By Jeremy Tiang
For weeks now, they've seen the enormous flag drift through the sky every weekend, held between two rumbling Chinooks. Today, the actual event, seems almost an anti-climax. They spend so much time rehearsing, says Sophia, pulling trays from the oven. My mum was in the SOKA contingent a few years back. My god, every single weekend for months she was in that field waving her yellow scarf. Nicholas nods from his place on the sofa, having been banished from the kitchen for being too clumsy and male.
They just want it to be perfect, says Huixin, who has come round early to help with the preparations. Everyone will be watching on TV. Even more audience than the Taiwanese serials. Super-embarrassing if someone messes up. She is dancing round the kitchen on noiseless feet, chopping and rinsing as instructed, now and then returning to her wine glass as delicately as a butterfly to nectar. The maid has been given the evening off and instructed not to return before midnight not just so the guests can be sure it was Sophia who cooked, but also because her windowless room off the kitchen is needed as a staging area. At the moment, chips and cruditιs are lined up on her bed, and a tray of meringue nests on the floor await their filling of fruit and cream.
Sophia's National Day dinner is becoming a bit of a ritual. This is only the third year, but already her close friends know to keep the date free. Come round after work, no need to bring anything, well, a bottle of wine if you insist. Just an informal gathering. They sit around reminiscing about college days, the parties they used to have all the time. Nicholas remembers his friendships at the same age, student pubs and too much cider, but Sophia's circle seems to have met in their parents' living rooms, with food instead of alcohol as the focus.
They tried early on to invite both their sets of friends, but the guests separated almost immediately, milk and oil, the Singaporeans in a closed ring on the sofa set, and Nicholas's lot on the balcony if they smoked, in the kitchen if they didn't. Sophia later said, What do you expect, they have nothing in common. Nicholas could reasonably have retorted that his friends that evening came from at least six different countries but instead, he quietly agreed they should take turns to curate the guest list for future parties.
Sophia has gone to some effort decorating the flat. Red and white pennants dangle from the ceiling, and a large merlion balloon, tied to the balcony railing, bobs in the evening breeze. You said you didn't care about all this, protested Nicholas as she roamed the flat with her staple gun. She claimed it was all ironic, but he found himself wondering whether Singapore's famously monolithic education system hadn't left its mark on her after all.
It's time, it's time, says Huixin, and darts over to put the television on. The parade doesn't actually start for another hour, but the girls insist on watching every minute of pre-show coverage. A well-groomed woman in a linen jacket sits amongst the white oblongs of a cheap studio set. She says, Hello, I'm Diana Ser and the girls chorus, Hello, Diana! The stirring music settles down, and Diana's perfectly made-up face shifts and tautens just the right amount to connote excitement as she tells them what's in store this evening.
They angle the screen so they can see it from the kitchen, and return to work, laughing like schoolgirls as they chop onions. Do you remember, says Huixin, and wades into a long story about their time in college, sharing an apartment in their sophomore year, adrift without a meal plan for the first time. There are many culinary disaster stories from this phase of their lives. Now Huixin recounts the occasion Sophia's baked mushrooms caused the entire building to be evacuated. It wasn't my fault at all, Sophia still insists. American fire alarms are far too sensitive. They were only slightly charred.
From the sofa, Nicholas throws his eyes out of focus so the thin figures in the kitchen could be college girls still. He often wishes he'd known Sophia then what he thinks of as her pure state, clean, not yet plated over with experience although there's little chance she'd have been attracted to him-at-nineteen. Being British, he holds a mildly fascination for American universities, colleges rather, as he has seen them portrayed in films. Sometimes he imagines Sophia during her time there, so different than if she'd been with him at Oxford dashing through endless cornfields in tight college sweaters, surrounded by sleek blondes in cut-off jeans and frisky cheerleader outfits.
As if they have burst from his fantasy, a convoy of girls in short skirts tumble onto the field, waving pom-poms in complicated unison. Diana's voice explains that this is a clip of secondary school students rehearsing, as they have been for months, for their part in the event. Pulling back to the studio, she introduces their teacher, an excitable thirtysomething with receding hair and silver-rimmed glasses. My girls are so enthusiastic, he says. I have to shoo them home after practice so their studies don't suffer.
