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Ng Yi-Sheng: No Other City

Listen: next Monday at 4.30pm, Singapore will disappear. The entire island, its earth and earthworks, its rivers and reservoirs, its megamalls and museums, will vanish, poof, like so much gun smoke. Its flora and fauna too: its orchards and orioles, its rain trees and roaches, its mosquitoes and monkeys. Its people also: citizens of all creeds and races, permanent residents, guest workers, tourists, illegal aliens. Gone in the twinkling of that old proverbial eye.

You, of course, will be spared. You’ll have accepted a job then, in Beijing or Baltimore or Bengaluru, so you’ll be only halfway puzzled when you start to notice the silence of half your Facebook friends. You’ll double-click on their profiles, see that none of them have updates beyond that specific timestamp, click around to the Singapore-hosted sites, The Straits Timesand The Temasek Review, and discover that most of them are down, down, down.

What the hell? you’ll think. You’ll try e-mailing your missing compadres. No reply. You’ll try Facebook messages and phone calls and Twitter. Nothing. You’ll start to worry, especially when the few of them seconded to faraway franchises or on holiday at the Gold Coast tweet you back, saying they’re hitting the same silent wall.

Then finally you’ll get through to an ex-girlfriend who moved across the straits to Johor Bahru for the cheaper rent and commuted every day, and she’ll send you the pics: the causeways, once financial lifelines to the heart of the Malayan peninsula, now ending on cliffhanging stubs.

Water beneath. Bridges to nowhere.

Why isn’t this on CNN? You’ll turn on the TV, click, panicked. But the same placid faces on BBC, CNC World, NewsX, and Al Jazeera will stare back, reciting the old shtick about crises in the Middle East and DC and Brussels. You’ll pick up a shoe as if to hurl it, angrily, at the screen, but then you’ll stop yourself, remembering how much the TV cost. You’re still rational. You’re still a Singaporean at heart, after all.

In the evening, at dinner, you’ll ask your friends: the cool black Frenchman in IT, the quiet Korean lady in marketing. They’ll stare at you, confused. Singapore? Never heard of it. Then where am I from? you’ll ask, furious. And they’ll blink back, chewing their udon, and say, Somewhere in China? You ought to hurl the hot green tea in their faces, storm out of the ramen shop, never to return. But you don’t. You go back to your noodles. You can’t afford to lose any more friends. Not now.

You’ll go quiet. You’ll return to work as per normal, keep your head down, keep your nose clean, think as little as possible. Whenever the worm of panic creeps along your skin, you’ll recall the words they taught you in school during National Education sessions: no one owes us a living. At all costs, you must survive.

The world forgets. Now and then you’ll still scan the headlines at the newsstands, but you’ll know it’s no use: you’ve been wiped from the collective conscious, not even an ink smear left to tell the tale.

It’s ridiculous, really. All those billionaire magnates on the island, the trillions of dollars in the federal reserves, the stock exchange, the regional business hubs, the hospitals where Burmese generals and Zimbabwean dictators went for medical treatment. You’ll understand how the common man was forgotten, even your half-assed hybrid patchwork culture, your overpriced casino-driven tourist industry. But what about all the genuine bling the country stood for, huh? The international economic thingamajigs? Didn’t you matter, at least for that?

One night, when you really can’t help yourself, you’ll log into a Reddit forum and compare notes with the handful of other survivors. They won’t all be Singaporeans, not in the strictest sense. They’ll be left-behind wives of expatriates, mothers and fathers of lost backpackers, Malaysians and Indonesians and Bruneians who’re used to being lied to by the press, all grieving together, all struggling to understand why, why, why, and also how. A flood, à la Atlantis? A rain of fire and brimstone from heaven? Extraterrestrials with tractor beams? The Illuminati? The orang bunian?

There will still be documents, weirdly enough. Online photos and blogs, books of geography and economics and history. A miniature Merlion in Suzhou, an ersatz HDB town centre in Surabaya. You’ll discover a Cracked article joking about this, describing it all as the wildest inside joke ever perpetrated in human history, like the extensive Hollywood filmography of Alan Smithee. You’ll check Wikipedia. Most entries about the country will be gone. Those that remain will have been edited to fit a fictional mythos, like the geography of Discworld, like the economy of Westeros.

Months will pass. Facebook and LinkedIn will start to get rid of what it calls “dead accounts”. You’ll save what photos of your friends you can. You’re grateful for that digital print of your mum and dad you developed at Beach Road Army Market, just to make them happy. You’ll wonder if you should hold funeral rites for them, but then everyone you used to know deserves something. Maybe you should donate to a house of worship in their name.

