"There is a joy in the very act of movement" | Into the Gap: Literary Adventures In Transit panel transcript
Into the Gap: Literary Adventures in Transit took place at the National Museum of Singapore on 13 May 2023, Saturday. Equal Dreams provided SgSL and Speech-to-Text interpretation. You can watch the recording above and access the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
How does urban travel move and inspire? The rhythms, colour, and untold stories of the mass movement of people have inspired and informed the work of dozens of writers. From engagement with everyday modes of transport to magical, otherwordly terminals, our literature has been shaped by developments in public transportation. Join Ann Ang, Ng Yi-Sheng and Yong Shu Hoong, moderated by Charlene Sheperdson, as they discuss the role that transit and liminal spaces occupy in literary imagination.
This programme is co-organised with Singapore Heritage Fest.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
Charlene: Hi everyone, thanks so much for joining us today, on a Saturday afternoon! Congratulations on making this heat in coming here, without melting to a puddle of goo, because I was melting when I reached.
My name is Charlene, today I am wearing a black top with mesh sleeves, as well as tie-dye pants. I’ve got with me Shu Hoong who is in a navy blue striped long-sleeved top, Ann who is wearing a navy-blue dress with very beautiful flowers and cranes. That’s a very cool pattern—it’s angular and geometric. And we have, Ng Yi-Sheng in one of his signature— he custom makes his t-shirts on his own—red shirt that says, “Artist, telemarketer, social media manager, business consultant, and human resource manager.” Which really encapsulates everything all of us writers have to be.
Yi-Sheng: They were what the Sunday Times reported as the five least useful careers during the pandemic.
Charlene: Ah, during the non-essential debate. I see.
Before we start, I would like to first apologise for the upcoming traffic jam of puns that you will get throughout this panel, which we will [inaudible] as we move in.
Because today’s panel is about transit and transport, what I would like to kind of start with, is for all of you, including the panellists here, to close your eyes first, and reflect on your journey to this panel. As I said, it was a really hot day in Singapore today. So, you can close your eyes, or stare awkwardly at us. I want you to think about what forms of transport you took to get here.
Who were the people you met along the way? What was the soundtrack of your journey? Was it music that you were playing? The click, click, click of heels? Children screaming? Were you part of a regular routine, as you came out this Saturday? Were there people you recognised from your weekday commute? What kind of thoughts occupied your mind on your journey here?
Take a deep breath in. How does your body feel right now?
Does it reflect the energy of the transport that you took? Are you calm? Are you frantic, anxious?
Let’s open up our eyes. One of the things that really struck me in the pre-discussion with the writers, was something that Yi-Sheng said at the very end of our e-mail thread, which was the magic of transport, and that is something that we hoped to get into as well, in the Q&As later on today.
So, with all that that we have captured, we will begin the panel with our questions, and hope that that inspires you with some of the questions that you can ask us during the Q&A as well. This panel looks at how urban travel moves and inspires us. How the rhythms, colour, and untold stories of the mass movement of people have inspired and informed the work of dozens of writers, including three of our guests today.
[to the panellists] In addition to the questions I will be asking, feel free to also ask each other questions, based on the questions you’re responding to. Since I asked [the audience] to reflect on their journey here, I would like the three of you to share with us a little bit about your journey here and what were some of the things that you thought about.
Shu Hoong: I took the bus 190 from where we I live, Bukit Panjang, to where we are. It's actually a direct bus and normally I prefer to sit downstairs because 190 is a double decker. If it’s a single deck bus, there's always that single seat that is up front. For me it's all about privacy and not really acknowledging a lot of people around me. I will have my earphones plugged into my ears. And this afternoon I was listening to the American band Beach House.
Ann: I also took the bus 190 route to get to this place and I don't know if I was on the same bus as Shu Hoong, because I never sit upstairs. I always sit on the ground floor of the bus on the bottom deck of the bus and I don't listen to music. I prefer to look out of the window and bus 190 is interesting because it cuts through some of the green spaces of the island. It’s always interesting, not just to look at the trees or, you know, the animal crossing that we have, which was built in recent years, but to see who is actually walking alongside the expressway that you don’t expect to. Sometimes you can see migrant workers walking to their construction sites. You do see also young people going for a spot for illegal fishing. So it's just what you can see beside the expressway which is usually not meant for pedestrians but only for vehicles that I tend to look out when I’m on transport.
