Changing Spaces: The Extended Metaphor of Singapore’s Urban Transformation
On the interpellation of outside and inside
By Yuen Sin
Singapore is a young nation that is layered with complexities of identity, culture, and belonging. Change is the only constant amid countless transformations of landscape which have taken place in the pursuit of economic success and global recognition, especially after independence. This poses an inevitable obstacle to all Singaporeans who have been swept up in this heated wave of development: In a country where places and locations are but ephemeral constructs of space, how easily can one establish a sense of belonging to the physical landscape of this nation?
Indeed, the medium of space serves a metaphorical function for the elusive search for national identity in Singapore – much as planned development attempts to shape space according to established directions, "places" are but superficial manifestations of space, while the question of what this space inherently constitutes remains a question that possesses no definite answer. This paradoxical sense of displacement that results from the questionable nature of "place" in Singapore is a common theme explored by local writers who have experienced the drastic transformations from independence to present.
I will therefore aim to explore how displacement is manifested in the poetry of Koh Buck Song and Alvin Pang, as well as a collection of essays by Boey Kim Cheng. It has been astutely observed by Wong Soak Koon, in the essay, "Location" and Identity in Robert Yeo's Poetry, published in Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, Vol. 2: Poetry (Ethos Books, 1999), that "sense of 'location' [may be] complicated by simultaneous, overlapping experiences of placement and displacement, of being concomitantly 'inside' and 'outside'" due to the lack of distinctive demarcations.
I further extend this argument by approaching displacement as a disjunction between one's physical surroundings and ability to identify with it. Insiders may experience alienation even as they are physically located within a space, while the position of outsiders is at a double remove – they may be located outside and express a yearning for both physical and emotional belonging. Even if a physical return can be forged, the difference in the topography of their memory and present landscape may also result in displacement, or even placelessness.
On the exterior, Singapore displays evident signs of progress and stability. We see from Koh Buck Song's 'Stained Glass, Marina Bay' from A Brief History of Toa Payoh the manifestations of urban redevelopment in infrastructure of "skyscrapers" that sit "in still silence", with the gleaming facade of "sleek stainless steel sheen" an evocative image of Singapore's prosperity and immaculate reputation. However, the artificial nature of these modern constructs cannot be ignored, as denoted by constant alliteration employed in the above phrases that is unnaturally uniform. The similar sounds created, coupled with the image of nondescript concrete buildings contribute to an overwhelming sense of detachment. 'High Rise' also portrays the urban landscape at night with an atmosphere of calm as observed in the phrase "a canvas of quiet", with the use of "canvas" as an additional layer that suggests the pervasiveness of this occurrence. Yet a prolonged period of "looking long" almost creates an effect of defamiliarisation on the persona, as "perspective divides" his impressions and he is forced to question the strangeness of his experience – "it's odd, isn't it?" "Canvas" then takes on another meaning in suggesting a muted or literally blanketed existence at odds with what is externally presented. Koh suggests that the external manifestations of space in Singapore inevitably have an alienating effect due to the inability of the urban exterior to connect with the internal persona.
Both Pang and Boey similarly experience the stifling quality of this veneer of stability and progress. Paradoxically, the layer of calmness proves to be much more overwhelming and difficult to stomach than the jumbled mix of images, sounds, smells that pervade areas of everyday life in undeveloped Singapore with which the writers continually display a longing and identification. Pang expresses in 'To Go to S'pore' from City of Rain (Ethos Books, 2003) his sentiments of urban sprawl encroaching on his sense of place and belonging – "Weeds, attap, kampong / and five-foot way fell away as the towers rose, / pushing out above the temples". The "towers" as metaphorical signs of development are suggested to be dominant forces that forcefully take over nostalgic places of rural life. The direct placing of "weeds" with past representations of physical landscape, "attap" and "kampong", further associates these places with the negative connotations of "weeds" as something that impedes progress and leaves much to be desired.
Essentially, the interests of the state collide with those of the displaced literary voices discussed. The past is regarded as sullied, or at the very least unbecoming of a world-class nation, and it is necessary to sanitise the nation through a determined purge of the hodgepodge of elements which have defined its existence up till the 1960s. These characterising features which shape a malleable space into a definite place are ruthlessly regarded as "[blights]" akin to the "bottle" which destroys the sleek surface of the landscape in 'Stained Glass, Marina Bay'.