One day, your Reddit group will suggest meet-ups in meatspace. None of them will be happening nearby: they’ll be in places like London, Hong Kong, NYC. You’ll chew on this a while. You’ll have tons of unused vacation time, and hell knows you won’t be flying back home anytime soon, given that home isn’t there anymore. You’ll cave in. You’ll book a ticket.

You’ll pack your bags. Amazingly enough, your passport will work. Thuggish immigration officers will sometimes lock countrymen up and question them for hours, but mostly border controls will have decided it’s the sign of some special diplomatic club. They’ll usher you through the airport’s speediest lanes.

Then you’ll arrive at the hotel. A three-star affair: not exactly shabby, but the cabbie wouldn’t have known where to take you without an address. You’ll check in. You’ll visit the conference room. You’ll realise to your delight that there’s a table piled high with catered Malaysian food. You’ll go over and immediately stuff your face with satay, ketupat, sayur lodeh, laksa, bee hoon, Hainanese chicken rice, teh tarik, red bean soup. You’ll admit to yourself, grudgingly, that the Malaysians always made it better.

Into your third helping, you’ll realise there are other people in the room, sipping rose syrup drink. They’ll be speaking Singlish and reminiscing about public transport, 4D, The New Paper, Jack Neo films, National Service, all the terrible things you never thought you’d miss. You’ll start to well up with tears. They’ll see you. They’ll make room for you. You’ll introduce yourself, awkwardly. And you’ll sit down in the circle, find yourself slipping into that half-forgotten patois.

One of the guys at the table will be different: he’ll be white, really white. Blond hair, blue eyes, skin so pale you’ll be able to see the pink and violet veins underneath it. When the conversation moves his way, he’ll tell everyone he’s never actually been to Singapore. He thought about doing a semester abroad there in college, but went to Osaka instead. Backpacked around the Philippines once, transited through Kuala Lumpur.

He’s a journalist now, he’ll say, and he’s hot on the trail of this story, trying to understand what happened. You and the others will exchange glances. You would think you’d feel weird about this, like your inner sanctum’s been invaded, but instead it’s a relief. He’s outside confirmation. You’re not the crazy ones. He’s the proof.

Over Saturday and Sunday there will be presentations by ancient professors, heritage hobbyists, wild-eyed activists screaming conspiracy. Even an experimental dancer who was stranded in Copenhagen on tour; she’ll show off her latest creation: a conflation of tai chi, silat, bharatanantyam, hip-hop and the Great Singapore Workout, which you’ll personally think is in bad taste. You’ll watch movie screenings by filmmakers you’ve never heard of: BS Rajhans, Tan Pin Pin, Anthony Chen. You’ll note down their names.

The cleaners and waitstaff will sometimes stand by the doors, watching. You’ll notice they’re avoiding your gaze, even when you’re sipping brandy and scotch alone in the hotel bar. You’ll realise you must appear to them like a peculiar species of nutjob: Young-Earth Creationists, 9/11 Truthers, millenarians. You’ll feel sick at their sight. You’ll decide to go up and order room service instead.

Then the journalist will come over, the blond guy you met on your first day, and ask if the next barstool is taken. He’ll be charming and comforting, and he’ll tell you he has a private stash of Tiger beers in his suitcase. You don’t normally do this kind of thing, but you’ll end up spending the night with him. After all, no one’s there to set the rules anymore.

When you get home, or what you might as well call home now, you’ll see he’s dropped you an e-mail, saying he’ll be in your city next month. You’ll go ahead and share your number, since it’s the polite thing to do, and because he was tender and considerate and passionate in a way it’s been hard to find lately.

You’ll see him again, a few times. Over Christmas he’ll invite you to meet his family in Saskatchewan. They’ll be lovely. You’ll be lovely. You’ll cook them fried rice and they gasp at it, impressed, even though it’s burnt at the edges and not salty enough and completely devoid of sambal and green chillies. On his advice, you’ll tell them you’re from China. His little sister, the irritating grad student who speaks ten languages, will ask, Oh, what part of China? You’ll bite your tongue and say she wouldn’t have heard of it. He’ll squeeze your hand.

Now it’s years later. Geopolitically, it’ll have become apparent that the world is coping. The role of Southeast Asian financial hub will now be a contest between Bangkok, Jakarta, and, to everyone’s surprise, Yangon. Private banking will centre itself again in Zurich. The world’s biggest port will be Shanghai, followed by good old Rotterdam. When the topic of 21st century city-states comes up, they’ll talk about Dubai and Monaco.

You’ll be married to him. It’s tricky finding a registry that’d do it, given that you don’t technically have a nationality anymore, but he’ll pull a few strings and hire a lawyer he knows. Now you’re both Canadian citizens, which was something he’d been wanting for a while. You’ll be a handsome couple. Everyone’ll say so at the wedding reception.

