[REVIEW] “Bildungsroman of a Singaporean Ordinary Joe: A Review of Chia Joo Ming’s Exile or Pursuit” by Elaine Chiew

{Written by Elaine Chiew, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Chia Joo Ming (Author), Sim Wai Chew (Translator), Exile or Pursuit, Balestier Press, 2019. 306 pgs.

Exile or Pursuit employs the genre of the bildungsroman to relate the story of Hok Leong, born in 1960 (as he self-deprecatingly says, a “made-in-1960 Chinese helicopter”), grew up in 1970s Singapore, and matured in the 1980s and 1990s. His experiences are explored through his relationships with three women, after each of whom a section of the novel is named. The book has a number of familiar tropes of the bildungsroman: heartbreak (his first romantic relationship with Chiu-yun, though requited, failed, and which would leave a scar for the rest of his life); the presence of Fu laoshi, his moral teacher (to whom he is introduced by Hsiao-yuan who later becomes his wife); and struggles with issues of class. These struggles stem from his humble background and dogs his development years and well into his career. His parents operate a wonton noodle stall, are illiterate and their attitude towards education is characterised as: “You either know something or you don’t know something… If you don’t know something, reading about it won’t help.”

Hok Leong’s friends from the same housing estate believe “secondary-four-was-enough” as education goes. His older brother and sister are failing in school. He himself fails all his subjects when he enters secondary school except for Chinese and Physical Education. In particular, the switch to Chinese in the medium of instruction for Maths and Science makes examinations a language rather than subject test. The picture that emerges of Hok Leong is of a middling student, who sometimes hangs out with a gang headed by a hoodlum called Red Dragon and gets into scraps. Given this background, one understands the perpetual diffidence and passive outlook that leads him to conclude that his singular ambition in life is not to end up “becoming an office boy buying coffee for his superiors”.

Three elements make this novel a unique read for me. Firstly, the portrayals of the three women in Hok Leong’s life, which, though not a total composite of each, show an emotional complexity in their inner lives that escapes the narrative framework of Hok Leong’s moral, psychological and intellectual development (more of this later). Secondly, novels or narratives that forefront aspects of National Service in Singapore literature are not many, with the most significant collected in From Boys to Men: A Literary Anthology of National Service in Singapore (Landmark Books, 2002), edited by Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia. Chia’s angle on National Service unusually focuses on the divide between the Chinese-educated and the English-educated in Singapore, and its effect on friendships and love. Lastly, while this bildungsroman contains no grand trial or misfortune, nor do we necessarily get the self-interiority from Hok Leong that documents more straightforwardly his moments of emotional crises or developments, what we do get is the coming-of-age trajectory of a Singaporean Ordinary Joe, an ordinariness marked by his perpetual diffidence and the specific lived realities of a Chinese-educated male during this period of “turbo-charged development” in Singapore.

The three women in Hok Leong’s life are quite different: Chiu-yun, his first love, is a rich Indonesian-Chinese transfer student to his secondary school in Singapore, who is chauffeured to school in a Mercedes and holidays in Australia and England, and who finds aspects of his impoverished existence such as not having a home phone “interesting”; Eileen, whom he meets while doing his National Service, has a wild side and loves disco dancing, with ambitious dreams of becoming a runway model; and Hsiao-yuan, a colleague he meets at the printed wire board Japanese factory he works in, is classy and elegant, which to Hok Leong, makes her “not suitable for work in a factory”.

Though different, in one aspect they are similar: each is far more ambitious than Hok Leong. Chiu-yun, whom he is tasked to tutor because his Chinese is better than everyone else in his class (not through assiduous studying, mind, but through reading many wuxia novels), soon surpasses him in academics, and because of her, his results improve as well. Through Chiu-yun, he learns about the music of The Carpenters and Song Dynasty poems. Her constant “grilling” about his future life plans, together with certain traumatic events in his life such as the death of Red Dragon contributes to his meagre ambition to become more than just an office boy. From the beginning, class differences doom their relationship, differences that Hok Leong feels keenly. When Chiu-yun’s father forces her to further her studies in the UK, neither Hok Leong nor Chiu-yun fight the eventuality too hard.  

Eileen is the sister of one of Hok Leong’s platoon mates, and her “tomboy aspect” and “many-sided personality”, her modelling aspirations, her disco-partying, are altogether too illimitable, too much for him to handle. They break up after just one fight over Eileen’s association with middle-aged men whom he thinks are scammers. His male conservatism is ostensibly the reason for their break-up, but Hok Leong is more insidiously affected by the colour-coding in National Service which denotes a hierarchy between the Chinese-educated and the English-educated, a difference in school systems particular to Singapore.

The colour above his name tag above his left uniform shirtfront pocket was different. Most of the others’ were deep green in colour. Some had green mixed with a small strip of orange or red…Later on Hok Leong found out what they meant. Deep green mean you spoke English as your main language. Orange was standard Mandarin Chinese. Red meant you spoke mainly Hokkien dialect, the hallmark of the so-called Hokkien squaddie.

