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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Writing the Word Ren in Open Air
Page 3

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:

casualties of the efficient world
(Singapore's bilingual policy and the Speak Mandarin campaign)

Twenty-two years ago, my parents began to limp
across a road leading out of Singapore

filled with shattered ideograms, plexiglass bits
reflecting the sky of the efficient English world.

Two days before I was born, the Chinese dialect
spooled in their stories and Confucian values from the

like gold malt candy coiled on splintering sticks,
grateful for praise in a prime minister's speech.

Now, the illiterates die silently in old folk's homes
where someone else writes their name on their death

and every day in this country, children are born
in white disinfected rooms; from plastic cribs

a field of red birth-cries blooms briefly
and new named tongues tear the bilingual air.

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:

and this is the beginning of it all,
in the middle of someone
always someone else’s narrative
when one barges in, spewed like an
interruption, our first cries dissonate
(even science cannot make us sans cry)

and here i (he)
am, was not born Joshua Michael David Chan
Kwok Keong (Guo Chiang) nor
Tan Ah Kow, that proverbial arithmetic
           Doggerel example,
smacking of warehouses:


no I am no longer Ah Kow, nor the clerk at the foreign
newly shorn, in christian white, translator
of teochew/hokkien/hakka/henghwa into currency.
guang tong yuan into cantonese dollars. We have gone
these relics and anxieties; I still speak english but no,
                                   (since you asked)

Am no longer quite a
so am I Joshua Chan, Michael Chan, Kwok Keong Chan,
K. Chan, K. K. J. G. M. Chan, even though
I am none of these
                   fictions, even though
I could have been any of these.

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:

as for me,
        I withhold the ending (deliberately, knowingly)
I withhold all endings, and
   without it you shall lose your way through me

you shall never find the moral to the story

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:

Scarlet Letters

RedChamber (Dream of)
Redhill (Bukit Merah)
Red-haired Bridge (Ang Mo Kio)
Red cross
Red book (just a Little)
Red Sea,
Red rivers (Red herring), Red oceans (Another
red herring)
Red wine, red meat,
Red-light district
Red blood
       Red as blood

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:

Kentang (“potato” in Malay)

labelled by friends as kentang, a potato-eater
i struggle with my mother tongue and bungle:
he cannot speak Khek properly
       grandmother tells relatives from the province

her words are like pebbles of uncooked rice
raw and earthy, not softened by heat or tact -
i swallow but cannot digest

i am what i eat, they say

but i know i am not french-fried,
though always tongue-tied by Mandarin,
my second language

perhaps, mashed;
quashed by expectations

maybe even a whipped potato,
stirring in milk but also salt to taste;
whisking, whirling

i imagine being a root, dug from the ground
pulled out from these bowels,
no longer soured by cream
but yellow and glistening;
       soaking, whole, in a bowl of curry

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):

And you finally conclude
      he is dancing

when he is really trying
to say something:
He is forming
                  with his body

he is writing the word
in open air


still practising
the secret calligraphy
of a lifetime.

* Ren is the hanyu pinyin transliteration of the Chinese word for human.

[Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3]

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


Is ethnicity a major force in Singaporean poetry today? Discuss this in the Forum!

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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