Changing Bus Routes: Presentations of Nostalgia in Singaporean Poetry
By Fabian Chan
Amidst the early onrush of nation-building, Singaporean poets post-independence found themselves confined within an ultramodern, urbanised city – a place oblivious to its past regarded as of little use before the imperatives of economics and political will. It is no wonder then that these poets would register a longing for the past in their work. Indeed, nostalgia has been a prevalent theme within Singaporean poetry, perhaps most apparent in the motif of rapidly changing physical landscapes which reflect, besides the striking transition into modernity, intense feelings of loss.
When confronted with rapid urbanisation, one might be inclined to clothe vanished sites in nostalgic intensity. In the poem 'old house at ang siang hill', Arthur Yap embodies heritage in the metaphor of an ageing house with "straits-born furniture / imported from china", bearing images tied to culture and the past. However, this sense of precious heritage is soon lost in his laconic derision of a "three-storeyed gloom" where "dreams are here before you sleep". Yap's imagery of the past seems out-of-place in modernity, and his allusion to waking dreams associates heritage with frivolous daydreams. This dismissal is complemented by the ironic need to "speak quietly / to the contemporary occupants", bearing hushed, respectful tones of filial piety to the contemporary instead of an ancestral past.
Notably, Yap displays rare engagement with distinctive qualities of Straits-born and China-imported. This, however, is offset by the transition into generalised urbanisation, distinguishing between rich history and modernity's penchant for pragmatism which leaves Singapore void of unique heritage. His brutal conclusion that "nothing much will be missed / eyes not tradition tell you this" asserts nostalgia's insignificance before pragmatic imperatives, and ironically expresses palpable hopelessness at the unsympathetic erasing of heritage.
In 'Changing Bus Routes', Paul Tan presents a nostalgia for lost history through a dilapidated neighbourhood, casually abandoned "as they struck out the roots / Out, out –". Through which, Tan laments heritage's irrelevance in terms of the rapidity with which it has been cast aside. A tone of contempt for "algae-ridden bricks – best to be forgotten" in favour of the economic necessities in "demographic charts" emphasises this. Tan's reference to spirits is also reminiscent of Yap, with the allusion to the past haunting our present, emphasising the ache of nostalgia in the erasure of history with time. However, the distinction of Tan's portrayal lies in his vivid social critique within the irony of a deserted interchange with "no buses" and only "foolish old women in purple samfoos" looking like "ghastly orchids" who queue at an interchange no longer in use. This sorry image of an old landmark captures their pitiful foolishness in strange, gaudy attire. Tan's satirical representation displays a snide critique of change which expresses a stronger sense of nostalgia, absent in Yap's ambivalence.
Likewise, Koh Buck Song offers a unique presentation of nostalgia in 'A Brief History of Toa Payoh' through his explicit evocation of the drastically altering Toa Payoh landscape, which threatens to erase its illustrious history reflected in listing: town centre, bus termini, the first SEAP games. Koh's town whose children "are the mothers and fathers / of Woodlands, Pasir Ris" is personified as patriarch to modern Singapore, conferring upon it an esteemed sense of origin contrasted with prior unflattering portrayals. Paradoxically, Koh also personifies the town as a foetus, "whose amniotic fluids, / swamp and swill, / were channelled seaward / through monsoon drains, / instant rivers," indicating Toa Payoh's place in Singapore's "birth". As ancestor and foetus, the past landscape is defined with the reverence of the old and the potential of the new. Yet, his diction, "swamp and swill" and impersonal reference to being "delivered so fast", expelled by images of massive construction which reflects the priorities of "Economy, Polity and State", harks back to Yap and Tan's dismissive generalisation. This unique contradiction between glorified history and ambivalence of change reveals a confusion in our relationship to the past. His evident regard for heritage reflects a more fervent protest to rapid change, where Tan and Yap's minimalism conveys instead a sense of hopelessness in inevitable loss.
