Writing the Word Ren in Open Air
Approaching Chineseness in recent Singaporean poetry in English
By Gui Wei Hsin
The Diaspora As Nation-State?
With ethnic Chinese comprising 76.8% of the population (according to Singapore Infomap), it is tempting to categorize the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore as a Chinese nation - indeed, prominent neo-Confucian scholar Wei-ming Tu has deemed the island city "a sanitized version of Chinese society." However, the prime architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, pronounced in no uncertain terms two years after the country's independence that the Chinese living in Singapore may be "of Chinese stock and not apologetic about it... But most important, they think in terms of Singapore and Singapore's interests, not of China and China's interest." Yet despite the country's acute awareness of its cultural position as a "Chinese island in a Malay sea" and efforts by its ministers to "dispel any impressions that it is an outpost of China", as Yuen Foong Khong put it, there is no denying that Chineseness has been a key factor in shaping the policies of the dominant People's Action Party. Chineseness - whether it is language, culture, national, political affiliations or a combination of these elements - has greatly affected the government's attitude towards race relations and national identity since the nation-state's independence in August 1965. Whether it was the closure of Chinese-stream high schools and universities because of Communist-instigated student protests, the introduction (and subsequent withdrawal) of Confucianism as a form of moral education in the school system, the "Speak Mandarin Campaigns" that are annually implemented to encourage the use of Mandarin over regional dialects, or the stress on quasi-Confucian values as a mark of distinction and insulation against pervasive Western influence, the Singapore government has over the years negotiated with, suppressed, or celebrated aspects of Chineseness as it sought to forge a nation and construct a cohesive Singaporean identity out of a multiracial community of immigrant descendants.
Chinese Immigration and Settlement In Colonial Singapore
With the official founding of Singapore by the British East India Company in 1819, the island became a trading port and part of the British Straits Settlement, together with the two Malayan cities of Malacca and Penang. Its advantageous geographical position and naturally deep harbor made it a focal point for regional trade and, more importantly, immigration. As Lynn Pan writes, "Within five years of its birth Singapore had a Chinese population of well over three thousand... Singapore's Chinese migrated increasingly from China itself, after the arrival of the first junk from the southern Fukien port of Amoy in 1821. Encouraged to settle in Singapore by its British founder (Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles), they were nearly as numerous as the Malays and were soon to surpass them - so evolving Singapore's most permanently distinctive feature, the predominance of the Chinese race."
The influx of new Chinese immigrants, known as xinke or sinkeh (newcomers), was caused in part by the deterioration of economic conditions in the southern regions of China, together with coeval European expansion in Southeast Asia. The British colonial expansion in Malaya and Singapore especially provided what Yen Ching-hwang has described as "excellent opportunities for Chinese traders, artisans and laborers." These new immigrants arrived with a sojourner mentality, i.e. they had no intention of setting down permanent roots in the island colony, and maintained their affiliations with families and villages back in mainland China through financial remittances as well as participation in local clan or village associations in the colony. These were huaqiao, Chinese sojourners, and the appellation carries with a sense of "fulfilling a duty, and emphasized noble and dignified actions that benefited others as well as oneself." (Wang Gungwu)
However, as the number of immigrants who found economic success in colonial Singapore grew, the desire to return back to mainland China correspondingly decreased. These successful Chinese businessmen found that their stake in the economic expansion of Singapore had become great enough to deter them from returning to the relative poverty and backwardness of their home villages in China. The lack of economic opportunity and the lure of greater possible wealth in the nanyang (South Seas, as Southeast Asia was called) overrode the clan and familial obligations of "filial piety" such that these overseas Chinese began settling down and arranging for their wives, children and kinsmen to emigrate and join them. The Chinese became the largest racial group within ten years of the founding of Singapore, and by 1931 they constituted 74.3 per cent of the population. Thus began the development of a permanent Chinese community in Singapore, separated from mainland China by space and time, yet maintaining affiliative ties with the originary country.
