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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Amanda Lee Koe

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Singapore as you feel/see it?

Singapore is how your favorite prawn noodle hawker auntie still remembers you take your meal with extra chili even after you’ve been out of town for six months; Singapore is the scrawny kid in the playground whose name no one can remember—until with showy discretion he takes out from his back pocket the latest gadget no one else can afford, then he’s king for all of ten seconds and he believes it too; Singapore is the silent scream scoring this CAConrad poem in which you are driven to fellate flowers before security cameras orb by orb to prove in vain that you still hold true to that Cartesian dualist cliché: I think therefore I am, not the statist perversion: We think therefore you are.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Eating homemade daal prawn curry with a bunch of migrant workers in an unfinished bungalow around Mountbatten, a Myanmarese man with bright eyes and a tired smile tells me that on one of his off days, he was in a shopping mall when he saw a toddler girl stumble, about to fall. He lunged down, reaching out to steady her, as he heard the Singaporean Chinese mother scream: “Don’t touch my baby!”


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That the city is an island is a country. We have no hinterland, no capital. We know this as a fact, but do we realize how this fact shapes us, outside in? Change is effected by instruments of the state directly—and quickly—on the sociophysical body of the city itself. As the inhabitants of this body, these modifications rub off on us, whether we are aware of their effect on us or not, whether our class cushions us less or more.

The extraordinary detail manifesting within the extraordinary detail is encrypted individually and variously in everyone you meet, it’s really only a matter of whether you are willing or able to find a way in.

I was eating Szechuan mala xiangguo at a hawker center in Chinatown, and sharing a table with a small-built elderly man with a crutch when I noticed his tattoo. It looked like the pink ranger from Power Rangers. I asked him about it in Mandarin, and he informed me primly that it was a gang tattoo.

We got around to talking and he told me that before Lee Kuan Yew cleaned the city up, he had killed a man for his gang, at the Miramar Hotel. I wanted to know what it felt like (“Nothing”), how old he was (sixteen, and he turned himself in after a year of hiding out in kampongs, because he knew he wouldn’t be given a death sentence since he was underage), what he did it with (a three-pronged knife).


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Arthur Yap and Kuo Pao Kun’s seminal bodies of work; Alfian Sa’at’s plays, poems, and short stories; Huzir Sulaiman’s plays; Ng Yi-Sheng and Cyril Wong’s poetry collections (if I had to pick a rec for each, Yi-Sheng’s Last Boy and Wong’s like a seed with its singular purpose); Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows; Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency; Cherian George’s sharp compendium of nonfiction (best to start with Air-Conditioned Nation); Mohammed Mukul Hossine’s Me Migrant; Sharlene Teo’s Ponti (out next year); and the immersive graphic novels that are Troy Chin’s The Resident Tourist series, Dave Chua and Koh Hong Teng’s Gone Case, and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. (Many of these titles are available at Booksactually.)

I’d also like to make a cross-media case for P. Ramlee, better known as an actor, to be read as a writer. Of the numerous movies he acted in, he was often also the director, scriptwriter, and music composer, exhibiting a Chaplinesque social consciousness dressed in local humor—as in Seniman Bujang Lapok (The Nitwit Movie Stars)—so much history writ large on the screen.


Is there a place here you return to often?

A larger context to this is that in a super dense city hurrying along the high turnover rate of progress, things change awfully quickly. I live mostly in New York and I try to return to Singapore at least once a year. Every single time I return, some place I’ve loved is irrevocably gone, or has been revamped in a ghastly way.

I am in general a sentimental person when it comes to inanimate things (places are both animate and inanimate in the best sense, of course) so I’ve had to learn to hold myself at arm’s length with Singapore.

The saddest loss this year: our only roadside flea, Thieves Market at Sungei Road. I’ve been visiting the market since my teens—some of my favorite buys include a heart-shaped golden ring with a magenta heart center, an old tea set from the Raffles Hotel, a boxy blue dress with squarish purple roses. Thieves Market has a long (that is, long by short Singapore standards) history and was in its last iteration run mostly by low-income, blue-collar or retrenched workers looking to make a bit of cash. It was taken away this year while I was on a residency in Geneva. In its place will be a new train station.

Nothing stays still for long. This is said to be socioeconomically necessary given our very limited physical space, but I believe that even the powers that be—at pains as they are as to why, oh why, our collective identity is weak and transactional—will one day come to regret at least some of this. By the time they’ve realized that mall façades are perfectly replaceable, but the life and ties that accrue over the years within a space and its use are unique, idiosyncratic, and cannot be replicated, it’ll be much too late.

