Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore

New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore 

I’d wish you a happy new year if last year had not been so bitter. We had high hopes that Singapore would become a freer, fairer, and kinder society after the death of Lee Kuan Yew. We had high hopes that the 50th year of our independence would herald a new phase of social, political, and artistic maturity. For only the second time in my forty-five years, I was able to vote. With Lee Kuan Yew gone, the PAP did not enjoy a walkover in Radin Mas constituency, but faced two challengers. On Election Day, I made my way in the rain to the Singapore Consulate in New York. I knew the PAP would win Radin Mas, but I had to make my voice heard and my vote count. Like many of you, I had high hopes that the general election would prove a watershed in the history of our country. We had high hopes that, despite the gerrymandering, vote-buying tactics, state control of mass media, and creeping influence of Christian fundamentalism on government, the people of Singapore would speak and vote without fear. The election results dashed our hopes. The PAP was returned to power with a reinforced majority. Out of choice, we knew we were a minority before the election, but after the election we learned what it was to be minoritized.

To be minoritized is to be shown by the majority that we don’t count. (It’s a first-past-the-post system, after all. Proportional representation would have given the opposition 26 seats, instead of 6, for winning 30% of the popular vote.) The minoritized may be tolerated but the tolerance is at the pleasure of the majority. We may even be considered useful, since having a vocal fringe releases the pressure of internal resentment and softens the country’s hard image abroad. We are now in the same unenviable position as other traditionally minoritized groups, such as racial, sexual, and economic minorities, tolerated within arbitrary limits, useful for others’ purposes. The Indian appears on national posters and banners, alongside the Chinese, Malay and Eurasian, but he will not become Prime Minister. The lesbian playwright wins multiple Life! Theatre awards, but she and her kind are still proscribed by law. The migrant worker is given media attention for his poetic talent, but he is not given legal protections for his working person. To be minoritized by the last election is to taste the bitter aftertaste in the mouths of other long-minoritized peoples.

 If we are to change Singapore as minoritized citizens, we must hold on to our bitterness, the taste of our disappointment. It’s too easy to exchange it for the sourness of cynicism. Out of sentimentality, complacency, indifference or ignorance, the majority of our fellow citizens voted for more of the same, in the delusion that the status quo is sweet. We know it’s not sweet. Those of us working for social justice, free speech, and free information know the status quo is not sweet for other minoritized peoples, whether they are migrant workers, the LGBT community, artists of various stripes, refugees, victims of human trafficking, the working poor, or the aged. We know, in fact, that the status quo makes sweets for the majority out of the salty blood, sweat, and tears of the minoritized. One anecdote may stand for a thousand similar stories. A friend, a middle-class professional, said to my sister, “If we raise the wages of the food court workers, food prices will go up, and we won’t be able to eat out cheaply.” We must chew on this story and others like it, chew the bitter cuds of our outrageous prosperity until the unequal status quo changes.

Singapore has ramifications beyond its 716 square kilometers. Singapore’s hyper-success has attracted many imitators in the global South. In a talk based on a forthcoming paper “Aspirational City: Desiring Singapore and the Films of Tan Pin Pin,” NYU’s English professor Jini Kim Watson spoke about Singapore’s ascendancy to the status of “aspirational city” to countries such as China, Brazil, the U.A.E., and Rwanda, all ruled by authoritarian regimes. Singapore has actively encouraged this imitation by exporting its urban planning techniques to these countries. If the thought of historic neighborhoods demolished to make space for Singapore-style shopping malls, temples of mind-destroying consumerism, does not fill you with dismay, you can stop reading this letter since it’s not for you. Against the apparent reproducibility of Singapore anywhere, Watson read the documentary films of Tan Pin Pin as a record of disregarded, because culturally specific and therefore non-reproducible, spaces in the city, and as an index of desires for heterogeneous, not homogeneous, connections. These spaces and desires are fast disappearing from Singapore. Not only the state, but also the majority of Singaporeans does not care enough to keep them. Remember the old National Library at Stamford Road demolished to make way for a tunnel?