He is followed by a succession of behind-the-scenes volunteers, the make-up artists, the puppet-makers, the choreographers, some shown in their workshops or studios, others sharing Diana's sofa to explain what the occasion means to them, how they have worked as a team, as a family to achieve this. Nicholas is as patriotic as the next man, but he still finds such displays discomfiting, mawkish. Still, the broadcast is handsomely produced, stirring images of young people rehearsing dance steps against the setting sun, of an old man correcting his granddaughter's fingering on the sitar.
And in between, the camera pulls back to the seating stand, where rows of people wave balloons, oddly blank-faced but apparently determined to have a good time. Tickets are free, but must be balloted for months in advance, and every year there are rumours of them changing hands on gumtree or craigslist for hundreds of dollars. Can this really be? But people will buy anything these days.
Huixin cheers as the Government arrives, her little flag held high. The ministers parade in, all in dumpy red-and-white polo shirts and slacks, what Sophia calls 'tragic-casual'. They wave at the crowd and look around for their seats. The Prime Minister is in an odd confection, vermillion triangles slashed across with cream. He's probably wearing some local fashion designer, says Huixin knowingly, Like Michelle Obama.
And now, the announcer's voice booms across the field, It's the moment we've all been waiting for. Ladies and gentlemen, the Red Lions. A trio of fighter jets appear over the city. As they zoom closer, the doorbell rings. Not during the Red Lions, screeches Sophia, her eyes glued to the screen as she walks backwards to the front door. She lets in two people and shushes them, Red Lions, shh. One by one, men in scarlet jumpsuits are disgorged from the planes and tumble gracefully onto the narrow strip of grass. They all land feet first, running from momentum, somehow graceful even while trailing yards of silk behind them.
I don't know why you get so excited, it's exactly the same every year, says Huixin, when the last parachutist has made his drop. But just imagine if one year someone landed in the wrong place or something, wouldn't you want to see it? Huixin snorts. That will never happen. Nothing ever goes wrong on National Day. Do you know, they even seed the clouds the week before so it won't rain on the big day?
Hi, says one of the new guests. I'm Brian. His round, pleasant face is slightly pitted from acne. He holds a firm hand out to Nicholas. Oh, sorry, don't you guys know each other? says Sophia, stricken, as if she has failed some kind of test. No Nicholas has met the wife, Joy, several times, but this is the first time Brian is joining her. Usually only one of us can come out, because of the baby, he explains earnestly, but tonight my mother volunteered to take care of her.
Can we help? says Joy, but Sophia waves her away, already on her way back to the kitchen. It's under control. She mashes olives into tapenade while Huixin hollows out little cucumber boats ready to be filled. On the counter in front of them sit a row of cookbooks, Jamie Oliver and the River Cottage and Mrs Violet Oon, all open to the right page and covered in meticulously detailed post-it notes. Sophia's dinner parties are run with the same military precision as the parade, and she has worked out the timing of each dish with breaks in the schedule for her favourite bits of the show.
Marooned on the sofa with Brian and Joy, Nicholas is saved from the need for conversation by the next item, the army marching in. This is Second Armour Brigade, bellows the announcer. This is Sixth Division Engineers. Watching from her perch, Diana says how proud she is of these brave men, defending our nation. The propaganda parade, Nicholas snorts, then wonders if he has made a faux pas from the unyielding faces of the other two. Later, Sophia will inform him that Brian is fiercely loyal to his unit from National Service, and is perennially disappointed not to be chosen for the parade as part of his reservist duties.
With the army installed in rectangular blocks across the field, the choir file into their tiered stand. A tiny girl, perhaps eight, steps forward and begins the verse, acapella for a few bars before the band gently comes in underneath her. The other singers join her for the chorus. It is that song, the theme song of the year that has been playing everywhere, even spewing out of the new video-screen bus stop ads, a blandly memorable tune. This light is mine, this island light, warbles Huixin, a semi-tone flatter than the choir. Pace yourself, advises Sophia. We'll be hearing it a few times tonight.
The Captain shouts a command in Malay and the troops begin moving again. The camera picks out their firm arms, their rigid faces, and Nicholas feels his crisp European disdain of military matters melting around the edges. He thinks of himself as a pacifist, above the tinsel pomp of soldiers on parade, yet there is something seductively virile about these men in uniform, the regularity of them.