Yi-Sheng: I took the MRT here, while playing Pokémon GO most of the way and reading at the same time because I'm very ADD. It's very interesting for me when you’re inhabiting more than one world at a time and seeing the world in your phone, the world in the book and the world outside which you keep on bumping into because you’re not looking at it.
Just before that this morning I was at a shipyard in Jurong because of this group called My Community SG, which is doing tours of industrial estates. It was fascinating because we grew up being told Singapore is a port city. The port is really important for our economy, but we forget about it most of our adult lives and to see this place where all of the boats have to be maintained, to be explained what the numbers on the boats mean, the machinery, that move the buoys so that everything will be safe.
And yeah, to hear about the lives of everyday sailors, it really did make me think about all the transport that goes into creating the world we live in that we are not necessarily part of. That even a lot of Singaporean citizens aren’t part of because mostly it’s foreign nationals who are willing to spend two years on board a vessel nonstop, while Singaporeans are like, I would like an office job, maybe just go down to the ship every now and then to help maintain it. Oh yeah, this is not so salty!
Charlene: When we first started talking about this panel, we alluded a little bit to this idea of transport that we have journeyed. I didn’t realise it until we were all talking but we all came from the West.
I came from Bukit Batok as well and I normally take the bus because I hate being stared on but I was late, so I took the MRT today. Who I had with me in my ear was Weish the musician She’s got this new song out called “House” and it was just a very strange experience to be surrounded by people and just having Weish sing in your ear, personally.
One of the first questions I asked each of you in the discussion of this panel was, what was your impression of the synopsis which had this beautiful language about [how] transport moves us and everything. My main question for you was what was your first impression, what pictures of transport came to your mind? If it reminded you of any books, or stories, or poems, either by yourself or by somebody else and the three of you have quite different answers so maybe Ann would like to share some of yours first?
Ann: Sure, I could start first. My first impression of the synopsis was, [it's] quite typical to think of public transport as something that gets us around this dense urban city that we live in. But the more I think of it, the more I think transport isn’t always on a horizontal plane.
Elevators move us up and down, where people have been to the top skyscrapers. Escalators take us diagonally, and at Dhoby Ghaut or Stevens MRT, it goes down forever. So, transport doesn’t just go from point A to point B on the surface but is three dimensional. And because we’ve gotten this idea of the other-worldly experience of transport, it got me thinking about how sometimes I feel I have a bit of an out-of-body experience when in one of the underground tunnels for the expressways.
I found out some time ago that the MCE (Marina Coastal Expressway) actually takes us not just underground, but the part which goes under Marina Bay is under the sea for a brief portion and then it comes up again, so I think it’s quite amazing. It’s really out of the world and kind of under it. I also think of ferries in the southern islands, it’s always a sense of not just the port but also the edges of the island. Singapore is not just one island but a constellation of many.
It makes me think of quite a number of books actually. The first story that came to mind was “Trondheim” in the collection It Never Rains on National Day by Jeremy Tiang. And it’s about two Singaporeans who meet in Norway in the train and one of them is a teacher who is escaping from her Ministry of Education job. She’s really just gone and disappeared.
And there’s also another book that came to mind, not a book but a long poem called "F.M.S.R.", it’s the first modernist Singapore poem to be written by—I believe he wrote it under a pseudo name but his real name is called Teo Poh Leng. And our kind friends at Ethos Books republished the long poem in this book called Finding Francis and his real name was recently rediscovered in 2015. You can find this at national libraries all over Singapore; the first big poem about Singapore was written about a train in a train in Singapore transport.
A couple more things that came to mind is actually two maps – there’s a map of the MRT that locates different poems written around Singapore at each of the stations. And just last weekend I was at Kevin Martens Wong’s Kristang tour where he translated the whole transit map into Kristang. So, there’s this sort of poetry on its own as well to have it in places in-between languages too.