To hold on to our bitterness is to hold on to our hopes and our disappointment. It is to remember SG50 in our mouths and our bodies, so that we will not forget its political lesson. When I was young, I hated to eat bitter gourd. My mother would tempt me by frying it with fish cake and soy sauce. Not to be tempted, I’d spear the meat out of a ring of gourd and leave the green rind behind. As I grow older, however, I discover a growing taste for everything, including bitter gourd, because everything tastes of the world, and I can’t get enough of the world. What is bitter nourishes too, if we chew hard and swallow it. In his book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi, the Singapore poet Goh Poh Seng wrote about his encounter with Pak Din, the aged owner of a failing restaurant. In his former life, Pak Din was a bomoh, or witchdoctor. Once, he was called to attend to a rich Chinese towkay (boss) who had just died. By swaddling the dead man with herbs and native medicine, Pak Din raised the man back to life, this towkay “who was already dead / Except for his mouth!” Nothing is quite completely gone, not the towkay, not the restaurant, certainly not Pak Din, so long as we eat and remember. With hindsight, the better part of 2015 may very well turn out to be the bitter.

 Jee Leong Koh
December 31, 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Vision and Touch

I read Rachel Urquhart's The Visionist over Christmas, an appropriate time for reading about the mysteries of faith, sin, and redemption. The Shaker settlement and the outside World of mid-19th century Massachusetts are both meticulously and convincingly brought to life. The novel is narrated through three points of view. Sister Charity of the City of Hope and Simon Pryor from the World both speak in the first person, as they struggle to understand the throes of events around them. Sister Charity, the self-deceiving innocent, bears much of the novel's psychological burden whereas Simon Pryor, the fire investigator, bears much of the narrative burden. The stroke of genius here is to narrate Polly Kimball's point of view through the third person. Polly, the outsider who becomes the insider on false pretenses, is thus seen with sympathetic detachment. The third-person becomes a delicate method of apprehending her trauma and her victory without inhabiting them.


TLS October 30, 2015

from Michael Silk's review of Joshua Billings' Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek tragedy and German philosophy:

The meaning that the [Idealist] theorists find in, most notably, Sophocles, "established a possibility for Greek tragedy's meaning that did not exist before". The new "meaning" (let us rather say) was not available before - but, in any case, let us at once add: the newly perceived "meaning" helps to create a new set of "possibilities" for the "meaning" of art and literature tout court. It helps to make possible Nietzsche's conviction that "all art can be understood as a remedy and aid in the service of growing and struggling life"; Matthew Arnold's claim that, by giving voice, and decisive shape, to "a current of true and fresh ideas", the greatest poetry speaks to our deepest concerns; and Terry Eagleton's insistence that the best writers are valuable because (pace mechanical Marxism) they can and do reveal the "fault lines" of a prevailing ideology. Idealist thought has enabled essential understanding of the distinctive value of literature and art, we are indebted to it....


from Katharine Craik's review of Joe Moshenka's Feeling Pleasures: The sense of touch in Renaissance England:

Here is a new story of the Reformation quite different from the familiar narrative of an affective, proximate world giving way to new forms of intellectual detachment. Christ's incarnation had always implied that touch involves a certain dignity, and tactile forms of worship continued in post-Reformation England even as the rules about what was touchable and what wasn't remained constantly in flux. The history of the Book of Common Prayer itself bears witness to the difficulty of ironing out tactility from Christian spiritual practice. Reforming preachers such as Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes refused to abandon God's literal touch to mere metaphor, retaining the possibility, however indefinable, that divinity resides at our fingertips. Even the holy Word remained tactile and sinewy, its curative touch poised between the real and the figurative.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Justin Chin (1969 - 2015)

I never met Justin Chin, and now it’s too late. He died on Christmas Eve after his family took him off life support. Two people wrote me separately to ask if I knew Justin Chin. Why ask me? Because we both moved from Singapore to the States, and we both are poets and gay. Born in Malaysia, Justin Chin grew up in Singapore. He was just one year older than I am. He probably went to Anglo-Chinese School. I’m guessing from the comment on an obituary left by Singaporean actor and comedian Hossan Leong. Hossan Leong was a classmate of Justin Chin’s since six, and Hossan Leong studied at ACS and ACJC.

After ACS, Justin Chin went to the University of Hawaii before transferring to San Francisco State University. In the 90’s he made a name for himself on the San Francisco poetry scene, writing and performing work that was full of “humor and raw vulnerability,” as the POETRY Foundation website describes it. The website also calls him “fiercely political.” Justin Chin published many books, of poetry and non-fiction. Gutted (2006), a book of poems about tending to his dying father, was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and won the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. 

