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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Alvin Pang

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?

Singapore is a different city for different people. Some of this is a matter of conscious policy; some cultural. It is a city where the global expatriate enclave lives differently from the migrant worker community or the local family. In the past, these differences were easier to elide. These days it feels a little like an airport terminal—efficient, guided, guarded, mercenary, Muzak-infused: designed for a certain sort of gilded transience. People pass through on their own private journeys. Strangers jostle each other in the corridors with polite indifference. The climate is controlled, kept cheery.  The cameras are watching for any unpleasantness. Some passengers are restless and fuss with their baggage. Others cluster at the overpriced cafes, waiting for their flight out, or for someone to recognize and welcome them. The staff who keep the place going are hardly to be seen. They smile at everyone. Outside the plate glass windows, a thunderstorm is brewing.  

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My parents were caught up in the property craze of the 1980s, and we moved house several times when I was growing up—often to an ever bigger apartment, but sometimes to a smaller one to cash out on sale. It was unusual for us to stay in one apartment for longer than a decade. Profit seemed to overrule an enduring sense of place—not unlike the larger urban churn of the city in general. It broke my heart every time strangers strutted through my home, inspecting it with a critical eye, evaluating walls I’d painted with my own hands and rooms I’d lovingly adorned. Singapore is infamously scarce of land: many of the apartments I’d lived in have already been torn down to make way for new condos. We learn loss early; we learn to hang on to little.

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

That perfectly ordinary people around us perform and create the extraordinary every day. The pizza delivery guy with bad grades and “Rascal” tattooed on his back? He carries a 40kg steel kavadi on piercings in his bare flesh, and walks miles from temple to temple at Thaipusam; no tricks, only devotion and will. That old lady who collects cardboard from trashcans to sell for recycling? She was a Samsui sister—a sworn maid who built office blocks in the early construction trade, and later adopted and raised orphan girls who became lawyers, but she will not take their money. Uncle Beng? He has been selling his famous fried char kway teow noodles for thirty years, next to the guy who makes roast duck, the Malay lontong stall, and a hundred different other hawkers who used to ply their distinctive fare on the streets but now serve some of the best food in the world in sheltered hawer centres. The city is saturated with stories, but few care to note them, because they don’t resemble anything to be found at the movies, on TV, or in the bestsellers we read.

What writer(s) from Singapore should we read?

For poetry: Arthur Yap, the late and great experimentalist remains startlingly original today. Since the 1990s, there has been an explosion of fine poets: too many to list, but some names to Google include Lee Tzu Pheng, Tania de Rozario, Cyril Wong, Desmond Kon, Yeow Kai Chai, and Toh Hsien Min.

For fiction: Amanda Lee Koe’s stunning debut Ministry of Moral Panic ought to be read first; she’s under thirty and one to watch. Dave Chua’s Gone Case captures the residential heartland of the 70s and 80s with a pitch-perfect, bittersweet ear—it has my favorite last paragraph of any novel from Singapore.

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

I try to visit the coast whenever I get the chance, which isn’t often enough, even though it’s only a twenty-minute drive away. It always feels like a perspective reset.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Tiong Bahru—a residential neighborhood with thirties-era architecture and Singapore’s finest independent bookstore, BooksActually. The area is being rapidly gentrified with hip cafes and eateries, but there’s still enough charm left to make it worth the visit. BooksActually itself is a must—they carry literary and art titles from Singapore and elsewhere, along with beautiful vintage mementos. They run a prolific and award-winning small press and host book launches and readings regularly. They also have cats.

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

So many stories are still caught in between the cracks and in the back alleys—even today I can come across an old façade in the middle of the Central Business District and stand agape at what I’d never noticed before: a particularly striking feature or old shop front, or even a simple religious offering someone has placed in a common corridor. Sometimes it is as simple as locating the familiar out of place—a fragment of what used to be lodged improbably in the new. The Little India neighborhood is not exactly hidden, but, because it plays host to a new generation of migrant workers from South Asia, it pulses with life and color to an unforced, organic rhythm quite unlike the glass and steel confections downtown. I know at least one troupe of Bangladeshi construction workers who meet every Sunday here to write and share poetry. There’s also Geylang, a district where legalized brothels ply their trade; it’s a world with its own subculture and history that few know intimately. We also have a rich and very bio-diverse natural environment that I am only just beginning to explore—Alfred Wallace, a co-father of natural selection theory, spent many fruitful hours in our hills.

Where does passion live here?

In our food culture, which is unabashedly demanding, diverse, democratic. Look for it in Singapore’s many hawker centers, where suited professionals may sweat in queue for an hour for a good bowl of noodles. It is far and away our best indigenous art form.

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

City of Rain, my second book, was my attempt to map the psychological, emotional, and political contours of Singapore, and to find a new urban idiom relatively free of the Romantic pastoral nostalgia that was so common in verse up to that point. It was inspired by a quote from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which I used as an epigraph—the one about finding what in the inferno is not inferno and giving it space. City of Rain was my way of mapping the humanity of my city––perhaps my own humanity as it had been shaped by being a city person all my life, with no hinterland to account for or resort to––and giving it space.

One of my most well-received poems, "Candles," takes the form of a skit, writing in Singlish (our distinctive street patois of English infused with the grammar and diction of our other, mostly Asian tongues). It was inspired by my father’s childhood in postwar Singapore—his family was so poor that he took candles from the nearby church to have light to read and study by. It is a milieu far removed from our present affluent reality, yet for me it carries the heft of familial intimacy and the force of a good story. I feel like I am retelling it on his behalf, before his world is forgotten.  

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

Singapore is all about what’s outside; we define ourselves in relation to the world we depend on for a living, and allow ourselves few of our own indulgences. The question is whether a Singapore exists on the inside, and (more to the point, since I clearly believe it does), whether it might endure for any meaningful time and space. It is a question that haunts me.


Alvin Pang was Singapore's Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005. A Fellow in Writing from the University of Iowa's International Writing Program (2002), he is listed in the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English (Oxford University Press, 2013). A poet, writer, editor and translator, he is active in literary practice both in Singapore and internationally, with over a dozen books to his name, and his work has been translated into over fifteen languages. He appears regularly in major festivals and publications worldwide. Among many engagements, he is editor in chief of a public policy journal, Ethos, and teaches creative writing at Yale-NUS College. His recent publications include Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill, 2010), What Gives Us Our Names (Math Paper Press, 2011), Other Things and Other Poems (Brutal, Croatia: 2012), and When The Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publications, 2012).

Published Jul 7, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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