Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 26 November:
The houses of Nagoya, the play of love, the long-legged fly

They did not expect to return to Raffles Hotel sounds like the beginning of a story but it was more the beginning of a meal. In Raffles there are a number of restaurants, among them Shinji by Kanesaka, which is as pure and aesthetically minimalist as food gets, as you will see by clicking on the link and encountering a home page so pristine it will make you feel ashamed of your untidy physical existence. It is Japanese fish cuisine of the highest order.

Alvin has taken us there because we should, after all, sample the best of Japanese food and this is the best. We are in a narrow sushi bar whose surface is made of single piece of light marble-smooth wood, just ourselves and the chef, Shunsuke Yoshizawa. Two women in delicate parchment-coloured traditional gowns are there to smile, silently serve sake and top up our green tea. Alvin has ordered Hana, a meal of nine pieces that we watch being prepared.  We are presented with ginger shavings that we peck at in between the various nigiri sushi with one course of maki sushi, that is after an appetiser of seaweed and something equally delicious. The successive dishes of nigiri sushi constitute a narrative of mounting excitement, from gentler to stronger flavours, though there is nothing loud enough there (apart from the faint touch of lime or horseradish) to wake a sleeping baby. The fish are laid out before us. Chef takes a piece, slices it with a big sharp knife then applies the delicate ingredients with a delicate finger and places it atop a child-thumb's length of pinched rice. Eaten slowly with interval enough to cleanse the mouth it is, as Alvin says, like a haiku sequence. It is also an adventure in erotics. Under normal circumstances we might bridle at too aesthetic or lavish a description, but it is apt this time. To tell the truth I have never liked Japanese food. Now I think it is wonderful. At the same time I can't help thinking of Derek Mahon's poem, The Snow Party:

...Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto;

Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is falling
Like leaves on the cold sea.

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

Ah yes, that snow, that "tinkling of china / And tea into china" as an earlier tercet has it. 

Alvin's knowledge is astonishing. He takes us through the fish, the preparation of the fish, through the few places that can serve it like this. Not to be found in London. The preparation yes, the fish itself, no.

Our tastes are democratic, but this is aristocracy. These are blue-blooded fish that demand silence in the house of Nagoya and the hills of Ise. Of barbarous kings and burnings we have enough.


Alvin has to go to talk to people in commerce about poetry. We inheritors of the Romantic and Socialist tradition in the west tend to be suspicious of such events. We are rebels by calling. We are rebels by popular demand.  We are a binary culture. Money bad: spirit good. We find it hard to conceive of a society in which poetry has a civilising and humanising role as mediator  between hierarchies. Imagine an advertisement that said: Improve your performance by entering deep meditation with the finest and most successful poets and craftsman in a dynamic yet soothing environment... It would certainly bug us. We don't want to invite business to read poetry only so it might make more profit. We oppose capital to community, and business ethics (the very phrase would have to be presented in quotation marks) to individual impulse. Accountancy was Monty Python's joke career, roughly on a par with Python's lumberjack song. We are keenly conscious of the greed of Gordon Gecko, of the murderous indifference of the bottom line, of the corrupt dealings of high finance. We love a revolutionary gesture though we rarely engage in actual revolutions.

Is it possible for us to imagine a society in which the hierarchies persist but are leavened by an understanding of whatever is humane? Is it possible for us to imagine a society where migrant workers' poems and songs are submitted as evidence in the courts of justice and are reconciled with the finance department or marketing office's love of Wallace Stevens? Or of Derek Mahon for that matter? Or of François Villon?  Or of Bertolt Brecht?

But here is not there. They are not us. We are not this. Binaries remain as distinctions. Our values grow out of our histories however we overlap at times. This is a different set up, a different tradition, a different concept of what makes a workable non-ideological society; it has a different starting point and different aspirations in different historical and economic circumstances. These are the houses of Nagoya and the hills of Ise removed to a map of vulnerabilty, colonialisation and poverty. Here, in Yeatsian terms, the centre has to hold in order to prevent things falling apart and mere anarchy being loosed upon the world. We are, say the voices, a practical people by necessity. Business must go on. Let us make it as humane as we can. The rough beasts slouch on.  They may in fact be slouching this way.