Charlene: For those in the audience, Kristang is a language that Eurasians used to speak and it’s one of their native languages in the world. And Kevin Martens Wong is a writer and linguistic scholar who is part of the movement to revitalise the language as well. That’s quite a lot to unpack. Yi-Sheng you also thought of "F.M.S.R.", do you want to share some of your impressions as well of the synopsis?
Yi-Sheng: It’s strange looking at the synopsis because it makes it sound like writers are really fascinated by transport. I don’t think we are particularly; we go "I want to write a poem about someone I love, I want to write a poem about my crippling depression", we don’t usually say "I want to write a poem about public transit". But it just creeps in!
It means a lot of different things, this in-between-ness of a moving vehicle. Even if it’s just an ordinary MRT, there’s just this tiny opportunity for escape from the everyday world that it gives you. Catherine Lim wrote a novel called Meet Me on the QE2! about finding romance on the cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II.
There are also horror stories; Othman Wok (the horror writer I was editing) wrote about like ghostly ships like “The Mystery of the SS Juita.” He was of Orang Laut descent so perhaps that also influences his fascination with ships and the uncanny. And also, more recently in Epigram's 2022 Fright Anthology there’s Teo Kai Xiang’s “Untitled Train Story” about the strange things in the MRT system that not only disappear people but also all the records that they existed, so we don’t notice them going.
Ann talked about "F.M.S.R." as a historic work of transport literature. The poet Sithuraj Ponraj told me about an 1893 Tamil poem called “The Poem of the Most Exciting Horse Race.” It’s an 18-page book from 1893, only a couple of verses are actually about the horse race. But it’s principally about a Southern Indian couple coming to Singapore by ship, riding through the streets, seeing all the things and describing them, even seeing the Japanese prostitutes in the street, and being fascinated by all that they see because this is a new world. At the end they find this home, they move in and it’s a happy ending.
There’s also the whole idea of transport as representing the new. We’ve got that in the 1980s; there’s a Chinese Xin Yao group that actually called itself Di Xia Tie. They were like "yeah, we’re young, we represent the new folks in developed Singapore, we’re like the MRT!" And also that strange romance of older forms of transport when we think about them. When I was doing research for my novel about pre-colonial Singapore, I found several songs called Lang Chan Coony which means the Golden Yacht. And that’s literally the name of the ship that Sang Nila Utama sailed when he came; his wife came in a silver boat.
Shu Hoong: I will just add on to what Yi-Sheng has been saying about the connection between writers and modes of transportation. And it’s true that we don’t normally get inspired by those modes of transportation but if you’re looking at the larger picture then you can extend the definition of transportation to travel – then I would say that there are a lot of poems that might be inspired by travel, being written in a different place, looking back home.
I feel that this idea of transportation is in the background, so if I’m travelling overseas, I might be more inspired to take the train going across a wider distance beyond the boundaries of Singapore. If you’re talking about distances or trapped in the cabin of a plane, those are the areas where I might be preparing new ideas for new writings or new poems. I think there’s something about buses that I like.
In Singapore if you talk about distances being relatively shorter, there’s also that very calming kind of rocking motion, which also reminded me of a book by Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler; he once said in a non-fiction book about writing that he used to work in a corporate world and during the daily commute between his home and to his office, he will be taking those local trains and there is that rocking movement which puts him into this habit of thinking about stories and maybe taking down notes.
The rocking has become ingrained into his physical being so much that he almost feels like he needs to install some kind of machine to physically rock his writing desk so that he can stimulate that writing condition to create new ideas and all that.
That makes me think about the very physical kind of connection between modes of transportation. It’s in the background but we feel it. And the maybe invisible linkages that we might be subconsciously influenced by all those things that we are kind of stuck [with] in the seat of a bus or on a MRT train.
One of the things that come to mind in terms of book titles is this anthology that I edited way back in 2017. This is part of the #BuySingLit campaign. And this is a very portable size; something that Yi-Sheng can hold in one hand, stand in the MRT and still be able to very adequately flip through the pages. But the cool thing about this is gathering Singapore writers to write something that’s inspired by the transportation theme.