Under British colonial administration, the various ethnic groups in Singapore were segregated into different residential and communal enclaves, in accordance with the colonial "divide and rule policy." As Yen writes, "Communal groups usually clustered around certain districts...and created a typical plural society bound by an economic nexus under British colonial administration...Apart from these loose ties...there were few things that the inhabitants of Singapore had in common. Instead, there were many racial, religious, cultural and linguistic differences to divide them." Thus, while the Chinese majority, in concert with the immigrant Indian, indigenous Malay and Straits-born Chinese (peranakan) people, contributed to the economic development of the trading port, no cohesive sense of community was ever developed. The outbreak of war and subsequent Japanese Occupation of Singapore from February 1942 to September 1945 was another contributing factor to racial divisiveness. Yen writes: "Negatively, the discriminatory Japanese policies towards the different Malayan races sowed seeds of discord among Malays, Chinese and Indians. These seeds were to produce or intensify racial tensions, especially between Malays and Chinese; for example, the largely Chinese anti-Japanese resistance fighters took revenge against some Malays whom they accused of collaborating with the Japanese" (emphasis mine). These racial tensions would later become accentuated in the 1960s during the acrimonious debate over Chinese-Malay equality in the newly formed Malaysian Federation.
Post-World War II: Chineseness, Communism, Communalism
After World War II, Singapore's road to self-government, merger, eventual separation from Malaysia and independence was heavily marked by two trends involving the Chinese - the Communist threat and racial tensions. In the late 1950s a series of labor strikes led to the closure of several Chinese high schools in Singapore as these institutions had become hotbeds of Communist student agitation. Lee Kuan Yew and his close-knit group of colleagues who formed the People's Action Party (PAP) had, in their efforts to dismantle colonialism and attain self-government, to contend with a highly-organized, deeply-passionate and firmly-rooted Communist movement in Malaya and Singapore, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Lee and the first generation of PAP leaders were mostly English-educated ethnic Chinese Singaporeans or Malayans who knew it would be impossible to mobilize the Chinese-speaking public to their cause without first co-opting the Communists into their fold. Lee, himself a staunch anti-Communist, admired the organization and discipline that was the trademark of Communist party organization and their student supporters in local Chinese secondary schools. Such was his awareness of the affective power of Communism on the Chinese population that he declared to a contemporary foreign correspondent, "Any man in Singapore who wants to carry the Chinese-speaking people with him cannot afford to be anti-Communist. The Chinese are very proud of China. If I had to choose between colonialism and communism, I would vote for communism and so would the great majority."
By first allying themselves with the pro-China Communist leaders, Lee and the PAP succeeded in swaying the Chinese-speaking masses over to their cause. Lee's rationale for this was a cynical view of the political sentiments of "Chinese-speaking Singaporeans" who, in his opinion, "traditionally preferred to sit on the fence until they saw clearly which way the wind was blowing. At present they had no confidence in the chances of the non-communist PAP. So they would support even a government that they knew was being manipulated by the communists, if the communists looked like winning in the long run. For they were seen as political agents of a resurgent China whose influence, they believed, would reach down to Singapore within ten years." Lee succeeded in winning the Chinese-speaking population in Singapore to his side of the fence by working initially with the Communists, recruiting ethnic Chinese non-Communists into his faction who then approached the masses in Hakka and Hokkien dialects to dissuade them from Communism. In 1962, the pro-Communist elements in the PAP split to form a separate party called Barisan Sosialis to oppose the merger of Singapore with Malaysia, but Lee's shrewd political manoeuvering and charismatic determination won the day. In short, during this period "the biggest single theme that galvanised the Chinese-speaking was Chinese culture, and the need to preserve Chinese traditions through the Chinese schools...the Communists knew it was a crowd-winner that pulled at Chinese heartstrings, and they worked on it assiduously." The removal of pro-China Communist elements and the elevation of Anglophone ethnic Chinese political leaders would set the standard for the depoliticization of language and culture in years to come. The death blow to Communism in Singapore was Operation Cold Store in February 1961 that detained over a hundred Communist elements, although by that time they had already been neutralized. But another problematic issue involving Chineseness had arisen - communal politics.
