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Ng Yi-Sheng’s Lion City is a collection of short stories concerned with “trying to figure out how to encapsulate the notion of Singapore with all its diversity of ethnicities and histories.”[1] Co-winner of the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize and recipient of Best Literary Work at the 2019 Singapore Book Awards, Ng’s attempt at situating Singapore’s postcolonial hybrid identity through his work forces readers to pause and reconsider Singapore’s place in the world before further progress is made.

Described as a work that engages with “myth, magical realism and contemporary sci-fi,” reading Lion City through the theoretical framework of simultaneous engagement and resistance is particularly useful. Derived from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey, simultaneous engagement and resistance are concerned with how “black people created their own unique vernacular structures and relished in the double play that these forms bore to white forms” when freed from the white person’s gaze.[2] This framework builds upon the importance of repetition and revision to black artistic forms and the “signal difference” within such repetition. Following his observation that this theory of criticism is not “only black” since “all texts Signify upon other texts, in motivated and unmotivated ways,” I argue that this theory remains useful for scrutinizing postcolonial literature and its discourse on power generally.

In applying this to Lion City, it is important to note that postcolonial literature simultaneously engages with and resists a wide variety of sources. Herein, Ng engages with myths, whether local or foreign, traditional or urban, to reconsider how Singapore had been imagined whether through its colonial history or its future ambitions. Moreover, Ng’s reconstruction of Singapore also disrupts hegemonic thoughts through his experiments with forms and narrative techniques. While this informs the collection generally, I will demonstrate this by focusing on two short stories: a fictionalized academic paper titled ‘The Boy, the Swordfish, the Bleeding Island,’ and ‘Garden,’ which is a convention-breaking, write-your-own-adventure story.

Fishing Village

To contextualize Ng’s go at simultaneous engagement and resistance, the consistency between the titles of the first three stories and state-sanctioned narratives like the city-state’s tourism board is important. A direct translation of the Sanskrit words forming Singapore’s native Malay name, ‘Lion City’ engages with the country’s namesake and the bestial image through which the city-state is commonly framed.[3] Meanwhile, ‘Hub’ echoes Singapore’s position as an “entrepot trade hub” and its overarching national aspirations.[4] Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, declarations had likewise been made on the country’s place as a “global logistics hub” due to the central role it plays in connecting the world.[5]

Meanwhile, ‘Fishing Village’ references and confronts the country’s precolonial past as a “humble”[6] and “sleepy”[7] village. This descriptor is also repeated in the plaque of a commemorative statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British statesman who established Singapore as a trading post for the East India Company in 1819.[8] Erected in 1972, years after Singapore’s independence, it likewise refers to the city-state as an “obscure fishing village” notwithstanding evidence to the contrary.[9] Positioned second after the titular ‘Lion City,’ it crucially sets the collection’s tone by demonstrating its intent to repostulate imaginings of Singapore. Herein, simultaneous engagement and resistance can be observed through the annual emergence of the duyungs, Malay for ‘Mermaid’, on “the hottest day of the calendar” as the country “whistle in dreamland.”[10] By framing the mermaids as the nation’s “first people” and depicting them fishing, Ng simultaneously affirms and subverts the myth about the country’s precolonial history by playing upon how the nation’s past had been falsely mythologized and imbuing his narrative with magic rooted in folklore. Of note is also how the duyungs fished for “bounty” that would leave the sleeping populace “emptier, [their] eyes more false, [and their] chests more hollow” even though what they lost was unnoticeable.[11] Herein, Ng challenges the economic subtext of fishing and the assumed promise of wealth and riches that comes with the harvesting of such natural, material resources by emphasizing the consequences of losing something non-tangible.

The government’s continued use of such colonial legacies alongside Ng’s appropriation of the same is interesting in several ways. Aside from demonstrating how simultaneous engagement and resistance remain applicable, whether in 1972 or 2018, it also suggests that simultaneous engagement and resistance can take shape in many different ways. Even though Singapore’s vibrant precolonial history is erased, this image had been repurposed to fuel its tourism. Likewise, it also inspired cultural productions like Ng’s collection, which sells colonial fantasy while simultaneously dismantling it.