It’s called Here Now There After and this whole idea of moving from point A to point B and the cool thing is, it used to carry this $5 transit link card or the EZ Link card inside so they can actually use this to tap on those [gantry] readers. This is a copy that I managed to salvage from somebody; I hope she read the book because the card is gone, yeah the money is gone.
Charlene: I just love when your books can touch readers as well. I was the only one that saw that? Okay never mind. I think what you three said has brought up very interesting strands of conversation. They are also quite separate so let me try to organise them in a way that we can talk about.
When Shu Hoong talked about the bus being a very unique form of transportation, it also reminds me of buses giving you a way to have a cross section of the city. On the first day of my travels for example, I usually look for the longest bus route that will take me from one point to the other. I’ll just sit there and explore the different places, stop at different spots and hop back on. That makes me think about how, travelling through a city or place, we tend to be voyagers looking at it as well.
Which also made me think of Yi-Sheng; you have this Twitter project that’s like reading on the train. What inspired it? And what gets you because you still update it and it’s been going for quite a while?
Yi-Sheng: Okay! I’m trying to remember the journalist who started it. Her inspiration was a project called Carbon Spy which was in New York, looking at people who were reading physical books on the train because they felt in the age of e-books, physical books were dying and this was a way of preserving, of commemorating what he saw.
The journalist called it #sgreads and created the format of: title, author, gender, age, description of what the person was wearing, so that was what I was doing as well. One interesting thing about the Singapore experience is how many languages you see. I mean there’s, fifty or so languages?
You see people reading in Burmese, a lot of people reading Chinese web novels on their phones, people reading Buddhist sutras. There’s photography projects with the same thing, which people say might be invasive, but some of them say “oh Singapore is not very literary, we read a lot of self-help books and religious texts” and I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. I just find it very fascinating to see what people are reading even if a lot of people are just reading the driving test manual.
There’s also a lot of kids reading books, sometimes expat kids reading Donald Duck in German. I was so triumphant after learning a bit of Korean and being able to go like "ahhh okay yes that’s Around the World in 80 Days". Going back to the theme of transport, it’s quite wonderful how the fact that Singapore’s got good enough infrastructure and a cosmopolitan population means that public transport is a place where people of a lot of different racial and class structures meet and encounter each other, sometimes uncomfortably, occasionally in violent ways. But in an interesting way which I’ve realised; it doesn’t happen in every Asian city. Because having this degree of infrastructure is actually unusual.
Charlene: It’s also very interesting because in Singapore, we’re so busy and we want everything like that [snaps] right? Transport is the forced rest point that we have to occupy or the buffer point between spaces and that’s something that Ann will elaborate on in her work as well.
Ann: Yeah! I was thinking of the opposite extreme because Yi-Sheng deliberately [and] wonderfully observes what people are reading on trains. But also, when you’re trying to get from point A to point B, you almost want to take yourself out of that experience and you’re just waiting for the journey to be over so you’re reading that book and you are somewhere else.
It's weird; the more I think about this whole transport thing the more it seems a little warped to me, that you are this body that is stationary in that machine. The machine moves but you don’t move. You sit there and you wait and then you come out of that machine. It’s sort of time travel in a way. I didn’t realise that I was writing about transport until I had to do this panel and I looked at my own work. And I realised that a lot of it has to do with states of being present and at the same time the idea of being liminal. In between here and there as you’re being physically transported but also emotionally, psychologically transported elsewhere.
I’m also thinking about Yi-Sheng’s observations of people reading unexpected forms of literature that may not be fiction but may be spiritual in that sense. People who are praying on public transport, people who are meditating on public transport. Being transported in other ways; that’s important to think about as well. What space you have created for yourself as you participate in this collective endeavour of movement around the island.
Shu Hoong: This idea of being in transit is quite interesting. I’m Christian and whichever religion that you are, there’s always this idea of being in transit; how much do we hold onto in this world, is this the final stop or is there somewhere else that we are heading towards? And of course, this idea of transit is also applicable to this idea of travel being between stations, countries or cities. How do we navigate and so on?
I’ve done a lot of travel poems to the point that I almost felt like I should stop writing travel poems. But I just launched a new collection of poems yesterday involving three other writers. And we are taking this idea of writing and travel to the extreme. Having four poets going on this trip to Scandinavia and having this exquisite corpse writing game in which we write a poem and pass on the last line to the next writer to write the next poem, using that line as the starting line. We do it based on a particular sequence, and we have a morning shift and an afternoon shift, and you can imagine how stressful that can be.
