Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)

States of Emergency: Yeng Pway Ngon's Unrest

by Jason Eng Hun Lee


Yeng Pway Ngon (author), Jeremy Tiang (translator), Unrest, Math Paper Press, 2012. 321 pgs.


Winner of the 2012 Singapore Literature Prize for Chinese Books, Yeng Pway Ngon's second novel Unrest 《 騷 動 》 opens a door into the lives of four protagonists, Weikang, Guoliang, Ziqin and Daming, who fly from Singapore to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in search of themselves and their lost idealism. Besides being a tale of the exploits of these individuals, the novel lends some philosophical musing to the travails and flaws of the socialist experiments of the '50s and '60s, and gives a healthy overview of the events gripping this part of Asia before the hedonism of the '80s kicks in.

One such episode takes place during the Malayan Emergency, where the mass relocation of ethnic Chinese was used by the British as a tactic to starve the Communist guerillas of food and support. There is much to praise in the author's presentation of Cha'ah New Village as a setting for the backdrop of the Emergency, which, told through Weikang's perspective, helps to create a sense of impending danger:

Trembling with fear, they scurried out of the jungle as quickly as they could—through the hanging vines, thorns scratching at them. Even when they reached the scrubland, they could hear faint gunshots behind them as they scrambled through the bushes, losing themselves in the confusion, emerging still running as if the Security Forces were right behind them…

Another aspect that the author handles with ease and familiarity is Weikang's confinement by the police and his assumed complicity with Special Branch, which adds another dimension to the turmoil of the Emergency. Combined with the '56 riots in Singapore and the Hong Kong riots of '67, these events help to complement the rising tension that one finds in the novel, compressing them into an overarching narrative that allows the author to express his protagonists' growing cynicism, as their hopes for creating a socialist paradise are continually thwarted.

Indeed, some of the most exhilarating writing occurs when the riots are taking place, where the pace of events threatens to overtake the narrator's capability for describing them, as we see in this depiction of a school protest in Singapore:

As smoke spread through the hall, so did panic. Unity is strength! Unity, unity is strength! Wet towels were passed through the hall and we held them over our mouths as we continued to sing, but the sound grew cacophonous, as confused as the rest of the scene. To escape the stinging smoke, students swarmed like ants through the broken doors. The police and Gurkhas outside shouted and struck at us with their truncheons.

Despite these well-wrought moments, probably the best component of the book comes in its depiction of its unfulfilled characters, where the complicated mosaic of relationships between Daming and Ziqin, Ziqin and Guoliang and Guoliang and Weikang are brought to the fore. The alternating viewpoints provided by them work well, and there is particularly good psychological parsing of Ziqin's character—her sexual frustrations, her lingering despair at her failed marriage—while the homoeroticism experienced between Weikang and Guoliang is also delicately handled from both perspectives.

That said, while the narrative setting of Malaya and Singapore is tight and evocative, the events in Hong Kong, Taiwan and especially China seem to lack the urgency and vividness surrounding earlier events in that they tend to come across as empty set pieces, used to situate a time and place rather than leave a lasting impression on the reader. While some of the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution seeps through Weikang's narrative, at times it seems as though the novel tries to eschew any detailed representation of the event while, simultaneously, trying to gain emotional currency from it. For example, at one point Ziqin tells us that

our house was ransacked, and we were publicly denounced and beaten. We weren't even allowed to stay together, but were deployed to different hill regions to be re-educated through labour. There I was raped by a farm worker… Later I discovered I was pregnant.

However, a page later we are told that, "None of that actually happened. The reality was, Daming got cold feet and changed his mind, and decided we should go to Hong Kong instead."

There is no doubt that the intrusion of the author can work at times, such as when the narrative view pans out or when the author chooses to discuss the merits of his own representative strategy, but it can also come across as indulgent and tricksy with its various feints and parries, especially when the author has Ziqin speak back directly to the reader from the page:

I escaped from the writer's story, not for no reason, but because I lacked confidence in my destiny, my future. I was frightened all the time. Dear reader, you've never been a character in a novel, especially not for a female character created by a man, you don't know what "fictional character depression" is.

One danger here is that, considered alongside the tradition of metafictional writing in English, it also makes the reader wonder whether there will be more tricks up the author's sleeve, so much so that they start to engage in a game of cat and mouse by questioning the author's narration at each step, waiting for some indeterminate moment when the penny drops and the final coup de grace is delivered.

As it is, this form of extra-diegetic writing doesn't really venture beyond occasional focal shifts in the characters' perspective, jolting the reader back and forth but ultimately not adding much value beyond a variation on the second and third person narrative that is used to tease the reader:

Dear readers, let's call a halt here. Continuing to wallow in these young people's sex act would make me feel myself turning into a dirty old man, a peeping tom. Shall we temporarily avert our eyes, and look in another direction? We could, for example, explore this room.

One can appreciate how difficult it is to put these threads together, but as the characters' situations unfold and their lives begin to dovetail into each other, this serves as an extra distraction to the reader, especially given the fact that these journeys, taken as a collective, sets up an expectation of a cathartic moment that is never realised. Some readers may be disappointed that the various threads resist convergence at the novel's end, although such a feeling is certainly in tune with the protagonists' own sensibilities. The flipping back and forth across time and perspective certainly plays its part in sustaining readers' interests but also leaves them wondering where the narrative is going; ultimately, whether intended or not, the reader too closes the book with frustration and a lingering sense of unrest.

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