The Boy, the Swordfish, the Bleeding Island

Demonstrating Ng’s awareness of the usefulness of myths to postcolonial literature is ‘The Boy, the Swordfish, the Bleeding Island,’ which interrogates the significance of Singaporean folklore and the country’s changing relationship with it across time through an academic essay. Centered on Hang Nadim, an origin myth explaining the “deep crimson hue of Singapore’s soil,”[12] each of its three sections look into the legend from a different perspective. Beginning with the story as told by the Sejarah Melayu, the paper explicitly engages with the myth by discussing the difficulties with interpreting them like the differences between oral accounts and their lack of scientific basis.[13] Nonetheless, it highlights their moralistic importance by emphasizing the karmic consequences of the King’s actions.[14]

The next section of the paper resists the Hang Nadim myth by analyzing an adaptation of it through a fictional series of books that it posits as real, similar to Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.’ Accordingly, the paper seemingly reflects upon what Ng does in Lion City itself by arguing that these retellings can be read as a “deliberate interrogation of Western historiography” crucial for showing the people’s “power to rewrite the past.”[15] Of note is its claim that “the genre of alternate history was [in 1969] poorly understood” due to the “tempered” “patriotic fervor of Singaporeans” and the socio-economic context then.[16] Given that its author—the fictional Iris Fonseka—had garnered “earnest teenage acolytes, eager for further news of this parallel Singapore, so much mightier than their own” by its sequel,[17] the dynamism underscoring how simultaneous engagement and resistance is performed and received is shown as it changes in tandem with the needs of the populace and the socio-economic landscape. Following the subsequent publication of the paper, which hints at the further advancement of these interests by way of a scholarly voice, I argue that Ng is emphasizing the interests of postcolonial states like Singapore in reclaiming their global-political spaces in tandem with the maturing national identity.

Ng’s interest in rewriting history and reconstructing how Singapore is seen is moreover highly nuanced. Particularly, the paper considers how context informs content by claiming that the rest of the series “paid little attention to the continued rise of Singapore” since the need to “present a triumphalist vision of the nation’s destiny” was no longer urgent.[18] Problematizing a polarized understanding of simultaneous engagement and resistance is hence the discussion on the last published volume which describes nineteenth-century Europe as impoverished vis-à-vis Singapore which had developed into a “phantasmagorical utopia.”[19] Of note is the observation that in spite of the cliff-hanger ending and the promise that the series would include a final installment, they remain unfulfilled.[20] Herein, the paper also speculates on the silencing of Fonseka by the Internal Security Department.[21] Given that this part of the paper mostly keeps to summaries and quotations unlike its active engagement with the text earlier, the lack of analysis hints at the opacity framing such forms of simultaneous engagement and resistance and the difficulties with interpreting them. In other words, these objectives are not always clear or overt. Furthering this is the invocation of the Internal Security Department which alludes to censorship and the tense relationship between such imaginings of national identity with institutional authorities. As opposed to being confined within a colonizer-colonized dynamic, national interest is hence shown to be multifaceted.

Through the scholarly thrust of the paper, how knowledge is formed and constructed is also disrupted and frustrated. Aside from its homage to Borges, Ng’s use of academic writing is also reminiscent of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which employs footnotes as a narrative technique by “parod[ying] and underscor[ing] … notions of intertextuality” and disrupting the use of academic texts as sources of information.[22] Evincing this is how Ng casts doubts on how truth is constructed by attributing fictional claims to actual personalities. Particularly, he puts words into the mouths of Robert Yeo (a Singaporean poet, playwright, novelist, and librettist[23]) and Lim Kay Tong (a Singaporean actor[24]) by citing them and the institutions they were associated with.[25] Ng further blurs the boundaries between the real and the unreal by associating Fonseka with fictional characters such as Charlie Chan[26] from Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a graphic novel that had its publishing grant withdrawn as it was deemed capable of “potentially undermin[ing] the authority of legitimacy of the government and its public institutions.”[27] By parodying the “scholar’s appeal to authority,”[28] Ng makes clear how history is written and hence subject to fallacies such as unreliability as well.