Charlene: Sorry, that is so Singaporean. [laughs]
Shu Hoong: I know, not to mention the fact that we rented a car and we had to drive and some of us were navigating, and we were being accused of not being good navigators. Some of us were driving and those who were driving were blaming the non-drivers for not helping out with the driving. There was a lot of all this tension that went into some poems as well so later on when we have a chance to read some of the poems then you might actually see there’s actually a lot of this micro-aggressions hidden in there.
Yi-Sheng: Since you mentioned religion, when I was in a mission school and there was this hymn called Praise the Lord, they had this line [Sings…our wonder our transport when Jesus we see]. I was going like "does that mean heaven has really good MRT"? [laughs]
Charlene: Okay! That’s a very interesting idea as well and right now we’re all talking about transport and the different ways transport can be. But I’m also wondering how transport has been a point of departure for your own work. So maybe Yi-Sheng would like to go first?
Yi-Sheng: The most populous examples were part of the Singapore poetry writing month when we were literally told to write a poem about an MRT/LRT station, about a bus route. I got quite a good poem about the route 61 going home from the Tanjong Pagar gay bars to my house out of that. But in my short story collection Lion City I have two air travel related stories. One of them is “A Day at Terminal Aleph,” which is in the style of an airport documentary, only it’s about a secret terminal of Changi Airport that serves the Gods, and it turns out the Gods are not very good to humans but yeah Singapore is willing to sacrifice us for the sake of the economy.
I also have another called just “Harbour” which was inspired by the fact that Amelia Earhart, on her final voyage around the world, stopped by in Singapore and praised the new Kallang airport as one of the most beautiful airports she’s been to in the world. And who was imagining well what might her one night in Singapore look like. But speaking of air, the poem we decided to share today is a poem I wrote in 2011 for an event called The City Limits, a spoken world thing.
The poem is also called “the City Limit”. It was an opening poem, and I was dressed in a red sarong kebaya which I have since lost and probably might not fit into anymore.
It goes like this:
Charlene: Thank you so much Yi-Sheng. We’ll go over to Shu Hoong.
You mentioned the book that just got launched, it’s a collaborative book and the three writers—actually, do you want to explain the book and introduce the writers, and then you can give us two to three poems?
Shu Hoong: Yup, this book is called Lilla Torg, and it’s a place within the City of Malmö in Sweden. I think the title translates into Little Square, and that’s why the book is actually in a square format. The other poets would include Heng Siok Tian, Toh Hsien Min, and Yeow Kai Chai. Four of us we did this trip in 2007 and it’s been a while before this book came out because there were attempts to publish a bilingual version with Swedish translations.
When that didn’t materialise, the battle was further complicated, because a couple of us actually had poems that were written on this trip published in our own solo collections as well.
Around all the poems were collected in the sequence in which they were written, and maybe the preferred way for these poems to be enjoyed. I’m going to read a couple of poems from this book and see whether you all can detect any sense of tension in the poems.
The first poem that I will read is one that’s called “Seven Sins.” And it made a reference to this place called Ales Stenar, which is basically the Swedish version of Stonehenge, where there are some mysterious formations of stones being arranged in a particular format.
Kissing stones at Ales Stenar, we mimic
to sell the most books is a thankless task.
for only one.
The next poem is one that's called “A Study on Bare Bones,” and it is inspired by a visit to the Vasa Museum, in which there is this huge Viking ship that was salvaged from the bottom of the ocean. The entire museum was wrapped around this Viking ship.
I’m more attuned to the way the lashing wind
or callous words can chill a person to the bone.
more lasting marks on bones than on the heart.
And for that matter, one shouldn’t fear
nor care if the head, too, is lost.
Ultimately, after skin and tendons rot,
the scaffolding still holds firm, providing clues.
because you’ll never know when
you’ll need to consult the vertebrae.
And wouldn’t it be apt if coded stanzas
are enshrined in the collarbones of poets?
and do likewise, whenever you crave
for keepsakes from your liaisons.