That said, there’s still—for now—the old swimming pool I took lessons at as a kid that is flanked by enormous coconut trees and ceramic figures spouting water; there’s our only independent cinema, The Projector, run by dear friends of mine with an eye for breathing new life into old spaces; there’s the twenty-four-hour maze that is Mustafa’s, which literally has everything, from lentils to Styrofoam boards to swimming trunks to faux tortoiseshell hairclips to pink Himalayan sea salt.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I would so like to tell you about the legendary Nan Tah Bookstore on Middle Road which sold banned books and had a leftist legacy, but of course by the time I was born at the tail end of the ’80s it no longer existed. So I will point you instead to the lovely Booksactually and the recently reopened Grassroots Bookroom, may they live long lives.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I have shared many a stolen moment with the hidden milieus of Golden Mile Complex (a Thai enclave), Geylang, and Little India. They retain the patina of authenticity because they are not trying to be anything in a self-conscious way, and different ways of living are stacked cheek by jowl. In Geylang, if you know where to look, you’ll find a Taoist temple next to a brothel next to a hardware shop next to a porridge joint.


Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in fierce grumpy hawker aunties and uncles practicing a trade their children do not want to inherit. Passion lives in communities like Dibashram, a drop-in center and cultural space dedicated to Bangladeshi migrant workers, Project X, a sex workers’ rights group; The T Project, a shelter for homeless transgender individuals. Passion lives in the bored schoolgirl looking out the window. Passion lives in the haphazard dedication of artists, writers, filmmakers, buskers, scholars, activists, chefs, designers, and musicians trying to find their way in this world. Passion lives in the mimosa weed pushing its way through the earth between gaps of paved concrete.

Perhaps it lives too pitted in the prune(d) hearts of utilitarian (but of course we have to be utilitarian, they say, who do you think puts the food on the table?) bureaucrats who once believed in heady, progressive changes too, but the system tells them to tell us it isn’t the right time.

I would be curious, after all, to know what and when the putative right time is on their watch: how many degrees it is something you wait for and how many degrees it is something you make happen, what tinkering is going on amidst the precision mechanism of our social engineering.


What is the title of one of your works about Singapore and what inspired it exactly?

Ministry of Moral Panic was meant to be both a cahier and a love letter to Singapore—I think you sense that in the title. I wrote it in a short burst in the earlier part of my twenties, and much of it strikes me as rather raw now, but I think it was necessary for me at that time. I’m not sure if “inspiration” would be the right word, because MoMP exists both because and in spite of Singapore.

There is the danger, in Singapore, of lethargy.

Lethargy in a general sense, in a social sense, in a cultural sense, in a personal sense. I don’t know if it comes from insularity or complacency—or humidity!—but I certainly did not in any way want to give in to this lethargy (and being in that transitional phase to proper adulthood then also made me see that strains of this lethargy were at some points misconstrued as part of growing up) and at that point for me it seemed the only way to fight lethargy was by writing like I was on mental death row.

Writing is the quickest way of bringing something into existence.

I wanted to spawn energetic sentences and stories that could portray a kaleidoscopic range of lives, in all their sweaty/sad/sticky/sweet messiness, because that’s what life is.  

Life is not a linear sequence of prepackaged boxes one ticks on autopilot.

Narratives make a difference, because if socially peripheral characters exist in a national literature, they carve out more lateral room for real humans to live, outside of bureaucratic categories that technically cannot accommodate gray areas within a system that prides itself on efficiency and precision.

But this did not mean that that gray was going to be dull and gentle. I wanted a gray that was steely and keen. You know, like flipping the finger but blowing a kiss at the same time.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Singapore does an outside exist?”

Yes, in the global newsroom imagination as the clean and straitjacketed “Disneyland with the death penalty,” thanks to decades of self-satisfied white male journalism viz Gibson (another locus of non-inspiration inspiration; I quote from said essay in the epigraph to MoMP).

The truest claim to Singapore existing outside of Singapore, however, is located firmly in the visceral grub yearnings of overseas Singaporeans. We are a nation of food-obsessed people who grew up on a multiethnic variety of incredibly tasty food, who will stow homemade sambal belacan paste or Prima Taste sauce kits when we are away from the city for long stretches. Singapore exists firmly in our dreams of bak chor mee and roti prata, grounded in the evocative tactility of taste.

A Singaporean mind may be sociopolitically jaded but a Singaporean stomach is never gastronomically lackadaisical.


Amanda Lee Koe is the fiction editor of Esquire Singapore, a 2013 fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, a 2016 awardee of the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, and the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, for her short-story collection Ministry of Moral Panic. The working manuscript for her debut novel-in-progress won the 2017 Henfield Prize, awarded to the best work of fiction by a graduating MFA student at Columbia University’s writing program. Based in New York, she was born in Singapore, and has lived in Bangkok, Beijing, and Berlin.

Published Jan 8, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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