He’ll have kept his promise, by the way. Publishing that story: his exposé on the disappearance of Singapore. He’ll even publish a book about it, The New Atlantis, which will hover around the New York Times non-fiction bestseller lists for a year. It’ll be translated into Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Thai and Finnish. You’ll have travelled the world with him on a few book tours, sat in on a few public lectures in Ubud, Busan and Hay-on-Wye. You’ll often appear together in the press, him joking that you’re good for his street cred. Sometimes you’ll even be wearing something pan-Asian, approximating a national dress.

The Singapore conventions will get bigger than ever. They’re not for survivors anymore, of course: they’re for fanboys and fangirls, all clustering together, united by the dream of this fabled utopia that somehow slipped out of existence. A few of the other survivors will write autobiographies, memoirs of their hellish experiences—one of them will claim to have been held in an Saudi refugee camp—and when they appear at these events, they’ll be immediate stars, signing autographs till their knuckles ache, so luminous with glamour that they could choose any eager young thing in the hotel to be their sex bunny for the night.

At first you’ll be tolerant, but then the cosplay trends will begin. You’ll rationalise to yourself that these are mere children: most of them not even born before the day of the vanishing, and yet there’ll be something in you that wants to scream every time you see a ginger-haired teenager in an SIA stewardess kebaya, or a scrawny Rasta-man in all-whites and orchid garlands sporting a Lee Kuan Yew-style squint.

Then one day you’ll log onto the Internet and discover that they’ve been writing fanfiction. You spend hours in front of the monitor, unable to stop scrolling through these mad vicarious fantasies of tantric sex on the Singapore Flyer and battles against fire-breathing vampires at Marina Bay Sands. Some of the stories will even have Singlish in them. It’s pretty convincing. When your husband gets home and asks what’s wrong, you’ll start weeping uncontrollably. He’ll see the site, look all solemn for a moment, then proceed to dictate an immediate edict to his followers, condemning their actions, alerting them to the distress they’ve caused you and your fellows, the disrespect to the unmourned victims of one of the 21st century’s greatest secret massacres.

But suddenly you can’t even bear to be in the same room as him. You’ll run into the bathroom and refuse to come out, not even to eat or drink. He’ll ask you why, and you’ll yell something stupid along the lines of, You don’t get it! It’s all because of you!

After that you won’t attend the cons anymore. You won’t write that memoir he’s always bugged you to work on. You won’t help maintain his website and electronic newsletter. You’ll stop posing for cute interracial couple photos. You’ll stop cooking your fucking fried rice. You’ll stop speaking to him. You’ll put in more hours at the office. You’ll sleep on opposite sides of the bed.

One night, you’ll go through your drawers and find that photo of your parents. They’ll look younger than they did before, yet more old-fashioned in their silly turn-of-the-millennium clothes. You’ll try and remember what they sounded like and what they would have made of you right now, freezing your ass off in this unholy Canadian winter. You’ll light up the fireplace and throw the photo in.

It’s rather beautiful, how it burns. How the edges curl and melt and spindle, a cross between wax and paper. The faces of your father and mother will glow bright, then turn sepia and coal-black, crumbling their way once more into brightness.

You’ll undress for bed. Tomorrow, you’ll think, you will try going native. You’ll enrol in a French course, even though you don’t live in Quebec. You’ll stock up on back bacon and maple syrup. You’ll even have a go at making your own poutine.

But listen: that morning, at 4.30am, Singapore will reappear. At daybreak you’ll find your husband in the kitchen, munching coffee and cornflakes, and grumpy over hate mail from your countrymen, who just don’t get the parodic genius of his mockumentary novels. You’ll find your inbox is full of birthday greetings from long-vanished friends, much older of course, who are annoyed that you haven’t written back for so long.

You’ll go online, looking for info. Everything and nothing will be there: footage of the island over the last few decades will have magically materialised, representing the changes in politics, society, economy and architecture. You’ll pull up an image, bending your mind around how everything looks different and yet is unmistakably the same.

Then the phone will ring. It’s your parents, calling to say hello to their grown-up baby. Your husband will put them on speaker and start chattering away with them like an old friend, which he must be, you suppose. You’ll brew your own coffee and pour your own cereal, then collapse into your chair, trying to digest it all.

We’re booking our tickets to come and see you again, your mother will say. How is Canada?

And your husband will reply, Same old, same old. It’s like you never left.

~

Originally published in Lontar, Issue 4. Edited by Jason Erik Lundberg. Reprinted with permission.

Ng Yi-Sheng
Ng Yi-Sheng (Singapore) is a poet, fictionist, playwright, journalist and activist. He is the second-youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, for his debut poetry collection, last boy (2006). His other publications include the bestselling non-fiction book SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century (2006), and a novelisation of the Singapore gangster movie Eating Air. He also co-edited GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose (2010), and Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore (2013). He has recently completed his MA from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme.