Saturday, December 29, 2012

City of Books

One of my favourite book haunts is Bras Basah Complex, on Victoria Street, near the National Library building in Singapore. Full of second-hand bookstores, I still go there whenever I'm back home. One of its Chinese names, in fact, is 书城(City of Books). I've spent many an afternoon there, inhaling the uniquely fusty scent that only old books have, searching and finding all manner of treasures. That last thing I bought there was a copy of the Cambridge edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, in almost perfect condition. For $5 (£2.50)! The most visible shop, Evernew Bookstore, still has a ludicrous three books for $5 (£2.50) offer. That whole stretch, of course, from Raffles City to Bugis, is one very close to home, and has a special place in my heart: I recall many days spent in the National Library, researching for my IB extended essay and then retiring for the day to the Hans downstairs for a cup of coffee with friends and teachers. 

What I didn't know was that the Complex merely brought together bookstores that had been operating on Bras Basah Road long before. Bras Basah Road was, in the postwar days, a hive of intellectual activity. (It is still a road with many historic landmarks today.) It played a crucial role in those heady days of anti-colonial fervour. Tan Kok Chiang, one of the first graduates of Nanyang University, recalls that bookstores such as Shanghai Book Store and Youth Book Store (still in Bras Basah today) were hangouts of the Chinese-educated student activists of those days. Tan claimed that while the English-educated students would go to Bras Basah to buy textbooks, more progressive (and radical) literature could be found there as well. That bit of history helps the present-day visitor to Bras Basah understand a strange sight: bookshops selling Mao's Red Book also sell used A-level textbooks. It wasn't just the Chinese-educated though. S Rajaratnam, one of the Singapore's Old Guard politicians and our first Foreign minister, used to haunt the Bras Basah bookstores as well. (I'm still hoping to find a book owned by someone famous.)

There is whole intellectual history to be written here: how postwar intellectuals in Singapore came by their knowledge, where they bought books, where they discussed their ideas and how they spread them. The mere physical process of buying and reading books demands a history that does justice to it,  not to mention the ideas themselves. I can't help but think that those were magnificent days, despite the threat of detention, the poverty and poor living conditions. To be young then, they all say, was very heaven. Today, sniffing cautiously about one of these bookstores, one can perhaps still get a whiff of 50s radicalism.

(The etymology of it all seems quite confused. Bras Basah is a misspelling of 'Beras Basah', meaning 'wet rice' in Malay. Apparently, before the land was filled in in that area, there was a lagoon that allowed boats carrying rice to come in. Wet rice would then need to be dried. Not sure if I buy this: as always, folk etymology needs a bit more research to back it up.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


It is a technical matter, a small thing that I've never quite bothered to explain. Yet it is distinctive. It is instantly recognisable. My name is composed of four parts and does not conform to the Anglo-Saxon /Western model of First Name-Middle Name(s)-Surname. It is a historical phenomenon, the result of migrant Chinese adopting English names -- and limited to this part of the world. Take the name (I don't want to use mine here) of the President of Singapore: Tony Tan Keng Yam. The first two parts, 'Tony Tan', function the same way as a Western name would: David Cameron, James Joyce, John Doe, etc. But the surname, 'Tan', bridges the first part of the name with the Chinese second part. In Chinese names, say 'Hu Jintao', the surname comes first and the given name of one or two characters follows. Mr. Tony Tan's Chinese name is hence 'Tan Keng Yam' (陈庆炎). Some of us then, are given two set of names. And so in our four-part full names we manage to cunningly bridge East and West, like our island-city-nation-state has tried to do for a long time now.

But it's a completely different matters for Malays, of course, who often (but not always) don't use a family name. It's simply a personal name followed by a patronym, like the Icelandic. Take the name of the first President of Singapore, Yusof bin Ishak. He had no surname: 'bin Ishak' means 'son of Ishak'. For a woman, it'd be 'binti/binte' (often seen as 'bte'), meaning 'daughter of'.

Hence, academic citation conventions are potentially very insensitive to us non-Westerners. One ignorant of these rules would be tempted to cite Tony Tan and Yusof bin Ishak as:

Yam, Tony Tan Keng.
bin Ishak, Yusof.

And this is why, my friends, I sometimes place my two Chinese names in the middle, making my initials DWJL rather than DLWJ.


Addendum: a good point, raised by a reader. If one is faced with a three-part Chinese name, like our Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and one (for some imperialistic misguided reason) wishes to render this Given Name-Surname, then the correct procedure would be to take the last two as one part. Note that although it might seem that way, 'Loong' is not a middle name -- 'Hsien Loong' is a single given name. Hence 'Hsien Loong Lee' would be better than any other way of doing this. Of course, no one would ever dare try that on Mr. Lee. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Perpetual Inventiveness

Saul Bellow has been the wondrous discovery of the year. (I confess I got to him by stalking Martin Amis.)  I've just finished reading Herzog -- my second Bellow after The Adventures of Augie March. In Herzog, more than in Augie March, one feels the weight of history bearing upon the shoulders of Moses Herzog, the protagonist, a divorced academic dealing with his dissolution. We're all positioned at the intersection of past and future, but in Herzog, we feel this keenly: he wrestles with familial, personal history -- his father as role model; he wrestles with the European intellectual tradition; the American experiment; and the Jewish story. Caught in the confluence of all these forces, Herzog struggles to make sure these lines coincide to form a regular polygon of a man. At the same time, like us all, Herzog is trying to fashion something new. In this struggle, history can often become nightmare. Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate, contended that Mexicans are obsessed with Form, with limiting expression in traditional ways. Paz writes that 'Order ... brings security and stability, and a person has only to adjust to the models and principles that regulate life; he can express himself without resorting to the perpetual inventiveness demanded by a free society.' Whether we see these forms as established, reassuring models of excellence, giving direction to the young or as tyrannical molds of social reproduction will depend on context, politics and change. 

