It is the long road to 2019, the year where Singapore commemorates its colonial past like a benevolent inheritance. This is a series of ruminations on empire, which is after all an ongoing spiritual crisis disguised as an economic miracle.
1. I think of all the languages I love.
Cantonese is the sound of my maternal grandmother’s flip flops slapping wetly against the kitchen floor, as she changes the damp cloth underneath the rice cooker, presides over noisy family dinners with a mandatory soup centrepiece. Even her English nickname, Granny Po Po, is essentially Cantonese. It is the one that conjures up fuzzy old Canto soaps on TV on those primary school late afternoons snacking on fruit dipped in salt; the language of describing flavours– tai tim, tai ham, hou sek, hou mei, mm hou sek. Always too much. It is alternately sing song and street brawl. It is the soundtrack of my early Christianity, the rapidfire dual language translation at sermontime, my grandma’s foghorn of a prayer at every family function, the canto hymns we sang at birthdays and weddings and funerals. It is a language that is always cajoling. A maternal language, my mother tongue, I do not speak it.
Hainanese the one we learned to ward off my other grandma, the senile one, on the phone. It is the gruffer sound of my dad’s side of the family, their sad lengthy silences, desultory cigarette smoke on my uncle’s balcony every Chinese new year until we outgrew the obligation to visit. It is the braggadacio of get rich schemes, the crushed beer can of abandoned plans. The shrill chirps of over boisterous aunties hiding deep sadness behind makeup and presents. It is a dark language. We were never taught to speak it except for the odd stock phrase or two, like we were tourists trying to pepper our speech with perfunctory “have you eatens” to get some laughs. My father’s tongue, I do not speak it, and Dad’s command of it withers from lack of use. One day I sit down with him and try to translate some lines from a new play into Hainanese, and we struggle through phrases like “I love you” and “I’ll wait for you”… and finally I decide to play the scene in Mandarin. There is a man in Cooling Off Day, a taxi driver, who speaks entirely in hainanese, and in the theatre I find myself weeping to this old music.
Mandarin, the one haphazardly sewn onto my tongue by “native speakers” and garrulous, opportunistic tuition teachers, who could never comprehend my lack of enthusiasm, my bleary eyed boredom. This language is the wet of my perspiration on my forehead during classes at school, dreading my name being called to answer a question, to give an opinion, the memory of standing mute and stupid still sends sharp cold down my body. This is the one we had to pass to get into uni. A chore that was also a birthright. The one spoken with unlikely, pure-toned polish on cheesy channel 8 soaps, but with cutting, snarling cruelty by the bengs on the street making fun of my incomprehension. The one that till this day rings with didactic moralism in my ear, about my roots, my heritage, my subordination to a culture of constant respect and obedience and loyalty. But also of avarice and the ascendant giant in the North. It is the tongue of my subjecthood, and I barely speak it except here in London, occasionally flapping with my tongue to bat off compulsory whiteness.
English, the one I dream and mutter and whisper and curse and fuck and cry and shit and eat in. That, here in the metropolis of empire daily feels like my member’s card to a club with a very dubious membership policy. The flourish with which I use it sometimes feels like the pottering of a dancing bear. The way I sweep through accents is like a mask-changing acrobat. All the hoops it lets me jump through! The assumptions people make about where I am from. Nowhere, really. When I speak this language, I am a clansman from a tribe of nomadic neoliberals, disaffected postcolonials, cells in the giant machine that’s processing the answer to a collective identity crisis.
Singlish, the warm bath, the moisturised skin after the charcoal face mask, the relief after a dump, the ahhh from a sip of Coke, what happens when an orgasm meets the punchline of a particularly lame joke. The problem child, the one with daddy issues, who cannot decide who she is and wants to be. Always defiant in polite company, always cruel with hypocrites, but demure on date nights. In the company of friends from school she sublimates into transcendent music, a Beethovenesque scherzo speeding off at an impossible tempo, beyond the natural limits of European form.
Malay, the one that far away from home is oddly the language that comforts me the most. I don’t speak it. But it is the one that most often asks me why not? It is a rain of flowers, brightly hued and perfumed, it is warm wok fragrances, the names of trees, the sunny side of history, the one that gives Singlish its mischievous grin, but then turns around and in another aspect slow dances with oceanic melancholy. The one that reminds me how, after all, my family migrated to the island not very long ago, and that it was we who failed to truly integrate. Listening to old Saloma songs in the dead of winter, I miss the heat that radiates off the concrete, I want to press my cheek to it, kiss the ground, smell the air, spy on my parent’s childhood, listen to the muttering of the island’s ghosts, the island’s mournful heartbeat.
Singaporeans speak two languages, English, the language of administration, and one of three other national languages.