Entrapment and the Gothic in the Singapore Short Story in English

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

Situations of entrapment by social and economic pressures pervade the Singapore short story. In Wong Swee Hoon's "The Phoenix", a young girl is sold into slavery in a brothel because of extreme poverty in China. Ming Fong becomes a cabaret girl and dreams for a normal life -- a husband, a home, children. She sews a phoenix with rainbow sequins on her red ankle-length cheongsam. "As the legendary phoenix rose from the ashes reincarnated, Ming Fong hoped that she too would be able to rise from her abyss of humiliation, despair and misery." She marries a poor hawker and for a brief moment she is happy until her husband dies suddenly leaving her to care for their daughter. When Ming Fong discovers that her daughter grows up and becomes a cabaret girl, immersing herself in the life her mother had denouced, Ming Fong sees the phoenix "transfixed in a nest of dull flames, with its wings lifted as if in a last gesture before dying. In fact, the phoenix appeared dead, with tongues of flame licking its body." The image of the phoenix without its accompanying association of resurrection captures the sense of despair, of blighted hope.

Similarly in Ong Suat Choo's "The Crooked Shrine" and "The Glass Cage" characters live in socially defined confined spaces almost like imprisonment. Like Chan in Kon's "Ships in the Harbour, Cars in the Street" and Helen in Catherine Lim's "The Marriage", the search for escape is futile. Materialism is one reason for the change in traditional value systems as these become surrendered and it is suggested that entrapment results from materialism and acquisitiveness.

It may be true to say that just as the Gothic genre was a reaction to the strictures of Victorian society, the perception of entrapment saw the growth of the Singaporean Gothic. The opposite of materialism is the strong belief in a spirit world, the world of the uncanny and unexplicable, the source of all superstition.

Two collections by Nicky Moey, Sing A Song of Suspense and Let's Play Games, strongly feature elements of the Gothic in their explorations into the realm of the irrational and supernatural. Catherine Lim's They Do Return also features stories where the dead return to plague the living. The Gothic not only conveys a sense of the lack of restraint but also the sense of helplessness about man. There are circumstances which are beyond his control and he can only succumb to these circumstances. Despite its modern outlook, Singaporean culture is still embedded in folk superstitions and folk lore. Whether he subscribes to an Eastern or Judeo-Christian system of beliefs, the average Singaporean is not entirely sceptical of the existence of a spirit world. It becomes a comforting thought that should one fail to escape from the strictures of modern living, there is the afterlife and spiritual possession where one's self is taken over by another becomes an excuse for the occasional aberration in behaviour.

An issue which springs from Singapore cultural context is one which concerns race and interracial interaction. By looking at interracial marriages and their consequences, the Singapore short story writer exposes that beyond the gestures at racial integration, each race retains their chauvinism. In "Welcome," Baratham suggests that Margaret married Bala because of his skin, sexually stereotyping the dark-skinned man. In "Evening Under the Frangipani," Jeyaretnam shows how insecurities about race and colour finally break up a relationship which would otherwise have been perfect.

Jeyaretnam further developed this theme in his collection First Loves by examining the relationship between Rajiv and Mei Li. However, more than just race and colour, there are so many other dimensions which are crucial to a relationship such as sexuality, commitment and fidelity and shared values. Through the eyes of the protagonist who is Mei Li's brother, the focus shifts like a camera, at once panning and then zooming in to take note of details while the pivot is the main protagonist Ah Leong. Through Ah Leong and the other characters, Jeyaretnam takes up what it means to live in Singapore at a particular time and place. Each story in the collection is complete in itself, yet related to a larger whole. The main characters recur in different stories and have tenous connections with one another. At the same time as there is a sense of community, there is also a sense of fragmentation and alienation which runs through the collection and expresses the social milieu of the 1980's.

First Loves marked a turning point in the literature of Singapore. Hitherto stories tended to take a sweeping look at a segment of society where characters tended to express broad, general features of the community. The focus shifted to looking at individuals within the society. Themes were more intimate rather than social and this would in turn affect how in the subsequent years, writers perceived of their characters slightly differently.

In the first decade, there was close adherence to traditional themes as opposed to exploration and experimentation. There is a growing apprehension of what it means to be Singaporean, to resolve the yet-resolved tensions between culture and change and it is still a process with which writers will continue to grapple with in the years that followed.

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