In Transit is a journey through Singapore's selves
By Wong Wen Pu
In Transit is an anthology of "writing from a Singapore perspective involving airplanes, airports, and anything related to air travel". While the editors had originally put out a call for submissions where only a tangential connection to Singapore would suffice, much of the action in this collection, perhaps unsurprisingly, is centred on Changi. Men and women come and go through the gates of Changi. Relationships form and hearts break in Changi. Woman climbs onto wire-mesh netting and plucks at ripe golden raindrops in Changi.
In the literary excursions contained therein, our eyes are invariably drawn, almost impulsively, to what Marc Nair in 'Regulations' familiarly calls "that old tree" that is Changi's air traffic-control tower, totemic and polyphemic, "guid[ing] generations of travellers home". By design or serendipity, In Transit is a romance with Changi and, indeed, the mythologising of Changi in our collective imagination.
What, then, is Changi? A platonic dream, Christine Chia answers:
Changi, the too-perfect airport, straddles the boundary between Singapore and not-Singapore, and visits disembodiment upon the traveller. The flighty lightness Changi confers is perhaps the epitome of vacation: to vacation, after all, is to take a break from the life one leads back at home. Thus, in Ng Seow Hwee's 'Ramblings of a Trolley Uncle', a former accounts manager remakes himself as a Changi airport flâneur, and watches one woman's husband transform into another's boyfriend, one Singaporean daughter ebb into an Australian stranger. And in Stephanie Ye's 'Meat Bone Tea', a civil servant, afforded anonymity in the company of people only passing through, moonlights as paid dinner companion for gentlemen in transit. Changi, many of the stories wistfully suggest, is the oneiric space where people go to lose themselves.
And then we have the ambition of the unbridled and the starry-eyed, for whom Changi represents both final border and port, taking one out of this island. In Karen Kwek's 'Watchman', Ah Tee's sister eschews an unexciting, if stable, career as a teacher, and remakes herself anew as an SQ girl, chic and cosmopolitan in her batik sandals. She shops in duty-frees around the world, she can "afford expensive things because she earn[s] good money, plus tips, and passengers sometimes g[i]ve her gifts". Here is the Singaporean whose ambition, like the country she represents, this tiny island cannot contain. With her eyes set on the horizon and Changi as her springboard, the world is her oyster. Just what exotic lands, what strange foreign marvels, does the deep pacific blue of that sarong kebaya signify, love?
Out of these many inventions and reinventions we have 'Between Stations' from Boey Kim Cheng, Singapore's most restless sojourner, as he writes poignantly and elegantly of the whiplash and dislocation the prodigal son who has settled elsewhere feels in returning to not-home. A man who has fled to another "[t]erra nullius … to erase the past … to play the immigrant [in the hopes of] re-inventing [him]self", Boey finds himself, upon each return to this land, on the trail of a long-vanished song. The reminders of the past are everywhere. Here, just around this corner, he is waylaid by an old memory; there, in that coffeeshop, an old friend. But for Boey, this is his father's country. Having settled only almost comfortably in Australia since leaving so many years ago, Boey is "an emigrant to those [he] left behind and an immigrant" in his adoptive land. He will always belong to another place and another life. Between the land of his past and the land of his present, between remembering and imagining, the obliterating blue of transit is the only place Boey properly feels at home.
But if Changi is the gateway for Singaporeans to the world, this land represented on postcards and stamps by the iconic tower is no tabula rasa, where just anyone might remake him/herself after the image of the Singapore Dream. Behind the gilded walls and marbled floors, our penchant for conspicuous consumption casts aspersions on our aspirations for perpetual makeovers. Kirat Kaur's short story 'Veera', about the death of a migrant worker in a workplace accident, brings us back to earth by figuring the price of our solipsistic self-fashioning and refashioning in blood. For Veera and his ilk, whose labour is endlessly exploited in the reshaping of this country, they find that this land is no point of transit and self-transformation, but terminus. After helping "build, demolish and rebuild the city in an unending cycle", they remain impoverished and, if fortunate, unharmed. Kaur's story is an elegiac reminder that "many Veeras ha[d] bled in [the] making [ of this city ...] had been turned to dust while the concrete was poured" for our indulgences; that behind the tinsel is a land of broken men and broken dreams. Self-refashioning is a pastime of the bored bourgeois, "a privilege rarely afforded to … disposable, replaceable people" like Veera.
To the vast majority of the 60 million visitors passing through Changi's terminals every year, somewhere-bound, Changi is trivial. They know it only for its rich upholstery, its cushy lounges, its dining options. But for us Singaporeans, Changi, perhaps the second-most recognisable of our icons, is a very visceral reality, and more. We all know it intimately, as we stroll through its air-conditioned halls, perhaps with no small amount of what Chia calls "absent-minded pride", each time we leave this country. We've followed its rise to prominence in the world. It is our modern-day fable, an allegory of our ambitions.
If at times the portrayal of our relationship with Changi is somewhat uneasy, that is perhaps reflective of a certain kind of coming of age on our parts, as we do not rest on our laurels, but interrogate the price of and the discontent that comes with our success. As Zhang notes in her introduction, In Transit goes beyond its stated theme of air travel to paint "a portrait of a nation beginning to come into its own, a little startled, perhaps, by its own success; its people subjecting themselves and their own society to a self scrutiny". At its heart, In Transit is more than an anthology of arrivals and departures; of duty-free shops and butterfly gardens. Rather, it is a Bildungsroman of this nation, an introspective gaze capturing the contradictions and, sometimes, the pleasures, in the difficult project of imagining our emergent selves in the world.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017