Cut and press
National mythmaking is explored in a hybrid poetic-documentative collection centred on Singapore's national flower
By Jonathan Chan
The Orchid Folios
In Tan Bee Thiam's Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020), a happiness agent introduces herself to newcomer Ah Bee. Her name is Orked, "like Vanda Miss Joaquim", she quips. The film itself is an attempt at sly satire, nudging and winking at the plasticity of the practices and icons mythicised in contemporary Singapore. Singapore's national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, is a fine example of this, sanitised and flattened as a symbol of uniquely indigenous beauty. Part of Mok Zining's project in The Orchid Folios, then, is to interrogate this symbolic artifice, driven by a mix of postcolonial zeal, a personal engagement with floristry, and a doggedness in repudiating historical injustice. As the collection notes wryly:
That flowers are cultural symbols with malleable, contextual meanings is a notion that functions effectively as cliché. "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts", as Ophelia recounts to Laertes in Hamlet. In Asia, there are lotuses for purity and holiness, chrysanthemums for longevity, and peonies for fortune. Selected in 1981 as Singapore's national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim has assumed a range of meanings that find it suited to Singapore's nationalistic macronarrative, embodying hardiness and resilience amidst its vibrant colours.
In Mok's hands, the orchid vacillates between poetic symbol and historical artefact, its constitution subject to the historic and sociological forces of colonialism and scientism. The apparent hollowing of the significance of the flower is made evident in her interrogation of the flower's history: central to this is the elision of Singaporean Agnes Joaquim's horticultural efforts by colonial authorities, who went on to report the flower's successful cross-breeding to the Gardeners' Chronicle in Victorian England in 1893. In one of the segments taken to define the word 'orchid', Mok writes:
It is in these segments where Mok's impulse toward a kind of reparative narrative justice is strongest, even if they tend toward the prosaic, incorporated through clippings attesting to the reporting asymmetries with regard to the flower's discovery. These include an image of a cutting of the Vanda Miss Joaquim from 1893 and a reproduced image of the First-Class Certificate awarded to Trevor Lawrence, President of the Royal Horticultural Society, for the European debut of the Vanda Miss Joaquim which "he didn't grow".
Mok's presentation of the orchid as a metaphor of Singapore's multiculturalism and hybridity, borne of different genetic and horticultural practices, is perhaps less intuitive than such common images as that of rojak or the juxtaposition of centres of religious worship from different faith traditions. Mok draws on a 1999 speech by then Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong to strengthen the precedence of the metaphor, wherein he illustrates "four overlapping circles in our society", a reference to Singapore's four major ethnic groups, that form "a clover leaf pattern". With the same cynicism of a teacher, Mok adds an annotated question mark to the messiness of his illustration.
The naturalisation of the hybrid flower as part of Singapore's mythos is underscored by the conspicuous hollowing out of the presence of Miss Joaquim herself. The collection notes "Synonyms" for the Vanda Miss Joaquim, including "the Singapore spirit", "hybridity", "multiracialism", "cosmopolitanism", "resilience", and "Singaporean exceptionalism". This forms one of the thematic threads of The Orchid Folios as it examines the co-opting of the flower into a broader effort toward nation-building. The gaudy employment of orchid diplomacy, which Mok captures with a kind of gleeful aplomb, further underpins the place of the orchid as a national symbol peddled for international goodwill. The collection cites such hybrid orchids as "Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher", "Papilionanda Ban Ki-moon Yoo Soon-taek", and "Ascocenda Shahrukh Khan", themselves reading with the inelegance of yoked nomenclature.
Mok also draws on floristry practices as a metaphorical means of incorporating historical and archival material, not only in rehabilitating a sense of the Vanda Miss Joaquim's origins, but also in questioning some of the foundational myths belying Singapore's demography and meritocracy. Clipping, cutting, and rearranging take textual form as Mok presents Raffles's ethnically-demarcated town plan of Singapore, segments of speeches from PAP politicians, and redacts parts of Singapore's pledge. They are recontextualised in the form of examination questions, taking their cues from history papers that implore that students draw inferences from primary material. Such examples include an excerpt from a speech by Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam in 1984 as "Exemplary Arrangement C: 'Colonialism: Adaptive Reuse'", or from Minister for Community Development Wong Kan Seng in 1987 as "Exemplary Arrangement E: 'Propagating Asian Values'".