Boey restores locations which were previously free from the alienating force of sanitisation by tapping into what Shirley Geok-lin Lim, in her review of Boey's book of essays, Between Stations (Giramondo, 2009), in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (October 2009), described as the "mnemonic resources of sound and smell". The chapter 'The Smell of Memory' from Between Stations focuses primarily on the elusive sense of smell that is best able to recreate a memory when captured. Portrayal of the Singapore River before the intensive clean-up campaign is deeply evocative – "the acrid smoke of the thrumming engines" melded with "the sawdust smell of gunnysacks, the fetid wafts rising from the tidal flats and listing flotsam". The notion of smell then triggers other senses that complete the picture, such as the onomatopoeic use of "thrumming".
Boey's effusiveness towards such detail which gives rise to an overall impression of vibrancy is placed in juxtaposition with the threatening nature of modern infrastructure. He observes how the "skyscrapers hovered multiplied, ready to wipe out the lower life" in an almost predatory manner, with the imminent arrival of this sanitised reality doubly emphasised – through the physical proximity of the river to the transformations in Boat Quay which was just "opposite" and the textual positioning of this realisation immediately after his lyrical waxing on the past. Boey's diaspora thus stems from his identification with the past and alienation in the present and impending future.
Both Pang and Koh adopt a more pejorative stance in contrast to Boey's attempts to reassure as he reconstructs a vanished past. Koh in 'After Rain' regards rain as a symbol of the sanitisation process which "[absolves] anew the stain of city filth", with the isolation of the last line lending a haunting undertone that almost behaves as a warning in which he states "there is much for you to wash". This sense of disapproval is supported by the use of diction which connotes the intrusive nature of rain as a process of "[distillation]" that perhaps dilutes our sense of identity. Consider also 'Absences' by Pang, in which locations are listed categorically as if striking off a succession of items on the development authority's agenda:
The diverse selection of location names, indicated in bold, which exemplify distinctive Singaporean traits such as the innate love for food, immediately strikes a chord of recognition. However Pang then proceeds to subvert any sense of familiarity through his ironic and calmly detached tone. The counterpointing of the passive form "eaten" against the continuous adjective "eating" suggests the paradox of Taman Serasi's existence as a location – ultimately, the very purpose for its existence, eating, is also an appropriate description for the brutal manner in which it is devoured as part of the redevelopment agenda. The pun on "Uprooted" which literally indicates the removal of trees also has metaphorical implications – the citizens are displaced from their roots when the very places that define them are drastically transformed. Space, as metaphor for national identity, is then illustrated as ironically appropriate here, as the eradication of locations that yields to "absences" parallels the void that the Singaporean identity possesses due to these changes. Pang's efficacy in using a tone of detachment that refrains from explicit expression of anger is clearly demonstrated in the ability to evoke a sense of alienation on the reader's part due to the foreign nature of places encountered.
It is therefore suggested from the above discussion that geographical placement does not necessarily imply a sense of belonging. In Adam Zagajewski's 'To Go to Lvov', Lvov is portrayed by the persona as a fabled city of his childhood which exists only in his imagination – as Tess Lewis stated in 'Adam Zagajewski: The Wry Metaphysician', published in The Hudson Review LVIII (2005). Similarly, Pang's revision of Zagajewski's poem in 'To Go to S'pore' reflects his desire to travel to a Singapore which he can identify with, and which can only be found within his interior vision:
The parallel structure used in "To go to S'pore", "To leave" and "To pack up and go" accompanied by the piling of multiple clauses such as "but early, but only if S'pore exists" within an extended sentence that spans several lines contribute to an overwhelming sense of mission and urgency. Pang offers a critique of the harsh invasion of economic life in Singapore where more attention is paid to the constant act of movement than to the reality of a destination – "now in a hurry/ to just go, and somewhere to come and go from". The shortened form of "S'pore" also differentiates modern Singapore from the ideal destination that is existent in Pang's vision.