The President appears, in a grey suit, white hair slicked back. He stands awkwardly as the National Anthem plays and the flag is raised. Nicholas looks around the flat, but none of the others show signs of rising to their feet, standing to attention. The parade commander raises a sword to his face, almost kissing it, and shouts, Mr President, the parade is form up ready for inspection, SIR. Nicholas winces at the bad grammar, before reminding himself not to be neo-colonialist.
For a moment, it is like being in a military dictatorship. The President, in a follow-spot, walks at a stately pace down the rows of soldiers, who hold their rifles high, bayonets unsheathed. In the bay beyond the floating stage, gunboats fire into the air. On the giant screens at the back of the stage, a montage plays, telling the story of Singapore's army, boys leaving for National Service, fathers and sons serving in the same unit.
When the President has finished his slow progress, constantly stopping to examine an insignia or share a few words with a second sergeant, he is escorted back to his seat. More orders are shouted, and a line of men raise their rifles into the air and fire, one after another, a string of pops and explosions. Nicholas feels a shiver of unease, more at the cheers of the crowd than the noise how can anyone listen to rifles being cocked and fired without even a whisper of terror? But the other faces in the room are rapt, Brian cocking a finger as if he too held a firearm.
Then the troops are marching off the field and just like that the show of force is over. It is dusk by now, and illuminated screens slide onto the stage while neon-bright lasers slice through the darkening sky. Sophia skips in from the kitchen with a tray of doritos and dip, and when the doorbell goes, pirouettes to answer it. The music shifts from Sousa marches to a soupy mix of national songs as the performers begin to file on, all brightly made-up in neoprene costumes.
Sophia comes back in with a man Nicholas vaguely recognises. Calvin, says Joy reproachfully. Why so late? You missed the whole parade. Calvin sullenly mutters something about having too much work, even on a supposed public holiday, and the constant persecution of being a civil servant. We're civil servants too, says Joy, but he slaps her away. You're teachers, that's not the same thing.
At least you're in time to catch the show, says Brian, pushing the chips in his direction. He grunts and scoops up a handful. A couple of days from now, Nicholas will finally get round to asking his wife why on earth she invited this person and she will reply she felt sorry for him, he doesn't get on with his family and for some reason he's been single forever.
On the stage, a handful of schoolchildren are performing a sketch, over-enunciating every word as they've been trained to. Something about home being where they belong. As is expected, they are scrupulously diverse both boys and girls, two Chinese, one Malay, one Indian, and an indeterminate one who is probably Eurasian. Come quickly, Soph, you're missing the opening, calls Joy, and Huixin darts out with cocktail sausages and napkins. Almost done, she says breathlessly.
By the time the dancing starts, the girls have laid a feast out on the coffee table. It is all finger food, easy to eat without taking your eyes off the screen. They are all now ranged around the TV set, on the sofa and pouffes and armrests, picking at dinner, watching the contingents of adults run out to surround the children, wheeling in and out of each other, droning their song. As a giant silk orchid, the national flower, blossoms behind them, they raise their arms to it. Huixin and Joy join in the chorus, Singapura, oh Singapura, pretty flowers bloom for you and me.
The number lasts no more than 10 minutes, but by the end of it the mood of the evening has been quite transformed. Choreography on such a massive scale must take no less co-ordination than the military parade, Nicholas knows indeed, he read somewhere that the army helps train the schoolchildren in learning the dance steps but this is sweetly unthreatening, soft and gauzy. Even Sophia, global traveller that she is, looks moved by the display. This is a school concert amped up on a massive scale, Nicholas tells himself, but even then it is hard to resist the shameless manipulation of expertly-designed proselytising.
As the first set of performers leave, the screen brightens into another montage, more national songs, more faces saying what this country means to them. More advertising, laughs Huixin, and Joy says, Of course, this whole thing is an advertisement for the country. It is easy to mock the cheap sentimentality of this video, and Nicholas joins in, They'd better make sure they're targeting the right audience. Maybe nobody wants to buy what they have.
