Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

The Puzzle of a Puzzling Nation: Jeremy Tiang's It Never Rains on National Day

by Aaron Chan


Jeremy Tiang, It Never Rains on National Day, Epigram, 2015. 220 pgs.


Ostensibly a collection of eleven short stories that are linked thematically and through repeating characters, Jeremy Tiang's It Never Rains on National Day skilfully breaks the rigid boundary of individual stories to create a work that may equally be read as a loosely structured novel. As you read through the opening stories of the collection, you slowly discover that its global settings—Switzerland, Norway, Germany, China, Canada, Singapore, Thailand and the United States—are connected by characters who are in one way or another related to Singapore. These earlier narratives are then joined together in the last three stories, which take place on Singapore's National Day, putting together the puzzle of a puzzling nation.

All the stories narrate a kind of not-at-home experience. In some, the experiences are terrifying, and the protagonists can only retreat to places of safety. In "Sophia's Honeymoon," a newly-wed Singaporean woman finds herself ill at ease during her honeymoon in Switzerland, and at one point, runs out of a German opera that she cannot comprehend only to seek refuge in a McDonald's, a place that offers a sense of universal familiarity. This representation of transnational brands as reassuring havens of comfort is also seen in "Stray," in which Li Hsia, another Singaporean woman, spends a month in Bangkok. Although Li Hsia acts with much confidence in the preceding story "Harmonious Residences," which is set in Singapore, she finds herself lost in an unfamiliar country in "Stray." The story begins with Li Hsia making sure to stopper the sink lest cockroaches creep into the flat through the pipe, suggesting a need to insulate her space from external intrusion. She spends much of her time within her comfort zones—inside the flat and in the giant shopping centre that is "just like Singapore"—until one night she decides to venture into a park, where she is surrounded by several stray dogs. But is it really accurate to say the dogs are stray? Or is Li Hsia the one straying into their native territory? Although she gets home safely in the end, after this terrifying encounter, she feels compelled to lock herself in the flat, ending the story with a claustrophobic experience:

She double-locked the door, shoving the deadbolt firmly home, and checked that the plugs were in place in the sinks and shower. Dashing round the room, she clattered shut the mosquito screens and thick blinds, making sure they covered the whole of the windows, corner to corner. Only then did she realise she had been holding her breath, and let it out in a shaky gasp that rattled in her throat. When she turned out the light, the darkness was total.

Another not-at-home Singaporean that appears across several stories is a young female teacher who is running away from her duties by wandering through different countries. In "Trondhiem," she first meets Calvin, who works with Li Hsia in the Housing Development Board (HDB), on a train in Norway. She then appears in Canada in "Toronto," and after that in New York in "Meatpacking" on National Day. In contrast to Sophia and Li Hsia, the teacher (whose name is never stated) finds Singapore suffocating, perhaps because she is bonded to work there. Her conversation with Calvin on the train reflects two very different attitudes towards their mutual homeland: whereas the young woman sees it as a prison from which she yearns to escape, Calvin is willingly anchored to the city-state in exchange for "good salary … low taxes and low crime and nice food."

Alongside stories of not-at-home Singaporeans, we also encounter foreigners struggling in Singapore. In "Harmonious Residences," Mr. Chen, a construction worker from China, dies in an elevator accident at a construction site. All the Singaporean characters in the story, with the exception of Calvin, view the tragedy merely as a case to be dealt with. Their indifferent voices dominate the story, while the frustrated and voiceless Mrs. Chen is described at the end of the story as "a cornered animal, trapped and furious, bright with helpless energy." The foreigner here is linguistically and, in the animal metaphor, categorically othered.

Similarly in "National Day," a group of foreign construction workers are the Other, forgotten and neglected, and not having a share in the country's prosperity in spite of their essential contribution. For a temporary escape, they leave their crowded dormitories to spend National Day eve on St. John's Island, which to them feel less like Singapore and more like home. However, we know that they will have to return to work the next day, back to a place they are building but where they do not belong.

This sense of not belonging is also evident in the final story "Sophia's Party." Joy, a Singaporean but a racially "complicated blend of Portuguese, Javanese and Thai," does not find herself represented by the national narrative, which cherishes a version of multi-racialism that includes only four categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. Such a narrative is embodied in the National Day show featuring schoolchildren divided into the three main racial groups to perform cultural dances. Diversity becomes a carefully staged national performance that pronounces a restrictive, reductive and exclusive version of multi-racialism. Sophia's English husband, Nicolas, experiences an even greater struggle. Having lived in Singapore for years, he remains an outsider, unable to share in the cultural bonding of National Day.

The book concludes with Sophia and Nicholas retelling their love story—an artificial, romanticised, well-rehearsed version that never fails to entertain the audience, but which is cleansed of unappealing details. Nicholas himself needs the story, too—as an organising principle to help him make sense of their lives and to make him "momentarily hopeful." What, then, do we make of the national narrative of Singapore, the same story that is retold again and again every year on National Day, a day on which it never rains because even the clouds are seeded to ensure perfection? Do we see the Merlion as a modern heroic myth as Edwin Thumboo does, or do we see it as a "post-Chernobyl nightmare"?[i] Moving beyond Singapore's official narrative, Tiang's It Never Rains on National Day weaves together the diversity of the nation, through his masterful portrayal of his characters' psyches, each living out his/her own Singaporean story in flesh and blood.

[i] Sa'at, Alfian, "The Merlion," One Fierce Hour, Landmark Books, 1998.

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