[Book Review] A Cheeky Memoir That is a Basis for an Exposé

Guards Gone Wild
Loh Teck Yong
Self-published (2018)/ 200 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Security guards often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are sometimes viewed as lazy or ineffective given that most guards one sees are either rotund or getting on in their years. For those who carry out their duties assiduously, they are seen as party-poopers.

Their situation is not helped by the powers that be thinking that the security industry can be improved by slapping individual guards with fines and jail time, thus perpetuating the idea that the problem lies in the individual.

Cue Guards Gone Wild by Loh Teck Yong.

Either by coincidence or telepathy, Loh seemed to have anticipated this change in the security industry by writing about his experiences as a security guard which spanned decades.

Mirroring the cheekiness of the title, Loh’s writing is exuberant, making the book an enjoyable read, which can be devoured in a couple of sittings. One could almost imagine the twinkle in his eye as he scribbles down his first draft.

With anecdotes about know-it-all superiors, uncoöperative colleagues, and impenetrably bureaucratic management, it feels like Loh is shooting the breeze with his readers over post-work drinks.

Hence, imagine my surprise when the second half of the book comes around. While retaining its breezy tone, Loh candidly reveals the tricks security companies get up to make up for the chronic problem of a lack of manpower.

From staging a charade by co-opting guards from other posts during audits to allowing guards to go on 24-hour shifts, these scams—as Loh calls it—are worrying and indicates an underlying systematic problem in the security industry, rather than a problem with a few bad apples.

If any of this is true, Guards Gone Wild must be an initial prescribed reading for lawmakers to rethink their strategy, and an extensive surprise audit is in order for the security industry.

That said, this book will benefit greatly from the guidance of a publishing company to par down certain excesses and correct the inconsistencies in typesetting.

With this book being an entertaining and educational read, it is hard to see why any publishing company would not want to republish this book.

[Book Review] A Documentary of Gia Carangi in Book Form

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Born This Way: Friends, Colleagues, and Coworkers Recall Gia Carangi, the Supermodel Who Defined an Era

 Sacha Lanvin Baumann

Wendell Rickkets (Translator)

Creatspace Independent Publishing Platform (2015)/ 202 pp.

We are all familiar with documentaries of famous people: a narrative of a person’s life and a series of tightly edited interviews. In many ways, Born This Way is a documentary of supermodel Gia Carangi in book form. It is a collection of interviews from a wide range of people which range from personal friends to casual work acquaintances.

However, unlike most documentaries, there is a lightness of touch in the editing of the transcripts. Apart from learning more aspects of Carangi life, the voices of the various characters come through which makes the book come alive, even for those unfamiliar with the fashion world.

There are a couple of occasions in which the interviewees confess that they only want to remember the good times, and not when her life spirals out of control with drug abuse. While this irks the sharp-minded biographer, such refusals are equally telling and contributes to the intrigue of Carangi.

That said, this book could benefit from photographs to break up the barrage of interviews. This is especially so with the sections when the interviewees are saying more or less the same thing. The photographs, not only of Carangi but of the interviewees, also provide some much needed context especially to those unfamiliar with the fashion world. Otherwise, there is a risk of the interviews being a big blur after extended reading.

[Book Review] Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

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Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2015)/ 408 pp./ SGD 29.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

If one were to peruse the syllabus of a Singapore English-Language Theatre module offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS), it categorises the playwrights into three generations. The publication of Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1 marks the start of the fourth generation.

The whole collection is tinged with a deep sense of ambivalence. Rather than focus on what constitutes Singapore theatre or champion certain issues which were the main concerns of the previous generations, Tan explores what it means to be living in Singapore and dealing with what life throws at you. To aid this exploration, he constantly uses the context of failed or unfulfilled relationships, in subtly different ways, to show the complexity and vulnerability of his characters.

In Family Outing, Joseph plans to come out to his family as a gay man. He gets electrocuted after a freak accident and his boyfriend, Daniel, tells his family the truth a year later. On the surface, this plot appears to be about a family accepting or rejecting the son’s sexual orientation. However, there underlies a certain uneasiness about family relationships and what it means to be a gay man.