—Chia Joo Ming’s Exile or Pursuit, translated by Sim Wai Chew.

           

When a friend applies this same colour-coding logic to his relationship with Eileen, Hok Leong is persuaded that he and Eileen have little in common, even as he remains oblivious to how his own passiveness and downtrodden spirit colours their relationship. By contrast, Eileen forges ahead to attain her modelling dreams with an abandon that feels dangerous to Hok Leong.

Chinese-educated workers are at a disadvantage in an English-speaking environment when it comes to job advancement and this is noted in an exchange Hok Leong has with his sister. Hence, his diffidence continues in his work life after he drops out of university; he turns down a managerial position and feels he “wasn’t a go-getter” and “didn’t have any prospects”. It sets the tone in his initial interactions with Hsiao-yuan, with her poise and erudite references, and though he gives her rides in his car, their conversation is stilted. Only when she introduces him to Fu laoshi do they end up dating, largely through Fu laoshi’s efforts at matchmaking. His acquaintance with Fu laoshi begins a period of moral instruction in Chinese literature and history for him, as well as a grappling with diasporic identity particular to those of Chinese descent born in Southeast Asia. By Hok Leong’s own admission, “it was only after meeting Fu laoshi that [he] realised a measure of [his] self-worth”. Hsiao-yuan’s ambition and creativity in her advertising job wins her a prize and leads to a transfer to the Taipei branch of the company she works for, and their relationship becomes long-distance. Once again, Hok Leong has his horizons expanded not through his own active efforts but because of his frequent travels to Taipei. After they marry and have a child, Hok Leong himself is offered a transfer to Shanghai, and their family life becomes an unconventional shuttling to and fro between Shanghai, Taipei and Singapore.

It is ironic that because of the ambitiousness of these three women, and his involvement with them, that Hok Leong is himself propelled along in his moral, intellectual and psychological development. It is also ironic that the diffidence that has made him surmise that “[t]he girls who knew him, those with ambition and drive, sooner or later all left him”, is the same trait that causes him not to stand in the way of their ambitions, and despite the ordinariness of his life and his outlook, makes him in the end a rather unordinary Chinese male.

Sim Wai Chew’s translation deserves special mention. His treatment of a source text containing scores of words in English and Malay is adept: he chooses to leave the non-Chinese words underlined or italicised (in the case of song lyrics) which not only flavours the translation but conveys well the polyglottism that defines literature in this region. Direct translations of nicknames such as Colour Palette or Dogshit or phrases customarily used in Mandarin, such as “the next time you meet a guy please bring along your eyes”, add a layer of humour. Certain touches, such as retaining the phrase “yau-cair-hor” alongside its translation “to cruise around in a car”, offer a culturally nuanced sensitivity. Sim’s interpretive and explanatory-style translation mean that often extra words are added, and the translated text totals 306 pages as opposed to the source text’s 238. At times, his curious word choices (e.g. words such as “kerfuffle”—added in, “horrid” for 无情, “stolen a march on her” for 抢先, “in for a penny, in for a pound”—again, added in) unnecessarily interject an Englishness into the language that is at odds with the text but does not detract from the narrative’s overall atmospheric effect.

Chia’s narrative contains a plenitude of wonderful details that reveal subtle psychological turns within the friendships and home dynamics unfolding alongside Hok Leong’s three romantic relationships. These details add visceral and poignant depths to an understanding of Hok Leong, such as the emotionally formative, male-bonding camping trip he takes with his high-school friends to Pulau Ubin. They also show his drift away from the same friends as he interacts with managers and colleagues and intellectually engages with Fu laoshi, rising gradually on the social ladder. But at certain other times, the details overwhelm, such as the blow-by-blow altercation he has with an “orange-tagged” supplier when he mistakenly gives offence by asking if the supplier is Chinese-educated. There are lovely throwaway details that date this narrative, such as caning as punishment, or going to a photo shop and having your picture taken with your friends. Specific references to Hok Leong’s stomping grounds—from Tampines to Katong to Marine Parade—not only spark geographical affinity but add a historical psychogeographical dimension for readers familiar with these local places, and all the 70s and 80s pop music and Chinese literary references shade the story with nostalgia; together, these details give a time-capsule glimpse into Singapore’s recent vanished past.

One would not be faulted for assuming that in Singapore’s rapid growth as a city in the last few decades, its citizens would evince a “rah-rah” progressive mentality. Chia’s novel suggests instead that the socioeconomic pressure felt by an underclass of Chinese-educated males during this era yielded a rather different under-seam of experience, one not of immense possibilities, but rather one where, like the Bee Gees’ song Hok Leong learns while playing in a band during his stint in National Service, he is just “staying alive”.

How to cite: Chiew, Elaine. “Bildungsroman of a Singaporean Ordinary Joe: A Review of Chia Joo Ming’s Exile or Pursuit.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/17/exile-or-pursuit/.

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Originally from Malaysia, Elaine Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. She is now a writer and a visual arts researcher, and editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora, and Other Stories (2020) is now available. Elaine lives in Singapore.  

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