Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Book Meme

because I was tagged by strangemessages... of course, unlike in my Straits Times interview, here I am under no compunction to pretend I'm intellectual.

1. One book you have read more than once

Alison Bechdel's "Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For". I wuv her lesbilicious soap opera comic.

2. One book you would want on a desert island

Mike Wilks's "The Ultimate Alphabet". Yeah, it's a picture book. It just happens to list everything from aardvarks to annelids to autogyros to aeolipiles to archeopteryxes under its "A" picture. Aeons of fun.

3. One book that made you laugh

Diana Wynne Jones's "Charmed Life". I used to reread the scene in which the young witch makes the stained glass saints in a cathedral get into fistfights and I'd make my belly ache with laughter.

4. One book that made you cry

J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan". Seriously, it's heartbreaking for an adult to read.

5. One book you wish you had written

Wislawa Szymborska's "View from a Grain of Sand". Siiiggghhh. Pardon me while I cream.

6. One book you wish had never been written

Eowin Colfer's "The Artemis Fowl" series, because it's such poorly written children's fantasy that purports to be bad-ass when it so isn't. I actually don't mind the self-help books, especially regarding motivation - but "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series isn't self-help, it's utter pablum. (Although the ones on childbirth are pretty good.)

7. One book you are currently reading

Dante Alighieri's "Purgatorio". Also Nestor Capoeira's "The Little Capoeira Book".

8. One book you have been meaning to read

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", because my American modernism is so bad. Also Bob Dylan's "Chronicles".

9. One book that changed your life

Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude", which introduced me to the world of magical realism - all the fantasy of children's and folk literature in the structure of the modern novel. Also brought me into the world of Spanish.

10. Now tag five people:

1. mezzo
2. syntaxfree

3. cookiejar
4. quaskx
5. entwerp

Monday, August 28, 2006


Gawd... it's been a while since I updated. I've been busy with SQ21, which you guys can find out more about on, which I've also been maintaining.

Basically, the book's selling obscenely well. Borders and Kino put about 30 copies on their shelves and watched them disappear within nanoseconds.

There are many things I'd love to report on. Including:

1) My lunch at Al Dente with Cyn, the 19 year-old Kenyan Yale student who during a 2-month attachment in Singapore has had affairs with every almost every girl in Singapore . ("They just come up to me and want to touch my skin to see if I'm black all over. They ask, can you dance like Beyonce? And I say, if you want me to!") She was able to give me a breakdown by race of the relative merits of Singapore teenage lesbians (Malay girls are way hot, but they have issues). I'm rather flummoxed - I snap at muthafuckas who call me Jackie Chan, but she just takes objectification in her stride and laps up the cream.

2) My life in capoeira. I've paid $400 for a batizado (a baptism - seriously, it's like a cult, only it'll mostly involve eating Brazilian barbecue and learning how to kick things). In the meantime, I've already received a capoeira name: pata de gato, or cat's paw. It's lovely, but I'm terribly worried that that's somehow a reflection of the fact that I still suck at the game, big-time. Anyhoo, I spent last night as part of the Argola de Ouro capoeira presentation at WOMAD, clapping and singing onstage as my more talented brethren and sistren whooped ass.

3) My quitting NAC. I am now a full-time freelance writer. Except that I've also gone and volunteered with Singapore Biennale for a nominal fee as a tour-guide, performance artist and furry. Seriously. I'll be dressing up as a giant merlion mascot named Mermer with a phallic tail. People, please give me employment!

4) My discovery that, if you run out of conversation while visiting your Hokkien-and-Teochew-speaking grandma in hospital, then telling her garbled Western fairy tales will amuse her, but will also disturb you profoundly. For instance, it will become clear that the entire legend of Snow White is upside-down. It is the old woman who is chased out of her house by the young princess to live in a hovel of dwarves and dosed on poisoned apples. And talking about resurrection from crystal coffins in the arms of handsome princes is just perverse in front of 83-year-olds.

I exhaust myself. Another day, my dears. Buy my book.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

My first book launch!

Book launch: SQ21 - Singapore Queers in the 21st Century!

What is it like for men and women to grow up here, to come out their families, to find love and work and meaning? What are their stories? For the first time in Singapore, the book "SQ21 - Singapore Queers in the 21st Century" answers these questions.

Fifteen men and women including a mother of two gay sons and a hearing impaired gay man share their stories, and their photos (yes photos - this is a real coming out book), showing their true faces and celebrating their against the odds of living full lives as gays and lesbians in Singapore. Written in a light, readable style, these inspirational stories will touch the hearts of everyone, young and old, single or in love, Singaporean and otherwise.

