Interview with Felix Cheong

The covers of these books are as local as it gets. Strip away the glitz that is reflected into Singapore River from the metallic thorns of Esplanade, and the polished glass of Marina Bay Sands, dig deeper, and what you’ll see is… us, writing our own stories, while drowning in all-familiar cups of tea (served in cheap, ceramic mugs that have stood the test of time)—siu dai, of course.

Felix Cheong, well known for his poetry packaged in elusive, brooding colours, is the man behind these lively, witty Singaporean conversations. In the 50th year of our nation’s independence, it is only apt that we find out more on the Singapore Siu Daiseries. 

How did you decide to enter the realm of satire & humorous fiction?

You have to blame Facebook and the haze. They were responsible for this foray into discomfort territory!

It was June last year and, thanks to friendly fire from a neighbour, Singapore was shrouded in its worst haze since 1997. Everyone and his dog saw the disparity between the official PSI reading and what we experienced with our own eyes (and nose).

Instead of posting a rant on Facebook, I wrote a flash fiction story, a noir tale about a clueless detective, NEA-L, and a femme fatale, Vivian (after the Environment Minister). Something clicked into place and before long, I was polluting Facebook with these story posts, day after day, often written on the bus ride to work and taking on themes as varied as Singaporeans’ obsession with Hello Kitty and our genetically-codified kiasu-ism. From the number of likes, I could tell which story worked and which didn’t. Soon enough, I had enough stories for two books!

And so an accidental satirist was born.

You joke about some pretty serious things. Is there a “serious” message or belief behind the Siu Dai series?

Any satirist worth his salt knows laughter is the best way to lessen the pain of having salt rubbed into your wounds. After the laughter dies, you suddenly realise just how much the sting hurts.

That’s what I wanted to achieve with the Siu Dai series. To get readers to wake up to who we are as a people, why are we the way we are and who do we want to become. The title alludes to this, with siu dai meaning “less sugar” in coffeeshop talk. The stories thus portray Singapore that is not coated with the artificial “Look, honey” sweetness of the Singapore Tourism Board. And the subtitle, too, opens up the SG Conversation (to which I was not invited!) that is not run and endorsed by the government.     

What are some new areas that you touch in Siu Dai 2?

Some of the Siu Dai 2 stories poke fun at our politicians (gently, ever so gently, because their skin is fair and thin and they bruise easily). Others take a long, hard look at our national hang-ups with elitism and exams (you can’t dissociate one from the other) and how we (mis)treat migrant workers.  

What was your favourite part about creating this book?

The strangest (and by extension, my favourite!) part was how these characters assume a life of their own, sometimes from just a silly name. For instance, Latte Teh, the wannabe politician in “The Lim Kopi Round”, sprang into life, fully formed as a nerd with a propensity to twisting language to his service, once I came out with his name.

The other part of the process I enjoyed was revisiting the KS Tan family and putting them again in situations where their kiasu-ism could reach its finest hour.   

What were some difficulties faced?

The main difficulty was two-fold: because the stories were often inspired by topical issues, I had to fully realise the stories as stories in their own right, without hoping that readers could recall the issues. For instance, “Affair Thee Well”, which spoofs the government banning the Ashley Madison website, has to stand on its own as a funny story. If readers get the allusion, that’s fine but if they don’t, it should still hold its own.

The other difficulty was being able to suggest political follies without landing myself at the wrong end of a defamation suit. The jabs had to be clear and pointed but, at the same time, vague enough not to pinpoint anyone.

Is there a personal favourite of yours in Siu Dai 2?

All the stories are my favourites. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let them out into the world!

The Singapore Siu Dai books are available at good bookstores, and on our website.