Sunday, 12 July 2009

More History Here

This was a favour for two friends, but it took me more than three months before I finally penned it and sent it off. Last month, I was told that the author will be relocating to China. But for some reason or another the review didn't come out until today; I suppose the order of publishing was already determined some weeks back.

At least I kept my promise.

But it's strange that the word "history" has lots to do with some of the reviews I've written lately. I wouldn't call it coincidence.

Is this our history?

first published in The Star, 12 July 2009

Nostalgia. Every time life deals us a blow, we reach for it like child with a scraped knee running to his parents. Is that why we're seeing so many biographies on the shelves nowadays?

There's a different kind of nostalgia hovering over our heads right now, brought on by depressing news headlines greeting our mornings in the past several years – commentaries over our once shared past, now frayed for what seems to be political pantomimes for specific audiences.

Muhibbah, according to at least one old-timer, could be summed up by one name: P Ramlee. Who remembers the blindfolded Chinese tailor who was led by Ali Baba's faithful maid via a song-and-hop routine to perform the gruesome deed at her master's house? I'm not sure if anybody would be able to film that again in this day and age without some sort of outcry.

When did we stop being confident and comfortable with ourselves to the point where we cannot laugh along when others laugh at us?

Some people are trying to find the answers; others are content with revisiting those simple serene days, so far away now that it sounds like another place. The anthology Postcards From a Foreign Country is of the latter persuasion. The author, who goes by the single moniker "Yin", wrote these stories as a hobby, it seems, and was persuaded by a friend to publish them.

The book comprises 10 stories blurbed as sepia vignettes of a less complicated time and set in the 1950s and 1960s, although no dates are mentioned.

From the first few chapters it would seem that the past – or more precisely our past – should be seen as a country with closely-guarded borders. "The Langchia Man", one of Postcards' better stories is also the grittiest one, with the harsh and sometimes seedy lives of the rickshaw men of old laid bare for all to see.

In Postcards, the characters' mannerisms and prejudices appear to have been deliberately magnified, making them quite stereotypical, and I found myself thinking, "Wow, is this how things used to be?" Not to say that the author is being pedantic about the signs of our times but, looking closer, I found no heroes or villains.

Just people, sometimes at their best, but often at their worst. Sensitive minds should probably take comfort in the fact that this is fiction.

However, some parts in Postcards did take me aback – in a good way: Ho lan sui! Or "Holland water", that antique Cantonese term for soft drinks when one brand known as Fraser & Neave often came in re-used, not-so-new glass bottles. And how amusing it was to read about another kind of muhibbah – a bunch of punters, representing our major ethnic groups, divining for winning lottery numbers at a cemetery. I bet there are some of us who want to forget a time when we believed in ghosts and black magic.

The progression of stories in the beginning was okay but quickened towards the end, at the point where the last two stories began.

Still, the last piece is poignant in its brief hurried way, a subtle rebuke to those who try to sanitise history and erase the role of "outsiders" in the nation's history, even if their goals and means may have been less than ideal.

Often wistful, at times tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes discomforting, Postcards is like the grimy, scuffed F&N bottle of my childhood. But no amount of "Holland water" will bring back those good old days.

Postcards from a Foreign Country
Published by East West Publishing Pty Ltd
235 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9751646-5-5


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