Besides civic landscapes, as Dennis Haskell notes in the introduction of No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (2000), "a troubled sense of Singapore's relationship to nature has also been reflected in its poetry" with the disappearance of natural landscapes factored into depictions of nostalgia. As Haskell noted, the natural landscape, besides being synonymous with a past even before men, has been noted to "encompass a world we share with other creatures, as opposed to urban estates which comprise that which is solely human."
Tan engages with nature through a recollection prior to urbanisation in 'Punggol', where "mudskippers danced here once upon a time", and suggests, in his connotations of dance and a fairytale beginning, levity and joviality in fantasy past. Yet this admiration is brushed off in a line and quickly replaced with a reproach for the past, as each "step became a groan", and "rain whistled", eerily suggestive of haunting spirits, thereby portraying the natural landscapes as uncomfortable and resentful. The sudden and unexplained transition from an admired past to one that is clouded in negative connotation suggests an unceremonious displacement of the past. This is compounded by the imagery of nature's whimsical mudskippers being tossed aside and swampland refilled. Instead, Tan suggests a preference for the comforts and certainty of urbanisation indicated by his sibilance "sure as cement" and orderly imagery of "neat buildings" in contrast with the messy wilderness of nature. Nature's subjugation for human need is epitomised in a captured "anonymous amphibian", its true species irrelevant and its freedom denied, representing the relationship between nature and the humans who casually dominate it in a little boy's cavalier capture of nature's creatures. While certainly ambivalent, Tan's perfect modernity is underlined by an unnatural superficiality of "dead quiet", haunted by guilt in the memory of creatures formerly free, now subdued for child's play. In this regard, Tan conveys nostalgia for nature, masked by modernity which renders one neglectful of the past in such sudden transition. Nature serves as a metaphor for man's past freedom which is increasingly undermined in a modern era where it is hastily being degraded. This indicates a suppression of our natural selves for a comfortable yet fundamentally inauthentic modernity. The changing dynamic between us and nature thus precludes humans from the pure joys of nature, leaving them in modernity's deceptive solitude and unnatural constriction.
Similarly, Koh's displacement of nature in 'Island' highlights the conflict between man and nature. On the western front, the threat of urbanisation is characterised in the alliteration of "lizards [flicking] furtive tongues / at flurries of flies, [who] dart into foliage / as earth cracks, re-aligns / to merging geographies", the harsh consonant sounds indicative of urbanisation's threatening devastation, amidst the literal movement of tectonic plates which suggests the magnitude of change. In defence, "the ways of old / regroup", mobilising for battle in their "wanton conquest of every blade of ground". Koh's engagement with places is evident in his evocation of location, between east and west, which vividly characterises the conflict between nature and man, and by extension past and future. His sense of embattlement is echoed in waves which "beat / without ceasing", suggestive of nature's fervent fight for its survival. Similar to Tan, Koh portrays a conflict between urbanisation and nature in representing the past. However, unlike Tan who presents a largely subjugated past that has submitted to the dominance of modernity, Koh's poetry reflects a battle for the past's survival. This is seen in his evocation of the echoes of waves (symbolic of nature) that, though softly, are still heard. This suggests a persisting sense of nostalgia that advocates for the past amidst the overwhelming rapid developments.
The question of urbanisation's effects is reflected as well in 'Reclamation', a title which works on two levels – the physical urban process of land reclamation in Singapore and, as Koh would desire, a return to the past. Likewise, Koh calls to question the morality and consequences of urbanisation:
Koh, unlike Tan, characterises the past's nature with a strength and force which emphasises the consequences of fast modernisation. Through his existential questions, he presents the dilemma over the viability of perpetual urbanisation which violates the natural order. This too is reflected in his choice of diction and imagery, which conjures brisk progress with "the blade of remorse clanging against the rock of time" or the inevitable revelation of "the mud of penitence for sins long buried" in our construction digging. The guilt and apprehension registered reflects a nostalgia which Koh imbues in the degradation of nature.