After the initial outrage, Joseph’s mother and brother try to reconcile Joseph’s sexual orientation with the Joseph whom they know. Scenes from the past and present intersect one another on stage as they negotiate and come to terms with Joseph’s sexuality. While one’s sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity, does it mean that the Joseph the family knows is less of a person? If so, does one sexual orientation matter more to one’s identity as compared to other areas of one’s life?

Towards the end of the play, there are intimations that Joseph’s mother and brother have a slight inkling about his homosexuality but chose to ignore it due to their deep religious beliefs. This throws a new complexion on the matter as this has got to do with familial relationships and the violence members of family inflict on one another through denial or the supposed desire to protect. This estrangement is further enhanced when we realise that what we are seeing is Joseph’s fantasy which leaves open the possibility that the family might reject him instead.

With this being one of his earliest plays, Tan displays a great deal of sophistication in being able to pack all these into a light-hearted play which is brought out by the brother’s antics and the mother who is slightly prone to histrionics. While Tan manages to balance the moods of the play well, he is a little overambitious with including all these different layers in the play especially—as Tan himself admits— the fact that it is Joseph’s fantasy may not come across clearly.

The ambivalence of being a gay man is also seen in That Daniel but it focuses on a young man fitting into the gay culture. In this deeply personal monodrama, Tan displays his linguistic dexterity in expounding on the pressures of conforming to a certain type and how this might affect one’s relationship with food. This is best encapsulated by the metaphor of noodles as Daniel says:

“We are noodles, we begin life as lumps of human starchiness, sliced by the noodle-cutter of life into pretty shapes, acceptable to the human eye and fit for human consumption, palatable” (271).

The richness of the gastronomical descriptions enhances the poignancy of the play as Daniel realises that he has pursued unrequited love at the expense of a certain happiness that he finds in food. It might be tempting to say that everyone faces a similar pressure to conform, but—as Isherwood’s A Single Man points out—it unfairly whitewashes the experiences of the individual. While this play does not enlighten us about the particularities of the pressures faced by gay men, it compels sympathy and reflection that hopefully precedes conversation.

That said, I wished this play was a wee bit longer. Tan sees this play as an optimistic one because he sees Daniel making a positive change after coming to a certain realisation. However, we only see Daniel coming to terms with his hurt and it stops there. This realisation could have made a positive or negative impact on Daniel which is why there should be a hint of what is to come.

Aside from linguistic versatility, Tan is keen to experiment with form and structure which is clearly seen in Postgrads and People.

The phrase “true-to-life” has been used and abused by critics of all stripes, but this term is most apt for Postgrads. The trajectory of life’s events does not follow a curve of climax and resolution, some conversations are never had, and some relationships remain unfulfilled. More importantly, one does not necessarily have a clear reason for doing something. And that is what confounds a group of housemates who are postgraduate students when one of them decides to drop out of the PHD programme.

While the conversations consist of feel-good reminiscences, private regrets, and banal chatter, there is a mounting sense of resignation and sadness. The atmosphere may be relatively serene, but the conversations appear to be a desperate attempt to forestall the final goodbye. Despite the fact that the play is crafted in a certain way due to the demands of the commission, Tan excels in infusing a certain sensitivity and subtlety to his play and it does not feel that he is consciously working around certain limitations that were placed on him.

The vignettes in People, which are either monologues or duologues, make it the most ambitious play in the whole collection. Tan once again returns to the motif of estranged relationships and see variations of it play out across a cross-section of society.  Set in either Singapore or Tokyo, there is a distinctively urban sensibility to it as we see the characters relate to others either across geography, class, or on a spiritual level. Tan’s ear for dialogue is apparent as he captures the milieu that the characters operate in. The litmus test for any playwright with regard to Singaporean dialogue is to balance between Singlish and whatever language the working class character speaks. In the hands of a careless writer, the dialogue makes the character nothing more than a caricature. While Francis the mobile phone seller has certain speech quirks that one—rightly or wrongly—associates with the working class, Tan is careful not to overdo it. Additionally, Tan even experiments with verse in the monologues of Nicholas who decides to leave the priesthood.