At the forefront of the PAP's agenda after Singapore's merger with the Malaysian Federation in 1963 was the creation of a "Malaysian Malaysia," a country that did not accord special privileges to the Malay ethnic majority. With Lee Kuan Yew at its helm, the PAP formed the Malaysian Solidarity Convention (MSC) with other political elements to campaign for this egalitarian ideal. However, their political rivalry on the federal stage with the pro-Malay rights Malaysian Alliance (led by the United Malay National Organization - UMNO) swiftly developed into a heated communal conflict. The PAP soon became cast as "an enemy of the Malay community," as Mohammed Noordin Soopie put it, and the MSC, although originally non-communal in its appeal, ended up attracting "mainly non-Malays, particularly Chinese who regarded the MSC as the means whereby they might retain their cultural identity and rights" (Chew). With the Chinese cheering the PAP and the Malays backing UMNO to the hilt, communal rioting broke out in 1964 between the two ethnic groups, and the increasing political and racial tension eventually led to the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in August 1965. As a result of this traumatic severance of Singapore from the Malaysian federation which the PAP had all along deemed as indispensable to the city-state's survival, the incendiary nature of communal politics and race relations has forever marked the political and social landscape of Singapore.
The PAP In Power: Enabling English, Confusing Confucianism?
After independence, the PAP-dominated Singapore government began implementing a policy of what Ho Chee Lick and Lubna Alsagoff called "utilization-cum-containment of ethnicity" to prevent the threat of racial issues from becoming a political platform for dissent or agitation. Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat argues that, through the policy of "multiracialism", "race is essentialized as an unchanging feature of the population so as to ground various specific ways of disciplining the social body." By stressing the economic imperatives of nation-building and the politics of survival and struggle in an apathetic, if not hostile, geopolitical region, the government made a priority of and successfully introduced the teaching and use of English as a language to provide Singaporean access to the global market and transform the island-nation into an attractive location for foreign investment. The introduction of English also allowed a politically and racially neutral language to become the lingua franca of Chinese, Indian, Malay and other minority people, thus, in theory, building a harmonious population that would further contribute to political and economic stability so badly sought after by capitalist investors.
However, with the growing ubiquity and prominence of English, there arose a growing anxiety over the increasing Westernization of the younger generation of Singaporeans. With greater access to Western entertainment media, in particular American films and TV serials, the government began to regard English-educated Singaporeans as susceptible recipients of "unwholesome Western values". The implementation of second-language education as a way to inculcate the young in school with proper "Asian" values would provide these young minds with the "cultural ballast" necessary to counteract any pernicious Western influence that was the price to pay for English proficiency.
While the Singapore government has officially affirmed its policy of multiculturalism without playing favorites with any of the three major races, one can observe that its efforts to "Asianize" Singaporeans have often been geared initially towards the Chinese majority. Part of this effort to "Asianize" Singaporeans the introduction of and emphasis on Confucian ethics in the mid-1980s through the secondary school curriculum alongside other classes in religious knowledge of all major faiths represented in the country. However, when statistics showed that the Confucian ethics course failed to attract a significant number of ethnic Chinese students, the entire religious knowledge project was dropped, as it was deemed to contribute to racial and religious divisiveness. Another example is the annual "Speak Mandarin" campaign, initiated in 1978, through which Chinese Singaporeans are exhorted to speak, read and write in their mother tongue - notwithstanding the fact that Chinese Singaporeans comprise different dialect groups such as Hokkien (Fujian), Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka among others. The attempt to erase difference by the government among the Chinese Singaporeans can be considered as part of a policy to homogenize intra- and inter-ethnic variances using English as a common, neutral language while simultaneously inscribing a distilled or sublimated sense of ethnicity to act as countervailing cultural ballast.
