Here’s a review of The Garden of Foolish Indulgences by Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng that I wrote for Art Review Asia. A shortened edited version appears in the journal’s Winter 2016 edition.
In Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng’s new graphic novel, The Garden of Foolish Indulgences, the Garden in question is Singapore. More precisely, it’s the multiple ways that people have imagined the island over the years; how generations of immigrants have cultivated this land— both real and imaginary— and continue to do so today. Of course, there is also a literal garden: an orchard that thrived in early 20th century Singapore. Owned and tended to by Han Wai Toon, a Chinese immigrant seeking his fortune in Singapore, the orchard attracts the attention of present-day new migrant, Feng’An, a journalist with a Chinese-language magazine targeted at other new migrants like himself. He and his wife Yuxuan have moved to Singapore’s English-speaking environment to give their young son a leg-up in the world. These two parallel stories of migration to Singapore, set a century apart, bring into relief the stark differences, and some resonances, between different waves of Chinese migration to Singapore.
It turns out Han’s garden became a cultural institution amongst an emigré scene of Chinese artists and writers, drawn to Han’s cultivation of a refined, genteel space in the middle of the harsh tropics. The orchard’s claim to fame was Han’s hybrid rambutans, a tropical fruit that Han cultivated to taste exactly like lychees, out of nostalgia for the fruit of his homeland. As Feng’An digs into Han’s life and times, his own family is facing a minor crisis. Singapore isn’t turning out quite as they’ve expected: their son is picking up more Singlish than English; every day they face xenophobic micro-aggression from their colleagues and strangers; and they’re not crazy about the food. Feng ‘An is trying his best to adapt, but his wife is less malleable: she’s constantly on the look out for another opportunity to move.
This is where the novel is at its weakest: as a depiction of migrant realities. Poorly developed, the present-day characters drift blandly through their lives, and the reader, too, watches them passively with little insight into their struggles and personal crises. There’s a social realist texture at work, but the characters don’t pop off the page: the dialogue at points is heavy-handed and expository. Often, they are rhetorical mouthpieces for the questions the novel is asking about migration. And that’s the main problem here: as a whole, the novel lulls the reader into a bland social-realist drama when it is really an exquisitely poetic, in parts wonderfully rich and accomplished, meditation on the shifting meanings of Singapore over several generations. Through a complex series of motifs and metaphors, both literary and visual, the novel reaches towards a complex understanding of the island as an ongoing, constantly shifting patchwork of several personal projects of nostalgia, home-making, and private aspiration.
The big theme is terraforming: how people adapt the malleable, open meanings of Singapore to fit their own purposes. Han’s garden is a symbolic nexus for all of these questions. Longing for lychees, he cultivates rambutans, which become little symbolic nodes for the differences between the Chinese of the mainland and of the tropical diaspora. But he also literally works the land, poisoned and stripped of its nutrients by colonial agriculture, and makes it arable again. It’s more than rambutans that flower in his garden: it becomes an imaginary space that reproduces a genteel Chinese way of life. The painters and writers who call on Han reproduce the garden in paintings, inscribed with poetic musings on rambutans. “Eating three hundred rambutans a day,” writes one poet, “I can be a person living in Singapore” riffing off the 12th century Chinese poet, Su Dongpo, himself living in exile and waxing lyrical about the local lychees of his new home.
The book has a complex wash of ideas that resists the easy nostalgia that attends to cultural production around Singapore’s lost heritage. You’re reminded that even as we lament the passing of this rich space, the orchard was in itself a nostalgic, ultimately hollow reproduction of another way of life. It’s a garden of foolish, wistful indulgences, not a secret garden of authenticity. A century later, Feng’An treks into the heart of the jungle, only to find a single, fruitless rambutan tree and a latrine.
There’s a similar critical intelligence to the artwork. Koh’s strategy is a clear and deliberate stylistic contrast between the present-day and olden-day narratives. For the most part, he opts for a simple, almost unattractively bare “talking heads” style for the present-day passages. It’s in the Han passages where the artwork blooms: the panels become richer, filling each frame with painterly strokes and details. It seems a predictable pattern at first: something about the past feels richer, feels more real. But near the novel’s end, after Feng’An concludes his investigation into Han’s life and deep uncertainty sets in about whether or not his family will remain in Singapore, Koh flips the script. There’s a sublime, silent series of panels set in a cold Singapore subway station. Angular escalators and stairways spread out like cold, grey foliage, with odd bursts of colour— a mural, a colour-coded subway map— catching the eye like flowers. Here, progress and development, the big enemies of nostalgia and heritage, melt into the same meaning-making exercises that have, the novel suggests, for a long time now, worked like complex algorithms at the heart of the city. It recalls the Singapore poet Arthur Yap’s ambivalence about nostalgia, even has he laments destructive progress. There’s something moving in these moments: all change is part a human impulse to work the land, to make it arable. Whether it’s Han’s tilling of the soil to give birth to poetry, or Feng’s family’s seizing on the opportunities of Westernised modernity, or the government’s relentless urban development, Singapore is an empty cipher to be constantly re-purposed and re-written.
The novel ends with an appropriately open metaphor, one for the road: a surprise tropical shower pours over a barbecue held by Feng‘An and his expat Chinese friends. “The weather can be really crazy here,” his friend says, arriving with an umbrella, “you never know what to expect next”. An elegant summary of the inevitability of change, the city’s shifting meanings, a process both menacing and natural.