The impression of this ideal being purely imaginary is reinforced by the line "if not in a dream, at dusk, when rain glistens on chrome" where the combination of abstract images of a "dream" as well as the fleeting transition of day to night in the temporary period of "dusk" give rise to an enthralling, aesthetic quality. Pang's search for a Singapore that holds personal value to him is explicated in his disclaimer that its existence has to be confirmed beyond tangible proofs of citizenship such as "the colour of my passport" and rather, located in mnemonic details such as "the smell of raintrees". At the heart of his displacement, then, is the disjunction between the ideal destination that he carries and the stark reality of his location.
While Pang, as a displaced insider, looks inwards to his interior vision and beyond his location to find his ideal destination, outsiders like Boey examine foreign locations in order to locate destinations which might parallel notions of belonging and therefore prove ideal. Consider the statement in 'O Calcutta', the opening chapter to Between Stations: "While the only constant in Singapore is change, in Calcutta you can trust the buildings and people to be still there on your next visit." The use of "trust" reveals his opinion that physical changes are tantamount to an act of betrayal that displaces the sense of belonging that he seeks from familiarity. His ideal destination is one that is free from affliction by change, as signalled from the language of constancy in the diction of "same" and "still" throughout the essay. By drawing comparisons between Calcutta and Singapore, he identifies a preference for the foreign location which gives him a sense of home. Travel is a means for the outsider to seek reassurance and familiarity by identifying ideal destinations.
For migrant writers who are outsiders like Boey, however, these "ideal destinations" are not perfect replacements for home. More often than not, they are ideal because they offer some reminder of being "inside" due to their similarity to places that these outsiders have previously inhabited and developed a sense of attachment to. Through the "backward gaze" – as Boey describes in his foreword to his book Another Place (Times Books International, 1992) – of his travel writings and nostalgic discourses, he is able to recover the Singapore of his youth which has long disappeared.
Boey suggests that space is not restricted to geographical boundaries but is interchangeable. His prose employs the technique of "double vision", in which a striking visual image encountered in his travels conjures up a parallel vision in his memory. As he places distance between himself as an individual and his estranged homeland, he is continually reminded of scenes of Singapore through his bifocal lens, which he describes as "this inescapability, this home-haunted chord to all our wanderings" ('Rambling on My Mind', from Between Stations). Essays such as 'Dust and Silverfish Memories' and 'Rambling on My Mind' indicate the recurrence of these parallels.
The narrative structure adopted in 'Dust and Silverfish Memories' encapsulates this state of being in "two places at one time". The segment opens with the persona's acute awareness of his physical presence in a foreign bookstore, as demonstrated from the very immediate action of "My browsing finger trails across the ridges of the creased spines", the detail intricately vivid by zooming in on the movement of a single finger. The books then become metaphors for memories through a shift in perspective, as the persona finds that he is "moving through shelves of memories, memories of book-searching and reading." The act of browsing books acts as a parallel to previous experiences in Singapore bookstores of old to which Boey has developed a sense of attachment. Thus this foreign experience segues into a poetic discourse of memory in which the persona is able to recapture some semblance of belonging by looking backwards and inwards, recalling defining visual elements of the past landscape such as "the red-brick facade of the Library". However, the persona's displacement is still painfully evident from his awareness that the "inside" he is constantly referring back to is non-existent.
'Rambling on My Mind' interweaves personal history with physical displacement, magnifying the persona's sense of loss with parallels drawn between his father and the urban circuit in the heart of the Singapore city. The act of walking draws the persona from his foreign experience of "[falling] in with the walking mediators" in Bodhagaya to a recollection of his backward gaze as he finds himself "in step with [his] father". When space has been altered, the impact on the personal identity is jarring not only because of the loss of familiarity but also due to the loss of the capacity of a location to recover personal history. The depth of Boey's regret is conveyed in the line "Or the vanished places in Singapore calling us to walk them once more, before my father disappeared for good". The use of similar diction in "vanished" and "disappeared" compares the loss of the physical landscape to the loss of his father whom he had come to associate with the landscape, highlighting the irrevocable impossibility of the revival of both landscape and person, resulting in an immense personal displacement.