On the other hand, in his aptly titled poem 'hurrying ahead', Yap presents, amidst changing landscapes, the merging of nature and man in his simile, which likens the urban road's winding path to that "like a snake / running a slow quarter mile" and subject to the pragmatic critique of modernity, which it needs "shaping round the bend". Likewise, he personifies a house with the living potential of being "mainly dead", as progress renders it obsolete. Yap's personification of the urban unites nature and its creatures with man, against the tide of change. Yet nature is not all in metaphor. Symbolised by grass, nature "returns / to green for an eternity" before it dies "when a drought is on". As opposed to a battle between opposing forces, Yap depicts man and nature in similar circumstances, facing the onslaught of progress and both in the urge of 'hurrying ahead'. This is clear in his repetitive language:
This repetition recalls the cyclical progression of time, as Yap describes the interchanging presence of man and nature. His cycle can be said to depict the natural order of life in perpetual change, as seen in his presentation of the never-ending cycle of landscapes that are degraded, reformed and degraded again. A sense of nostalgia is thus registered in Yap's senseless everlasting progression, where transient states of nature and man call into question a particular past's significance where places are but ephemeral constructs of space. This existential confusion is reflected in rapid modernisation's rendering of "reality more mixed than is imagined", evoking a sense of disorientation as notions of history are challenged. Yet, Yap never indulges in blatant social critique. Unlike Tan and Koh, Yap's characteristic ambivalence is nonetheless present as he proclaims change "not so bad", and all that is gone will come again which ironically creates greater nostalgia for a forgotten past. For Yap, this ambivalence towards events is imperative in his poetic engagement with the reality of change as occurrences regarded as non-events, whether the growth of grass or man's degraded past, are as exceptional as any other. Thus, Yap's everchanging natural landscapes, in their unity with the urban, engage the reality of the universal progression of time and the past rendered inevitably obsolete. Hence, in Yap's poetry, rather than being victim or predator, nature and man are both subject to the grand scheme of evolution and in consequence the nostalgia of change.
Where the quick deterioration of spaces of the past has been pivotal in contributing to the universal sense of nostalgia in Singapore's poetry, the same can also be said for the presentation of the drastic rise of the ultramodern urban city. This emphasises yearning for a bygone Singapore, registered in the modern city's presentation which arose from such rapid change, leaving us little space for transition.
On the surface, Singapore seems to have borne indisputable benefit from its breakneck development, reflected in Koh's 'Stained Glass, Marina Bay' in the sparkling splendour of its "skyscrapers in still silence" with "speckled light patterns", "shifting steadily", his alliteration a reassurance of certainty, and his dazzling ocular imagery a reference to Singapore's vibrancy. Yet, underneath this veneer of perfection, Koh implies that this impressive facade is but a modern construct which masks hidden artificiality, haunted by a subjugated past. This can be seen in the dissonance between the modern landscape and persisting elements of the past. We see this in the contrast between the imagery of the steady modern city and the natural "moon's unsteady flow" (nature having been previously established as indicative of the past). Furthermore, "crumbling seawalls" that seem to be "amorphous blight[s]" upon the city serve as reminders of an unceremoniously cast-aside past. Persisting reminders of the past are also seen in the imagery of a discarded bottle that clinks against the aforementioned seawalls. Accordingly, Koh hints at a nostalgia through a prevailing past which protests its unceremonious displacement.
This is further seen in 'Bridges', where Koh engages with the icon's place amidst a fast-changing modern city. Bridges – whether the Westminster Bridge or the local Sheares Bridge which "[stands] out from a blurred canvas" against the movement of "centuries of water flow" – resemble stability against the uncertainty of change. Thus, as Koh writes, bridges go "mostly unnoticed, of space and time" and their universal transcendence of time's passage reflects a persisting connection to the past. Furthermore, his desire that it would be "sufficient succour / for urban travail and transience" underscores a greater admiration in the desire for the stability of bridges to extend to the rest of Koh's modern landscape, blurred by quick development. Bridges also serve as important imagery in expressing Koh's desire to traverse the great expanse between present and past as a result of rapid change, his desire for bridges symbolising a desperation for connection to places long gone. So nostalgia is reflected in Koh's protest to the flux and change of the modern city.
