From the archives (January 19, 2017):
Review of Philip Holden’s Heaven Has Eyes (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016)
by Stewart Dorward
Heaven Has Eyes is a first work of fiction by Philip Holden, a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore. In his professional capacity, Holden has published literary criticism on Southeast Asian literature in English, auto/biography, and global modernity. His fictional debut contains twelve short stories that cover many different lives rooted in Singapore.
Most of the stories are set in Singapore. If not, then Singapore is used as a point of contrast or connection to other cities that Holden knows equally well, such as London and Toronto. Holden’s Singapore is “photo-perfect but crisply defined, a little too clean to be quite real” (“September Ghosts”). It is a modern city obsessed with order. This hyper-cleanliness is given as the reason why some are becoming sick in the story “Gan Rou Kong Bak.” The title of the story refers to thinly-sliced barbecued pork beloved of many Singaporeans. The excessive hygiene of the modern city is causing people to dry up inside. In contrast, for Holden, it is the hidden, the dirty, and the messy that are true signs of health. In the stories, mud and soil often appear along with truth whereas cleanliness stands next to deception and control.
Chinese-language drama produced by the main TV broadcaster provides a sanitized sedative on Channel 8. The title of the book is taken from such a drama serial in the story also named “Heaven Has Eyes.” The program’s premise mirrors the myth of Singapore. Three generations of a Chinese family live together in a large house under the cunning but benevolent gaze of the grandparents. The family business undergoes unstable political conditions but survives to become extremely prosperous. However, the younger generation has traveled abroad and is proving less tractable than their parents. Bowdlerized Indian and gay characters flit in and out of the story. The drama serial poses as an allegory of the official Singapore story.
The story’s protagonists, a couple drawn to this TV drama, have a quite different life. From their names, they might be a mixed-race couple that live separately from his elderly parents, a moderately confused father and increasingly affectionate mother, in a house that is slightly run-down and old-fashioned but kept in order by the Burmese maid. Even family secrets are hidden in opposite places. The big house of the rich TV family improbably has a forgotten cellar that is filled with abandoned books. The real house has, upstairs, familiar childhood bedrooms full of school records, photo albums, and memories.
Outside the home, manna is falling from heaven due to the upcoming general election. These practical gifts simply appear without obvious source or effort. For instance, the “long delayed covered walkway to the Mass Rapid Transit station materialized almost overnight, gleaming in steel and glass.” The benevolent gods running Singapore are raining down blessings. In contrast, there is mud under foot at the opposition party’s rally. The presence of dirt should always alert the reader that they are closer to the truth, in Holden’s fiction.
“If you go deep enough, what do you get? Sai. Shit.” So says the mother in the story “Penguins on the Perimeter.” “Go” is an interesting choice of verb as Holden’s protagonists are as likely to fall or sink into the mess of life as dig down into it. Whether actively or passively going down, they end up in a wide variety of dirty places. An abandoned mine, a flooded underground car park, a cellar, the lion house at a zoo with its warm and smelly cave are a few notable examples. They are sites of dreams and visions in which people are pulled into graves, find themselves entombed in marble walls or mobbed by fantastical flying penguins. “Somewhere in there, you know, is a body….” (“Library”). They are, in other words, sites of psychic repression, which require the digging of therapy to unearth.
Not all of the mess is hidden, repressed or suppressed underground. The stories also feature a hiking trail, an outdoor political rally, a river estuary, and a neighborhood coffee shop. However, all of them are dirty places. The hiking trail is unkempt, the rally ground and the estuary are both muddy, and the coffee shop has “reassuring layers of grime” in contrast with the pristine cleanliness of an airport Starbucks in “Two Among Many.”
These dirty places are the site of some piercing revelations. In “Mudskippers,” the widowed father and daughter manage the polite dance of a filial visit, never communicating in depth. They are absorbed in researching a suitable sheltered residence as the father is becoming frail. However, in her dreams the daughter is taken to a muddy place where her father stumbles. As she catches him, the widowed father changes in her arms and cries out for his dead wife, “Let me go, Kathy. I want to be with her: why do I have to wait so long?” Outside of the mud and the dreams there are only hints of such strong emotions and desires.
