Book review: Singapore Love Stories looks at love from Lion City’s many perspectives

Singapore’s fluid and diverse population means it has a unique take on affairs of the heart, and this intriguing anthology finds new things to say about that most endlessly analysed of emotions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 3:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 3:43pm

Singapore Love Stories

edited by Verena Tay and Raelee Chapman

Monsoon Books

3.5/5 stars

Singapore Love Stories is a collection of 17 short stories, from Singaporean and Singapore-based writers. The anthology is edited by local author Verena Tay, who contributed Ex, while Australian expat author Raelee Chapman, who contributed The Gardener, is credited as “anthology coordinator and compiler”.

All the stories are commendable for having a strong sense of place: not one of them is so generic that it could be set elsewhere, and some of them address situations that could not arise at all in places less racially, and economically, diverse than Singapore.

Editors of themed anthologies linked to place presumably assume that the experience of the theme there is different from the experience of the theme elsewhere, and also that by linking the theme to the place, something new can be said about both the theme and the place: in this case, that love as experienced in Singapore is different from love experienced anywhere else, and that by linking love to Singapore, new things can be said about Singapore, and about love, that most endlessly filleted of emotions.

In her introductory remarks, Tay suggests that the experience of love in Singapore is different from the experience of love elsewhere, not only because the city state has its own particular social constraints, but also because it has a “fluid yet diverse population”. Tay likewise appears to argue that it is through considering diversity that the anthology will say something new about love. She says it will provide “an array of perspectives that intrigue, touch the heart, and give pause for thought and wonder”.

These differing perspectives include those of protagonists who are, among other things, migrant workers, or expats, or locals of various ethnicities. The writers are a diverse group, too, including Singaporeans and expats, both Western expats and expats from within Asia, and also established writers and those published for the first time here.

The first story provides a good example of the emphasis on diversity. A Poor Man, by Audrey Chin, a self-described “cartographer of the heart” who has been shortlisted three times for the Singapore Literature Prize, concerns a migrant construction worker from India. He sleeps alone on site, as the watchman.

On different nights, he entertains three different lovers in his tent: two Filipinas, Billy and Melli-ann, and Mie Mie, from Burma. He truly loves Melli-ann – or anyway he thinks he does – and he asks her to marry him, at which point she reveals she has a husband and a son in the Philippines.

Love, nude by Elaine Chiew, a much-lauded short story writer who splits her time between London and Singapore, has a different take on diversity: diversity of understanding about the nature of the lover’s eye. Her protagonist, Teck Hin, is an artist who yearns for Yee Lan’s body – but only so he can draw it, naked. Meanwhile, Yee Lan yearns, more conventionally, for him. This is a story about non-physical desire, about Teck Hin’s “relationship with the perceptible appearance of things … [his] own interpretation and rendering of beauty. No one else’s gaze, his own.”

A story about nudity without sex – which is as much a meditation on art as on love – is perhaps an extreme example, but this is a notably sexless anthology. Perhaps this in itself says something about love in the city state. A Bad Decision by Damyanti Biswas, whose short stories have been published in the US, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, is perhaps the only story to rely solely on sexual tension to drive the plot.

Her protagonist, Nicole Lim, an air hostess with Singapore Airlines, must decide whether or not to marry Jesse, her previously married African-American on-off lover of the past 20-odd years. None of the stories contains sex scenes, as such, although A Poor Man has a couple of paragraphs indicating that the characters are at least having sex.

Several of the stories focus on the ways that love lingers in the lives of the living after a beloved’s death. The Things We Hide, by Clarissa N. Goenawan, winner of the 2015 Bath Novel Award and whose much-anticipated first novel Rainbirds will be published next year, concerns a woman whose boyfriend dies in a plane crash, and who, 12 years later, encounters his ghost. Death is prominent in several other stories, including the contribution of editor Tay, while others also range from crime and science fiction.

Love in the anthology extends to familial love and love of food, the latter represented by Vanessa Deza Hangad’s story Too Fat. Cake by Jing-Jing Lee is the only story in the anthology to acknowledge male homosexual love,  and Bayshore Wake by Marion Kleinschmidt subtly explores the consequences of a secret act of emotional and erotic intimacy between two women.

Chin’s A Poor Man is written in non-standard Indianised English, and throughout the anthology there are smatterings of Singlish, particularly in ATM Agony Aunty. However, there is not one story entirely written in Singlish – a missed chance, perhaps, because surely any truly authentic Singaporean love story would take place in Singlish, lah.

The Asian Review of Books