This historical overview of racial and identity politics in Singapore allows us to observe three confluent discourses of identity construction that take the Chinese Singaporean subject as their operative locus. The first discourse is not immediately consequential as it is generated beyond Singapore's boundaries by the sheer significance of the Chinese diaspora and the hegemony of critical scholarship. These two factors have posited links and continuities between various Chinese diaspora communities with each other and mainland China. It interpellates Chinese Singaporeans in their travels abroad to mainland China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, or during encounters with members of other overseas Chinese communities. Whereas Wei-ming Tu would rank Singapore together with China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as part of the "first symbolic universe" of "cultural China" because he considers that "the life orientation of each of these societies is based in Chinese culture," it is more likely that Chinese Singaporeans might alternatively experience a sense of familiarity based on racial visibility and physical commonality, which is simultaneously qualified by an accompanying alienation due to linguistic cultural and national disparities. They might not therefore necessarily choose to identify themselves with their overseas cousins despite Tu's overarching and conjoining theory of "cultural Chineseness". This interrogation of similarities and differences between various Chinese subjectivities provides interstitial moments in which Singaporean Chineseness can be considered within the context of a diasporic discourse. The second discourse is the depoliticization of race and emphasis on English as a common language for national identity formation concomitant with the Singapore government's pragmatic, capitalist orientation of its citizens towards the global economy. This serves to relegate Chineseness to an obtrusive background. Simultaneous with the second discourse is the third official exhortation for Singaporeans to retain their mother tongues and ethnic heritage in order to avoid becoming overly "Westernized" that foregrounds select elements of Chineseness in the cultural and social realms. It is the expression and negotiation of Chineseness within and against these three discourses that I wish to explore in the following poems.
I do not doubt that the ethnic Chinese Singaporean poets whose work I examine in this paper would unanimously agree that their subjectivities are first and foremost Singaporean by nationality and sentiment, i.e. they would not hesitate to identify themselves and stand up to be counted as Singaporeans in a global crowd. Similarly, they would, upon reflection, acknowledge a certain sentiment of Chineseness to varying personal extents, owing to various markers such as physical attributes, language or customs and traditions. While the question of whether an ethnic Chinese in Singapore is first a "Chinese Singaporean" or a "Singaporean Chinese" has often culminated in the official pronouncement that race must always be subordinate to nation, I would like to investigate how the ontological stability of these various identities - diasporic Chinese, Singaporean or a hyphenated hybrid of Chinese-Singaporean - are interrogated through poetry. I view these poems that engage Chineseness and are written in English by educated, middle-class ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, as subjective articulations resisting the overarching and prescribing narratives of the Singaporean nation-state and Chinese diasporic scholarship. In Chinese Australian critic Ien Ang's succinct words, "If I am inescapably Chinese by descent, I am only sometimes Chinese by consent. When and how is a matter of politics." I will to draw upon Ang's elaboration of Gayatri Spivak's concept of "strategic essentialism" vis-a-vis Chineseness to examine how these poets create a subjective yet strategic space through poetic utterances of self-identity amidst the interpellating politics of identification - in Ang's words, not "to make an ontological, representational statement, but a strategic performative one" that allows an identity to be useful in providing a subject position that enables meaningful communication in particular contexts.
The following poem by Paul Tan gives us a glimpse of the English-speaking Chinese Singaporean's attitude towards other Chinese diaspora communities encountered outside the confines of the city-state.