Even as Boey travels away from his estranged homeland, he is still perpetually comparing and looking "inside" at Singapore. He is able to recollect and recreate experiences which define him through travelling, since vanished places can be called to mind again once foreign parallels are located, thus establishing a sense of identity. Indeed, as he states in 'O Calcutta', travelling is a trait that stems from his ethnic roots and thus a means of locating himself rather than a reaction to displacement – "the Chinese are always leaving home. To be as far from the ancestral hearth as possible and then to pine for it." By yearning for the Singapore of his memories while travelling, the fact that he still regards Singapore as his "ancestral hearth" and home is revealed.
Much as Boey is haunted by Singapore and memories of his experiences there, it is apparent that the evocative landscape that he speaks of is non-existent in the present. Displacement thus occurs for outsiders who travel back "inside" but yet are unable to recover their sense of belonging to this transformed "inside". This state of neither belonging to their external locations or transformed place of origin may relegate them to a state of placelessness.
Memory, and journeying in the realm of memory which takes on a recurring pattern, is suggested by Anne Brewster in her introduction to Arthur Yap's The Space of City Trees (Skoob Books, 2000) "at times to be at odds with the nationalist discourse of economic development which strives to create linear narratives of progression and sequentiality in contrast with the repetitive nature of memory." In other words, the revision of the physical landscape in order to serve a progressive economic function serves to alienate the returning persona who is denied the ability to re-visit his memories.
The recurrent walks that Boey adopts in Singapore are a means of preventing himself from being caught within this linear economic narrative which threatens to replace his sense of history and attachment with continual emphasis on progress. He states, in 'Rambling on My Mind', that "Each walk is a walk forward and backward in time, connecting paths that link different places and times." Walking thus takes on a metaphorical quality, with notions of direction in "forward and backward" indicating how time possesses geographical characteristics that can be mapped out. In the face of unfamiliar surroundings, this act of mapping then enables the persona to recover the past and re-establish its significance in the present.
Can past and present co-exist and eventually integrate? Boey's approach is ambivalent, as he indicates in "and when you pause you wake to the junction where the streets of the past are aligned with those of the present". The use of "aligned" signals an underlying sense of cohesion, yet the momentary nature of a "pause" questions the permanency of this settled state. In contrast, Pang provides an optimistic response in his poem, 'Rain'. While the fall of rain to earth is a process of renewal and change, the nature of rain has been recurrent throughout the course of history and thus possesses the unique ability to assimilate elements of the past and present.
The image of "row" suggests a linear sequence of events, a parallel to the economic narrative of Singapore, yet the nature of "row/upon row" is indicative of a recurrent cycle, which enables a co-existence between economic progress as well as a retrospective approach towards memory, a contrast to the disjunction which has been discussed earlier. The deliberate misalignment of the last line not only generates a striking visual effect of being similar to the direction and shape of rainfall, but also literally exemplifies "displacement" which further illustrates Singapore as a country that is still faced with the overwhelming challenge of negotiating its true identity and location and striking a precarious balance between memory and progress.
The eponymous essay 'Between Stations' establishes the parallel between space and persona in enduring through transformations. Boey may continue to strike readers as a displaced persona through the meandering and extended sentence, "In between, you pass the same stations again and again, stations whose names blur and become interchangeable and you forget if you have a destination," involving the piling of clauses that parallels the drifting nature of his existence with no end point in sight. Yet the ironic observation issued in 'Rambling on My Mind', that "like the city whose changes I so resented, I was changing, transformed" gives a newfound appreciation of his state of continually undergoing changes as being in sync with the constantly changing physical surroundings rather than at odds with it. This then suggests the possibility of a more reconciliatory approach that can be taken when discussing the effects of space rather than a completely disillusioned stance.
When one seeks to tie identity to a specific physical manifestation of space, it is inevitable that this identity is questioned when that space undergoes changes, as exemplified by Pang and Koh who express disgruntlement at the physical transformation of landscape. However, little consideration has been given to the fact that, like its displaced inhabitants, Singapore is a nation in transit struggling to define its identity. Like Pang and Boey who attempt to come to terms with their alienation through the motif of journeying, Singapore is journeying through various reconstructions of space in its attempts to assimilate both the forces of the past and the future, with varying degrees of success. The ever-changing variables that are present in the nation today make the task of defining and examining identity from a literary point of view an inherently complex process, and further conclusions will continue to be drawn as literature in Singapore persists in documenting this process.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013