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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Toh Hsien Min

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 recent years, like a teenager’s: sullen, discontented, and argumentative. There have been a few national incidents in which the participants have seemed unable or unwilling to accept that other people may be entitled to different points of view.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

How does one choose?

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

The number and length of sheltered walkways; in most other cities people live with the sun and the rain.

What writer(s) from Singapore should we read?

Arthur Yap—a true original. Also, Boey Kim Cheng’s essays are extraordinary.

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

I grow fonder of Chinatown as I age. It’s not the same place it was when I was a boy, but some of the reused bits are nice, and the messiest bits of it are still messy in the same ways—I especially like Smith Street Food Centre, which is our most authentic hawker centre still standing. It’s dirty, oily, noisy, and impossible to navigate, but oh, there’s the magic. And the food!

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I suppose, by default, it would be the Raffles Hotel, where the likes of Hermann Hesse, André Malraux, Somerset Maugham, and Pablo Neruda have all sojourned. My own favorite, Joseph Conrad, never stayed at the Raffles, but he is known to have visited as a sailor in search of a drink. Rudyard Kipling has described the Raffles as a place “where the food is as excellent as the rooms are bad. Let the traveller take note: Feed at Raffles and sleep at the Hotel de L'Europe.” The Sarkies brothers, who owned the Raffles, then appropriated the “Feed at Raffles” snippet for their own advertisements in what is perhaps an early example of tactical literary blurbing.

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

I live now on a street in the Mount Sophia area, about four hundred meters from where I was born, and my choice of location may be directly traced back to renting an inter-war apartment in the area more than a decade ago––so it’s in two senses a returning, to return to your earlier question. My neighborhood, which I measure by how far I’m willing to go on foot, stretches as far as the Central Library and the end of Orchard Road on the one side, and Little India on the other. Inside this area is a microcosm of Singapore. We get all sorts of visitors: well-off expats, undergraduates and fine art students, backpackers and the shopping crowd, working-class local Chinese, new Chinese immigrants (including KTV hostesses), Bangladeshi laborers getting tanked up in Little India on their day off . . . it’s quite unlike the enclaves in Sentosa Cove or the East Coast, for instance. Everyone tries to get along: on Waterloo Street, the Hindu and Chinese temples are next to each other and both communities help out during each other’s special ceremonies. I love the energy that this mishmash of diversity brings to the area.

But the truly hidden parts of this city are not city: for example, the offshore islands or the old railway line to Jurong. I’m also intrigued by Istana Woodneuk, an abandoned palace once owned by the Johor Sultanate, which is so hidden it’s literally off the map.

Where does passion live here?

In the restaurants, food centers, cafés, and made-to-order cocktail bars. Singaporeans love food so much that we’re often found discussing over dinner the merits of some other food than what we have on the table. (Which is, of course, good—otherwise, why would it be there?)

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

Means to an End has been described by Monocle as “a new national narrative,” which is probably an accurate description as long as one takes it with a pinch of irony. It does indeed carry narrative threads of the dislocations of the Singapore Dream, to put it broadly, but if I had to try to recollect how the book began I would probably say, with a nod and a wink, that it could have been a private joke.

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

Singapore is so small almost everything exists outside Singapore.


Toh Hsien Min has published three collections of poetry, alongside publication credits in a variety of international periodicals such as Acumen, Atlanta Review, London Magazine, the London Review of Books, Oxford Poetry, and Poetry Salzburg Review, as well as anthologies such as Carcanet's Oxford Poets 2013 and W.W. Norton's Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond.

In 2010, he was awarded the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council of Singapore, and in the same year, Means to an End was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. In the 2013 Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, his work was described as that of "an observant traveller and inventive formalist, adept at casual rhyme, colloquial phrasing and poignant structural returns . . . Means to an End . . . broke forcefully out of this mold in flowing O'Haraesque verse paragraphs reflecting on the enmeshed existence of the poet as a global consumer.” Aside from his own writing, Toh serves as founding editor of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (, the leading literary journal in Singapore.

Published Aug 4, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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