A similar nostalgia is also reflected amidst the complexities of a drastically changed modern Singapore city in Tan's 'After Ee'. In the poem, Tan reflects on Malayan poet Ee Tiang Hong's life and self-imposed exile following political developments, particularly the Sino-Malay violence of the May 13 Incident, which disturbed him greatly with the profound loss of a past simplicity. Tan's "labyrinthian streets" reflects Malaya's transition into a modern city, complicated by both ideological and urban intricacies against this simpler past. Evident nostalgia is shown in Tan's distasteful allusion of modern politics and urban convolutedness to images of "furtive rats [which] gnaw at / history" and "mud-brown canals, / choked with city effluent", hinting at a repulsive sense of modernity's complexity. Even those who would be oblivious to the oncoming change, "content to buy [their] happiness / in petaling street", "[remain] tempered / by the weight of [Ee's] words". This indicates a persisting nostalgia that invariably haunts the present. This sense of nostalgia is captured in Tan's final stanza where the past is likened to a hibiscus flower which, dancing a traditional ronggeng, snaps while twirling in "the gathering winds" of change.
Yap registers a sense of nostalgia as well in the banality of the city which has displaced old Singapore. As opposed to the complexities of Koh and Tan, Yap's city in "domestic life" is one defined by a uniformity bereft of individual uniqueness with his reference to a city marked by identical buildings:
This sense of repetition confers on Yap's ultramodern Singapore a lack of character, remarking modernisation's ravages on one's uniqueness. His casual tone in "then it's a question only of years" trivialises change's impact, thus creating a further sense of sudden change. Beneath his ambivalence, however, Yap subtly alludes to the ultramodern city's stifling quality on its inhabitants under the impressive urban parlance of "self-contained" units. Yap therefore hints at an underlying yearning against the ultramodern city's banality within the image of a poor amah injuring herself slipping on the floor of a modern city apartment. This, declared "only wrong / when someone dies", illustrates the city's disdain for the old and how the past is unfairly cast aside with little dignity, a hypocrisy amidst the supposed sophistication of developed cities. Yap's ambivalence significantly distinguishes himself from other poets through his engagement with a particular sense of nostalgia which neither glorifies the past, like Koh, or denounces change, as seen in Tan's scathing critique.
Hence, a trend can be noted in the presentations of the three poets, where nostalgia and the consequences of change are masked beneath the seeming perfection of the ultramodern city. The city in Singaporean poetry can thus be said to manifest itself in modernity's complications and banality opposed to a unique yet sincere past. Ironically, the complexity and motion of the modern city, as seen in the poems of Koh and Tan, is associated with the boring banality described by Yap, evoking a sense of rapid change's disorientation through contradictions and confusions.
Poetry in Singapore has indeed served as a medium for many poets to cope with Singapore's drastic change. The spectrum of presentations – from civic sites, to natural landscapes and the ultramodern city – is testament to the diversity of nostalgia for different Singaporeans. Yet, where these poets have revealed differences, a common engagement with changing physical spaces seems to reveal a versatile quality of our urban spaces and their connection to our lives. Likewise, references to intrinsic qualities of modernity, such as its careless abandonment of history, are evident of a shared Singaporean nostalgia.
Inclined as some may be to succumb to this nostalgia and hold fervently to the past, it is noteworthy that the resistance reflected in this essay is not merely a protestation to change, but rather a critique of Singapore's rapid and careless development that blatantly disregards the past. We might note that engagement with the reality of change is inevitable, as Yap writes in a poem in Commonplace (1977):
but perhaps we might hope for a more elegant farewell to history.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021