We ourselves have slouched on to Orchard Road, a street lined with back-to-back malls that rise to several storeys offering goods from the cheapest to the most elegant and fashionable. Oxford Street as conveyor belt. We are in one of the malls and have come here to meet three other poet friends who take us, first, to the opening of a venture some ten floors up, a collaboration, as I understand it, between a Japanese food retailer - pancakes chiefly,  an orphanage, and a new arts project. There are drinks and speeches that are exactly what drinks and speeches usually are. The Japanese ambassador makes a speech. Japanese history with Singapore is complicated of course. Let us move on. The press is there. Civic responsibility, creative endeavour and entrepreneurial know-how engage in mutual embrace. I am no more sceptical of this than any westerner might be. This could work. There are people who really believe in it. Art will happen here, art and pancakes. There are worse combinations.

It seems to be Japan day in Singapore. We proceed to a Japanese meal of a quite different, but very nice sort. This is still within the mall. We are artists, poets, musicians, playwrights, arts administrators. We talk poetry and music and books and festivals, comparing societies. Then Clarissa, myself and the poet Yong Shu Hoong make our way over to the SOTA Studio Theatre to see a play by young playwright, Joel Tan.


It is a production by Checkpoint Theatre titled The Way We Go. It has a cast of five - four women and one man - on a simple stage with a coffin upstage centre. The actors are mostly well known not only from theatre but also from television. There are four main relationships in the play: between the forceful head of a convent school and a female colleague, between two girl students who enter a long term gay relationship, between the head and an elderly sceptical male lover, and between the sceptical male and the head's colleague. It is a very human play that, as the link tells you, is "a sensitive meditation on growing up and growing old. It looks at love in places where we least seek it; the love for learning, life, and language; the love between friends and kindred spirits." It is in fact a play about love.

The characters are cleanly drawn, very well played, especially by the three senior leads, and, while exemplary in the sense that the characters exhibit types of behaviour, they don't become stereotypical. There is no 'message' as such, no agenda. The fact that the two younger characters are gay might be controversial in local terms but it's hard to tell. What is certain is that it is quite ambitious for a young male playwright to create four convincing female characters and to imagine the effects of love and cancer on late middle age. The male figure is like one of Chekhov's sceptical doctors (at one stage he claims to be a doctor as a joke), the women remind me a little of Masha in Three Sisters - this is not to say they are like her in any detail, only in that they might be mapped in that broad region. The coffin is there because we are watching the central character die. We don't watch in a linear fashion because the story itself is told in flashbacks and flashes forward. Although the story is set in Singapore and the younger characters talk Singlish some of the time, the theme is universal.

The whole thing is sharply written but essentially gentle. It understands all its characters and presents them sympathetically, mostly in comic terms but always with the sense of human tragedy underneath. Is the head teacher's cancer caused by the refusal of the doctor to move in with her, by the thwarting of her will and authority, by the cramping of her style? No answer is suggested to this important question: cancer just happens. Except nothing 'just happens' in a work of art. If chance enters the composition - as it must - it can be edited out or left in.  Even chance is ordained. Death is at the centre, upstage.

Read this blog as a review if you will. I can certainly recommend the theatre group. Nothing second-hand about them or the production, about anything, just a sense of trust in the difficult idea of love.  We don't do that very much in the west.  We have had to too much lurv. We are bathed in savage ironies. We know the rough beast better than we know the houses of Nagoya or the hills of Ise. We are not here. We are elsewhere.

Neither are the houses of Nagoya of course. The valleys of Ise are jungle and swamp and the need to get on with life. It is not up to us, nor the emperors of Japan to aestheticise the conditions.

The theatre building itself is quite something in terms of construction but this is about the play. I am not a theatre critic. These are not stars or ticks. Imagine the stars and ticks for yourself.


In our conversations we touch on the future. Not the immediate future but not too far off as the world goes. It has taken fifty years in Singapore to get this far. Wherever you go there is a price to be paid but you don't go by yourself nor do you go where they won't let you. Should China be able to divert shipping to a new port of its own Singapore would find it hard. Singapore might be done for, everything lost. The children of those now in their prime would have to face reamalgamtion with Malaysia or something worse.

Under the hubris, sadness. Under the sadness, anxiety. Within it all, a kind of wryness, a calculation of the odds, the need to have things hang together, to make the best of things while keeping life manageable and human. No burnings, no rough beasts, no falling apart. The rough beast has come and gone a few times already. Let us have instead an intelligence hovering about itself, the mind moving, as another Yeats poem has it, like a long-legged fly upon the stream. Upon the wide South China Seas.


Martin Mic said...

Excellent post! I must thank you for this informative read. I hope you will post again soon.

Meditation in India

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Everybody needs a friend like Alvin! Thank you for generously sharing your impressions of Singapore with us.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

George S said...

It is a pleasure, Simon - and important for me as a discipline.