This book was picked by NUSS Book Club for August. Unfortunately, as the meeting clashes with my yoga class, I couldn’t attend despite reading the book. It would have been interesting to hear what was discussed.
Published in 1995, when the author, a Singaporean medical doctor who, according to the book, now lives in Vancouver, is 59. Goh, a 1983 Singapore Cultural Medallion winner has published plays and poetry since 1960s.
This book is set in 1974 Singapore, highlighting the lives of two white collar men, one advertising manager epitomizing the success story of what we now known as 4Cs, the other an accounts clerk living in the heartlands.
The chapters alternate between these two somewhat independent individuals. Ong Kian Teck, London educated, lives in a private apartment, drives a car, has two children and goes to clubs in the evening. Chan Kok Leong lives with his non-communicative family, taking care of an invalid sister, and hangs around with an Indian delinquent. There is not much action, as the author is more concerned about the thoughts running through these two men’s heads.
Ong drinks and sleeps around, jeopardizing his family life, finally falling prey to stock market. His wife who had left him is his salvation, giving him hope.
Chan and his friend go around with trouble close by, until his friend is arrested for burglery. When we think he finally sees some sense, he decides he wants to marry, only to be rejected. Enraged, he plots revenge, where he meets the other protagonist in the last chapter.
I could have given up after chapter 5. I did not have interest in the two men, nor sympathize with them. One reminded me of my philandering father, and the other whom I suspect suffers from some mental illness. What I enjoy is the description of 1974 Singapore, walking along Esplanade, Satay Club, the sleezy part of Singapore, and the buildings, now gone. What current generation thought as simple lives then were just as complicated, perhaps more so. I would like to think Modern Singapore is much better, nostalgia aside.
What I cannot fathom is the difficult vocabulary favoured by Singaporean writers, and there are plenty.
Do you ever hear people exclaiming : Don’t be so fucking sanctimonious! as what Ong Kian Teck did.
Other examples are :
- a shape was moving about the room, phantasmagorically.
- His home, though empty, was still sacrosanct.
An interesting aspect of locally written books are the explanantion on local terms. I see it in Crazy Rich Asians, as asterisks at the bottom of the page, but in this book, eight pages of Glossary of unfamiliar words, comprising of food names like Bak kut teh, to place names – Gay World, to local terms like gunny sack and makan. Singlish is explained in the passages as it’s used.
Do pick up this book to read, and ponder if life is better or worse in Singapore now or then. Has the have versus have not really widened in Singapore? Are Singaporeans happier than or now?
Read and see.