Daren Shiau (b. 1971)
Written by Samuel Lee
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Daren Shiau Vee Lung is a writer, lawyer and environmentalist. He graduated from Raffles Institution in 1989 and went on to read Law in the National University of Singapore, eventually graduating on the Dean’s List in 1996. Having picked up literary writing in NUS, he won the NUS Literary Society writing competition in 1993/1994, and went on to win the 1998 Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award for Heartland (Raffles), a Singaporean bildungsroman about alienation and belonging set in the vernacular, though highly ordered, landscape of public housing. He is also associated with the “Class of ‘95”—a group of Singaporean writers who emerged in the mid- to late- 1990s, comprising Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Boey Kim Cheng, Felix Cheong, Yong Shu Hoong and Heng Siok Tian. Shiau put out his first poetry collection, Peninsular: Archipelagos and Other Islands(Ethos Books) in 2000. He was a recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2002, and published a collection of microfiction, Velouria (Firstfruits Publications), in 2007. Besides writing, Shiau has been a partner with law firm Allen & Gledhill since 2004, and has served as a Non-Governmental Advisor to the Government of Singapore since 2012. An ardent environmentalist, he has been on the National Parks Board and the Singapore Environment Council, and was involved in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on Environmental Law.
Shiau’s first collection of poetry, Peninsular, encapsulates through its structure and its themes the dual concerns of history and spatiality in his writing, which began early on in Heartland (both the original collection of poetry and the final publication conceived as a novel), and which persists in later work such as Velouria. Edwin Thumboo, in his afterword to Peninsular, argues that Shiau raises the question of personal and collective identities in the aftermath of national development in “sharply diagnostic” manner. Indeed, the poems in Peninsular are ambivalent about, if not critical of, constructions of a national identity. As a way of prefacing the collection, Shiau includes the typical vignette of the non-Singaporean—more often than not a white male of European origin—misidentifying Singapore (“Oh, I think I’ve been there before. Is it part of Malaysia?”) and attempting to reconstruct an understanding of its geography through generalised and Eurocentric spatialities (“So you’re like the British Isles. I wonder what it’s like to live in a country surrounded by sea.”). The encounter between the Singaporean speaker and the European man sets the tone for the rest of the collection, where the casual and immediate juxtaposition between colonial history and late capitalism in “Farquhar’s Memories” produces a sense of the heterogeneous texture of the poetry constituted by space, time, language and narrative:
remembrances held only by national museum
Studio Tangs advertisements;
isolated memories belonging to my mother, my
mother’s mother, her mother, clan leader, lim bo
tan kim seng, whampoa, pickering, Bencoolen,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
formless like dreams against sleep
If there is any trace of nostalgia in Shiau’s steady enumeration of ethnically bound and maternal memories, it is quickly overridden by his enumeration of ‘official’ memories, specifically of colonial history. It is uncertain if the proper nouns (“tan kim seng, whampoa, pickering, Bencoolen”) gesture to actual figures in history, or to the places and physical monuments named after them. It is through such slippages in language that Shiau negotiates his commentary on national identity: that within any given vernacular—either of language or of architecture—there exists the possibility of its subversion through exposing the arbitrary relationship between sign and referent. In doing so, Shiau’s writing seems to suggest not only that national identity is contingent on space and time, but that it is also shaped by misrecognitions and slippages. In “Separation,” which in historical context carries the specific connotations of merger and Singapore’s subsequent independence in the 1960s, political narratives are evacuated to make way for larger metaphysical themes of presence and loss, physicality and temporality (“and what separates you from me is time”). A similar sort of deflection, which simultaneously makes use of the ambiguity of the image itself, is repeated in “The Haze,” where the speaker “wake[s] up to a celestial mist” and defers issues of transnational pollution to transcendental themes of cycles (“raindrops that / expired in thin air”) and traces (“leaving us their arcs of ash”). If there is any irony in Shiau’s poetic exposition, it can neither contain any trenchant critique of social and political issues nor deflate the drama of nationhood; we are left, however, with the vision of a complex reality that cannot but follow the contours of language.