Given that Tan allows the director to arrange the vignettes as she pleases, this play merits several re-stagings just to see what can be excavated from the text.

Speaking of estranged relationships, the one in Hotel is the most ugly and toxic. Within a few pages, Tan raises all the ugly implications of economic success through the explosive arguments of the rich couple. What is notable is that Tan resists any form of resolution—the argument at the end of the play is interrupted and will probably occur again. Bearing in mind that Hotel is supposed to be a reimagined history of The Arts House (Singapore’s former parliament house), the play serves as a fitting platform for Tan to rail against the excesses of Singapore. Its brevity also ensures that it does not go overboard.

Mosaic explores another form of emotional violence in our lives—the destruction of physical space, and the memories that go with it, in the name of progress. However, violence is also inflicted upon one’s memories if it is co-opted and turned into some kind of fetish or commercial enterprise. This play thus juxtaposes both forms of violence and expresses a deep sense of ambivalence towards the efficacy and appropriacy of popular causes such as heritage activism.

This is embodied by Sharon, the protagonist who ropes in her boyfriend and tries to organise a demonstration against the authorities tearing down an old playground. She is clearly unable to rally people to her cause and when asked what how she is going about the event, she retorts: “Nothing is going to happen, why must thing always happen? What we’re doing is symbolic […]” (212, original emphasis). Later on, she tells Rong Cheng, a passer-by who lives nearby and used to play in the playground that the “playground is like a tile in the giant mosaic that is the things I care about” (222). However, a mosaic on the whole should form a coherent picture but her specious replies and lack of planning cast doubts on the coherence of her pet causes. The conflict between Sharon and Rong Cheng also raises the question of whether someone can legitimately oppose any governmental re-development projects if she does not have any prior relationship to the place.

Tan’s talents are seen in how, on one level, the characters are symbolic of certain things and their conflicts and interactions becomes a dialectic about activism. On another level, the settings and situations are entirely naturalistic and the characters are not reduced to being mouthpieces for a certain position. At the end, Tan could not help but employ the same motif of a failed relationship to bring up themes of moving on, letting go, and the difficulty of doing so as we often have a complex relationship with the past.

The Way We Go is a reworking of Tan’s second full length play that was written as part of a playwriting module at NUS. In it, he explores what it means to love yourself and another by having two parallel romances; the lesbian relationship between two convent school students (Gillian and Lee-Ying) and that of the school’s principal and a cousin of her colleague (Agatha and Edmund). The former relationship fails due to a difference in temperament and goals while the latter is disrupted by death.

Tan employs counter-directional narratives to allow for the parallel relationships to be shown on stage in an economical way. It also shows Edmund dealing with the hurt and finding his way back to the first moment he saw Agatha. This allows him to find closure and begin again. This play rewards the careful reader as a careless one will only see it as containing snapshots of the lives of the characters and nothing more.

That said, Violet (Edmund’s cousin and Agatha’s colleague) feels like a convenient device for the couple to meet and the two romances could have been a little more inter-connected in some way.

Perhaps, it is due to this early and extended exploration of dealing with love, lost, and moving on that led Tan to re-use the motif of failed relationships over and over again. While there is an effort to use it in various ways, Tan has stretched it to its limits this early in his career.

However, this does not detract from the sensitivity, subtlety, and a strong voice which Tan clearly possesses. In this collection, he resists being didactic and focuses on the individual and sometimes painful story of simply dealing with everyday life. He has also shown that he can use this lens to reflect on wider societal issues.

In the interview that is included in the book, he says he is interested in writing political plays which are rooted in the experience of living in Singapore rather than those which preach to the choir. Judging from his output in this collection, I await the next phase of his writing career with much excitement.

[Book Review] Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Almost English

Charlotte Mendelson

Pan MacMillan (2013)/ 400 pp.