With ironic incredulity, Tan expresses disdain for London Chinatown's "alleged Chinese food". Tan uses his experience of Chinese cuisine in Singapore as a benchmark, and by his own diasporic standards, judges the London Chinese food inauthentic. He "commit[s] a tip" even though he is disappointed based on the initial feeling that he ought to perform a gesture of "solidarity" with fellow ethnic Chinese. However, the parentheses in the line "(solidarity, he thinks)" indicate that, on reflection, Tan wonders if such cohesion actually exists. Finally, the poem emphasizes the class and cultural gulf between him and London Chinatown: he is a cosmopolitan tourist who "enters churches / and museums gratis", far removed from a restaurant hawking "diaspora inventions" on "plastic plates".
Next, Felix Cheong recounts his experience on a Hong Kong subway:
The racial identification between Cheong and the Hong Kong Chinese is evident: "It is my face I see." Surrounded by members of a homogenous Chinese community, Cheong initially feels at home. This racial similarity is complemented by the social empathy of a shared pragmatic ethos: "hunched shoulders...shoving and roving purposefully" are common in both cities. Furthermore, Cheong makes reference to a Chinese saying that describes the "seeking" of "upper class aspirations": Ren wang gaochu zou, shui wang dichu liu - "Man strives for higher ground, while water flows into lower plains". However, these racial, social and literary frames of reference are qualified in the second half of his poem.
Cheong does not hear his voice because Cantonese in Hong Kong is different from the Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew and perhaps even the Cantonese commonly spoken in Singapore. Cheong's description of China's reclamation of Hong Kong is also ambivalent. He cannot empathize with the Hong Kongers' political anxiety as he is a citizen of a sovereign nation-state, while they are pawns in a transfer of power. Furthermore, China, supposedly the originary homeland of all overseas Chinese, is likened to an apocalyptic "red tide" that will engulf Hong Kong. This is hardly an affectionate or honorific description.
A third poem by Toh Hsien Min describes a scene taking place in China itself:
Toh's English diction, with its measured rhythm and rhymed stanzas, eloquently frames the busy scene. In contrast to Cheong's poem, there is no immediate "I" that identifies with the Chinese around him. If the first discourse of diaspora identity holds true, then the capital city of Beijing ought to "generate awe" in an overseas Chinese like Toh as it "seems to be all" that is symbolic of Chinese culture. Instead, Toh's detached description of the railway station questions the symbolic significance of Beijing. Instead of monolithic Chinese power, Toh sees an infernal scene - "a common crowd" with "voices raised in hell". Later in his poem, Toh expresses his misgivings about seeing China as a dominant, cohesive center and the diaspora as scattered periphery: "One only sees / How difficult their motives are to fix," he writes, referring to the mainland Chinese. Extending this conceptual inversion, Toh traces an impatient movement of people out of and away from Beijing, instead of a tearful, root-seeking return to a homeland. The mainland Chinese themselves, eager to fulfil their "pullulating wants" in China's modernizing economy, are "stray[ing]" into outer areas like Shanghai, and eventually overseas to Singapore and Western countries. From these poems, we observe that the first discourse of transnational cultural connections and a longing for an originary homeland is contested. The sentiments expressed in these poems run contrary to Tu Wei-ming's supposition of a contiguous "cultural China" based on essentialist notions of a "common ancestry and a shared cultural background". These poems highlight the particular differences of the Singaporean Chinese, resisting their inclusion the first symbolic universe of cultural China.
In Singapore itself, Lee Kuan Yew was very much concerned with preserving a depoliticized essence of Chineseness to combat deculturalization during his early years as Prime Minister. He writes in his memoirs: "I wanted to preserve what was good in the Chinese schools, the discipline, self-confidence and moral and social values they instilled in their students, based on Chinese traditions, values and culture...When we use English as the medium of instruction, Confucian values of the family could not be reinforced in school because both teachers and students were multiracial and the textbooks were not in Chinese." At the same time, the various dialects in Singapore were progressively expunged as Lee's government felt that "it would make it easier for students to master English and Mandarin in school if they spoke Mandarin at home and were not burdened by dialects." Sociologist Nirmala Puru Shotam argues that while the state promotes English as the official language of nation building, it also identifies Mandarin as "the symbolic mother tongue of the Chinese in Singapore." Such "forefronting of the mother tongue inevitably emphasizes 'ethnic culture' ", and "language is [equated with] the ethnicity that it gives." The state's educational policy of bilingualism promotes English as the first language and teaches Mandarin as a second language. This achieves three goals: by keeping Mandarin relevant, the state appeases those in the Chinese population who fear a loss of culture due to English-medium education; simultaneously it disciplines under one prescribed linguistic norm internal differences brought about by various Chinese regional languages, the so-called "dialects"; third, it contains Chineseness by subordinating it to the national and global imperatives of English.
