Love’s Labour’s Lost
Scattered gems can be found in anthology on love in Singapore
By Kevin Tan Kwan Wei
Singapore Love Stories
In Singapore Love Stories, Verena Tay enlists the assistance of 16 writers to muse on love against the backdrop of Singapore. In Tay's own words, the anthology is driven by a central question: "So what does it mean to love and be loved in Singapore with its fluid yet diverse population and particular social constraints?"
Tay has been rather liberal in how she curates contributions. Her previous stints as editor have yielded works such as the six-volume Balik Kampung series. Tay's editorial stamp can be described as one that prizes authorial honesty and creative diversity, her Balik Kampung series featuring entries that oscillate from the mundane to the macabre. In Singapore Love Stories, Tay explores the concept of love in Singapore through contributions that swing from volatile melodrama to clinical contemplation. The 17 contributors, including Tay, are either residing in or had resided in Singapore, lending authenticity to their stories. Tay is also a contributor, which makes a total of 17 stories.
The collection is a varied mix. Audrey Chin's 'A Poor Man' and Raelee Chapman's 'The Gardener' are told from the perspective of foreign labourers in Singapore while others, such as Mickey Lin's 'Merlion Magic', border on the whimsical, where the protagonist tells his fiancée how the Singapore tourist icon the Merlion is based on Merlin the wizard. Lin's entry, with its combination of humour and self-awareness is one of the best in the anthology.
In this sense, Singapore Love Stories can be likened to the literary equivalent of a Taylor Swift album. As Swift's album frames love through incisive lyrics and addictive pop tunes, reading Tay's anthology gives one different frames through which to explore love in Singapore.
Nonetheless, Singapore Love Stories suffers from the same weaknesses as other anthologies and Swift's albums. The quality of the entries is uneven and inconsistent. Some writers do seem to be inspired and were unencumbered by the restrictions imposed by the anthology's central question of defining love in Singapore. However, some writers appear to have been stifled creatively.
Take, for example, the anthology's two short stories that deal with dementia. Both Heather Higgins' 'Sago Lane' and Wan Phing Lim's 'The Ruby Case' feature a grandmother and a father, respectively, suffering from dementia. The trope of using a family member's deteriorating memory in narratives on familial love has grown stale from overuse, and has been utilised in movies such as Jack Neo's Money No Enough 2 as well as local television dramas.
'Sago Lane' ends thus: "But now she knew that her grandmother would soon be gone. Charlotte would take her home and they would probably never go out of the flat together again. Soon the old woman would no longer leave her bed. Then there would be nothing more Charlotte could do for her except daub her skin with a damp cloth and wet her lips with water, while the old woman drifted away on memories of things that were no longer there." In the absence of a warm, affectionate relationship established between grandmother and granddaughter, this conclusion feels false and forced.
Most of the tale is focused on a mysterious place that the grandmother wishes to visit, but which reveals itself as a red herring which has nothing to do with the ending. How are we able to feel the impending sense of loss that is haunting Charlotte? There is little emotional resonance, and it seems Higgins believes that using the trope itself is enough to earn that ending.
The same thing happens in 'The Ruby Case' when the father's dementia is only brought up at the start and end of the story. Dementia becomes less of a symbol of familial love but more of a deus ex machina for how the namesake 'The Ruby Case' gets solved by the tale's protagonist, the police officer.
Aside from repetitive motifs, some writers inject unnecessary complexity and drama into their contributions, thus inhibiting the anthology's intent. The theme of love in Singapore takes a backseat so as to satisfy the writer's creative urges.
In 'The Ruby Case', familial love is a mere pretext Lim's crime/mystery story. Familial love makes an absent-minded cameo at the end, almost like an afterthought or realization by the author that the entry is for an anthology on love, not crime.
This mistake can also be seen in Kate Wheatley Holder's 'Space, Time and Chicken Rice', one of the weakest entries. Aside from the witty title, the story hops and stumbles from one genre to the other. It begins with a young couple enjoying and enduring the jubilation and tribulations that come with love. For the first few pages, we seem to buy into the story. Maybe, things will bode well. Maybe, this entry will focus on love that is just ordinary.
Sadly, the expectations we have are thrown out midway through the tale. Holder abandons the set-up she carefully puts together. Nine pages into the story, we are told that our protagonist will become Singapore's first astronaut. The entire tale then lunges from small town love story to sci-fi adventure. The protagonist leaves his young wife for an ill-fated voyage.
