[Review] “Intercepting Identity: Eddie Tay’s Anything You Can Get Away With” by Marsha McDonald

{Written by Marsha McDonald , this review is part of Issue 45 (September/October 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Eddie Tay, Anything You Can Get Away With: Creative Practices, Delere Press, 2018. 168 pgs.

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A star collapses in upon itself, producing an event horizon periphery, within which creation, singularity, voice, is blacked out, compressed, seemingly silenced. Black holes all seem ancient, absolute, but some are not. It is quite possible that, as I write this, a black hole at the centre of the universe, formed in relatively recent times, has itself died, gushing forth as a white hole all the light and life thought obliterated, lost. It is good to remember that what was is, and is can be nothing, something, anything. What artists do may be a microcosmic processing of this recurring, and overwhelming renaissance, their recording of things and thoughts a series of overspill catchments.

The Singaporean poet, artist and scholar Eddie Tay, who lives and teaches in Hong Kong, has been catching anything he can—intellectually, creatively, visually—and we are lucky he has been doing so. Anything You Can Get Away With compiles a series of eight essays, reflections, poems and photographs composed and published separately from 2009 to 2016. It is an expansive, erudite, illuminating and uncannily timely book.

Tay explores urban life in Singapore, and now in Hong Kong, through a creative, mindful and ethnographic filter—himself. He dares us to think and feel more deeply about our relationship to our cultural selves and to others, examining, with the eye of an artist, a scholar and a citizen, problems of political unrest, market economies, social hierarchies, multiculturalism, official languages, translation, photography, poetry and the teaching of creative writing.

In the unplanned randomness of his street photography subjects, Tay values an uncertainty both candidly intimate and historical. “Creative Writing, Street Photography, Scholarship,” the first essay in the book, is an exposition of Tay’s photographic sensibility, complemented by the poet’s poems and striking photos. Singaporean subsidised housing, captured as high-contrast near-abstractions of place, is punctuated by the homeliness of laundered clothing or the casual asymmetry of a street-side palm. An older man reads a newspaper on a sidewalk while sitting in a wheeled office chair, static conformity of bricks beneath his feet. In such images, the camera blinks, captures chance even as the artist rifles through his thoughts, browsing signs, sorting portents, choosing meaningful tableau. As Tay states, “Here, then, is the condition of street photography. It aspires to the conditions of found poetry in its search for the readymade scene.”

Tay returns again and again to the idea of metropolis and multiplicity (linguistic, cultural, individualistic). Why do Singaporean governmental policies for cultural inclusiveness fall short? What role does language, and time, play in aligning, or misaligning, cultural identity in Hong Kong as well as Singapore? How does translation work when the translator’s identity is pooled within a larger historically cultural identity that they may or may not share? What signifiers are at work when the poet turns inward, or engages as a political voice, and are these mutually exclusive or historically resonant? Tay is more interested in struggling with these questions than giving encompassing answers. That’s what makes reading each essay so fruitful and, yes, enjoyable.

I urge a close reading of the essay “Multiculturalisms, Mistranslations and Bilingual Poetry.” For Tay, language relevancy to cultural identification is part of a long and fractious debate. I read with great interest Tay’s experiences and critical remarks on Singapore’s official four language system, and its problems with cultural assignation. Speaking Hokkien at home, learning Mandarin and English at school, Tay’s experience belies the assumption that ethnicity and proximity (to Mandarin speakers, to mainland China) inform and construct, through an assigned identity group and language, authentic cultural experiences. “In the case of Singapore, the ethnic classification of CMIO [Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other) has the effect of reifying ethnic group identities, and in the process rendering invisible the multilingual nature of each ethnic group.”

Tay further cautions presupposing “that just because one is Chinese, one supposedly possesses some kind of immanent Chinese cultural knowledge.” Yet as a creative agent, he feels compelled to speak “for those you share neither culture nor lifeways with.” When translating poetry, Tay employs what he calls “mistranslating,” an honest autoethnographic transmission.

As a Singaporean who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over a decade, Tay’s essay “The Poetics of the Umbrella Movement” couldn’t be more timely. (A version of this essay was published in Cha here in 2015.) Tay outlines the movement’s origins and indebtedness to the intellectuals, students and working men and women of Occupy Central. He does this balancing a scholar’s critical discernment, the searching inner eye of a poet, and the grounded alertness of the street photographer. The essay recognises the decentralised, organic nature of the physical protests and its culturally shrewd use of images, objects and media. The underlying dissatisfaction with corruption, flawed capitalism that sidesteps issues of democratic representation, and assertion of the particularly unique characteristics of Hong Kong cultural identity persist. Tay’s reminders of his outsider status serve to reinforce the reader’s awareness that this movement’s origin and reappearance remain embedded in Hong Kong’s insistence on defining its own complicated cultural identity.

These essays highlight Tay’s sensitivity and openness to the pluralistic yet unique environments that are Hong Kong and Singapore. These places are his platform, his present. He is writing from two places he rightfully calls home, and in which he has self-identified as a witness or citizen, creator and scholar. This identity as within and without is both conduit and a call, for those of us seeing and listening, to remain focused and alert, ready to catch anything we can, before it gets away from us.

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Marsha McDonald lives, works and exhibits between the Unites States, Europe and Japan. She has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner, Puffin, Mary Nohl (travel), Lynden Sculpture Garden, and a New York Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in Otoliths (Australia), The Drum and The Cantabrigian (Cambridge MA). She will be exhibiting as part of Venice Agendas (2019) with Marina Moreno’s Venice Vending Machine. Visit her website for more information.

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