crowded insistences of a city-state so small a commercial jet can fly over the entire length of it in just over three minutes. I want to see if I can make a home in the anywhere-but-here, or at least cobble together some makeshift abode in a place where not feeling at home will not cannot disappoint.
But sometimes the things we most wish to avoid are also the things we most need to confront. Three days into the programme, we are asked to write about our hometowns, and I draw a blank. The same thing happens when a friend asks me, What is your favourite place in Singapore? I wait for some image, any image, to surface in my mind, but nothing comes. It's a coolness, an emotionlessness that troubles me without really being a surprise. I had not been thinking about it, had not realised that things had gone so far.
What things? Things.
The land was ours before we were the land's My first encounter with Robert Frost's 'The Gift Outright', back in my teens, took place without any knowledge of the poem's historical context. But I loved the cryptic first line for the way it sounded, and I still haven't let go of the questions my half-baked understanding raised about ownership and belonging, possession, dispossession, being possessed. Or maybe it's the questions that have not let go of me. Even after all these years, the notion of possessing land, of an entire people feeling that they have some kind of hold on the land they live on, is one that I cannot wrap my mind around, that I know will never be my experience as a Singaporean. In Singapore, the land owns us with or without any willing surrender on our part. Our lives are shaped by it, driven by its imperatives, defined by space, or the lack thereof.
Living on a small island, we struggle to push our horizons beyond its physical dimensions the fixation on travel is but one manifestation of this desire. And on the surface, it appears that we've succeeded: a granite diamond 25km from north to south, and 49km from east to west, the place seems like a joyous celebration of cosmopolitan openness. Walk down Orchard Road, with its flashing billboards selling you Gap and Louis Vuitton, the crowds flowing down the pavement, their skin every shade of black and brown and beige and cream, and it appears like there is no place more porous, more welcoming of diversity and change. Architects would have a field day just wandering around the Civic District, with its stately colonial buildings standing close to structures that look like they've been teleported straight out of a Star Trek movie. Mosques, churches, temples Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist, jostle for space next to one another; and in our schools, the average student wrestles with learning the English of our former colonial masters while simultaneously wrapping his tongue round an Asian language that may or may not be his original mother tongue. Difference is so deeply engrained in our psyche that we don't even notice it, take it for granted the way we take for granted the air we breathe.
And yet, some days, you feel the air closing in on you, walls built of fear and anxiety, defining the limits of possibility so cleanly and transparently that most people don't even notice they are there and you know you have to leave. For all the colourful hubbub of our multicultural heritage, there is a stultifying sameness here, an insularity that eats into the marrow, a lack of vision and imagination that flattens the landscape of our national psyche, renders it dry and grey as granite. There are 15 distinct types of Singaporeans, a friend told me once unwritten rules define the expected behaviours and attitudes of people from particular schools, educational streams, professions, income groups, religions; even the language you dream in determines to a large extent the kind of life you are likely to lead. People who fail to toe the line are seen as enigmas labelled weird or different or, euphemistically, interesting. Any difference stands out like a monolith, at best; those who are not so strong seem more like wildflowers accidentally seeded in alien soils, blooming bright and extravagant for a while, before fading away for want of nourishment.
I feel it most when I return to Singapore from overseas, from places where there seems to be more leeway to colour outside the lines: from England, for instance, where I once met a poetry-writing, yoga-practising, church-going nuclear physicist. And then there's my writing professor here at Berkeley: a Nigerian-Nordic-American Harvard alumnus who grew up in a single-parent family and has spent time in a Thai forest as a Buddhist nun. It's not just that these people defy the stereotypes so often set up as ways of understanding human behaviour geeky scientists, fundamentalist religionists, flaky poets who can't count to save their lives it's that these stereotypes seem to hold less power elsewhere than they do in Singapore. Of course, pigeonholes exist everywhere, and as long as there are pigeonholes, there will be those who want to roost in them. And to be fair, exceptions to the rule do exist in Singapore. But there seems to be more room in these other places for people who choose not to adhere to the standard template, more space for colour and individuality, more freedom to grow.
The narrowness first impressed itself upon my consciousness after I returned from my undergraduate years in London, when I fell into a greyness that lasted for more than five years before the fog finally lifted. I still remember the whoosh of humidity that hit me the moment the sliding doors separating the airport from the real world outside opened it was like walking into a brick wall. For the next few years, I struggled with my home country, oscillating between a silent, corroding resentment, and a desperate flailing attempt to find some sort of foothold to anchor myself I looked everywhere, within the margins and out, in institutions and far away from them, and in the process discovered nooks and crannies and communities I would otherwise not have thought existed. But there was never enough space; or, perhaps, there was never a space where I felt I could be free.