SQ21 is published by Oogachaga Counseling & Support and will be sold at a discounted price at the launch.

Date: Wednesday, 23 August 2006
Time: 7:30 pm
Admission: Free
Venue: Mox bar and cafe, 21 Tanjong Pagar Road, #04-21

Sign interpreting available
More info at http:///

Thursday, August 17, 2006

July to August stuff!

God, I'm pathetic. Fewer and fewer books every month. And these ones are all skinny little books too. Hopefully my doing writing full-time soon will boost my reading.... let's just see if I can be financially solvent to boot.

"The Poems of Nalla Tan"

*Fiction*Andrew Koh's "The Glass Cathedral"
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs"

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"
Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"
Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy"
Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie"

*Graphic Texts*
Terry Moore's "Strangers in Paradise, Pocketbook 1"

Gerrie Lim's "Invisible Trade: High-Class Sex for Sale in Singapore"

Asia Major’s "Children's Letters to God"Alfian Sa'at and W!ld Rice's "Homesick"
Ovidia Yu and W!ld Rice's "The Silence of the Kittens"
Spell #7's "National Language Class" and Ho Tzu Nyen's "Utama: Every Name in History is I"
Eleanor Wong and W!ld Rice's "The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ"
*Films*"Murderball""Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest""Thank You for Smoking"

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History is I" by Spell #7 and Ho Tzu Nyen

Drama Centre Black Box
9-13 August, 2006
Review by Ng Yi-Sheng
(article first appeared in the Substation Magazine in 2006)

It's a curious thing to be Chinese in Singapore. We're the majority race, wielders of tremendous political and economic power, and yet we're never quite native to our country. So much of our national identity lies in Malay culture, yet we only remember this at odd moments - when we hear foreigners assume we're a Muslim country for the crescent on our flag, for instance when we garble the words of our national anthem.

So it's a surprise to encounter "National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History is I", a night of works that centre on the act of the Chinese Singaporean venturing forth into Malay culture to discover a sense of identity. And it's an exceptionally well-curated group of works; one of the best evenings of the Singapore Theatre Festival, channeling the energy and experimentalism of contemporary visual arts into the world of drama.

Even before one enters the Drama Centre Black Box, one is confronted with Ming Wong's "Four Malay Stories", a work of video art comprised of the artist's one-man re-enactments of scenes from four prominent P. Ramlee movies. It's a weird and delightful work, thoroughly accessible to the layman, picked as the STF's "Best Intermission Entertainment" by Life! reporters, and it prepares us for many of the themes we're about to encounter.

Ming is first asking why a Chinese Singaporean shouldn't pay tribute to Ramlee - though revered as a Malaysian icon, he was a great actor/director working in pre-independence Singapore, whose films shaped Malay popular culture on both sides of the Causeway. But by drawing attention to his own inadequacy in filling these shoes (the videos include out-takes of his imperfect Malay), Ming further illustrates the strangeness of entering another culture and claiming it as also your own. He is at once P. Ramlee's puppet and the wilful desecrator of the auteur's body of work - the borders of identity and their respective allotments of power become blurred in the performance.

Spell #7's "National Language Class", directed by Paul Rae, similarly begins with a re-enactment, as Yeo Yann Yann and Effendy Ibrahim play out the Bahasa Melayu class depicted in Chua Mia Tee's 1959 painting of the same name. We're greeted first by Yann Yann, dressed as the nerdiest '50s Chinese woman ever, chattering away with us in Mandarin as we stream in through the doors, and minutes later Effendy enters as a teacher, instructing the audience in basic Malay sentences.

The play's ostensibly situated in a time when many Chinese were learning Malay to discover an empowering new national identity, separate from the strictures of British colonialism. However, the play's less concerned with historical context than exploring what it means to be caught inside a picture - hence Effendy's erasing and rewriting the same date on the blackboard with each lesson, and the progressively deeper analysis of the painting. Teacher and student detail the objects in the room in the Malay and Mandarin, from the wall poster to the rectangular and round tables to the nine students and teacher themselves; they voice theories to explain why particular students are laughing or sleeping. There's an futile obsessiveness to these act, suggesting the dead-endedness of the project of learning Malay - Singapore, after all, broke away from Malaysia, and most Chinese eventually learnt very limited Malay. But the very energy of the drama references the condition of Malay language and culture in Singapore even today: it haunts the Chinese Singaporean like a persistent ghost, seldom taking flesh but never quite vanishing.