Holder probably wanted to subvert the conventional tropes of Singaporean literature and love stories in general. However, in 'Space, Time And Chicken Rice', the science fiction and fantastical elements are dealt with poorly. Not only is the twist rather forced, the way it is edged in is abrupt and even random. We are merely told that after his rocket's explosion, our protagonist was found in "the South China Sea" and that he had been "pushed into an escape pod". We have no idea how he survived and retained his youth despite the fact that a century has passed. We are supposed to accept this convenient contrivance because it seems to lend gravitas to the story.
Also, title aside, chicken rice does not even figure in the story's plot. It is slapped on as a reference to the couple's favourite food. Like the father's dementia in 'The Ruby Case', chicken rice is just a plot device that appears at the beginning and end of the story. Holder's message seems to be this: The astronaut must really love his wife since the first thing he eats after he awakens is chicken rice, something they used to eat together.
The story is suspiciously similar to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Both involve a space-faring protagonist who is separated from his/her loved ones and return alive, only to find them deceased or in their twilight years. The only difference would be that Nolan's film devoted more effort in explaining and grounding his plot with some semblance of logic. Here, Holder attempts to modify the sci-fi genre into a vessel for love found in Singapore. The outcome? Like the exploding rocket, the story combusts and implodes with its pretentious plot devices and forced changes.
This issues with Holder's story are largely symptomatic of the weaker entries, whose authors seem to assume that Singapore lacks sufficient stimulation and inspiration for their tale's setting, and therefore introduce radical elements.
We see this too in Audrey Chin's 'A Poor Man', with a foreign worker as protagonist. Though Chin accomplishes subtlety by gradually revealing to the reader that the object of the foreign labourer's affections is a Filipina domestic servant. However, after the ingenious prologue, the entire tale shifts and focuses on the labourer's sexual promiscuity. Chin reveals that the labourer is in sexual relationships with three domestic servants — in fact, the labourer does not partake in any labour at all.
The story would have worked if Chin had stuck to portraying our protagonist as an exotic playboy, but even that aspect quickly takes a backseat. After describing his conquests in detail, we are suddenly told that the labourer is a romantic, too! He wishes to marry one of the domestic servants, Melli-ann. He asks her out on the weekend. He professes his love. Why would he like Melli-ann the most? We are not told. It feels more like a contrivance when you get to the ending and find our protagonist telling Melli-ann that she can share him with his other conquests. All thoughts of marriage are suddenly thrown out and we revert to the playboy protagonist again.
The story suffers from lost potential. Exploring socio-economic forces at play when talking of love holds promise. Sadly, in 'A Poor Man', the story is impeded by its need for drama, where love is reduced to racy details and a lecherous protagonist.
However, there are contributions which tackle the anthology's theme effectively. A notable example would be Raelee Chapman's 'The Gardener', which could be read as a better, nuanced version of 'A Poor Man'. Both feature foreign labourers as main characters, though Chapman's tale is gritty and emotive. There is a tighter link between the concept of love to the protagonist's, and the socio-economic position he is forced to occupy as a low-skilled immigrant.
With crisp, clear prose, Chapman enunciates the gardener's struggle to repress his sadness at having to leave his family behind in India. The choppy nature of his feelings slowly recedes as Chapman's protagonist reaches a cathartic conclusion: "Her cataracts, Ajith's harelip, support for Kommaluri, Neeta's hospital fees, and delivery – little by little his money would help all. He swallowed, coughed, the ocean receding inside him; the sick feeling replaced by pride. He puffed out his chest, took a deep breath, retrieved the shears, and was ready to begin work again."
The subtlety and depth of emotions conveyed by Chapman's prose is emblematic of the anthology's strengths. Singapore Love Stories is at its best when it forgoes contrived complexities for sincerity and vulnerability. Perhaps that is what love is: simple and uncontrived. Chapman's tale understands this as it injects freshness to the cliché that "love is about sacrifice". She reframes the cliché as a soft reconciliation between family, love and duty. In effect, 'The Gardener' manages to take the familiar and elevate it into an empowering tale.
Though Singapore Love Stories is built on a strong premise, it delivers far less than what it promises. Its ambition to decipher what it means "to love and be loved in Singapore with its fluid yet diverse population and particular social constraints" is only half-achieved when one completes the book.
Repetitive motifs and forced complexities rob the anthology of its honesty and clarity. Though, there are some gems in Tay's anthology, one can only lament the collection's lost potential. In a way, the uneven quality of the collection imitates love and life. The nascent beauty in Singapore Love Stories is similar to how finding love can be elusive and difficult at times, a fitting reflection for an anthology that wears its heart on its sleeve.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017