Beyond these strategies to destabilise the conditions of writing about national identity and national memories, a major element in Shiau’s writing is his engagement with familiar symbols of nationhood and national culture, which on one level might reinforce the questioning of national identity, but on another level, rescues national identity from his own interrogations. In an interview with Ronald Klein, Shiau mentions that his motivation for taking the idea of the Singaporean heartland as a dominant subject matter is to recuperate it as a “very real living environment,” as opposed to a “bleak wasteland.” Certainly, in contrast to filmmaker Eric Khoo’s presentation of the inhospitable heartlands in films such as Mee Pok Man (1995)and 12 Storeys(1997), Shiau populates the “void decks” in public housing flats with life and death, remembering that the Chinese use void-decks for “deaths, / for funerals” while “Malays remember void-decks for weddings, / with happiness,”
but when the void deck is bare,
it belongs to all their children
who are left to mingle and run free –
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Learning, learning off the walls
and even if they never learn to live,
they know whom to marry and when
not to die.
In Peninsular, however, Shiau expands his repertoire of images by including spaces of entertainment and consumption, which occupies a middle-ground between a critique and a celebration of late capitalist culture. In “Great World City,” which takes its title from the shopping mall as well as the superlative appellation, the speaker observes that “[i]t seems everyone has a Hard Rock Café tee-shirt” with the name of cities beneath the ubiquitous logo.
I saw someone at Great World City
wearing one that said Singapore
and wondered if it was patriotism
or resignation in the raw.
Such a strain of wry observational poetry is transposed into Shiau’s later collection of microfiction, Velouria, which also maintains the elegiac quality of poetry, while combining the compression and suggestiveness of poetic language with the broader narrative and character developments afforded by prose. The vignettes in Velouria are set in identifiably domestic spaces, with their confined and highly intimate interiors reflected in the constricted form of microfictional writing. Physical spaces that differentiate the domestic from the public are reconfigured as textual spaces, where formal restrictions could just as well stand in for the restrictions imposed on the individual in the public—and indeed political—sphere. In the same way that the parsimonious use of language is ultimately exceeded by the imaginative potentials generated by the sparseness of detail, Shiau’s characters also exceed their confines through the work of imagination as well as desperation. With the same brevity of description, Shiau illustrates and comments on the vagaries and contradictions of urban living, for example, in “Late”:
Because she arrived late at Shahila’s house, Mimi wasn’t introduced to everyone. Mimi settled at the dining room table where several conversations were ongoing. The tall guy at the end of the table gave Mimi a nice lingering smile.
By the end of the piece we learn, together with Mimi, that the “tall guy” with the “lingering smile” is married with a son; her prospects (however minor) are immediately dashed. At the same time, we also learn about the characters that populate and give life to the landscapes that Shiau attempts to represent in both his poetry and fiction. By withholding elaborate description, and disclosing to the reader only the “lingering smile” to prompt imagination, the narrative unspools itself out of its textual confines, in the same way that rigidly organised ways of managing physical, social and political spaces cannot fully contain the daily dramas—of social anxieties, consumerism and romance—playing out within them. If in Peninsular swathes of history are assembled together with the expansiveness of geography—continents, peninsulas and islands—then Velouria represents an inward move, back into the heartland, so to speak. In his offering of macrocosms and microcosms, Shiau in both poetry and fiction captures, in compassionate and compelling detail, the idiosyncrasies of the elusive Singaporean ‘soul’.
Ng Yi-Sheng. “Singapore: The City of Poets.” Quill Magazine. MPH January-March 2010.
Shiau, Daren. Heartland. Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award. Singapore: SNP Editions Pte Ltd, 1999.
—. Heartland: a novel. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2002.
—. Peninsula: Archipelagos and Other Islands. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010.
—. Velouria. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2007.
Thumboo, Edwin. “Time and Place: History and Geography in Daren Shiau’s Poetry.” Peninsula. By Daren Shiau. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2000.