Reviews and essays / March 2014 (Issue 23)

Shifting Subjects, Changing Paradigms: A Review of Balik Kampung

by Bhanumati Mishra


Verena Tay (editor), Balik Kampung, Math Paper Press, 2012. 153 pgs.


Balik Kampung is a collection of short stories by Singaporean writers published by the highly respected independent publisher, Math Paper Press. It brings together its editor Verena Tay's long association with Singapore, her familiarity with the ups and downs of the city and her skills in encapsulating vast stretches of memory. Each storyteller in the collection navigates through childhood memories in a world increasingly shaped by the forces of globalisation. In a rapidly changing Singapore, they find themselves redrawing their lives as they map their unique pasts. The analytical frame for the book is provided by the title Balik Kampung, which when loosely translated from Malay means "to return to one's village or home." This anthology of short stories holds the promise of nostalgia and brings forth the emotional retrieval of lives lost in the process of living.

Compelling images of the city's old buildings, residential neighbourhoods, bicycle friendly streets and downtown bay form a common backdrop for the stories in this collection. Development, migration and the inevitable march of modernisation become the basis for bringing out the alienation of modern man and the prevalent existentialist crisis in Singaporean life. At the same time, one also realises the threads of commonality that bind the region together. The eight stories, brief and unembellished for the most part, are written by young authors engaging with the themes of loss and suffering. They open up small little worlds filled with real people that were left behind in the name of Singapore's prosperity, and they make us wonder about the quirkiness of our modern world. The narratives are about locating one's identity in a multicultural setup and are linked by the common belief that one's environment does shape one's outlook.

The book begins with Yu-Mei Balasinghamchow's semi-autobiographical story "Lighthouse." It is about a little girl called Ying who is fascinated by the lighthouse atop her nanny's apartment building, where she has she comes to stay. The lighthouse is described with such vividness that it gives the place a sense of warm familiarity. As the story charts the girl's experiences, it moves from the cute and curious to the sensitive and shocking, all the way charming the reader with the innocence only children are capable of.

In the story "Tahar," Yeow Kai Chai explores how upheavals in collective community values impact individual lives. In the story's depiction of a monkey-like creature that haunts the National Museum, the thin line dividing man from beast becomes hazy, raising goose-bumps with its mysterious paranormal possibilities. The ending of the story is purposely left open for readers to draw their own conclusions. Whether it is an actual personal account or a tall-tale, the author's fondness and yearning for the area of Changi is evident. Painted with an artist's eye, the landscapes of his home never seem clichéd.

In "Grandfather's Aquaria," by Gwee Li Sui, the narrative is colloquial and crisp, painting the life and times of the author's childhood in the kampungs of the Nee Soon area of Singapore. Whether it his recounting of a visit to Toa Payoh New Town, his description of Yishun (the Mandarin romanisation of Nee Soon), or tales of his grandmother, the narrator's nostalgia for once-lived spaces and times stands out. Gwee is especially good at capturing the subtle nuances of everyday life through the telephonic conversations between his mother and grandmother, nuances that most people miss.

Dora Tan's "Seven Views of Redhill" is woven with the crisscross of basic human emotions. In the story, seven members of a family put forth their unique perspectives of Redhill, the place where they lived and grew up. In these views, there is reference to a fractured family, poverty, sibling rivalry. Kim Yin, the third child, for example, remembers the harrowing moment her mother shut herself in the bedroom to avoid getting killed by her drunken husband. The parang (chopper) marks that he leaves on the door also leave deep scars on the psyche of the children. Living in rundown flat in Redhill makes Kim Siew, the youngest daughter, suffer from low self-esteem. When a schoolmate asks where she lives, she randomly points to a house in a rich locality. Then there is the view of second son Ju Yang and his rebellious desire to break free of his cacophonous and troubled existence in Redhill, which will strike a chord with young readers. It is soaked in the earthy realities of life and is presented in an effortlessly simple style. It jolts the reader out of her sense of complacency and makes her sit up and think about the pain and suffering that is mirrored in the place one lives.

The last three stories, including Verena Tay's "Floral Mile," are in the same mould; a mist cleared briefly by memory, a whiff of a bygone era and a whisper of silence. Simple lives are swept by the winds of change in Singapore's skyline. The authors are successful at bringing out the dilemma of belonging to in-between spaces and times, and the metaphors they use for the past are numerous, each laced with bittersweet reminders evoking a sense of nostalgia. We are taken back in time—through a game of si sek, a Changi minimart and the calls of a macaque—without a trace of bitterness of any sort.

Balik Kampung is as much a chronicle of the city as it is a personal memoir of the authors. Singapore emerges as a place full of hope, as well as of transition. Each story, written in an easy, unhurried style, subtly nudges at the heart, sparing us any overt sentimentality. They provide honest portrayals of the communities which have made Singapore their home. As a postmodern Indian reader, this anthology strikes a chord, as it echoes a similar sense of longing and timelessness attached to pre-colonial India. I recommend reading this collection of charmingly spun stories, which has a calm and therapeutic impact on its reader.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.