All this I learned from a few minutes of googling. There is obviously much more to learn and to be said, but already questions crowd my mind. Who is his literary executor, the person responsible for preserving and disseminating his literary legacy? Will the executor advocate for the different aspects of Justin Chin’s life and work, not only his gay identity but also his Singaporean/Malaysian origins? Will Singapore literature claim him as one of its own? Does Justin Chin wish to be claimed by Singapore literature? Who will decide now that he is no longer here to express his wishes? None of the three American obituaries I read mentions his relationship with Singapore after he left. In all three, he is identified or identifiable as Asian American. What is and will be his status in Asian American literature and American gay literature?

A broader question: who are the writers writing in the USA who are originally from Singapore? By “who,” I don’t just mean the names, but the meaning of these writers. There are many of us here: Wena Poon, Sandi Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Colin Goh, Yen Yen Woo, Damon Chua, Marcus Yi, Jeremy Tiang, Amanda Lee Koe, Lo Kwa Mei-en, to reel off some names. And if we include Canada, even more, including pioneering writer Goh Poh Seng and Lydia Kwa. Who will write our story, and what will our story say?

All these questions may seem beside the point when a man has just died. They affect, however, how we mourn for Justin Chin, or even if we mourn at all. Family and friends mourn for the person that they knew. Those of us outside the circle of personal intimacy find our own reasons to mourn this death, coming at the closing of the year. Reasons to do with common sexual orientation, national origin, or personal history. What I find affects me most is the loss of the poet that he was. These three poems published in Shampoo make me want to read more of his poetry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


How warm-looking
the graying bristles on the man
selling Christmas trees

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The American Diary of a Japanese Girl

It is imperfectly written but it has the charm, as Charles Simic said of his earlier poetry, of awkwardness. The introduction written by Laura E. Franey outlines the collaborative process between Yone Noguchi and his editors in writing the book, the diary's critique of turn-of-the-century Japonisme, and Morning Glory's performance of authenticity and identity. The Afterword by Edward Marx surveys the book's reception and afterlife in the USA and Japan. It suggests usefully the different genres in which the diary may be placed: women's confessional diaries popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the USA; Japanese diary literature, or nikki bungaku, whose roots reach all the way back to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon; the New Japanese Novel; Asian American literature; American trickster tales; and queer literature. The notes to the text are full and enlightening.

My favorite bits:

"Japan teaches nothing but simplicity. Simplicity is the philosophy of art." (62)

"I thought that Americans buy things because they love to buy, not because they have to buy." (62)

"Meriken jin [Americans] has to study the high art of concealing." (62)

"Every book was without finger-marks. Book without finger-mark is like bread without brown crust. Dear finger-mark!" (65)

"[Morning Glory to her uncle] "I'm a poet already. The poet without poem is greater, don't you know?" (91)

"[Morning Glory to Mr. Heine] The best poems are those not published. The very best are those not written." (99)

I think I've discovered in Yone Noguchi yet another of my American predecessors, in addition to Auden and Gunn.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Honor and Haiku

An American honor! Steep Tea makes the "2015 Poetry Books We Love" list from Split This Rock, joining such terrific poets as Marilyn Nelson, Nicholas Wong, and Timothy Yu.


Gray day
another salon lights up
for coloring nails

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Haiku and Kessler

The moon tonight
tosses its horns
at the trumpet’s lion


Last night heard William Fung, the video artist and scholar, gave the Kessler lecture at CLAGS. He showed snippets of Re-Orientation, which features 7 of the original 12 interviewees in the groundbreaking video Orientation made in the early 80's. 30 years later, the participants have visibly aged and, less visibly but more vitally, diverged in their paths as LGBT work becomes professionalized and LGBT workers more accepted in big corporations. Fung reflected cogently on how his own work has changed under the pressures of neo-liberalism and corporatism. He made me think about my own arts organizing, in particular, the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Lit Fest in NYC. What is the point? How best to do it? At the very least, I've decided to drop the name of festival chair in favor of festival organizer.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Translations of an insignificant Japanese poet

For those of you who have been reading my haiku, I must now reveal that they are not my own works, but translations of Japanese originals. Six of these English translations have now been re-translated into Chinese by Zhou Decheng, and published in the Chinese-language Poetry Monthly. The story of my English translations is as follows:

In February 2011, when I moved into my Upper West Side apartment, not far from 80 Riverside Drive, where Yone Noguchi boarded for a time, I found a sheaf of haiku in the bedroom closet, almost as if it had been left for me. To my surprise, the poet made numerous references to people and places that I knew from living in New York City. I was thus compelled to translate the poems from the Japanese. As I worked on these exhilarating, enigmatic pieces, I found myself searching out the street corner, the tree, and even the bird that had so enraptured our poet. In this manner I traced the route taken through Central Park—entering at 86th Street on the west side, then running south of the reservoir, or else strolling north of the Great Lawn by the Arthur Ross pinetum, and finally exiting on the east side at either 84th or 85th Street. Slowly but surely I was beginning to live the life glimpsed through these haiku. I now walk in the poet’s footsteps every day to where I teach school. The manuscript was untitled, so I have given it a title by quoting one of the poet’s haiku. He or she signed off as “an insignificant Japanese poet."

