Whatever happened to Gregory Nalpon?
Angus Whitehead attempts to reclaim a forgotten, peculiarly Singaporean writer<BR>
By Angus Whitehead
Archaeology seems to be a uniquely neglected discipline in Singapore. None of the nation-state's universities, not even the flourishing Nanyang Technological University, can boast an archaeology department. The odd unexamined and unexplained bumps in the grass opposite Tengah Air Base (site of an old kampung perhaps, or something older?) that I used to see when travelling along once green and pleasant Old Choa Chu Kang Road are now fast disappearing beneath the umpteenth motorway. Veteran soldiers' tales of stumbling on pre-colonial sunken baths in the depths of the Lim Chu Kang jungle seem unlikely to be verified anytime soon. My fear of cobras and test firings stifle any enthusiasm to check such stories out. Who would want proof of pre-colonial civilisation so far west of Bukit Timah anyway? In Singapore, "old stuff" – whether buildings, folkways or authentic local food – can be easily swept away, buried and forgotten quickly. So, it appears, can talented local writers.
On the publication of the anthology edited by Robert Yeo, Singapore Short Stories (1978), Gregory Nalpon's hauntingly beautiful short story (or was it national allegory?), 'The Rose and the Silver Key', was singled out for praise. Malcolm M. Mercer, in his review of Singapore Short Stories, declared that "[p]oignancy is […] reflected in 'The Rose and the Silver Key' by Gregory Nalpon […] to my mind one of the most stimulating of all the  authors in this collection" (Singapore Book World, Volume 9, 1978). A decade later, the collection was chosen as one of the first local texts to be studied for O-level Literature in English (when that subject was still a flourishing core and compulsory examination subject for all, rather than the marginalised and fast-vanishing one it is today). Thus hundreds of Singaporeans, now in their mid-30s, must have read 'The Rose and the Silver Key'. Indeed thousands – the majority of whom were anxious GCE Literature students – watched dramatised versions of this story, as well as Arthur Yap's 'The Story of a Mask' and Stella Kon's 'The Martyrdom of Helena Rodriguez' performed by a local theatre company during the summer of 1991. Yet few can recall or have even heard of Nalpon now.
Both 'The Rose and the Silver Key' and Yeo's cryptic comment in his 1989 edition of Singapore Short Stories ("The late Gregory Nalpon […] has numerous other stories which await collection and publication.") made me desperate to discover more of Nalpon's stories. Initially I had little luck. While I did discover 'A Girl as Sweet as Alice' in Yeo's Singular Stories (1993), I eventually abandoned hope of locating any further stories by Nalpon. Yet, years later, idly surfing the web, I recovered a third, the John Steinbeck-influenced, mildly satiric proto-Singapore story, 'A Man without Song', published, curiously, in The Straits Times in 1975. National Library Board's NewspaperSG website also yielded fascinating details of Nalpon's work as court advocate for the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers' Union (SMMWU) and as radio and newspaper journalist during the 1950s to the mid-1970s.
The same site also helped me locate and contact Nalpon's daughter and son, Jacinta and Zero Nalpon, who generously provided me with copies of the peculiarly wonderful 'The Knocking on the Door' and 'A Soul for Alice Lim', two of the stories Nalpon published in Her World (1975-1976), as well as three published articles and, fascinatingly, a 1969 birthday present for his old school friend, Singapore's national running coach, Patrick Zehnder: carefully typewritten passages from two of Nalpon's favourite authors, John Steinbeck and Mexican novelist José Rubén Romero.
Later, along with fascinating anecdotes about Nalpon, I received three unpublished stories, 'The Mango Tree', 'An Eye for an Eye' and 'Mei Lin', and the short but evocative and angry 'The Old One-Eyed Woman of Bukit Ho Swee' – stories as good as, if not better than, the already published ones. A steady stream of fresh Nalpon manuscripts followed. So there were indeed numerous Nalpon stories and other writings awaiting collection. Why had they not been collected and published before?
A writer, presumably since his schooldays at St Joseph's Institution, Nalpon was a perfectionist who only seriously considered publishing his stories around 1975, a mere three years before his sudden and untimely death at 40. Both his and subsequently his family's attempts to publish a collection of the stories had been unsuccessful. A substantial amount of sole, fast-disintegrating original manuscripts of Nalpon's stories, radio plays and other writings remained stored precariously in boxes and suitcases in Papworth Everard (the place of residence in England of Nalpon's daughter, Jacinta) and Singapore. My wish to read more stories turned into a desire to help recover, assemble and preserve, through publication, Nalpon's short stories for future readers.
