New storytellers mine Singapore’s contradictions

Are Singaporean stories primed for a pop cultural breakthrough?

The question has been buzzing in my brain lately, fuelled not just by nationalistic pride but by a dose of real world pop culture smoke signals.

First, there is Singapore film-maker Anthony Chen bagging the coveted Camera d'Or prize for his film, Ilo Ilo. The bittersweet tale of a Singapore middleclass family struggling to get along during the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s opened in cinemas here recently.

There is also the string of Singaporean writers whose works have been picked up by American publishers.

Sandi Tan's supernatural epic The Black Isle led the charge last year: It was a pick-of-the-week for trade publication Publishers Weekly, which proclaimed it an "ambitious debut" with "mesmerising power". The paperback is now out in the shops.

Then there is Singapore-born, New York-based Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians - about the excesses of the fabulously wealthy in Singapore - which seems to have seized the imagination of American critics. Janet Maslin of The New York Times, succumbing to its guilty pleasures, declared that the author "keeps the repartee nicely outrageous, the excess wretched and the details wickedly delectable". The movie rights have been snapped up by production company Color Force, which is behind the film adaptation of The Hunger Games (2012).

I am now curious to see how the international reading crowd will take to Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee's Delights: A Singaporean Mystery which will be released by HarperCollins today. Publishers Weekly has already compared the book to Alexander McCall Smith's wildly popular No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and Kirkus Reviews praised its "buoyant prose" and "colourful cast".

Having followed developments in both the literary and film scenes in Singapore, I have been intrigued by how Ilo Ilo, The Black Isle and Crazy Rich Asians signal new milestones in the development of Singapore storytelling.

The pioneers of Singapore writing, born in the early half of the 20th century, had sensibilities forged in the colonial and post-colonial upheavals of Singapore's history. The English-language authors especially struggled with the culture complexities of telling their stories in what was still regarded as a coloniser's language.

I see no such qualms in Tan and Kwan's books, attributable probably to the fact that they belong to the post-1965 generations of Singaporeans who grew up with English as, effectively, their mother tongue.

This development is not new - the 1990s class of Singapore writers, including Dave Chua, Alvin Pang and Yong Shu Hoong, write poetry and short stories in English with a fluency that comes from having been educated in the language. They are aware of its colonial baggage and equally aware of the advantages of writing in a language that is the lingua franca of a cosmopolitan world.

These well-educated, well-travelled writers can tell their cabernets from their merlots but are just as content with bubble tea and grass jelly; appreciate the finer points of molecular cuisine even as they crave nasi lemak and chicken rice; and are perfectly happy to mix designer gear with no-name labels.

This sense of effortlessness - the chameleon-like ability to blend into different cultures - is very much evident in The Black Isle and Crazy Rich Asians, which happily incorporate Singlish formulations as well as Malay and dialects to give the stories their vivid sense of place.

In fact, English is the medium that gives these tales bright new currency as they can reach a Western audience that is now on the prowl for new stories from exotic corners of the world.

Reading The Black Isle and watching Ilo Ilo, what struck me too was the lack of pandering to Western notions of Asian exotica. The Black Isle has its fair share of South-east Asian pontianaks and Japanese tentacle erotica, but the supernatural is part of the tapestry of the tale, helping not just to set the scene but also serving as narrative pivots. In the rather rushed ending, it becomes evident that the supernatural can also be read as a powerful metaphor for the heroine's, and by extension, the author's ambivalent relationship to her homeland.

Similarly in Ilo Ilo, there is none of the gutter glamour that has defined one too many earlier Singaporean darlings on the international film festival circuit. Instead of prostitutes and taxi drivers in the louche lower rungs of Singapore society, the film is an affectionate and clear-eyed depiction of the stolidly middle-class Singapore heartland.

The story is a straight steal from Channel 8 soap opera cliches.

Teck (Chen Tianwen) is retrenched and is struggling to keep the family afloat; Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is pregnant and juggling work and parenting; their son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), left to his own devices out of benign parental neglect, lashes out by misbehaving; and the new maid Terry (Angeli Bayani) has her own worries about money and child-raising.

What rescues it from soppy sentimentality are the uniformly strong performances from the cast and the writer-director's pitch-perfect control of tone.

Chen has said Lee Ang is one of the directors he admires and the influence is evident in Ilo Ilo, which possesses the same empathetic treatment of characters and close, tender observation of the minutiae of daily life.

The cultural markers - Housing Board flats, Tamagotchi, shark's fin soup and that peculiarly 1980s trend of giving chicks as pets - are unmistakably Singaporean.

But the cinematic language that tells this story is universal. And it was a pleasure to see a Singaporean story told with such understated confidence.

This confidence is reflected in all the stories mentioned above. Various aspects of Singapore - from its landscapes to its food mania to its myths - are presented unapologetically.

There are tongue-in-cheek footnotes in Kwan's book explaining certain references and offering translations of snippets of Hokkien and Malay. But the overwhelming impression all three stories convey: these things are what make us Singaporeans - take it or leave it.

Upon reflection, perhaps this ease with Singapore's cultural markers stems from a subconscious belief that Singapore has "made it".

From a Third World country struggling with its traumatic birth, Singapore has become a sleek 21st century First World society. The generations of Singaporeans who have grown up with the country's economic boom have only ever known a Singapore that has overcome the odds to survive and thrive.

There is a subconscious power to the oftrepeated Singapore story of resilience and survival.

This new breed of storytellers mine Singapore's contradictions for stories instead of angst. And they do so in more accessible forms such as film and popular novels that could, conceivably, reach far wider audiences both here and overseas.

Whatever their reach, what I appreciate, as a reader and filmgoer, is the increasing variety of Singapore stories being told in unexpected, pop-py ways. That alone is reason to celebrate.

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