To a Singaporean reader, the arrangement and excision of historical documents may prove clever if wearisome, especially if such contextualisation is already previously known. Amidst the deluge of material grappling with Singapore's history of colonialism and some of its substantive apprehensions toward intellectual decolonisation, drawn back into public consciousness because of the muddled messaging of the Singapore Bicentennial in 2019, The Orchid Folios doesn't necessarily tread new ground. Rather, novelty lies in the visual interplay of Mok's reassemblages, drawing on the techniques of bricolage, the juxtaposition of speeches from establishment figures, the analysis of academics, and the images of statues erected around Raffles in 2019.
In these respects, Mok distinguishes herself from other ways poets have made use of flowers and gardening as organising metaphors in their work – the flower does not speak anthropomorphically to a gardener as with Louise Glück's The Wild Iris (1992), nor does the book take the shape of an extended ode to the flower, as William Carlos Williams does in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower (1955). The orchid itself is pressed for its national and colonial history and as a way of examining Singapore's models of multiculturalism. The cultivation of the orchid itself serves as the poet's organising literary technique; as she introduces the collection with "Floristry Basics: Cuttings":
In these segments, floristry becomes the morphology of the poem. This is extended in other segments, with the additional "Basics" of horticultural cultivation such as "Roots", "Trimming", and "Growth", as well as more specifically literary recommendations with regard to "Audience", "Synonyms", and "Branding". There is a playfulness to many of these interjections, shape poems of a sort that reflect Mok's ease with visual rearrangements. "Floristry Basics: bhel", in particular, plays with word associations and alliteration until they collapse into a pile of illegible detritus, akin to the discarding of unneeded flower clippings.
Yet, where the symbolic power of the orchid proved most resonant for me was in its employment as a metonym for the speaker's relationship with her mother. Here, floristry and care for the orchid are conduits for the speaker to express the tenderness of a mother-daughter relationship, particularly as her mother nurtures her in her care for the orchids. Interspersed throughout the collection are personal musings, sometimes about orchid-related observations, other times about the speaker's mother. For example:
While some poems are more methodical in outlining the steps necessary to ensure an orchid grows healthily and robustly, others subjugate floristry to the affections between mother and daughter that they draw out.
The middle section, where the orchids remain an important element in the speaker's expression of grief for her declining mother, provides substantial emotional heft. The speaker compares the loosening of "the roots' hold on the soil" to their holding hands, "her fingers / running through mine, and mine through hers until the final / months when all of it started to fall." Again, the techniques of orchid cultivation are employed to create sparser verses, themselves contending with the difficulty of articulating impending loss. This prefigures the only segment of the book where the pages are printed in black, text in white, grief manifesting as the speaker's horrific dream of being forcibly transformed into an orchid.
In the absence of any substantial knowledge of floristry practices, I found myself wanting more about the flower itself, especially images of the orchid's anatomy or visual accompaniments to Mok's verse. Too often, such attention was granted to images of notes, maps, statues, and from orchid-related curios such as a gold-plated orchid or an orchid perfume advertisement. Explicitly identifying the parts of the flower that demand horticultural attention may have served to strengthen the orchid as a metaphor and the subsequent weight of its invocations throughout the collection.
All things considered, Mok Zining's debut is thoughtful, ambitious, and wide-ranging as it carefully unpicks the array of symbolic meanings that the orchid has acquired in Singapore. Styled as a set of folios, Mok's incorporation of different types of material enables her to infuse biological, historical, sociological and postcolonial discourses into her broader project. Perhaps less space could have been ceded to the voices of other figures, ones that threatened to crowd out Mok's writerly presence. One wonders if a greater synthesis of these overlapping threads may have made for a greater emotional and polemic coherence, or if a focus on one thread rather than on many would have achieved the same. On its own, the orchid may not have been a strong enough symbol to pull them all together.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021