This management of language and identity has its human cost, as Teng Qian Xi shows in her poem, published in Seedlings: Winning Entries from the Singapore Student Literary Award 2001:
Teng's poem is charged with trauma and distress. The rise of English in Singapore as the language of social mobility dislocates her Chinese-educated parents and the dialect-speaking elderly - they are the "casualties of the efficient English world". Homogenizing the heterogeneous Chinese population under a single racial equation of "Mandarin" with "Chinese" creates a fracture between "illiterates" who only know regional dialects and the "children... born / in white disinfected rooms" who become "bilingual" only in English and Mandarin. The poem's conclusion alludes to the containment of Chineseness as "new named tongues" "train a person to be of his or her race." To quote Puru Shotam, a person's " "Chineseness" is measured by his or her facility in his or her mother tongue language. In this respect, race is almost always available for hierarchical observation."
Alvin Pang, by contrast, is an English-educated, English-speaking Singaporean Chinese who also speaks his regional language, Teochew. In a recent interview, Pang expresses his thoughts on language. On English: "For us, speaking English is business as usual. I accept that...our adoption of English as the official working language of commerce was the reason for our economic success. That it might have been someone else's language just doesn't occur to me." On dialects: "I am actually very comfortable with dialects more so than most modern Singaporeans. That part of me has very much been with me, my grandfather's legacy. So what if I am not that great with Mandarin, because dialects is really where it's at, where my Chinese heritage is...the Chinese [in Singapore] were an immigrant population all of whom spoke different dialects... They weren't a cohesive bunch, so you couldn't say we have a common culture and language" Pang brings this awareness to bear in his poem 'Epic', from his collection Testing the Silence:
Pang sets up two extreme figures: Tan Ah Kow is an uncouth, dialect-spouting caricature "smacking of warehouses"; the "christian white" "clerk" is a pale Anglicized shadow translating dialects into hard currency. But being Chinese in Singapore has "gone past [the] relics and anxieties" represented by Ah Kow and the clerk. Alvin Pang knows Teochew, but using it does not make him clownish; neither does he feel culturally compromised for having studied in England or speaking English. His concept of Chineseness is that of a Teochew heritage accommodating English-speaking modernity; he is not anxious about Mandarin, the official mother tongue. As such, what he resists in Singapore's bilingual narrative is the exclusive equation of the mother tongue language with identity, ethnicity and morality. In his poem, he unleashes a string of names and initials in different English, dialect and Mandarin combinations, then rounds it all off by saying "I am none of these fictions, even though I could have been any of these". Similarly, his conclusion is a teasing refusal to convey any morally uplifting message:
In summary, Teng Qian Xi points out the serious fractures in Singaporean Chinese consciousness resulting from the state's bilingual policy - it elevates English, prescribes Mandarin and erases regional dialects. On the other hand, Alvin Pang challenges the same official policy's conflation of Mandarin, Chinese ethnicity and moral values. Furthermore, Pang's poem suggests, as sociologist Chua Beng Huat argues, how "Singaporeans, individually or in groups, may strategically appropriate for their own interests, or for their own contestatory purposes... the discursive contents of the attempts by the state to "realize" an identity on their behalf."