Below are the six haiku (in English translation) that appeared in Poetry Monthly. Thank you, Zhou Decheng, for re-translating the English into Chinese. Any takers for translating the English or Chinese translations into another language? I hope the haiku will eventually find their way home back into Japanese.

Last cherry blossoms
the tentative steps
of old women

A tiny leaf drops
into my cup of tea
and then another

The wind is rising
the shadow of the pine
holds its ground

In the fall evening
green flies glint
like mica in granite

In the snow
a stone sits on its shadow
a courtier on his robe

The snow unscrolls
for the ancient seals
of children’s shoes

Friday, December 11, 2015

To be less established

This Middle Ground article provides a useful summary of events and views about censorship and arts funding in Singapore, for those coming into the discussion mid-way.

From the discussion so far, I've read stated either directly or indirectly that I could stop asking NAC for funding because I am already an "established" artist, whatever that means. The implication is that less established artists cannot afford to stop asking NAC for funding. I just want to point out (at the risk of sounding as if I'm tooting my horn) that I did not apply for NAC funding even when I was trying to establish myself. I quit as VP of a secondary school in Singapore to move to New York City to study creative writing. I was rejected by four different graduate programs before I was accepted by one that did not offer any financial aid or teaching assistantship. I spent all my savings on the program before I received a financial gift in my second year from the college for my work.

After graduation, I submitted my thesis poetry manuscript to countless book contests, which required payment for consideration, and was rejected by all of them for four years. Finally I decided to set up my own imprint, Bench Press, and self-published my first two books. I paid for it all with my private-school teacher's salary (private schools pay less in NYC than public schools because teachers in private schools are non-unionized), while sharing an apartment in Queens with two other people to keep living costs down in this expensive city. I sent my self-published books to people whose work I admired. All this time, I was reading at open-mics all over town to hone my reading style, to share my work, to network, and to learn from other writers, while holding down a full-time job teaching in a very different culture, to a very different set of students.

Of course, I had advantages. My Oxford undergrad degree got me the private-school job. My private-school job came with well-motivated kids and stimulating colleagues. You make of your advantages, whatever they are, however you can. But, and here's my point, I did not apply to NAC for funding. Not one cent. Until, as I shared in my open letter, I was published by UK's Carcanet Press and applied for funding for the UK book tour (I've just mailed off the check this afternoon to return the money to NAC).

I am not so different from so many younger Singaporean artists I know in NYC. They are ambitious, resourceful, inquisitive. They have to be, to survive in NYC's competitive arts environment, where you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a gifted actor, an innovative painter, and a swoonsome singer. These Singaporeans will succeed because their lives depend on it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wednesday, December 09, 2015


Hands uplifted
a virgin waits in stone robe
late December

for the wood
and the trees

Sunday, December 06, 2015

To my fellow Singaporean artists and arts lovers

It appears that after NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote to the Straits Times to defend state censorship of the arts, NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee defended the same in her speech as guest of honor at the Singapore International Film Festival. Her speech is an insult to the festival, which has prided itself on its support for freedom of expression by taking a principled stance against showing any film censored by the state. Chan’s speech also raises in an acute form the question of artists applying for and accepting state funding. In short, she claimed that the state has the right and the obligation to decide on what to fund, based on other considerations besides the artistic merit of the application. In response to the argument that the public purse belongs to the public and not the government, she countered that the public would prefer to spend more money on welfare subsidies and education, and less on the arts. This last point is meretricious: it is not a question of either-or. One may as well claim that the public would rather spend more money on welfare than on ministers’ pay, and thereby make a stronger claim than Chan’s.