For those who encountered him, Gregory Nalpon the man – strikingly good-looking, painfully lean (helped by regular scuba diving and night swimming on nearby islands), tattooed ("LOVE" and his beloved wife's name on his hands), sans teeth (by choice), red scooter riding ex-trade unionist and peripatetic DJ, journalist and dogged habitué of the Singaporean "ulu" – was both unique and eccentric. The latter adjective is used advisedly after conversation with Zehnder. Nalpon, with his eclectic taste for nature, and life on the little streets of old Singapore, as well as high culture, a colourful character in an increasingly monochromatic nation, somewhat resembles his literary heroes: Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck's Doc in Cannery Row, Dumas' Cyrano, Romero's Pito. Or perhaps, the intoxicated, coffee shop haunting character represented in his sublime essay 'Gentlemen of Leisure'.
Indeed, Nalpon's stories, while largely unknown or ignored by his countrymen, seem to have grown out of a peculiarly rich and eclectic Singaporean life. Even a story as seemingly (deceptively) slight as 'The Appointment', a Christmas ghost story, appears to have come to life out of a lyric, "The breeze and I / are whispering goodbye / to dreams we used to share", from a favourite and repeatedly played record of Nalpon and his family: Caterina Valente's The Breeze and I, in Al Stillman's adaptation of Ernesto Leucona's Andalusian Suite, music also treasured by the couple in the story.
Nalpon was a passionate fan of South American music (including, indispensably, the wonderful Yma Sumac), films and literature, all of which warmly make their presence felt in his very local writing. Quietly unconventional, and socially engaged and concerned, Nalpon is a nomad on a tiny island. His sympathy for and willingness to help Singapore's marginalised – notable whether in his legal representation of the poor and disenfranchised, or helping small Chinese farmers save their pigs from drowning during the bad floods of 1954 – seem to continue into many of his stories. For example:
In celebration of Singapore's independence in August 1965, the 27-year-old Nalpon had tattooed on his left hand the Singapore flag. He later marched proudly in the rain during the first National Day Parade. Yet he was also a staunch and devoted unionist with the SMMWU. Historian C. M. Turnbull observes that the 1968 elections that swept the People's Action Party to power "marked a potentially dangerous abdication of authority by the electorate into the hands of one political group" (History of Singapore). Much more recently, Eddie Tay has noted the consequences of the Singaporean citizen's early abdication of power: "it can be said that everyone living in Singapore is in some measure complicit" (Colony, Nation and Globalisation). Yet from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, as union advocate in Singapore's courts, Nalpon, described by his family as "a patriot", helped resist what can be seen as an institutionalised erosion of employees' rights in a city-state increasingly defined by, and supportive of, predatory capitalism. On one memorable occasion, Nalpon carried a sizeable wastepaper bin into court to make his case for a fair wage for 170 local employees at an expatriate school (as reported in the article 'American School and the $60 WPBs' in The Straits Times, November 29, 1974). Hopefully, transcriptions of Nalpon's committed court performances can be traced in local court or SMMWU archives.
Zehnder remembers Nalpon's penchant for the kinds of coffee shops, sarabat stalls and bars we encounter in stories such as 'A Soul for Anna Lim', 'A Girl as Sweet as Alice', 'Mei Lin', and of course 'The Rose and the Silver Key'. In such lively socially-local environments, Nalpon was never without a book. He would read and write down ideas for stories, plays and essays on the backs of cigarette packets. Was his masterpiece 'The Rose and the Silver Key' also conceived in such an environment?
Nalpon is clearly a "natural" story teller, a point evident on comparing his work with many of the more "literary", local university milieu informed, but often less painlessly readable stories of his contemporaries, collected in Yeo's original two-volume Singapore Short Stories. Collectively, Nalpon's stories, essays, radio plays and other works also comprise a valuable picture of an urban and rural Singapore of Nalpon's 1950s youth, of pig breeders, bus rides out of Changi bus station and into the night of undeveloped Singapore, occasional saloon cars, gangsters, sarabat stalls, samsu shops (how many Singaporeans today know what a samsu shop is?), cinemas (Nalpon's pet name as a child was Maurice, after Maurice Chevalier; his childhood friends made him proud by observing he resembled Tarzan's son, Boy), bar girls, wayang, attap huts, seaside coffee shops on stilts, Siglap residents' relatives arriving by fishing boats from neighbouring islands for boat races along the coast, fortune tellers in Chinese cemeteries, fresh water wells, hunters with guns, rubber trees and pre-mechanised bee hoon factories. In short, a Singapore that, as Nalpon himself was all too aware of, was fast disappearing.