Aside from analyzing the fictional works of the fictional Fonseka, significance can also be gleaned from how its analysis is substantial even though the works discussed are imagined. Myth’s presence within the liminal space between fact and fiction thereby becomes overt as the power of imagination is in itself seen as a force capable of unsettling hegemonic structures. Accordingly, Ng invites contemplation on the stakes involved through simultaneous engagement and resistance and queries whether such acts of resistance need only happen through the written word. Against this backdrop, the final section of the paper discussing Hang Nadim’s tale as told through a lost copy of the Sejarah Melayu that had been purportedly vandalized through the removal of his story is crucial. Herein, the story is replaced with a note claiming that “[t]he story is wrong” and that myths are “words written in the surf … voices in dreams.”[29] Even though a reference to the narrator responsible for this paper which “stakes a claim” to its discovery appears herein, the footnotes attribute it to “Anonymous.” By frustrating attempts at establishing ownership over the written word, Ng invites further contemplation on how simultaneous engagement and resistance are played out within academia. Altogether, broader conceptions of how knowledge is produced, curated, and communicated must be formed to overcome the limitations inherent to the written word.

Garden

Following this notion, a further deconstruction of written narratives is observable in ‘Garden’, the penultimate story of the collection. Herein, Ng employs the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure' genre of fiction where multiple storylines are presented within the texts. However, he distorts the reader’s expectations and experience by resisting its generic conventions. Instead of being written in second person where the reader serves as the story’s protagonist[30], their choices are instead imposed upon the protagonist Anom and whether she should run uphill or downhill.[31] Though the pun on ‘anonymous’ creates room for self-identification, readers are immediately implicated by the power dynamics between Anom and themselves as their choices impact not themselves but another. Herein, Ng appears to be forcing the readers into the shoes of the colonizers who exercised control over the native populace while subjugating their voice yet further nuance may be gleaned from his play with narrative technique. Of note is the unconventional use of the third-person narration such that readers are constantly reminded of the distance between themselves and the story playing out before them, contrary to the sense of immersion central to the genre. By emphasizing the reader’s absence from the narrative, the position of power they are situated within as they decide upon Anom’s fate is ironically confined and limited. Accordingly, Ng can be said to be emphasizing how it is illusory to derive a sense of power from exercising control over another while also highlighting to the readers the position of the colonized subject and the lack of space afforded to them within the historical narrative as their agency is forcibly removed from them.

‘Garden’ also frustrates the process of reading as it begins with the end, specifically, the desired end. However, as opposed to the gruesome endings where Anom ends up as a “shattered corpse,”[32] a “brown-skinned woman, clad in a bloodied kimono,”[33] the target of a bullet “clean between her eyes”[34] or just “gone”[35], this ending is ambiguous and inconclusive as she is simply depicted as “ready.”[36] Further complicating attempts at piecing together a narrative is the naming of each section after a year and the chronological arrangement of the sections, which puts forth an alternative way of reading the short story. Additionally, yet another peculiarity may be gleaned from how its last section—despite its positioning at the very end—is titled ‘1398, again,’ being the same year the short story begins with.[37] Moreover, this last section is also disconnected from the rest of the story as none of the choices leads to that ending. The fragmentation of the short story can hence be read as a reflection of the lost history of the country and an invitation to look into the gaps therein to consider what had been lost within the sanctioned narratives. By employing generic conventions that require readers to read and reread so as to achieve this desired ending and disrupting it by also requiring readers to read against the grain, I argue that Ng’s use of narrative technique sheds light on how perceptions of Singapore may be reconstructed by reevaluating how historical narratives are told.

Aside from the displacement of time, notions of space are also frustrated as ‘Garden’ draws from multiple traditions given Ng’s claim that he was working with “the Malay concept of the garden as a liminal space.”[38] Demonstrating this is the use of historical figures like former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1945[39] and President Halimah Yacob in 2019[40] alongside fictional characters such as Jenny Quantum, a Singaporean DC Comics superhero[41] who appears in 2099.[42] Meanwhile, 2400 features Yva Yolan[43] from Han May’s Star Sapphire, referred to as Singapore’s first sci-fi novel.[44] Ng’s reconstruction of Singapore thereby includes depictions of Singapore from both within and beyond, mirroring its position as a hub that connects the world. Given that this is also evident in ‘The Boy, the Swordfish, the Bleeding Island’ through its juxtaposition of historical figures with literary characters, this reflects upon Lion City generally. By situating Singapore’s history alongside literature from and about Singapore, Lion City, like Mumbo Jumbo, brings forth an intertextuality that makes it “both a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative composed of subtexts, pretexts, post-texts, and narratives-within-narratives.”[45] The significance of this is at least two-fold. On one hand, Ng can be said to be aligning himself with the heavyweights of Singapore’s cultural history in his disruption of the written word. However, the constellation of stars evoked within his work can also be said to place emphasis on the plurality underscoring Singapore’s postcolonial hybrid identity. Amidst the multiplicity of meanings, readers are thereby invited to formulate their own takeaways from the collection in their own reconstruction of Singapore by looking into the “signal difference” within Ng’s repetition of these aspects of the Lion City.


