Postmodernism Postmodernism In “Foreign Bodies”, although Hwee Hwee Tan explores what has been done before the blend of East and West, themes both light and serious the treatment has her own signature, and the political satire existing side by side with the Christian preaching is unique. The main effect that emerges is that of humour through the contradictions within each component and against each other, in the motley selection. Especially engaging is the expose on the cultural practices, idiosyncrasies and two-facedness of Chinese Singaporeans. On the one hand, both local and non-Singaporean readers derive fun as the former see themselves in a comically unflattering but true light, while the latter get acquainted with the local culture in an entertaining way from Tan’s light-hearted portrayal.
Later in the book, deeper issues push to the droll surface because facing the characters in the end is the dilemma of life-choices and moral integrity. This engages the reader into a contemplation of serious issues beyond Tan’s wit. On the other hand, alienation may also result from readers in disagreement with her views on certain aspects of Chinese culture, those who find her pro-Christianity stance too forward and those unable to identify with the characters. The novel acquaints non-Singaporean readers with Chinese moralistic myths and legends like the eighteen levels of Hell, Chang-E the maiden of the moon, and Mu Lian who saved his mother from hell. They learn about interesting Chinese beliefs like “that it was good luck for gifts to come in pairs” or that a pregnant cat can resurrect a corpse by jumping over it. National pastimes including karaoke, gambling and soccer mania are described as staples of the general populace.
Singlish as an essential part of everyday communication is illustrated by Mei’s conversation with an MRT warden after Andy spilled a drink at the station, which is followed by an explanation to Andy who does not comprehend the language. The reader is introduced to Mei’s prying relatives (which are, of course, ubiquitous creatures that anyone from any culture will know). “They only want to know so that they can say bad things about us. Laugh about us.
They only want to gossip”. Other perennial topics for idle local gossip revolve around discussions of property prices after an arrest etc. In addition, a keen sense of home is recreated for Singaporean readers. The strong Singapore feel comes from the Singapore slang words kaypo, wah leow, eng, lah, xiao, ang moh, ai-ya, gek sim, pei she, chin-chai, ca jiao etc; familiar place names such as General Hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, Geylang, Tiong Bahru, East Coast Park; and Singaporean’s love for acronyms POSB, HUDC, HDB, CID, NTUC, MP etc. Slices of life distinctively Singaporean are drawn from social, moral and cultural issues.
The gold tooth of Mei’s grandfather, which is “his only luxury”, symbolises the frugality of the older generation that scrimp on themselves. The preoccupation with good fortune is made comic. For example, Eugene’s parents have his original Chinese name changed into an auspicious one because the number of strokes in the original name was unlucky, or Mrs. Lam nags at her maid Melissa that she sweeps away luck for using broom during the Chinese New Year. Food and bingeing serve as a form of consolation for Singaporeans (with an emphasis on local cuisine) “I got the most calorific dishes possible roast pork rice, fried kway teow, and fried carrot cake..and burped.
It felt so good” after being dismissed by Andy from representing him. Many instances of Tan’s portrayal of Chinese culture are often hilarious. In the extended family situation, it is hard for Andy to remember Mei’s niece and he calls her “Zhen Chou” (really smelly) instead of “Zhen Cai” (genuine fortune), besides showing the language difficulty for non-Chinese speakers. There is a stigma of being an older unmarried woman as Mei’s mother worries about her daughter who is nearly 30 years old and reaching the “expiry date”. She likens marriage to going to NTUC to “grab first, worry later”. This “kiasuism” is compounded with the pragmatism of Singaporeans who see divorce as easy, “can refund or exchange” if not satisfied.
Mei’s mother also typifies the Chinese Singaporean housewife who has the superstition that Fengshui improves luck, to the extent of writing to a member of Parliament requesting that a tree affecting her HDB unit’s Fengshui be cut down. The humour sometimes comes to the level of pastiche, for example, when Mei is asked by her mother “You pass motion now still got bleed or not?”, the “bad taste” of alluding to bodily functions effectively indicates the mother’s concern. Little is known about Singapore expatriate children and it may especially pique the curiosity of locals to learn more about their own “exports”. The reader is probably shocked to find that the Singapore expat kid shoplifts, “kicks from smashing in headlights, lobbing lamp-post bulbs, and watching porno videos” Irony suffuses many situations such as “In other countries, if you’re a kid dying of a terminal disease, you do interesting things like try to break a world record..(a Singapore boy) achieves 6 A1s, but doesn’t live to see it”. Tan criticises Mei’s relatives who gossip about uncle Cheong that he “Go world tour” after his wife’s death, not understanding that grief can be private without an overt show of tears. In fact, the gambling at funerals and the hired professional mourners do not escape Tan’s eye as she comments on the “misplaced” sense of proper respect to the dead and the hypocritical pretence at mourning.