If you don't like it, feel free to leave, says Calvin sourly, and there is a frozen moment before everyone leaps in. He didn't mean it like that, says Sophia. At the same time, Huixin wades in with something about how they don't have National Day celebrations in Britain so Nicholas doesn't understand what this is all about, he didn't mean to be offensive. They are apologising on his behalf rather than defending him properly, Nicholas notices, not saying anything himself. There are moments when he wonders how much he will ever fit into this country, how much of himself he will have to slough off before he can glide through these occasions without friction.
Do we need to leave food for anyone? says Joy in a transparent attempt to change the subject there is no danger that they will run out, the girls have prepared enough for at least double the number. Karen's at Brewerkz, she said maybe she'll come later, says Sophia, which they all know means she won't. This happens every year, Karen promising herself to three or four parties and sending drunken texts through the evening deferring her arrival at each.
The next segments of the show are more of the same, hundreds of volunteers moving in formation to make a lion's head, the shape of the island, a glowing torch, in between fluttering their props fans, lanterns, trailing ribbons so ripples quiver over the mass of individuals. Now and then there is a theatrical coup. Blue parachute silk glides suddenly over the space, white sails popping up as if from nowhere. To depict the difficult journeys our immigrant forefathers undertook to arrive here, explains the emcee. As she speaks, the bay glows suddenly as dozens of sampans put on their lights and unfurl sails, bobbing towards the floating stage.
Eat some more, says Sophia, returning from the kitchen with a tray of spiced chicken wings and roquefort arancini, but save room for dessert. Everyone must now be sated, but they continue picking at the savoury mouthfuls while the TV blares more music, more commentary. Remember at uni, your mum would record the parade and post it to us and we thought it was so high-tech because she burnt it to a CD-ROM, not videotape. Joy laughs at the memory, and Brian chips in. Yeah, nowadays the kids are probably live-streaming it on YouTube.
Clear, sinuous erhu music gives way to a bespectacled schoolboy rapping somewhat self-consciously, then bhangra drums pick up this beat and draw in some weepy gamelan. So many different cultures coming together seamlessly, proclaims the announcer, sounding emotional. That sums up everything that's special about Singapore.
More schoolchildren bubble onto the stage. Or the same ones in different costumes? There seems to be an inexhaustible supply. They spread into three groups Chinese fan dancers in pink and blue, Malay girls doing the ronggeng in green, and an Indian kathak group in golden saris. Multi-racialism Singapore style, rejoices the announcer. Multi-racial if you're Chinese, Malay or Indian, says Joy, who is some complicated blend of Portuguese, Javanese and Thai, and frequently complains that the only category available to her on forms is 'Others'. There isn't a pigeonhole for Nicholas either, but he says nothing.
And all across the island, in tiny flats like this, people are sprawled before their TV sets, absorbing the entertainment provided for them, imbibing the messages, overt or not though none particularly subtle and feeling stirrings of patriotism and belonging. Can it be that simple? wonders Nicholas. But it must work at some level. All the Singaporeans in this room have spent a few years abroad, and all have returned, the idea of greener pastures seeming not to occur to them at all.
So, Huixin, are you seeing anyone these days? Calvin has leaned across the table and is rather grotesquely allowing his hand to graze her wrist, his voice probably louder than he means it to be. She shakes her head firmly, but he doesn't seem to see. I thought maybe we could go for a drink, I mean, not all of us, just the two He breaks off as he realises they are all looking. Did he think he could slide this in unnoticed under the performance music?
Huixin jumps up. Excuse me. And she is efficiently stacking dishes, brushing crumbs from the table. Sophia, too, begins whisking glasses into the kitchen. Too late, Nicholas notices the four empty beer bottles at Calvin's feet, and a fifth in his hand. He does not look like a man who can hold his liquor.
I'll help, says Joy gracefully, and heads to the kitchen too. The girls huddle tactfully in the far corner, where they cannot be seen. Calvin looks crestfallen, mumbling that he hadn't meant to upset anyone. Let it go, man, says Brian. This always happens, says Calvin, shaking his head. I'm a nice guy, I asked nicely, but they're never interested in nice guys. Nicholas can think of nothing to say, and sits stiffly as Brian talks about waiting for the right person to come along.
The awkwardness threatens one minute to take over the evening, and the next is dispelled entirely as Huixin comes running into the living room. Fireworks, she cries, and sure enough they are bursting ripely over the night sky, pink chalky streaks across the sky, green whirligigs and yellow stars, fizzling on the TV screen at the same time as the emcee shouts Happy birthday Singapore and the spectators wave the giant inflatable lions they've been given.
