Another Singapore

If I Could Tell You by Jing-Jing Lee

Singapore, in my mind, is a destination for high-end shopping and awesome food. You know, the one showcased in Crazy Rich Asians with its glass skyscrapers, rooftop dining and grand mansions. In this fairy tale version of Singapore, everyone is East Asian and crazy rich.

Jing-Jing Lee shows us a different Singapore in her novella, If I Could Tell You. The setting is a public housing unit known as Block 204. The authorities have slated the building for demolition. Most of the residents have already moved out.

The only people left are the old, the poor, people who have had trouble finding a new home. Or those who put it off because it didn’t seem real until officials came with sheets of paper to paste on all the doors. Sheets of paper that used clipped, official words to say, this home it is not yours anymore you have until the end of the month.

Jing-Jing Lee, If I Could Tell You (Marshal Cavendish 2013)

The other Singapore

Lee grew up in a public housing unit like Block 204. She lived among working professionals and trash pickers. These are the Singaporeans who populate her novella. Ah Tee, the coffee shop boy. Uncle Wong, the taxi driver. The old woman who collects recyclables for a living, known to all as Cardboard Auntie.

The Cleaner came from Bangladesh to earn money in Singapore. He, too, had an image of Singapore that does not match his lived experience. He and his fellow migrant workers sleep on thin mats, 20 to a room, on the floor of a shipping container. They eat boxes of rice and dal, sometimes enhanced by rat droppings or a cockroach. These migrant workers spend their days waiting for a job that will earn them no respect.

For them, one Singapore. For us, another ⏤made up of construction sites and rubbish dumps and backrooms where no one has to look at us, at our dusty hands and our faces.

The Cleaner

This is the version of Singapore that made the news last year. Squalid living and work conditions caused Covid-19 to explode among the migrant population. In Singapore, the working poor are invisible.

I tried a cleaning job once. A few hundred a month to clear tables at the food court after people have finished eating. But pouring away all that food, putting perfectly edible things into trash bags made me nervous. […] It made me disappear as well, so that I was just a pair of floating hands attached to a slop bucket.

Cardboard Auntie

Craft talk

I met Lee for coffee last month. She looks so young for an author with three books to her name: the award-winning novel How We Disappeared, a poetry collection titled And Other Rivers and the novella reviewed here. Next month, Lee will give a master class at the International Writers’ Collective. Since it’s my job to interview her, I need to think about the craft behind this novella.

Multiple narrators tell the story of If I Could Tell You. The alternating points of view give us insight into the complex relationships between lovers, co-workers, parent and child.

To amplify this kaleidoscopic approach, Lee curls the timeline. A suicide lies at the heart of this novella, as witnessed, re-lived and hashed over by the residents of Block 204. The plot lines are non-linear. The effect for the reader is hallucinogenic, nightmarish even.

Of all the colorful characters in this novella, Cardboard Auntie stole the show for me. Her husband, the Old One, is dead yet she continues to ask him if he’d like some coffee or prefer rice to jook for lunch. She talks to him, too, perhaps now more than ever.

I think carefully before saying what I said next, because you don’t make promises to the dead and not keep them. I made up my mind and then I said, I have a story to tell you. Maybe tonight, or tomorrow night, I will tell you. A story. My story. From a long time ago.

Cardboard Auntie

Cardboard Auntie haunted Lee long after If I Could Tell You was published. Her story lies at the heart of Lee’s award-winning novel, How We Disappeared.

13 June 2021 | Karen Kao