by Jacqueline Lee
First, a story: For some reason I’d won $20 worth of book vouchers from Books Actually. I doubt I would have found this book anywhere else, as it was published under Math Paper Press, the publishing arm of Books Actually. So there I was, in Tiong Bahru, in this very indie bookstore full of knickknacks and books with -Singaporean- names on them. ‘Why so much poetry???’ was my second thought. Piles of poetry collections. Very few novels. Third thought- ‘Why no fantasy?’ I didn’t want moody, introspective novels. I wanted the spectacular, the fantastic!
The title ‘Fish eats Lion’ caught my eye, along with the Lionfish on the cover. I picked it up. The book felt good. Hefty. Like it would be 400-odd pages of value-for-money for the $20 I had to spend.
The blurb: Fish Eats Lion collects the best original speculative fiction being written in Singapore today, a home-grown anthology […] where what is considered normal and what is strange are blended in fantastic new ways.
What impresses me about the book is that it lives up to its promise of being a home-grown anthology. Although its contributing authors come from a dizzying array of backgrounds: one film animator, one Deputy Head of General Paper at Anderson JC, an NUS undergrad, and established writers, what they have in common is that they have all lived in Singapore for extended periods of time. Cyril Wong is in there somewhere with ‘Zero Hour’, and so is Ng Yi Sheng with ‘Agnes Joaquim, Bioterrorist’ (which is fascinating). What I want to focus on are two stories from the anthology titled ‘Where No Cars Go’ (JY Yang) and ‘Feng Shui Train’ (Yuen Kit Man). In other reviews of this book, these aren’t usually quoted as the stand-out stories.
I thought it would be cool to discuss them together since they both introduce the fantastical into everyday landscape, using the motif of vehicles, the theme of transport. I think this resonates with the millions of people in Singapore who depend on the MRT, or any vehicle on wheels to get around. I know my own reliance on public transport made me more interested in reading ‘Feng Shui Train’ in particular. This story directly pokes fun at bureaucratic protocols and stereotypes about feng shui masters in the context of an investigation into the MRT breakdowns, one which many Singaporeans can relate to. Ronald, a young struggling feng shui novice, is invited to take part in a walkabout in the MRT tunnels to see if bad feng shui is causing the breakdowns. In this particular world, ‘feng shui’ appears as wisps of coloured smoke to those who can see it. It definitely makes you look at Orchard Road and even the Singapore one-dollar coin differently. The wry humour makes it worth the read. Ronald talks about how hard it is for him to get people to take him seriously as a feng shui practitioner:
‘A lot of it has to do with whether or not you put up a good show, not how good your feng shui really is. You need to dress the part, speak some mumbo-jumbo, act wise and confident, maybe stroke your beard. I was a lousy salesman. And I didn’t have a beard.’
‘Where No Cars Go’ details Charles Chong’s search for a spirit car Maserati that he sees one night careening down the side of the Marina Bay Financial Centre. It’s a car with a built-in invisibility cloak, unseen by all except ‘sensitives’, the people who can converse with buildings’ spirit guardians. Spirit cars can also do rad things like drive up the side of buildings. The story definitely has elements of film noir, with Charles’ ultimate search resulting in a disillusionment of the pedestal he had put the Maserati (and its owner) on. There’s a femme fatale in there as well.
The two stories operate in the realm of magic realism, where the accepted rules of physics don’t really apply, and ‘sensitives’ or feng shui masters work within them. This gives rise to questions about materiality and materialism in the context of Singapore as a capitalist neoliberal nation. The theme of materialism comes up in the form of spirit cars, the purpose of feng shui, and the CBD and Orchard Road as sites that are specified in the two tales. The entire anthology could also be seen as ahistorical storytelling, offering alternative (if fantastic) narratives as supplements to the main euro-centric ‘Singapore Story’ taught in Social Studies. At the very least, it is thrilling to imagine that there could be a kind of dreamscape below the landscape we see around us every day.
Fish Eats Lion
Edited by: Jason Erik Lundberg
Published by Math Paper Press (2012)
Distributed by Math Paper Press