Finally, we can sense another perspective in two of Daren Shiau's poems, also from Peninsular:
Shiau's playful juxtaposition of various "red" signifiers and his parenthetical commentary provide a light-hearted destabilization of the ontological stability of Chineseness. The syntactical re-ordering in the lines "Red Chamber (Dream of)" and "Red book (just a Little)" distances Chinese literary heritage and Chinese history with its Communist overtones from the speaker's persona while at the same time laying some claim to it as part of the heritage that is "Red as blood". "Red" here is also reclaimed as an indigenous Singaporean signifier, with places such as "Redhill" which is the literal translation of the Malay name "Bukit Merah" and "Red-haired Bridge (Ang Mo Kio) [Hokkien]" giving it local context. The greatest subversion however lies in the title of the poem itself, "Scarlet Letters". Originally a brand of shame imprinted on convicted adulterers, Shiau uses this scarlet signifier, "Red", to realize a hybrid concept of Chinese-Singaporean-ness that does not have pejorative connotations of adultery. We can also read another of Shiau's poems in this light:
Shiau, like Teng and Pang, engages the issue of bilingualism by subtly inserting the grandmother's interjection "he cannot speak Khek properly" right after the line "i struggle with my mother tongue and bungle." He is making an oblique statement that he considers his mother (or grandmother, as it were) tongue to be the Khek dialect, and not Mandarin, which to him is a "second language." Significantly, he "struggle[s]" with Khek, but with Mandarin he becomes utterly "tongue-tied". No doubt he, like Alvin Pang, would feel that his heritage lies not in the officially associated Mandarin mother tongue, but with the matrilineal language of his family, Khek.
Shiau also negotiates the Western-Asian/English-Chinese dilemma in his poem by using culinary metaphors ("i am what i eat") to categorically consider the various constitutive elements of his persona. The Malay word kentang, meaning potato, is local slang for an English-educated, English-speaking Chinese Singaporean who has little or no knowledge of Chinese language and culture due to an Anglophone upbringing. He dismisses being "french-fried" or a "mashed" or "whipped" potato; the government's and society's "expectation" that he should be fluent in Mandarin makes him "mashed" and "quashed", while the same official expectation would have "whipped" him into shape with its disciplinary action. The space left for Shiau is one of imagination ("i imagine being a root") and uprooting from essentialist identity discourses that creates a hybrid identity of a potato "soaking, whole, in a bowl of curry." The culinary metaphor works even at the end for "curry" is a distinctly Indian dish that has become staple fare in both Chinese and Malay cooking in Singapore. Similarly, the Malay word kentang has been absorbed into the Chinese dialects in Singapore, such that it is normal to hear Chinese-speakers referring colloquially to potatoes by that term. Shiau has taken the originally derogative kentang appellation and given it a new signification in a hybrid, Singaporean context that celebrates it instead.
In conclusion, I propose that in approaching the issue and expressions of being Chinese in Singapore, the question that we should ask is not 'Are Chinese Singaporeans more or less Chinese?' which assumes a universal index of authentic Chineseness, but rather (to paraphrase Ien Ang), 'How do Chinese Singaporeans "appropriate the label of 'Chineseness' in their own right, for their purposes, suitable to and within their own conditions of living"'? I gave this paper the clumsy title of "Approaching Chineseness" instead of simply "Chinese identity" because it is important to distinguish the various formative discourses and subject positions along with the degree of self-identification these poets have with Chineseness. After all, as Ang puts it, "the point is not to dispute the fact that Chineseness exists, but to investigate how this category operates in practice, in different historical, geographical, political and, cultural contexts." This category of "Chinese" can and will be continually contested and redefined by Chinese Singaporeans as they negotiate their self-identity against and within prescribed discourses of identity formation. Poetry is one such creative space that is open to negotiation as Alvin Pang shows us in this final poem that concludes my essay, 'Taiji' (from Testing the Silence):
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002