Playing against type

  A promising new novelist fuses political allegory with mystical realism to get under Singapore's skin
August 19, 2002


IT might be a bit premature to compare expat Singaporean author Lau Siew Mei to Gabriel García Márquez, but her first novel, Playing Madame Mao, is certainly evocative of the Nobel laureate's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Lau's work is also one of the best novels ever written about Singapore.

Original, inventive and breathtakingly brave, Playing Madame Mao wrestles with dangerous topics by plunging into one of the most controversial periods of Singapore's past—the 1987 communist purge during which 22 people were imprisoned without trial for subversion by the Internal Security Department. Into this historical set piece Lau introduces Ching, the protagonist, an actress who plays Mao Zedong's wife, and her husband, Tang Na Juan, who is arrested for writing antigovernment articles. After being tortured in prison, Tang commits suicide.

Most Singaporean novels, typically small-scale affairs about middle-class angst, would stop there. Lau is far more ambitious. In a magical realist style drawn from Márquez, she weaves together an incredible range of historical and literary material, including Chinese myths, Singaporean folktales, the Cultural Revolution, Catholic theology and French existentialism. In this intellectually challenging tapestry are allusions to Borges meshed with Chinese opera, and characters who ride on tiger-shaped clouds mixed up with scholars who discuss Milan Kundera. If the new Asia defines itself by a creative fusion of Eastern and Western influences, then readers may find in Playing Madame Mao the definitive new Asian literary novel.

Singaporeans will find it provocative for other reasons. One of the book's most fascinating denizens is "the Chairman," the fictional leader of the Singaporean government during the 1980s, who sometimes changes form to become Mao, father of Chinese communism. While the author never mentions him directly, "the Chairman" appears to be a thinly veiled stand-in for elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, the Lion City's Prime Minister during the communist purge. Given the Singaporean government's traditional intolerance of critics, it's no surprise Lau has chosen not to introduce Lee as a historical figure in the novel. Instead, she creates a fantasy world that parodies the government's patriarchal policies. In 1991, for example, the government issued a paper on Singapore's five Shared Values. The first value is, "Nation before community and society above self." In Lau's novel, the Internal Security Department issues a directive stating, "The Chairman before the nation and the nation above the individual."

What's interesting is that despite the government's traditional heavy-handedness in dealing with the media, the novel has been released in Singapore and has even made a local best-seller list. Nevertheless, Lau still feels she must resort to allegory to make indirect attacks on the ruling party. Perhaps she also feels such an antigovernment work could be written only from the safety of exile—Lau migrated to Australia a few years ago, where the novel has garnered numerous awards, including the NSW Premier's Literary Award and the Queensland Premier's Literary Award. It's heartening to find extraordinary artists like Lau, who through ingenuity and invention manage to be heard.

Singaporean Hwee Hwee Tan is the author of novels Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc.