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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Suchen Christine Lim

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/ Singapore 2015

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 or see it?

In this city of six million untold stories, a strong undertow of anxiety and optimism pulls and tugs at the hearts of her multi-ethnic denizens. Singapore has enjoyed more than fifty years of peace and prosperity, but has also suffered the aftereffects of breakneck development that has brought her from Third World to First World status. Have we reached a plateau? the young ask. Can we sustain this? the old fret. People want change, yet they fear it. The year 2015 is Singapore’s fiftieth year of independence, and a nostalgic sea breeze is sweeping across the island. The mood in the Lion City is one of cautious optimism coupled with a desire to be seen as cool and innovative.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Many years ago, a family that was evicted from their vegetable farm along the Singapore River moved into a three-room flat on the tenth floor of a public-housing block. Their floor had a common corridor that led to the lift. Every morning on my way to take the lift, I had to pass their flat. And every morning I saw the father of that family, a gaunt, silent man with a grim and sun-burnt face, crouched among his six pots of wilting spring onion and chili plants, his vacant eyes gazing through the iron railings at the concrete blocks of flats as he pulled at his cigarette. This man’s suppressed grief, part of the cost of development in Singapore, is one of my most heartbreaking memories in this city.

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

The beach along the east coast of Singapore at three or four a.m. The dark, wide sky above and the lights of the ships on the sea below. The sense of space and quiet that prevails amid the sound of an occasional passing car. The sea breeze coolly caressing your face and the casuarina trees sighing above your head. A rare moment of peace in my crowded, strident city.

What writer(s) from Singapore should we read?

Singapore has a vibrant writing community that produces plays, poetry, and fiction in English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, and Tamil. Gopal Baratham, who lived from 1935 to 2002, is one of Singapore’s best short story writers forgotten by this city. His collected short stories, aptly titled The City of Forgetting, gives a broad sweep of Singaporean lives in an uncaring, orderly city from the 1970s to 2000. Daren Shaiu’s novel, Heartland, depicts life in a public housing estate through the eyes of a dysfunctional Chinese family.

Is there a place in Singapore that you return to often?

Yes, but only in my memory. Place is impermanent in Singapore, the city that destroys in order to rebuild, redevelop and re-destroy in the name of progress. In my memory, I return often to the street I grew up in, the street where neighbors could walk into each other’s houses at any time of the day to eat, chat, play mahjong, or exchange plant cuttings for their gardens.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Sadly, because place is impermanent in Singapore, there is no iconic literary place except perhaps a tiny independent bookshop called BooksActually in Tiong Bahru. However, rising rent is forcing it to move soon, and I pray it will survive the onslaught of capitalist greed.

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

The believers of various gods in this city of diverse faiths have intrigued me since I was a teenager. My mother used to frequent a Chinese temple with a large community of female believers. This temple had a most unusual tree in its courtyard. The spirit-god residing in this tree could help women conceive. On the feast day of the god, women who were barren would pray under the tree. Those who were desperate for a child would tie an egg to one of its branches with a red string, and spend the night under the tree in the hope that the tree spirit would impregnate them. This temple in Tanjong Pagar has since been demolished to make way for a subway station. And the result? Despite government incentives these days, Singapore suffers from a declining birth rate. But there is hope. Many such Chinese or Indian temples and their communities of believers still exist, tucked away in some corners of the city.

Where does passion live here?

Passion in this city lives in the hearts and minds of those who work for civil society to build a city of the arts without government censorship.

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

The River’s Song, set on the banks of the Singapore River and Chinatown, traces the pain of urban eviction through the families of two young lovers, Ping who plays the pipa, a Chinese four-string lute, and Weng, the carpenter’s son who plays the dizi, a Chinese flute. Eviction and resettlement in the city is a major experience of my generation. The River’s Song is inspired by those who lost their homes and trades, and their political voice in Singapore’s relentless struggle to reach the First World.

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

The forefathers of Chinese Singaporeans were the Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese from China. I grew up in a Cantonese-speaking family that loved Cantonese operas and films. My first school was a Cantonese kindergarten. In the 1980s, Mandarin was promoted as the language of all Chinese in Singapore, and the government forbade the use of Cantonese and other Chinese dialects in all public entertainments. All imported Cantonese TV programmes from Hong Kong were dubbed into Mandarin. In one fell legislative stroke, I was cut off from three quarters of my cultural world. Now, whenever I re-enter the old Cantonese world through Cantonese operas, I feel as if I’m living on the margins of a Mandarin-speaking city. To add to this, I speak and write in English, and grew up in Malaysia where the national language is Malay.


Suchen Christine Lim is the author of several novels, including A Bit of Earth, Rice Bowl, and Fistful of Colours, which won the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize in 1992. She has also authored a short-story collection, The Lies That Build a Marriage, a book of nonfiction, Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora, a play, and fourteen children’s picture books. The recipient of a Fulbright grant, she was a Fellow of the University of Iowa’s International Writers’ Program, and its former International Writer-in-Residence. She has also held writing residencies in the UK, Western Australia, Myanmar, South Korea, and the Philippines. Lim was awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2012. Her latest novel is The River’s Song (Aurora Metro Press, 2014).

Published Aug 11, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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