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. The story revolves around a mother, Laura, and her daughter, Marina. When the father abandons the family and disappears without a trace, Laura— with daughter in tow—has to stay with her rambunctious Hungarian in-laws due to financial constraints.

Marina is put into a traditional English boarding school, Combe Abbey but struggles to fit in due to her mixed heritage. Meanwhile, Laura tries to make a living but continuously makes a mess of her life such as having an affair with her boss.

As if things cannot get more complicated, Laura’s husband, Peter, reappears and she is at a loss. On top of the many years of hurt and resentment, she has to figure out the best way to tell the family.

As for Marina, she bumps into a fellow student, Guy Viney, at a bus-stop and eventually starts dating him. To her surprise, she finds out that his father is Alexander Viney, a celebrated TV historian. The elder Viney encourages her to change her major to history and as he gets closer to her, things take a dark turn.

I have no idea why this book is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. While it is not downright awful, it is hardly inspiring or exciting. Apart from the colourful descriptions of the Hungarian family and culture, most of the book consists of Laura’s constant self-loathing and Marina feeling like an outsider. The plot is predictable and occasionally melodramatic.

Worse still, there are quite a few clichés that go with the melodrama: Laura is nervous to meet her husband as she bites her lip till it starts bleeding, Marina is nervous to the point of having a stomach ache,  Laura hates her husband for abandoning them but capitulates to his bad boy charm. These clichés are in the same category as peeing in your pants to represent fear—it should be avoided at all costs unless it significantly adds to the story.

To top it off, there are too many complications in the book and Mendelson has left most of them undeveloped and cold. A narrower focus would make for a shorter and more enjoyable read.

Amidst all the mess, there is one moment where Mendelson’s gift as a writer peeks through. The family suspects that Marina has been in constant contact with Alexander Viney and asks Laura to investigate. She talks to Marina despite not knowing why the relatives are worried.

Marina pushes Laura away despite wanting her to stay. Laura tries her best to comfort her daughter despite having her own problems gnawing at her. The scene is short and the words are few but the way it conveys the mother-daughter bond and the unspeakable hurt is absolutely beautiful.

Unfortunately, one beautiful moment is hardly enough to save a messy book.

[Book Review] Singapore in the 60s by James Suresh and Syed Ismail

Singapore in the 60s

Singapore in the 60s

James Suresh (author) & Syed Ismail (illustrator)

Training Plus Int’l Pte Ltd (2015)/ 217 pp.

“If there is a subgenre of writing Singapore is becoming alarmingly good in, it is the literature of nostalgia.”

While that comment by Dr Gwee Li Sui was referring to Last Train from Tanjong Pagar,  it is arguably an accurate description of James Suresh’s latest book.

From the sights and sounds of his childhood in Queenstown to descriptions of trades and public amenities available, Singapore in the 60s serves as a comprehensive introduction to what life was like back then. The choice of adopting a conversational style of writing makes the book accessible and engaging—it feels as if one is brought around the neighbourhood by a jolly uncle.

The combination of general facts and personal anecdotes shows why such personal recollections complement official history. It reveals how certain events affected people involved who, at that point in time, do not have complete knowledge of what was happening.

While I may be able to rattle off a couple of reasons why Singapore merged with Malaya, to learn that children were provided with a book to familiarise themselves with the flora and fauna of Malaysia is incredibly illuminating. It makes the historical event much more vivid and I am pleased that this book will be used as a teaching resource in schools.

That said, this book would have benefited from tighter editing. A couple of the sentences are too long and should broken up into shorter sentences. In other cases, the use of punctuation will make it a smoother read.

Illustration

Illustration: Syed Ismail (2015)

Given that this is an illustrated book, the contributions of Syed Ismail must not be overlooked. While his humorous depictions undoubtedly enhances the reader’s enjoyment, his ability to capture the architectural features (see the cover of the book) and a sense of space must be commended.