Yann Yann's character reveals more of itself across the play - in her actions, her desire to describe the world in her own language becomes evident. I'd wanted there to be an escalating conflict between her and Effendy's character, with her turning the tables on him and exposing the violence of cultural imperialism by forcing him to learn Mandarin, both of them maybe even exploding into dialect or Tamil to explore how history might have chosen yet another path away from our present English and Mandarin-dominated society. Yet Yann Yann never truly usurps the teacher's position, and the few words of Mandarin Effendy speaks are spoken more in kindliness and empathy. This is the limited world of the canvas - the two characters must find compromise in silence, outlining the exchange of glances with waggling fingers, closing the play with a scene of the student patiently waiting after the teacher rises from prayer.

It's a tender yet unsettling piece, working well beyond its original performance art incarnation as a feel-good Malay language class for the public. But its unresolved, mysterious ending is no handicap to the night's performances, especially when the show to follow is Ho Tzu Nyen's "Utama: Every Name in History is I", a performance lecture to explain the inspiration and theory behind his 2003 Substation exhibition of the same title.

"Utama" is presented as a slide show, accompanied by a spoken lecture by the artist, who's currently being featured in the Singapore Biennale. The video from his original work is also presented in its entirety, with some unfortunate repetitions of information from the earlier speech. This is not a big issue - having attended the 2003 exhibition and seen his video work again presented at ICA (Singapore)'s "Islanded", I'm convinced that the performance lecture provides the best medium for communication of his eccentric, elliptical ideas to audiences unused to conceptual art.

Like "National Language Class", Tzu Nyen's piece is also intrigued with history. However, it brushes aside both Chinese and colonial influence on national identity to locate our historical origins in the Malay legend of Sang Nila Utama, the first founder of Singapore. It's the very concept of "origins", in fact, which forms the focus of this work, but this concept is quickly destabilised - Sang Nila's multiplicity of names and dubious lineage (all the way back to Alexander the Great and King David) make him a nonce of a founder, a historical cipher. And while the video narration may be in Malay, to pay homage to our "original" culture, the actors playing Sang Nila and his assistant speak in faux-archaic English. There's as much historical realism here as in the scenes where Chinese actresses recreate the Greek myth of Diana and Actaeon - a fable of how the hunt for a goddess leads only to false images and doom.

"Utama" reduces history to pastiche, glorying in the superficiality of Sang Nila as an icon, parading him down the Esplanade in antique regalia on a trishaw for the benefit of tourists. Tzu Nyen even has us question the authority of the performance medium - he exposes his techniques of simulating canvas paintings with photographic printouts in his exhibition, and compares the setup of a video projection with the deceptive images of Plato's Cave. The work concludes the essay that "Four Malay Stories" began: it acknowledges the significance of a Malay tradition in the Weltanschaung of a Singaporean, Chinese or otherwise, but ultimately celebrates the generative power of the artist to reinterpret those ideas today.

I'm sure "National Language Class/Utama" got its support from various quarters on the principle that it'd promote intercultural understanding. And it is important that the work inspires us with the excitement of learning about a culture close to home, highlighting the fact that we are not just a Chinese city - no matter how much we speak Mandarin in mixed-race company, send children to SAP schools, or promote business in Suzhou. There is a chance that these work will promote other Chinese Singaporeans to read up on the Malay language, or pre-colonial Southeast Asian history, or pre-independence film.

But there's ultimately a very existential thread running through the works of the evening, which reject an essentialist definition of national identity in favour of one formed through individual actions and gestures. Ming Wong's impersonations of film characters, Spell #7's teacher and student's experiments with their own and the other's languages, and Tzu Nyen's revisionist view of legend - all these are acts that engage with Malay culture, but refuse to allow it to subsume the separate identity of the self. Singapore is not a Malay city either, remember - we are a composite of parts, a political fiction.

One is also drawn to recall an opening scene from Royston Tan's movie "15", when a truant gangster kid sings an oddly hybridised lampoon lyric, a parody of a ritual chant he's forced to endure every morning at school. Perched on a rooftop, he intones:

"Mari kita-ra, da jia tiao lou zi sha, bian chen roti prata, sayonara..."*

In the end, perhaps it's fine to contort the words of our anthem. Just as long as you're reinventing them, infusing them with your own meaning.

*The Hokkien Words in this mean "everyone commits suicide, become roti prata."