[1] Elaine Chiew, ‘Elaine Chiew Talks to Ng Yi-Sheng, author of Lion City’, Asian Books Blog, 30 October 2018, <http://www.asianbooksblog.com/2018/10/elaine-chiew-talks-to-ng-yi-sheng.html> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[2] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 19.

[3] Singapore Tourism Board, About Singapore (2021), <https://www.visitsingapore.com/travel-guide-tips/about-singapore/> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Choo Yun Ting, ‘Singapore has strengthened status as global logistics hub amid Covid-19 crisis: Chan Chun Sing’, The Straits Times, 27 October 2020, <https://www.straitstimes.com/business/singapore-strengthens-status-as-global-logistics-hub-amid-covid-19-crisis-says-chan-chun> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[6] Singapore Tourism Board, Decades in a day—a guide to SG (2021), <https://www.visitsingapore.com/singapore-itineraries/one-day-in-singapore-itinerary/> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[7] Singapore Tourism Board, History (2021), <https://www.visitsingapore.com/see-do-singapore/history/> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[8] Nile Bowie, ‘Raffles bicentennial anniversary ruffles Singapore’, Asia Times, 26 April 2019, <https://asiatimes.com/2019/04/raffles-bicentennial-anniversary-ruffles-singapore/> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[9] Kwa Chong Guan, ‘700 years of history, a bicentennial and four cycles of settlement’, The Straits Time, 5 January 2018, <https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/700-years-of-history-a-bicentennial-and-four-cycles-of-settlement> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[10] Ng Yi-Sheng, Lion City, (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2018), pp. 10-1.

[11] Ibid, p. 13.

[12] Ibid, p. 121.

[13] Ibid, pp. 120-1.

[14] Ibid, p. 121.

[15] Ibid, p. 124.

[16] Ibid, p. 125.

[17] Ibid, p. 130.

[18] Ibid, pp. 130-1.

[19] Ibid, pp. 131-2.

[20] Ibid, pp. 135-6.

[21] Ibid, p. 136.

[22] Gates, pp. 232-3.

[23] Marsita Omar, Robert Yeo (2011), <https://web.archive.org/web/20220523083437/https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1324_2008-10-09.html> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[24] Melissa Gail Sing, ‘Lim Kay Tong: The Life and Opinions of a Veteran Actor’, Singapore Tatler, 14 August 2015, <https://sg.asiatatler.com/life/lim-kay-tong-the-life-and-opinions-of-a-veteran-actor> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[25] Ng, pp. 124-30.

[26] Ibid, p. 136.

[27] Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, ‘Controversial Singaporean graphic novel wins 'Oscars' of comic world’, CNN, 25 July 2017, <https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/sonny-liew-eisner-singapore/index.html> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[28] Gates, p. 233.

[29] Ng, p. 137.

[30] Jeffrey S. Copeland, ‘Multiple-Storyline Books for Young Adults: Why?’, The English Journal, 76.8 (1987), 52-54.

[31] Ng, pp. 173-4.

[32] Ibid, p. 178.

[33] Ibid, p. 191.

[34] Ibid, p. 195.

[35] Ibid, p. 207.

[36] Ibid, p. 172.

[37] Ibid, p. 207.

[38] Chiew.

[39] Ng, p. 188.

[40] Ibid, p. 194.

[41] ‘Meet S'pore's superhero girl’, The New Paper, 15 June 2012.

[42] Ng, p. 198.

[43] Ibid, p. 204.

[44] Joyce Chng, ‘Singaporean Science Fiction & Fantasy’, SF History, 3 May 2020, <https://asiasfassociation.com/countries/singapore/sf-history/> [accessed 1 January 2021].

[45] Gates, p. 230.


Credits:

Editor: Amanda Jean

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department



Nicholas B. Chua is a London-based writer and editor interested in speculative fiction, how narratives work across mediums and decolonization. He has previously worked with BBC Worldwide, King’s College London, Epigram Books, The Necessary Stage, Singapore’s National Arts Council, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He can be found at http://nicandhisantihegemonicthoughts.medium.com.
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