Monday, October 31, 2016

Of Chinese Singaporeans

The 12 stories in Philip Holden's 'Heaven Has Eyes' are an observation on Singapore society, but focusing on mainly Chinese Singaporeans and their lifestyles, even using Chinese words (printed in Chinese characters in the book) and hanyu pinyin. Quite clever. The author definitely knows his languages.

However, there isn't a discussion on cultural diversity, which is fine if these are the topics and tales the author wishes to tell. It makes the book a little, flat though. One-dimensional. Some of the stories have been previously published. But I haven't read them except for two because they were ran in QLRS, which I read- 'The First Star from the Moon' and 'Penguins on the Perimeter'.

The eponymous story 'Heaven Has Eyes' describes a teacher Zi Qiang and his wife Adelyn addicted to a Channel 8 (Mediacorp's Chinese television channel) long-running drama of the same title, in an election year. It's really long-winded to the extent that it spends a high word count detailing what happens in the drama serial. I was like, where is this going?! Then it was all revealed in the last two paragraphs. Gotta admire the author for possibly having sat through tiresome television dramas and being clued in to what goes on in the everyday. There are some comments about social attitudes you could sift out- towards elections, family dynamics, society's values, etc. It ends with the couple attending the opposition party's rally.

She talked about stories, how often we believed in them, how we think they will never end. But the stories were made by people; they had the power to end one chapter, however well told it had been, and begin another. The crowd slowly warmed to her as the speech progressed and she stepped down from the podium to thunderous applause. 
And then, at last, the Secretary-General came forward to speak; a stocky man, garlanded in purple flowers. As he stepped up to the microphone, a few drops of rain fell. A thin rain, just enough to cool the crowd before it passed over. He waited for a moment, as if puzzled, then spread out his arms, looking skywards, as he reached for the microphone. 
"Ti wu mak." 
"What did he say?" Adelyn asked him. 
"It's Teochew. I don't understand." 
The older man turned to them. "Heaven," he said. "Heaven has eyes."

'Gan Rou, Kong Bak' threw me into a laughing fit. Then again, I have a strange sense of humor. I choose not to see the layers beneath of family and relationships or even what young Boy Boy's pet pig Teacup ('Chawan', 茶碗) symbolizes. I just like the flat top layer, of a family keeping a pig in a HDB flat, and how they continue eating pork, even feeding the pet pig bak kwa (barbecued pork). and how in the end, the pig is randomly lost. Like it possibly ran away. HAHAHAHAHA. The title is quite clever. Written from the perspective of Jia Wen who has an autoimmune condition which he translates into Chinese as 'Dry Flesh Disease' to explain it to his mother. Which is a play on the word 'Gan Rou' (干肉). Which is like dehydrated barbecued pork, rou gan 肉干. 😂

Samuel turned to Jacqueline. A new plan was called for. She and Hani would search the garden; he and Jia Wen would descend to the parking garage.  
Jia Wen looked at Boy Boy, and the boy's black eyes gleamed back at him. He was sure he detected the hint of a nod. 
"Don't worry, " he said. "I'm sure he's not very far away/" 
"Baba! I'm still hungry," Boy Boy squealed. 
Samuel stirred impatiently, but Jacq placed a hand on his arm.
"Fine," he said, reach for a chunk of black pork wrapped in soft belly fat. "We'll look for him later. Eat! Eat!"

The last story in the book is so beautiful. 'Mudskippers' describes the relationship between a daughter Kathy and her father, when they're in their golden years. Kathy's husband Jian Wei is agreeable to having her father live with them in Singapore, but she thinks her father is happier in England where he wants to live out his remaining years, and hopes to die soon to join his deceased wife. I'm not sure I like the ending of this story. It's left ambiguous, but there's mention of a slip on the carpet and a fall on the staircase at Kathy's father's house in England.

"You don't mind if he comes to Singapore to live with us?" 
He shrugs, impatient. "Of course not. We've been over this. 自己人, what. He should be with family, with his own people." 
They have been over this, many times. But it's easy enough for you, she thinks. You'll just come back from work and share a beer with him, tussle over the English Premier League scores. Some minor male bonding, another round of stories about his posting at Seletar airbase in the 50s, with the easy excuse of late hours at the offices if it gets out of hand. Meanwhile, for me... 
"We can get a helper," he says. "It won't be too much of a burden on you." 
"But all his friends are in England. He wouldn't adapt. He'd just hang around the flat all day." 
"We've talked about this. That's for him to decide. Don't ask him and you'll never know."

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