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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Writing the Word Ren in Open Air
Page 2

Approaching Chineseness

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.

Chinatown, London

A restaurant buffet of
alleged Chinese food!

Come on, come all
for only £ 4.50,
an infinite spread
of curious curries,
crusty hard buns,
stringy beehoon,
starch that passes
for soup and other clever disguises!

He scoffs at diaspora inventions -

but hungry and hankering
for a hint of the familiar,
he not only eats there,
his tight fist relents
to commit a tip of 70p
on that plastic plate
(solidarity, he thinks);
how much more amazing
when you remember
he enters churches
and museums gratis.

- Paul Tan, Driving Into Rain

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:

On the MTR in Hong Kong: May 1st 1997

It is my face I see
on their hunched shoulders
shoving and roving purposefully
through the gaps seeking,
like water, their own level
of existence, a niche
best suited - and tied -
to their upper class aspirations.

- Felix Cheong, Temptation and Other Poems

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.

Yet it is not my voice I hear.
I can no more empathise
with the hum and drum of Cantonese
than the red tide they fear
overturning lives to the piper's tune
gushing at the ebb of June.

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:

The Central Railway Station in Beijing

Just as soon as Beijing seems to be all,
Its large scale generating awe, there looms
The stretch of Beijing Central, which contains
A cavernous and tensely muted hall
A common crowd, and yet one that is loud
In its own interest: voices raised in hell
Can never fall below a half-shout, edged
With ire always, open on the crowd,
To Tientsin, Shanghai, Shijiazhuang they look.
They murmur, shift their feet, press to the front,
Tremulous with the impetus to stray,
Waiting for an attendant to unhook
The squat gates. “Let us go,” they seem to say.
“Let us fulfil our pullulating wants!”

- Toh Hsien Min, The Enclosure of Love

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.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


About Gui Wei Hsin
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  Other Essays In This Issue

Uncertainty and Scepticism in Arthur Yap
By Cyril Wong.

Ham and Eard: Ideas of Home
By Toh Hsien Min.

Related Links

Singapore Infomap
External link.

Singapore history resources
External link to knowledgenet.

Singapore history bibliography
External link to the National University of Singapore.

Beijing railway station
External link to VirtualTourist.

Singapore's education system
External link to the Ministry of Education.

Singapore Taiji
External link.


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