It has struck me, however, that my particular situation is of newness and possibility. In the political systems of the medieval and early modern West, there was a well-established culture of complaint about 'new men': lubricious social climbers seeking to upset the order, chipping at the sturdy edifices of hierarchy and custom. In reality, of course, nobility was often a house of cards, rebuilt every generation. In the words of the historian K. B. McFarlane, writing about the late medieval English aristocracy, the 'turnover was always rapid, the eminence short-lived, the survivors invariably few'. But, in this new world, I am a new man, like (I hope) nearly every other Singaporean.  I am the first person in my extended family to go to university; I am a citizen of a very young nation, now allegedly functioning in a new paradigm of politics. In this state, there are very few old forms, and most of them are obsolete. The burdens on me are lighter than on most -- but this can also be seen as an unbearable lightness. Should one embrace 'perpetual inventiveness'? The tension seems to be between relief at the lack of historical baggage to shoulder and an uneasy seasick sense of being adrift. One way out is to undertake the recovery of history in personal, familial and national terms: a task that is at once historical and creative. It is what I am trying to do in writing, thinking and interrogating -- though I am still unsure where it's all heading. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Nothing underscores historical distance as much as encountering commonplaces in the past. To recover the what-was-once-banal requires historical excavation to make them comprehensible. The significance of the symbolism of the classical gods, for example, is slowly fading. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance, in engaging with the classical and antique worlds, found far too much to fuel their interpretative overdrive, their exegetic frenzy. The classical myths -- read through Plato, the Neoplatonic authors, the medieval commentators, the Christian allegorising traditions and many such other lenses, possibly edifying but more likely confounding -- generated layers upon layers of meaning, as Renaissance authors competed to come up with ever more fantastic interpretations. No doubt such cloudy mysticism provoked David Hume to comment, magisterially and dismissively, that 'Learning, on its revival ... was attired in the same unnatural garb which it wore at the time of its decay among the Greeks and the Romans'. Hume lamented the 'forced conceits' and 'adulterated relish' of the Italian humanists. But I admit more sympathy than Hume. 

It would be too tedious to rehearse here the precise (or more often, staggeringly imprecise) fancies of Renaissance authors. One small game was much in vogue: the penchant for playing the gods against each other, placing them in different and novel combinations and, to crown this invention, finding a persuasive and shrewd reading of the image. The Hermathena, a combination of Hermes and Athena, had classical precedent, however. Cicero's letters to Atticus mention a bust of the Hermathena for his Tusculan villa, though, frustratingly, he declines to say much about its symbolism. 'The Hermathena you sent I am delighted with: it has been placed with such charming effect that the whole gymnasium seems arranged specially for it,' (I.1.5) says our consul in one of his Martha Stewart moments. But Cicero later hints at a programme of meaning: 'It is an ornament appropriate to my Academy for two reasons: Hermes is a sign common to all gymnasia, Athena specially of this particular one.' (I.4.3). In the hands of the Renaissance humanists, however, the Hermathena was foisted with meaning Cicero refused to supply. Take the explication given by Achille Bocchi, a Bolognese humanist, in his book of emblems, the Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere (1555):

Bridging Hermes and Athena, arms interlocked, Eros bridles the beast below his feet. The emblem, with the accompanying slogans, urges us to pair the steadfast wisdom of Athena (modestia sapientiam) with the swift eloquence of Hermes (progressio eloquentiam). With these, we can reach happiness (perficit felicitatem), and if we look at the image itself, are monsters tamed (sic monstra domantur). Edgar Wind points out that there is a suggestion of the union of contrarieties in the opposition of steadfastness and swiftness. Whether this was grounded in the Neoplatonic belief that contraries are ultimately resolved in the One or simply a beguiling and glib use of paradox is, as with the ever-looming question of the problematic link between art and philosophy, unresolved.

Hermathena, Minerva-Mercury -- this pairing appears much in iconography and painting. Rubens' The Apotheosis of the Duke of Buckingham (before 1625) is one example, noteworthy perhaps because its subject is the infamous George Villiers. But the same couple recur in the Banqueting House in Whitehall, in the Peaceful Reign of James I (1632-4). Here the mysteries have been themselves tamed, being little more than the humdrum background noise to power. Such blandness is enough to send one back to the arms of inscrutable Venus in Botticelli's Primavera.

Monday, December 3, 2012

First Memory

It is bathed in a whisky glow: fuzzy, warm and yet clarifying. It is my first memory of anything at all. The scene is illuminated by an otherworldly light, a confounding, angelic brightness. I am two, maybe three. Liberated from some play class, I recall a leaping sensation of delight as I catch sight of my parents. (Usually, it'd be my nanny picking me up, you see: both my parents worked, and still do, in fact.) The day had a definite sense of occasion: an excursion was planned, and I was to be surprised. As I bubble along, babbling excitedly, going in for a hug, my mum brings out, in a deft circular motion, my favourite water bottle. It is purple and yellow and has a screw-on container at the bottom. My delight escalates, my surging about-to-hug motion is slowed, as my mum unscrews the bottom to reveal a pile of peanut butter sandwich biscuits. I still know which ones they are: Khong Guan peanut cream crackers -- peanut butter cream filling sandwiched between two Ritz-like salty cracker rounds. We set off, arm-in-arm, down a path sieged with teeming green. Then nothing else, as I am enveloped in a incandescent haze.