Heaven Can Wait is not unrelentingly dark; some secrets bubble up in more amusing ways. “Penguins on the Perimeter” is the funniest and most coded story in the book. The penguin in question is said to belong to the species of spheniscus orientalis. The fake Wikipedia entry that starts the story states that this flying Asiatic penguin was once endemic to South East Asia but was hunted to near-extinction in the colonial period. More recently the population is seen to be recovering in strength and numbers.
This non-existent bird pops up everywhere in the story. A huge flock is seen not only at the end of the story by the protagonist, but also at the beginning by his Grandpa. In the middle, they infest the flooded underground car park of the building that the unnamed protagonist is moving into. Cute and fluffy ones even invade his dreams and kiss him. Since they do not exist it is hardly surprising that workmen stare at him oddly when he is yelling down the phone to the estate agent about this phantom invasion.
The reader can break the code by googling the words “Singapore” and “penguin.” A news story will appear about the removal of a children’s book from library stacks because it featured a same-sex penguin couple hatching an egg together. The book caused enough outrage in certain conservative parts of society that a campaign was prosecuted for it to be removed from the shelves. The penguin, identified by Grandpa from a children’s book borrowed from the local library, is code for homosexuality.
With this piece of information other parts of the story take on extra meaning. The reader can start to theorize as to why the protagonist’s mother is so unsettled by her father’s obsession with penguins and why she regards digging up information about them as likely to uncover “Sai. Shit.” If the penguins were real birds, what could be a healthier outdoor interest for a young boy? The boy grows up and, as a father, reinforces gender stereotypes relentlessly in his new apartment. There is a pink fluffy bedroom for his daughter and a more austere masculine one for his son. Despite these reassuring symbols of sexual conformity the father is worried. What secrets lie behind the son’s locked door? Why does his daughter have so many photos of her tomboy of a best girl friend? The code broken, the penguin dreams can be interpreted as the father’s suppressed sexuality emerging from deep below. The Wikipedia entry can then be reread to refer to the suppression of culturally accepted homosexuality under colonial rule and its slow reemergence in the post-colonial age.
Not all of the suppression of emotion is amusing. “Two Among Many” is chilling in its efficient and calm description of a drug mule and her executioner slowly moving towards each other across Singapore. She is sat in a bland airport Starbucks. He is in a grimy local coffee shop. She has been duped into believing that the Singaporean authorities do not care about drugs in transit. He sits on the truth of what will happen to her when she is caught. All emotion is repressed. He is thinking of the smooth mechanics of his job and the medical harvesting of organs to follow. She is calming herself in the banality of airport transit. Her capture, interrogation, trial, and death are not shown, but the reader knows what happens to drug traffickers in Singapore. In Thomas Hardy’s poem about the sinking of the Titanic “The Convergence of the Twain,” both iceberg and ship smoothly glide towards their fateful collision without any knowledge of the other. Holden’s story has the same atmosphere of inevitability. However, Hardy’s baroque style dulls the effect. In contrast, Philip’s plain English makes this story more powerful.
So, what would Lee Kuan Yew, the late leader of Singapore, have made of all this messy truth? Philip’s suggestion comes in “Forbidden Cities.” In this story, Lee is taking a year off and staying in the Faculty Club of a British university. He makes the acquaintance of, and later agrees to be interviewed by, a student in the department of Asian Studies. However, she helps to lead a student occupation of the same club. In the ensuing protest, filled with noise and confusion, we wait to see Lee’s reaction. He does not engage with the protest or her in any way. Policemen appear to disperse the boisterous crowd and he leaves for a place where he can read in quiet. There is no drama in the separation of oil and water. Mess is deftly avoided.
Stewart Dorward is a British-born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.