Don’t discuss matters of the heart
or what’s on your mind. Instead
make our bones grind and rattle through the night.
we listen to ancient wisdom resonating
through the corridors of our ivory tenements.
And let prayers and intercessions ebb and rise
from within the marrow where our souls reside.
Charlene: Thank you very much. We’ll go over to Ann, to add anything else about how transport has informed your work, and then go into your books?
Ann: Sure! I mentioned earlier that a lot of my work has to do with states of absence and also transport. And so, I’m going to read from my first and only collection of poems called Burning Walls for Paper Spirits.
There are three poems that I’ll read - the first is called “Tidal Train,” and it’s a poem that was inspired by that stretch in the MRT between Kranji and Marsiling. And if you look at the MRT map you’ll notice that there is a ghost station; there’s a plant station that was never built so whenever I travel along that stretch I look out and I always get this sense of ghostly presence of what’s supposed to be here among these factories that are semi-delipidated. But if you look closely, you’ll notice there is a thriving life and community there and that is what this poem is about.
Down the broad fish-belly of the northwest,
The next poem I want to read has to do with a sea journey, a ferry journey that goes into one of our southern islands. The title is “Balik Pulau,” which is meant and understood as returning home, but in a way going to one of our islands outside Singapore brings us back again, to a time before we had this urban space that we all seem to can’t get out of.
The last one that I’m going to read is a travel poem, so drawing linkages there with Shu Hoong’s. It’s a poem that describes the end of a journey in Bhutan, the theme here being transported into different states. The old name of Bhutan was Druk Yul, so the “Land of the Dragon”.
the last thought a hand
Thank you. [audience clapping]
Charlene: Thank you for all your sharings everyone. I think at this point we’re going to start opening up for the Q&A.
First up, this is actually not a question but an answer to one of Yi-Sheng’s questions asking about the Journalist who did #SGReads. It’s Corrie Tan, so credit to her for starting it. One of the questions that I thought was very interesting is:
If community spaces bring about stories, would you say that transit is the modern successor to Void Decks because we're always busy travelling nowadays?
Yi-Sheng: Void decks are an attempt to replace the shared Kampung spaces, shared village square which people had. I don’t think it’s the same because if people have read the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, she talked about what makes a city really liveable and wonderful is the fact that you have these places where people can bump into each other familiarly and get to know each other. Like the New York street which is always populated 24 hours because of the night life and day life.
There are some similar things that happen with the unexpected meetings in an MRT carriage or a bus, during your commute you’ll see similar people. But it’s not the same, I don’t think there is the same placeness, the same sense of anchoring that you will have compared to, say, a void deck or a town square.
Ann: It’s a very interesting question so thank you for it. Yi-Sheng has drawn a parallel between void decks and kampong spaces, but it’s your own experience of void decks as well, which can be quite transitory spaces to places where you just go downstairs and you’re trying to avoid eye contact with everyone, the same way you avoid eye contact with people on the train.
There’s something about being on transport which makes unexpected encounters very serendipitous, something special. More than a void deck where the void seems to be the aim [for] you [to] pass through. In a void deck there’s additional significance because it’s places where sometimes you see graffiti. Maybe you play football with your friends there, so there’s a communal anchoring to it.
On the train, maybe you do see regular faces on your commute, but people are just a little more careful of getting to know people on transport. People want to play the role of a stranger on transport, and I think that’s the unspoken rule.
Shu Hoong: If the void deck is being compared to kampung spirit or something that evokes kampung spirit, then that is a little sad because of the term “void” deck which reeks of emptiness and blankness. So I don’t know about that space.
I know it’s being used for different purposes. Sometimes you can have a little convenience store, sometimes you see people playing soccer—maybe that’s against the law but there are different things that you can do.
But most people, like what Ann was saying, use it as a place to weave through the different blocks of flats without getting hit by the rain or by the sun.
One mode of transportation that we haven’t really talked about is the mode of walking. I went to this exhibition/film screening by Singaporean film maker Tan Pin Pin, and that particular installation was called Walk Walk. It's interesting because in that documentary film, you will see people making friends because they go on their morning walks, on park connectors and rail corridors. And maybe those kind of routes or passageways that people make use of—not so much for transportation but for leisure walking—are areas that could be quite communal, and you can meet people doing the same route every morning for example.