The accent of Chinese values on filial piety is fodder for irony too since Mei’s grandfather is sent to an old folks’ home after a stroke. His own children do not look after him and becoming a ‘recipient of Interact Club care” that is hardly a part of his family adds to the irony. The political arena is another area that Tan practises her wit upon. She reminds Singaporeans and informs non-locals of the inevitable “Big Brother is watching” part of Singapore society. In the MRT incident, spy cameras catch the recalcitrant Andy spilling his drink under the “No food and Drink sign/ $500 fine” sign and he gets into trouble. Andy’s frustrated question: “How come betting on horses is legal, but betting on soccer is not?” provokes speculation on the government’s efforts at the profit aspect of state control over gambling rather than for reasons national welfare.
Tan suggests that the press is the primary vehicle for government propaganda: “Andy was the foreigner, the evil outside influence, the ang mo; Eugene was the Singaporean kid led astray by corrupt Western expatriates; and me, I was the local, naive, suaku mountain tortoise of a girl who should have listened to her mother and not fallen for a criminal like Andy”. The racism of the judge at Andy’s last hearing is brought into the fore by Andy’s statement: “When a crime occurred, it would be too easy to blame it on someone like me, to see him as the foreign body, the element that infected a once healthy society.” Tan’s mild political satire maintains a wry humour that complements the general comic tone. It may be objectionable to some readers to have the didactic preaching of Christian values thrust upon them. In fact, some of the supposedly Christian values exist in other religions (e.g.
unconditional love in Buddhism). The born-again Christian passages of Andy and Mei are reminiscent of the pamphlets about Christian conversion stories distributed by overzealous preachers in the streets. The rather bleak ending, but containing sentimental pseudo-enlightened feelings, does not break from the mould, common nowadays, of gritty stories finally expressing unconditional faith, to attract the world-weary youth. The championship of the Christian cause appears to be an attack on Chinese folk religion. Tan’s character Mei makes a judgement of the religion by focussing on the negative aspects.
She believes that the religion is built on the premise that “You are guilty until proven innocent”. She elaborates that “The King of Hades judged the deceased’s popularity by the amount of tears shed for him, hence the professional mourners. Volume, not sincerity, counted.” Tan also presents a jeering unsympathetic view of the funeral rite, that is never alleviated in the book: “An army of priests..ready to storm Hell with their rituals and rescue (the grandfather) from the demonic clutches of Yuen Thou Wong”. While it is quite fair to judge human actions (within certain limits), the criticism of a religious ritual that cannot and does not contain good or evil, claims no credibility. It is a very different thing to attack wayward religious followers and to attack the religion itself, no matter how pious one is to one’s own. There are characterisation flaws in the novel that may disengage the reader.
Mei is too clever and her humour seems slightly forced and out of place since it is unlikely anyone real perceives things the way she is portrayed. She feels neither Singaporean nor European, but perhaps she is a hybrid that Tan intends to represent the new cosmopolitan Singaporean? Andy, too, is unconvincing and will not be immediately identified by the English themselves. He is a romanticised picture of a simple English lad by the Singapore-Party-Girl-like Mei who has a slight Pinkerton syndrome. However, it is possibly Tan’s attempt to exoticise the West in reaction against the popular exoticism of the Asian girl. The reader is hard-pressed to imagine a simpleton with brains, who can put a tin of beans into the microwave oven, and unexpectedly displays an artful self-defence in court.
Some issues that are foreign to Singaporean readers may also alienate instead of engage them. The yuppie lifestyle of Loong and Eugene, and the friendship/romance between a local and foreigner are unfamiliar to most, therefore may do little to engage. Tan is more successful in her secular contemplations as they provide valuable insights to the Singaporean psyche and greater awareness of painful truths through the experiences of her various characters. The obstinacy of blame of Mei on her mother whom she has not realised to be every bit as much a victim to her father’s oppression, disappears as “Now (she) realised that (her) mother did nothing, not because she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t”. She begins to understand that it is human nature that “If anything went wrong, we acted like it never happened” because reticence is a safety mechanism against further hurt. The belief in the “correlation between moral fibre and good grades” is inadvertently challenged by the actions of Loong who tortures animals for fun and who has little regard for human life.
Eugene “want(s) people to know PSC scholars are not synonymous with moral virtue. (He) want(s) the world to see that Loong is evil”. However, the adage that hatred makes one becomes what one hates used for Eugene’s characterisation has not received much development and remains a cliche. Yet, the fact that Eugene is unwilling to bail Andy despite being his fault because “(He) only want(s) justice if it costs (him) nothing.” is fully believable.
He has little contact with Andy and Tan is justified in the negligible involvement of the Eugene character in the plot. And the most poignant and candid observation of all is from Andy who says “Losing isn’t romantic, life-enhancing or artistically inspiring. Losing sucks.” In conclusion, Tan combines elements of postmodernism to create a refreshing way of perceiving the world. Her mixing of different genres politics, social situation, culture, humour and irony and probing of the polemic binaries of the East and West, and the flippant and the solemn, distinguish her writing as her very own.
Furthermore, the fluid and deliberate intertextuality of pastiche and allusion dissolves the distinctions between high and low culture.