Psychic space is linked to physical space in an undeniable embrace that is nonetheless seldom acknowledged, perhaps because of the very human desire to be masters of our environment, not its slaves. Uncomfortable thought that our lives and worldviews could be determined by an accident of geography; that the shape of the land, its size, mineral composition, the curve of its rivers, could exert such a primeval force on as yet unborn futures. The usual Singaporean narrative has it that we are constrained by our lack of natural resources this one unchangeable reality, wed to the primacy of the economic imperative in a country founded on trade, has determined the path we have chosen, narrows our vision of possible futures to a very few. People make choices that are circumscribed by the market, and the market here is smaller and narrower than most markets elsewhere simply because of our tiny physical size. To think different and thus live different is a luxury few can afford.
Of course all this is not untrue. But living in such a congested space has another, subtler effect it leaves individuals with little room to be, it edges out solitude, making it harder than usual to discern one's voice from the noise of the surrounding crowd. Peer pressure and group-think, intensified by physical proximity, work an insidious magic, obscuring the contingency of things, dressing up choice as necessity, painting new horizons as mere mirages, so that most people dare not even dream of making a different path. Sooner or later, most of the voices in that crowd begin sounding the same, drawn by fear and insecurity into parroting the rhythms and cadences of everyone else; and before you know it, what could have been a gorgeously complex, multi-layered polyphony is flattened into a single insistent, unhesitating monotone.
Here in California, there is all the land in the world, so sprawl happens. Even the streets are wider, and it takes getting used to, neighbourhoods stretching on and on into nowhere, vast outlet malls splayed out next to highways like flattened cardboard boxes, empty stretches of road that you can drive down for miles without seeing a single human habitation. Every day, walking back from campus to the grey shingled house that is my temporary home during my two months in Berkeley, I stop at the crest of the steep upslope segment of the road and look down the long vista of century-old houses towards the sliver of sea gleaming on the horizon. Along the roadside, next to this vantage point, grows a patch of lavender, looking slightly dusty and faded, as roadside flowers do. Some days, if the fog has lifted, I can see the Golden Gate Bridge, its arches gentle against the pacific-blue sky. It's freeing, purifying; something inside unfurls and unwinds, sprawls it's a lightening, an untightening, all of a piece with the way the Berkeley hills seem to unfold and undulate, green in the summer light.
I know I will miss this spaciousness when I go back to Singapore. I will do all I can to remake for myself a little bit of California back in my native city-state stay away from the hordes in town on weekends, seek out the few nature spots still left on our island and it will still not be enough. It is not the fault of the people. Goodness knows we've tried so hard. But the land comes with its limitations and in a place so tiny, there comes a point when even human ingenuity hits the walls of what nature has withheld. We've built up, built down: most of the island is covered with highrises; and we've tunnelled so much underground that I sometimes fear the whole city will just cave in, its foundations undermined by too much desire turned in on itself. Other cities expand horizontally crawling, sprawling, they creep across the terrain, boxy structures continually encroaching on the line between lived-in and not-lived-in. In Singapore, once we've exhausted the limits of space, we devour time instead: tearing down old buildings, exhuming cemeteries, cutting down swathes of rainforest that have taken centuries to grow we erase the past, cut our links with history. More than most other places, ours is a layered city: we've built and destroyed and built again, strata by invisible strata: and if each of these strata could suddenly and magically be made manifest, we would see a multitude of cities, the oldest tucked away in the inmost core of this vertical megalopolis, glowing quiet in the night.
These days, I find myself wondering what Singapore would look like if we had all the land in the world. The vertical strata of that hypothetical megalopolis would then extend horizontally across space, like in so many other bigger countries, so that all our history would be laid out, as in a map. At the core of it all, tropical jungle, then the fortifications of the Majapahit empire, wooden fishermen's huts, the Malay Sultans' palaces, followed by colonial buildings with their Roman columns and imposing stairways, Peranakan shophouses, elegant skyscrapers, and finally the postmodern monstrosities we've been building for the last decade: the spiky-domed "Durian", the silvery-disked "UFO". And interspersed between all of these, vast tracts of land: orchards, cemeteries, rainforests. Time rendered visible, rather than erased, in the very geography of our city-state.
By and large, the island where I live is quiet and peaceful. Sheltered by our neighbours from the worst of the sea's violence, and just a stone's throw away, in geological terms, from the Pacific Ring of Fire, our geographical situation has made possible the laser-sharp focus on economic growth that has characterised our history since Sir Stamford Raffles claimed us for the British Empire. No contending here with the violence of flood or tidal wave, earthquake or volcano we've been mercifully undistracted by the natural disasters that plague so many of our neighbours in the region, and the most we experience of Nature's raw, wild power comes in the relatively mild guise of the tropical storms that are visited on us throughout the year.
