By Danny Jalil
Singapore has been depicted as thinly disguised versions of itself; in Western fiction as Madripoor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Manticura in Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper. But, have you wondered why Singapore is such a fascinating place to depict, not just for local but international authors?
A hundred years ago, Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad set some of his famed short stories in an unnamed Asian port city. Though never mentioned explicitly, one could deduce he was writing about Singapore, a place that he visited several times during his seafaring career. Fictional places offer a way for creators to talk about a location without having to explicitly mention it.
Singapore, with its vast myths and legends of kings and queens, swarms of swordfish, storms, and strange animals even before its founding by the British, had always maintained a great location and deep waters for ships to dock.
A significant amount of social and economic planning has made this tiny island a success story, and I reckon, like all successes, there are plenty who dream of it in other ways, and we call those people writers.
For a more illusory view of Singapore, we have to look no further than our local writers. Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper is set in a fantasy version of Singapore called Manticura, the name likely derived from the mythical beast Manticore, and Singapura. The map of Manticura in her novel has the same shape as the Singapore island itself.
When asked why she chose to depict Singapore via Manticura, Norasid said: “I cannot speak for all writers, but for myself, I chose to do it in fictional terms for several reasons, but the main one is (that) using fantastical settings defamiliarises the subject matter, here being the city-state and the tensions and relationships that exist within it.”
According to Norasid, defamiliarisation helps break the subject up into several key aspects, proponents and attitudes. Using fantastical settings and tropes requires one to first understand these areas in order to render them as part of a fictional world.
Besides Norasid, Kevin Martens Wong’s novel, Altered Straits, depicts a sci-fi Singapore in a story spanning decades about a Merlion that fends off an alien invasion. Lion City, a short story collection by Ng Yi-Sheng, sets Singapore against a backdrop of strange and weird tales.
Sometimes the future lies in the past, like Danny Jalil’s own steampunk novel The Machine Boy, set in late 19th Century Singapore (I have, of course, a very close personal relationship with this writer).
I asked myself then why do local authors like to revisit Singapore in various, fantastical ways?
When I wrote The Machine Boy, it was not in any way designed as a political statement, but rather it was a genuine love for Singapore’s history, for that particular time period, and seeing how cool it might have been to imbue a retro-future steampunk vibe into old Singapore, a style that was at the time predominantly set in Victorian England.
Even Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime Steamboy, though a Japanese production, was set in Victorian England, but I wanted to make The Machine Boy a truly Singaporean story about colonialism, gangs, and a local man’s relationship with them.
“In some ways, perhaps there is this lean towards the wheel of time and how things return to familiar beginnings but with different interpretations. With such, I’ve noticed future-fantasy-infused technology with Asian myths and folklore in many art forms which is very interesting,” shares Wesley Leon Aroozoo, filmmaker and author of the novel The Punkhawala and the Prostitute.
Let’s take a look at fictional depictions and representations of other cities around the world.
Hear the name Gotham City; some of us might conjure the image of bats, caves, muscle cars, and colourful criminals.
Its vast skyscrapers always give the audience or the reader the impression that Gotham City is a mash-up of the worst aspects of major American cities like New York or Chicago, an ideal stomping ground for a dark vigilante like Batman.
Fictional places offer a way for creators to talk about a city, or country, without having to exactly talk about the country. Gotham City offers a universal representation that anyone in the world can relate to.
Coming back to our local authors, why then do they depict fictional/fantastical versions of Singapore? Is their goal to talk about Singapore, without having to exactly talk about Singapore?
Norasid also said, “Using fantastical settings means the real is broken down into the conceptual before the conceptual is then rendered the fictional. This process gets me to observe the subject a little more closely.”
Regardless of how Singaporean writers depict their own imagined versions of Singapore, another thing to consider is the proper representation of races and cultures.
This is something fiction cannot escape from. Representation allows us to relate to the characters. Even if a culture is fictional, it must have a basis in a culture that has existed before. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
On a side note, I found it rather upsetting that the city of Madripoor in the Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as well as Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, supposedly situated somewhere in the Malay Archipelago, and loosely based on Singapore, was heavily populated by Westerners with American accents. It would have been nice to include some Asians and Indonesian actors speaking real Bahasa to colour in some genuine flavour.
We have to imagine Singapore, a young nation, like a young child, struggling to find its identity in an ever-changing multi-racial society, and it’s a gross oversimplification for all of us to just use the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil anymore, as there are now more and more Singaporeans descended from many other countries as well.
Writers in Singapore have something to say about this island that they love (with caveats), and perhaps the best way to express the ever-changing cultural landscape, is to talk about Singapore without talking about Singapore, to create fantastical places that represent this nation as a metaphor.
According to Aroozoo, “Perhaps as a young nation just past its bicentennial mark, we are at the point where we are curious about what our next 50 years and more will bring. Imagining the future as a young nation there is this need to also remember or honour the past as it is in some way of giving identity or familiarity to the unknown future.”