They crowd onto the narrow balcony, childishly excited by the spectacle. Outside the air-conditioning, the night air is heavy and humid. Brian raises his glass in a toast and those who brought their drinks out join him. Happy National Day, says Sophia, and unexpectedly hugs Nicholas. She is trembling slightly, from excitement or stray emotion or the stress of the evening.
Back inside, she wheels out a retro hostess trolley with an array of desserts: red agar-agar, profiteroles, cupcakes with lion heads stamped into their icing. The parade is winding down after the climax of the pyrotechnics. When the camera pans over the crowd, some of them are already heading for the exits, trying to beat the carpark rush. All the performers have gathered on the field and are once again singing that song.
By the time the credits roll, the party has entered a comfortable state of vegetative equilibrium, the sense that all rough edges have been smoothed out, at least for tonight, and they can marinate in one another's presence. Sophia proudly produces a variety of caffeinated beverages from their new Nespresso machine, the stimulating effect of coffee seeming to keep people barely awake, rather than actually energising them.
Nicholas finds his mind drifting towards sleep, and when he returns Joy is, for some reason, telling the story of how she met Brian. He looks nervously at Calvin in case coupledom is a sensitive point still, but Calvin seems lulled into gentle stasis, the earlier episode smoothed away, and is looking at them as if they are a distant story, nothing to do with him. It is not, in any case, a particularly riveting tale they were introduced by mutual friends at university, and later discovered they'd trained as teachers in the same batch but never actually met. And then the marriage, the HDB flat and the baby.
And you and Nicholas? says Huixin. You know the story, protests Sophia, but this happens all the time, especially after a few drinks. Huixin wanting to hear it again, like a child, what she calls the fairytale of their marriage.
They are practiced at this, and Nicholas knows when he is expected to chip in, when to laugh or contradict her on trivial details or nod emphatically. He actually left me, she is saying. He wanted to go back to London. I was heartbroken, wasn't I, dear?
He nods, sombrely. You begged me to stay
Asked you to stay
But I wouldn't. I'd had enough this country, it suffocates you, if you aren't careful. So I went away
But then. Sophia threads her arm through his, rests her head on his shoulder. As soon as he got to Heathrow, the minute he touched down, he realised he'd made a terrible mistake. That's what he said to me, a terrible mistake. And without even unpacking his bags, he went straight to the BA counter and bought a ticket back to Singapore.
Nicholas smiles at the top of her head. It actually took him six months to acknowledge that he missed her, and then another two to persuade her to take him back. Still, he must admit her version of events is more engaging. He wonders if she has by now convinced herself of it. I came back for her, he thinks. She pulled me back to this place.
So romantic, Joy is saying. I wish someone would do that for me.
What, leave you and come back again? Brian, raucous. I can do that, the first part anyway, I might forget to come back.
Idiot. I mean, give up everything for me.
What makes you think he's given up anything? Look at him. What else does he need?
And Nicholas, looking at his tasteful flat, his beautiful wife, honestly believes at this moment that he does have everything he needs. Good health, at least for now, and more than enough money to keep them from starvation. Here they are, and the story is as good an organising principle as any to make sense of their lives. He wonders sometimes how long they will stay in this country, and how long they will remain together. At least hearing Sophia talk so brightly about their early days, how they began, makes him feel momentarily hopeful.
Leaning back, looking companionably at his wife's friends, Nicholas sinks into a warm fog of alcohol and something like contentment. His mind fills with the memory of himself returning, the prodigal, not much younger than now but entirely different. The day he stood, indecisive, in the great bronze hall of Changi Terminal 2, wondering if this was right or yet another mistake. Stiff currents of air-conditioning swirled around his body and muffled announcements called out other arrivals. His luggage slumped on a trolley next to him, cumbersome, everything he owned. What next? What next for him?
A second before the fear became overwhelming, he felt a change in temperature and sensed rather than heard her footstep. This is what's next, he thought. This is the next moment. Breath came back into his body, an ocean roaring in his ears. His mind gleaming, the air thick around him, Nicholas steadied himself and turned to see, striding towards him Sophia, her eyes wet, her arms wide with welcome.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013