In the three years when I lived in London, I resented the rain. Not because it got in the way of the things I wanted to do, but because English rain seemed too wimpy to be anything other than a minor annoyance feathery, passive-aggressive, unassertive yet undeniably, irritatingly present. With English rain, you think you don't need an umbrella until an hour later when you find your clothes soaked through with damp. Not so with the rain in Singapore. So I missed the torrential rain that comes with the year-end monsoons, the way it slants through the air in great gusting sheets, beats down on pavements and splashes on tarred streets in little glimmering coronets. I missed the roar of waters like white-crested rapids surging dirt-yellow through storm-drains and canals, the gunshot-cracks of old tree branches in the moment before they come crashing to the pavement below, leaves torn and scattered every which way by the marauding winds.
The northeast monsoons come to us in November every year and stay till January, bearing air currents and dust and rain that have travelled thousands of miles, from north Asia or perhaps even Siberia, disturbing our little island before they veer southwest towards Australia. I have loved the monsoons for as long as I remember. They provide a welcome relief from the sticky humidity we have to live with the rest of the year for over two months the tropical heat is replaced by gentler temperatures, even as lightning cuts the grey and thunder splits the air in a theatrical display of Sturm und Drang entirely out of character for our placid, pragmatic island-state. When I was a child, I liked nothing more than the dark clarity of the stormy afternoons during the end-of-the-year holidays, when the brown-and-cream-striped curtains in our living room would billow, wave-like, as the wind whistled through the house like the banshees I read about in Enid Blyton books, and the entire world outside our tinted windows appeared blurry and indistinct, washed by the rain.
Perhaps what draws me to the monsoon is how it awakens the nesting instinct, forces me to hunker down, seek shelter from the elements outside. A house gains solidity in its presence; one feels a sense of home. Perhaps it is the intensity of the storm, how it brooks no argument, asserts itself completely, unheeding of our will. Or perhaps it is simply its otherness that fascinates: travelling to the tropics from the frozen north, the monsoon carries almost-tangible hints of foreign places, a soft coolness that seems wonderfully out of place on a tiny island just one degree north of the equator. Whatever the case, it has been the one constant in a city that reinvents itself so constantly, one has barely enough time to form attachments to things and places before they disappear.
I loved the rains as a child, and I never wanted them to stop. But they did stop, of course; and after each afternoon shower, the avenue where I lived would be littered with fallen leaves and branches, glossy and sodden. Our white-tiled patio would be streaked with black: earthworms, driven out of our garden lawn by the rains. We knew they would dry up in the sun if left on their own. So we took large wads of toilet-paper, and wiped up the writhing forms before they could die on our front yard.
Walking home one day, two months before coming to California, I remembered the old trees that used to line the avenue where I live. Mempat trees, I think, though I cannot be sure searching on Google gave no conclusive answer. I recall them so clearly: deep-grooved trunks overgrown with moss and ferns; white seeds spinning in the wind, wings like helicopter blades; delicate pink and white flowers carpeting the entire road in the after-rain quiet. I miss those trees, towering above the houses. They gave shade to the whole neighbourhood. Looking out from my bedroom window, I used to see dark, dense foliage criss-crossed with sturdy branches; in the mornings, the entire housing estate was a symphony of birdsong. It's all gone now.
A few years after I returned from London, the National Parks Board embarked on a massive tree extermination campaign in my neighbourhood someone had lodged a complaint about the crows that took shelter in the trees, and someone else had written in about the danger that falling tree branches posed to the cars parked in the driveways and along the roads. So, without even so much as a written notification, the felling began. All but two of the old trees were cut down the two that survived were smaller, not so massive and therefore not so much of a danger.
The neighbourhood where I grew up has changed, not beyond recognition, but enough that the things I grew attached to as a child no longer exist. The neatly-manicured park just behind my house used to be a basketball court: it was where my father taught me to ride a bicycle, and where, as a 12-year old, I picked out, from my vantage point at the upstairs study window, the cute guys among the many older neighbourhood boys who played basketball there every evening. I remember coming home one day from work several years ago, only to find that the basketball court had been replaced by an angry heap of rubble spread across the entire area jagged slabs of concrete lying haphazardly like beached whales gasping for breath under the evening stars. No one had told us this was going to happen.
Just before I left for California, I told myself that I should take a photo of the 24-hour Indian coffeeshop at the corner of the row of shophouses just a 15-minute walk from where I live. Just in case. I bring all my friends to that place; I've had late-night suppers and early-dawn breakfasts there; its green-and-yellow walls have been privy to any number of quiet confidences. It serves some of the best cheap Indian food in Singapore: crisply-layered pratas, fragrant nasi biryani, tenderly pungent mutton curry. I often stop by on my way back from work for a glass of teh-O-ice-limau the cold tangy irony of fresh lime in sweetened black-tea is such a mood-lifter at the end of a long day. But the shophouses are slowly being demolished: just four doors down, there is a construction site all boarded up and harbouring a bright yellow crane the piling has started, and the clanging noise vies with the traffic for dominance every morning. Who knows if the coffeeshop will still be there when I go back?
I didn't take the photo.
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014