Additionally, it is clear that Ismail also took the pains to tell his own story with his pictures. Rather than offer a general depiction of Suresh’s descriptions, all his figures are given a unique personality as they react to a certain situation quite differently (see image above). This creates visual interest and readers, especially the older ones, will be rewarded if they took the time to appreciate the illustrations.

Regardless of whether there is a future in nostalgia, Singapore in the 60s promises to be an enjoyable read for the old timers and an educational one for younger readers aged nine and up.

Further Reading

From the Blue Windows by Dr Tan Kok Yang

  • A memoir focusing specifically on Queenstown

Growing Up in Geylang by Lai Tuck Chong

  • A blog which details a childhood in Geylang

[Book Review] A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood

University of Minnesota Press (2001) / 186 pp.

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. I have to admit that I picked up the book after watching the beautiful film version by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth as George. However, as there was quite a gap between watching the film and reading the book, I will only be reviewing the book today.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an English professor, after he found out that his partner, Jim, was killed in an accident. I hesitate to say “a day in the life of” because rather than giving it a full-blown naturalist treatment, Isherwood presents us with a portrait of grief in three facets. George has to deal with everyday happenings, his friend, and his student with memories of Jim looming in the background.

From the first paragraph, one understands why Ford would be compelled to make a film based on the book. Isherwood’s ability to describe a mundane activity—such as George waking up—in such a refreshing way and at a micro level is akin to a camera close-up on a part of the actor’s body. Isherwood’s dexterity in language treats us to writing that is humorous, poignant, and enlightening.

This is complemented by telling it through a third-person perspective which allows us to see the juxtaposition between his inner and outer reality. This mind-body dualism indicates the profound disconnect George has with his life and he copes by merely performing what is expected of him. The thing about grief or depression is that the most difficult thing to handle is not the surge of feelings but the mundane.

The zipping in and out between George’s thoughts and how others react to him sheds light on his sardonic interpretation of things. From feeling that he might as well be a talking head on a tray while lecturing to observing a quarrelsome couple who would die in their “beer-stained bed,” he keeps the happenings of the world at arm’s length. If they are distant, he does not need to deal with them.

This sense of melancholy is amplified by his tendency to indulge in fantasy fuelled by his misanthropy. He imagines punishing everyone in various ways for being part of the hetero-normative culture or being straight-out homophobic. In his anger for what happened, he blames them for causing Jim’s death. And the times that he is alive—the sexual or human longing that he experiences—makes him painfully aware of Jim’s absence which makes it incredibly heart-wrenching.

Of all the interactions George has, the one with his student, Kenny has to be the most interesting. The relationship is of a teacher-student, father-son, and two men in a bar all rolled into one. Kenny represents what George has just lost and a vicarious second chance in life. Isherwood balances ambiguity with tenderness and beautifully explores love, lost and everything in between.

It is easy to sum up this novel as a man grieving about the lost of a loved one. However, it is important that we see it as a gay man grieving for his partner. The openness in the treatment of George’s sexuality has led many critics to tout this novel as laying the foundations for gay liberation in literature.

However, critics like Octavio Gonzalez disagree and argue that there is an ascetic element of self-abnegation in George. By doing so, he offers an alternative to the identity politics of being a synecdoche for gay liberation. I am sympathetic to this view as there is more evidence in the text to support this stand.

Yet, one should also be careful not to read too much into it because the detachment of George could very well be part of a private grieving process. If you’re interested in reading about the debate, I’ve left a citation in the description below.

Thank you for joining me on this encounter. If you’ve read the book or have watched the movie, tell me what you thought about it. If you like what I’m doing, please subscribe and tell your friends. With that, till the next book.

References

Gonzalez, Octavio R. “Isherwood’s Impersonality: Ascetic Self-Divestiture and Queer Relationality in A Single Man.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 59.4 (Winter 2013): 758-89. Print.

[Book Review] Beyond The Village Gate by Tan Mei Ching

Beyond The Village Gate

Mei Ching Tan

Ethos Books (2012, 2nd ed.)/ 148 pp.

SGD 20.01 (local)/ 18.70 + shipping costs (overseas)

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today I’ll be encountering Beyond The Village Gate by Mei Ching Tan, published by Ethos Books.