There might be some possibility of interactions. And I believe that walking might also have this linkage to the process of writing as well. Because sometimes I do think about my writing when I’m walking through nature parks or park connectors; the whole purpose is just to walk and use that as a form of rhythm to free your mind into thinking about creative pursuits beyond what your daily concerns might be. That process of walking might be interesting to also delve into a little bit.
Ann: I just want to add something really quickly. This thing about walking as a form of transport, we should actually do for ourselves. This thing about the elevator that I mentioned changes space quite significantly; in the old HDB blocks you wouldn’t have the lift stopping at every floor, you have to walk through the staircase to get to a certain place. That creates encounters. Whereas now you pop off at your own level and you don’t see anyone else.
Charlene: I think what you said about emptiness is interesting, but emptiness can also be a positive. There is a void deck at the control station where popos (grandmothers) meet sometimes with their friends. Going to the next question about trails and hikes, and also about space:
Grounded in Singapore, many of us have turned to going on trails and hikes. Can you share some of your surprising insights about Singapore as a space and about yourself?
Ann: I can answer this question because I go on walks quite often. The interesting thing that I’ve been experiencing is that we tend to think of trail walking as somewhere that goes through a nature place. But recently I’ve been rediscovering disappeared spaces by walking.
We’re here at the National Museum which is in the area of Fort Canning, and we think that Fort Canning is the first botanic garden, which stretches all the way to Dhoby Ghaut.
Where Plaza Singapura is, there’s a little sign that says Singapore’s first botanic garden was actually there [Orchard Road], but when we look at the name, we don’t see the disappeared spaces as well. When you walk on the incline that is Orchard Road, you actually are walking through a garden.
Walking the physical layout of the land actually reminds you of what it was at one point. You can say it’s an urban hike, but I think there’s a temporal dimension to it as well. I’d rather stretch this idea of tracks and trails that this question has brought up.
Shu Hoong: I too do a lot of walking, but I also think about other writers like Boey Kim Cheng, who talks about walking the city with his father and all these urban landscapes and landmarks that he was familiar with but have already disappeared. When I think about that I also think about, for example, Aboriginal culture in Australia where people have to traverse large tracts of land on foot, and you have to find your way across deserts and all that.
What they will do is sing about landmarks so that they are able to remember how to navigate through this hostile landscape. That was interesting to me, because if you are able to remember by heart the lyrics of that particular song that has been passed on from generation to generation, then that aboriginal tribe or family could safely go through this landscape, using the song as a form of GPS to find their way across that land.
So, I find something very poetic about Aboriginal culture and how it could also be potentially applied to the Singapore context. If somebody wants to write a song line about disappearing landscapes or landmarks and try to hold on to certain things so that they are able to commemorate things that have disappeared but have lived on in the songs.
Yi-Sheng: The whole Singapore literary corpus is about disappeared landmarks. [laughs]
Charlene: One of the questions is, aside from transport, when we think about the absence of transport and transit, especially in the last few years with being cooped up at home, how has that changed your writing? Or do you see any changes in your writing now that transport and transit is a part of your everyday?
Yi-Sheng: I finished two novels [laughs] I was very depressed.
Charlene: Do you want to share a little bit more about the novel writing process? What thought space you were in?
Yi-Sheng: I am an activist, I have lots of theatre friends, so my whole life does involve going out rather than sitting down to do my damn writing. And I like that; being cooped up forced me to just finish my PhD as well as the novella that I’ve been saying I need to finish.
But… the lack in mobility makes me sad. They say books and media make everything better, but I think, as you’ll see and in a lot of my writing, that there is a joy in the very act of movement. I have another poem that we decided not to read here which is “Let’s Do it Every Station on the MRT.”
Charlene: How about for Ann and Shu Hoong?
Shu Hoong: I guess the question is about how the lack of mobility might also affect our writing as compared to being able to freely travel or move around Singapore? I have been quite productive during the lockdown period, and also over this period where you almost feel like you have to compensate for the lack of activity so you channel some of this energy that doesn’t have an outlet into more creative outlets.