Such a fondness for his personal, pre-development Singapore, an organically local-multicultural milieu barely imaginable today, was surely coloured by his upbringing and continued family life at the Nalpon family house at Jalan Soo Bee, then close to the sea at Changi: "We are to meet today at six in the evening at the sea front where the coffeeshop used to stand on stilts in the sea" ('The Appointment'). These stories, often conspicuously short, with a slight hint of melodrama, seem to gesture to commercial publication in popular local magazines. While 'Mei Lin' draws on Nalpon's journalist career and earlier 1950s travels in Siam, Borneo and Malaya, in other stories, notably 'A Man Without Song' and 'The Old Woman of Bukit Ho Swee', a careful reader can detect the Japanese occupation, participants in and witnesses of the Malayan "emergency", the riots of the 1950s and 1960s, the withdrawal of British troops, and the Bukit Ho Swee fire.
At the same time, it seems significant that Nalpon, dying in 1978, did not live to witness then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's introduction of the national Speak Mandarin campaign and its consequences. Nalpon's refreshingly unique cross-cultural lens in his stories suggests an alternative kind of nation-building, described by Shirley Lim as a "provisional, unsettled, improvising identity-formation", celebrating the national via democratised, undemonstrative local and mutual appreciations of otherness. Like Lloyd Fernando and Goh Poh Seng, Nalpon "contribut[es] to a counter-tradition, resisting the sometimes unsubtle official encouragement of literature that supports and celebrates nation-building projects" ('Introduction: 1965-1990', Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature). Few other Singaporean writers of the 1970s – just a few years after serious racial riots – so adroitly, joyously represents, even enters, a local ethno-religious culture that is neighbouring, but not his or her own, and continually and ambiguously crosses local cultures, while privileging none.
Nalpon, a descendant of French-speaking South Indian Catholics, might have been mistaken as a Eurasian. He certainly seems to playfully deploy similar cultural ambiguities in his stories' representations of Fatimah, Alice, Greenwater Boy, and Masood and his family. In the black dog spirit pinned by nails in the upper branches of a mango tree that supports Awang, Minah and Ruqayya's house in 'The Mango Tree', the apparently-insane Ruqayya's erotic affection for the tree, Fatimah's apparel, and even the description of the rose in 'The Rose and the Silver Key', we encounter Malay, Indian, Chinese, Western and other cultures richly fused through Nalpon's unique, eclectically-fed imagination. The bright, richly inconsistent beauty of the world of these stories is often complemented by or suddenly shot through with death, and disturbing human and/or supernatural violence invariably occurring in a carbide or kerosene lamp lit night. Indeed one might ask oneself why Nalpon found so much death and violence at Singapore's local, undeveloped indigenous-exogamous heart? Might we call, for instance, 'The Mango Tree', 'An Eye for an Eye', 'A Soul for Anna Lim' or even 'A Knocking at the Door' examples of an early postcolonial Singapore gothic capturing at some level a vibrant, potentially dangerous world on the cusp of disappearing forever? Take for example:
In contrast to his local literary contemporaries, in Nalpon's stories there is little sense of an engagement with the present, but rather a gesturing back to the "ulu" past of his childhood. But Nalpon, eccentric, freethinking rather than subversive, was also ahead of his time in his local cosmopolitanism. A media-hungry citizen of the world, who never travelled much further than 1950s Siam and Malaya (though he interviewed John and Hayley Mills in Sydney and imagined hitchhiking with Zehnder to England), seems a local idiosyncrasy: an Indian-Singaporean writer largely unfettered by stances of nation and culture. Yet such imaginative and socially conscious writing in the increasingly authoritarian Singapore of the 1970s was not without personal cost. For Nalpon's sister Bridget, "in his writings, Gregory represented the unheard voice of the Singapore people and their culture. I think he was misunderstood, ignored and often lonely" (email to author, November 4, 2012).
Too little known during his lifetime and neglected after his death, Nalpon will, I am sure, ultimately come to be regarded as one of Singapore's most exciting, colourful, genuinely enlightened and inventive early writers, as well as an evocative chronicler of a distinctively different, lost Singapore. It is hoped that through Epigram Books' welcome publication in this summer of 2013 a (three-decade overdue) first collection of his stories, essays and other writings, Nalpon's accessible, memorable and gratifyingly ambiguous stories will finally obtain the readership they deserve.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013