Still, Chan’s speech makes it all too clear that the state after Lee Kuan Yew is bent on controlling the arts through its funding schemes. It will support the arts as a way of promoting the Singapore brand, and neuter the arts as a means of political and social expression. As its strategy clarifies, artists must decide how best to engage the state and retain their freedom and autonomy. I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that sees NAC funds as public monies and insists that they be dispensed on the sole consideration of artistic merit, and not the government’s political agenda. Such a view has right on its side, and idealism as its motive force. But the current one-party state has no trouble ignoring what is right and trashing what is ideal. It knows that it is the main funder of the arts in Singapore, and that Singapore artists have come to rely on its funding. By its cynical calculations, the state is certain that no matter how much of a stink artists may raise after each instance of censorship, they will return to suck its teats in the next round of grant applications.

The only way out of this bind is to wean us from state funding. We must learn to develop and present our works by using private, overseas, or minimal funding. This is possible not only for the literary arts, which are relatively inexpensive, but also for film and theater. We can pare down to the essentials, we can invent new forms for the new material situation, we can become resourceful. Groundbreaking works in film and on stage have been produced without state help, and, in many countries, against state sanction. They gain respect with their own people and with audiences abroad for their artistic integrity and innovation. In fact, pioneering Singaporean artists had been doing just this before the state decided to flush the arts with money. (Name the idol of your own artistic field here.) Perhaps, seeing our renewed determination, many more arts-loving private individuals will step forward to help, people big and small, like Eng Kai Er and her No Star Arts Grant. We can dispense with the nanny state.

After reading NAC CEO Kathy Lai’s letter, I decided not to work with the NAC any longer. Acting on that decision, I withdrew my submission to the poetry anthology A Luxury We Must Afford, since the editors intend, not unusually, to apply to NAC for funding. I also told my Russian translator about my no-NAC rule and very resourcefully he is applying for an American arts grant that will pay not only for the translation, but also his travel to the USA to present his translation. A Singapore publisher has just accepted my book of essays for publication, knowing my stance against NAC funding. Win some, lose some, but all’s based on some principle that I can live with.

Next year, I’m bringing back the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York. The first edition last year did not accept any NAC funding, but we did ask the authors to apply to NAC for airfare (for which they received partial funding). Next year, we will do without NAC funding completely, and raise funds from private donors. It’s a good way to invite personal investment in a community arts project. Without NAC funding, the festival can only invite a very small number of authors, but we will be able to focus on giving those authors maximum exposure. The tentative theme of the festival is “Singapore Unbound.” The festival will feature terrific writers who are also outspoken critics of the status quo.

I hope you will join me in re-considering your engagement with the state and its arts funding. To return to the topic of the state’s obligation to the arts, I will say that the state is obliged to cherish the country’s artists and art works, even when they are met with public indifference and hostility; the state should do so for the sake of future generations of Singapore, who need a free and authentic culture. I appreciate fully the fact that it is easier for me not to work with the state since I’m abroad. By the same token, I cannot have the same effect as someone working in Singapore can have. I can only do what I can where I am.

Jee Leong Koh
New York City
December 06, 2015

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Chelsea Gallery Hop

We went to see the Andy Goldsworthy show at Galerie Lelong, but knew we would make other discoveries along the way. The motorized sculptures of animals and lamps by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925 - 199) were a lot of fun to see. Shown at Gladstone Gallery, they were made of junkyard scraps and dime-store finds; the old motors, often decommissioned from 78rpm phonographs, produced unpredictable motions when you stepped on a switch on the floor. At Marlborough Chelsea, the black-and-white photos of Richard Kern in the viewing room were compelling takes on his friends living in druggy squalor in New York City. Taken in the 80's, the photos showed acts of sadomasochism and non-acts of ennui. There was one very different, rather sweet, "Brian with TV, 1981"

Over at Luhring Augustine, the British artist Rachel Whiteread was showing new sculptures made from casting windows and doors in colored resin. The pieces are then mounted on concrete casts of bricks, so the promise of transparency is finally blocked. Most impressive of all were the ash paintings of the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at Pace. A new body of paintings, made from incense ash collected from Buddhist temples, present passages from the Bible and "The Star-Spangled Banner" in braille. The highlight was a huge painting, measuring 122 feet long, drawn from a photograph of Mao and over 1000 loyal followers arranged in ranks for the camera. The work was monumental in its ambition, but also memorable in its human detail. When I posted Guy's photo on FB, the software asked me to tag the faces.

The Andy Goldsworthy show "Leaning into the Wind" did not disappoint. He made me laugh, whether he was scraping through a row of low thorny trees, or climbing up a waterfall, or washing in a stream his hands clean of blood-red poppy petals, or throwing a bunch of sticks up in the air so that they flew and scattered in beautiful patterns. He took such joy in making art. He takes life as it is and just adds one step.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015