When I was on my usual visit to the bookshop, the cover of this book caught my eye and I thought it was a new novel by a local writer. I was surprised to find out that this novel was awarded the commendation award in the 1992 Singapore Literature Prize and was first published in 1994. The copy I have is a recent reprint under the Ethos Evergreen series. Considering that it received some attention when it first came out and a publisher would take the risk of reprinting it as an evergreen title, I decided to give it a shot and was rewarded in a few ways.

The story is set in a fictional village in China and revolves around an orphan, Shi Ying (which translates as Lost Child) who was abandoned as a baby, found by a villager, and was given to a family of fisherfolk. Growing up, she has always felt distant from her adoptive family and wonders who her biological parents are. An incident with a village outcast, who was pregnant out of wedlock, led Shi Ying to form a bond with her. This interaction sparked off her journey in search of her identity.

The novel excels in dealing with the theme of escape in a nuanced manner while telling the story through the child’s perspective. To give you a sense of the effort and sensitivity that goes into developing this theme, here are a few things that really struck me.

Names play a big role in the book. We can easily understand why the protagonist is named 失婴 shī yīng (“Lost Child”). But the name is also a pun on something else that symbolises freedom and escape. As Tan chooses to disclose this intended pun towards the end, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Another pun, which I’m unsure if Tan intended it or not, is 适应 shì yìng (getting used to something). The conflicts between these puns encapsulate the main thrust of the plot beautifully. It is because she’s not used to her situation and feels isolated that she dreams of escape. Names come into play yet again when she asks her friend to give her a new name; a new identity.

One of the key features of the story is how myths and legends make up the cultural fabric of society. Shi Ying is very taken with such stories because her own origin is a legend which keeps changing every time it’s retold. Her unknown origin gives her the possibility of rewriting it and determining how her future will unfold.

They also capture Shi Ying’s child-like wonderment which gives the novel hints of magical realism. Whenever she’s out in the fields working or running away, the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred. While we may disregard it as childish hopes and fears, that is the reality of her experience. Tan did well to maintain that and not let the adults correct that or offer the “truth” as such.

Tan cleverly uses myths and legends to give Shi Ying complexity as well. It presents her desire for escape not simply as running away or waiting for her parents to take her away. Escape can also be a form of transcendence. Shi Ying often wish that the wind would take her away or she could ride on the back of a wild creature.

As with myths and legends, the supernatural and death loom in the background. Death can also be a form of transcendence as Shi Ying would even welcome it if it provided her an avenue of escape. This reveals the extent of her desire to be somewhere else and someone else. One should not paint it with a broad stroke and view it as depression or having suicidal thoughts.

I love how Xiao Ling, the outcast of the village who is pregnant out of wedlock, complements Shi Ying. Her tragic situation is a counterpoint to that of Shi Ying as she has to deal with her child while Shi Ying wonders about her biological parents and deals with her adopted ones. The strange bond that both characters form allows Tan to showcase her sensitivity of language as she develops certain metaphors throughout the whole novel to great effect. I shan’t cite any examples now for it’ll give away too much of the plot.

Speaking of other characters, I can see why most of them are less developed. This is how Shi Ying views them which explain her loneliness and isolation. The only exception was when she had to take care of her father and she bonded with him when he talked about his love for his wife. It is unfortunate that it was only a chapter long as I often wondered why the couple agreed to adopt her in the first place. Having extra help on the farm is hardly a strong incentive as compared to the large responsibility one has to shoulder to bring up a child.  I sometimes wished Tan could leave a couple of hints for the readers without Shi Ying knowing. I would definitely enjoy this novel even more if it were a couple of chapters longer.

That said, I’m surprised how Beyond The Village Gate has so little mention and I would have missed it had it not been the chanced encounter at the bookstore. To end this review, I shall read the last paragraph of the first chapter just to give you a taste of all the points I’ve mentioned thus far. This paragraph really sets the stage for the novel and it’s worth noting that this is not even the best passage.