The thing is, even in the worst lockdown, you can still go out and buy food or go out and exercise. You’re not really taking the MRT to work or the airport to catch a plane elsewhere. The whole concept of moving around becomes quite different. Let’s say one is down with covid, or during the worst period where my movement is really restricted, then you’re locked up in your own place and that is also a different experience of course. How do you make use of that in order to generate new works?
I suppose the good thing is the lockdown coincided with the 2020 SingPoWriMo, so that also helps. That was also a period where I only had a few works in mind, so it’s just easier to channel the energy into those unfinished works that I finally find time to work on.
Ann: This is a general point but in the same way, the lockdown really forced me to be part of virtual communities as well. So even if you can’t physically move, words travel across borders, poems get read, stuff still gets written, I think that helped us survive the pandemic.
Charlene: Okay! We’ll do one last question then round off this panel.
Audience Member: Everyone reflected on transport being this liminal space where you step out of your regular life. It made me think about whenever I’m on a landing plane, I tend to cry. I was wondering if you could reflect on the emotions of arrival as well, coming out of that, feeling disconnected.
Yi-Sheng: It requires effort to re-order yourself, to gather up all your things, to make sure you haven’t left anything behind, to ring the bus bell. It’s oddly stressful for me to arrive.
Ann: It’s a great question because we always think about travel as departures and going, but the arrival and the coming, usually gets framed as arriving home, but I think there’s something more there. For me it’s usually a sense of relief, a sense that the journey’s done. At the same time, a sense that reality comes back again.
We talk about the liminal space, and there’s this sense that I need to get on with things. Being on a mode of transport sometimes is a break from things, and sometimes I’m a little sad that the journey has to come to an end, and I have to go back to real life.
Shu Hoong: For a lot of us in Singapore (because Singapore’s so small), we emphasise on leaving. We’re always trying to get out of this place. So, when we talk about arrival, of course it can be arrival in a new destination which we will possibly call our home for the next couple of weeks, if that is how long your holiday is going to be.
And of course, we’re coming back. To me it’s always that sort of bittersweet moment of moving between places. So, when you arrive in this place which is new and unfamiliar, of course there’s this sense of anticipation and excitement. But for me, I always feel kind of torn because when I’m in Singapore I want to go out to other places, but when I’m in a foreign country, I tend to miss Singapore after a while and want to come back.
It also helps that I am currently staying in a place of my own as opposed to when I was younger and staying with my parents. That sense of coming back is also quite different; you know the comfort of home and what home means and if you have certain commitments, it’s also a way of coming back to reality as well, as Ann was saying, and getting back into the motion of your normal daily life.
Charlene: Okay! So, with that, thank you to all three of you for being a part of the panel and thank you so much to the audience for being around and for willing to stay a little bit after as well as for all your questions and comments.
About the Speakers
Ann Ang is a literature educator and published writer best known as the author of Bang My Car (Math Paper Press, 2012). She is the co-editor of the literary anthologies Poetry Moves (2020) and Food Republic (2020), and also the coordinating editor of PR&TA (Practice, Research & Tangential Activities) a new peer-reviewed journal of creative theory and practice in Southeast Asia. A keen birder, Ann also researches contemporary Anglophone writing from Southeast Asia and South Asia.
Ng Yi-Sheng is a writer, researcher and activist. His books include Lion City and Last Boy (both winners of the Singapore Literature Prize), and he recently edited A Mosque in the Jungle: Classic Ghost Stories by Othman Wok. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.
Yong Shu Hoong has previously authored five poetry collections, including Frottage (2005) and The Viewing Party (2013), which both won the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems and short stories have been published in literary journals like Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), and anthologies like Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008).
About the Moderator
Charlene Shepherdson is a Singaporean writer, dramaturg and community facilitator focused on language in written, performative and visual forms. Their poems have been published in Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema From Singapore and Hongkong (Landmark Books), From Walden to Woodlands and UnFree Verse (Ethos Books), A Luxury We Cannot Afford, SingPoWriMo 2014: The Anthology and EXHALE: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices (Math Paper Press), and the Straits Times.