CRITICAL INTRODUCTION

Shifting Lights and Landscapes in Aaron Lee's Poetry

Written by Y-Lynn Ong
Dated 6 Oct 2017

Stephanie ‘Dogfoot’ Chan is a performance poet, and a familiar face in Singapore’s spoken word scene. A veteran of dozens of slams and performances, her speaking style is energetic and emphatic, and she spits out words at a rapid-fire pace. Chan also moonlights as a stand-up comic, and her wit, coupled with her excellent story-telling skills, makes her poems funny and accessible.

Many of Chan’s poems are drawn from her own experiences, and tend to blur the distinction between poet and speaker. In “That Foreigner Poem,” she reflects on her time in London and Singapore, addressing themes of hybridity and identity by positioning herself outside both English and Singaporean norms (stephdogfoot.wordpress.com). Dressed in her “dreads and Doc Marten boots,” Chan is “just another Londoner in Paddington station”. However, this apparent assimilation is undercut by the subsequent “your token Oriental girl for hire,” underscoring how her ethnicity still others her in London. In Singapore, Chan is also defined by difference, her “Mandarin’s tainted by a Beijing drawl,” distinguishing her from other Singaporean Mandarin speakers. In both cities, Chan wavers between belonging and not-belonging, feeling neither fully English nor entirely Singaporean. However, she also delights in this difference, insisting

I like the way I tweak my accent,
choose my clothes and cut my hair.
I like the looks I get when I go back home
as people stop and stare.

She tweaks presentational markers such as accent, hair, and clothes to project the appearance of difference. Chan consciously constructs a hybrid identity which allows her to blend into London, but also simultaneously marks her out as “just another middle-class asshole / corrupted by the West” in Singapore. Here, Chan explores how identity is performative, as these markers are read and interpreted by the people around her. Rather than simply being an expression of something inherent to herself, Chan shows how identity is also determined by an audience, and belonging then becomes “a constant test, / a list of boxes you must tick”. Paddington Bear, also referenced in the poem, is “a dirty Latino / from the darkest of dark Peru,” and only recognised as British once dressed in “mac and Wellington boots,” his foreignness rendered “cuddly, tame and cultured”. Likewise, Chan’s identity is fluid, and changes depending on who is looking.

Humour is another trademark of Chan’s work. In “The Merlion Poem,” Chan pays homage to other such poems by Singaporean poets, giving the Merlion her own irreverent twist. In the poem’s first stanza, Chan riffs off the opening lines of Amanda Chong’s “lion heart,” where the Merlion rises “out of the sea, / skin dappled scales of sunlight”.  While Chong turns the Merlion into a godlike figure, echoing the image of Aphrodite rising from the sea, Chan’s Merlion is far more prosaic:

Droplets of saltwater
cascading off your shining
muscular torso, you shook
your magnificent head

from side to side
like a dog after a bath

(stephdogfoot.wordpress.com)

Like Chong, Chan alludes to Greek mythology, her Merlion’s “shining / muscular torso” recalling statues of Greek gods. In both poems, these mythological allusions seem to invite the Merlion statue to become the nexus of a Singaporean creation myth. Half-lion and half-fish, the Merlion’s hybrid nature encapsulates Singapore’s multicultural society, its emergence from the sea a conceit for the birth of the nation-state. However, Chan’s description of the Merlion shaking its “magnificent head [ . . . . ] like a dog after a bath” deflates its mythic qualities, and sends up the overwrought nationalism that the Merlion tends to be endowed with.

Chan also scrutinises the Merlion’s hybridity, and by extension Singapore’s national identity. “Covered in concrete,” the Merlion seems curiously fixed, especially in comparison to the speaker’s wild sexual fantasies of it. While the speaker rattles off increasingly farcical pairings—Simba and Flipper, Mufasa and Nemo—the Merlion remains immutable, “a monument / To inter-species relationships”. Here, Chan deploys absurdity to emphasise the artificiality of this familiar national symbol. Despite speaker’s desire to “ride [the] merlion / The way no one has ridden [it],” this fantasy is ultimately unconsummated, and seems to imply that the multicultural identity that Singapore projects, although seemingly exciting, is ultimately sterile. While other Singaporean poets are inspired by the Merlion’s hybridity, Chan instead highlights how its hybridity is constructed, and thus critiques the aggressive multiculturalism used to define and distinguish Singaporean identity.

Chan also uses humour to satirise aspects of Singaporean culture. In “When The World Ends You Will Be Eating Hokkien Mee,” Chan uses the Singaporean obsession with hawker food to critique Singaporean parochialism. The poem is addressed to an unnamed subject who remains pathologically obsessed with their plate of noodles. As Chan describes increasingly apocalyptic scenarios such as mass extinctions, tsunamis, and continent-rending earthquakes, the subject is unperturbed, instead “counting how many pieces of sotong [squid] the stallholder gave” them. Instead of realising that the end of the world is nigh, the subject believes buildings in Malaysia are collapsing “because they were poorly built anyway,” and the rest of Southeast Asia is succumbing to a malaria epidemic because they are not “functional countr[ies]” like Singapore. Even when the apocalypse reaches Singapore and “the first child to die in a flooded neighbourhood on the ECP gets reported,” the speaker can only think of themself, “glad [they] live on the 20th storey”. The speaker only realises that the apocalypse is happening when they “finally look up and see the wall of water about to swallow the Old Air Port [sic] road hawker center,” when they are interrupted midway through their plate of hokkien mee.

Through comedic exaggeration, Chan admonishes Singaporeans who care only about issues that are immediately relevant to them. The motifs of tidal waves and flooding are of particular importance, as they are both local and global threats. Given that most of Singapore lies near sea-level, the country is particularly susceptible to flooding. Despite what some might think, Singapore does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. In this poem, Chan challenges her listeners and readers to look up from their plate of noodles and engage the wider world.

Chan’s humour is a vehicle for her politics. While she critiques a particular mindset in “Hokkien Mee,” In “You are Six Years Old and She is Teaching You How to Ride a Bicycle,” Chan turns to critique the self. The poem addresses Singapore’s reliance on migrant labour, spotlighting the maltreatment and discrimination that these workers face, and the unwillingness of Singaporean society to recognise and correct these injustices. As Chan notes, Singapore is built by “a thousand invisible hands [ . . . ] a thousand invisible men,” an underclass of migrant workers whose contributions are often unacknowledged. Framed through the titular anecdote, the poem unfolds retrospectively, where the now-adult speaker reflects on her relationship with her domestic helper from childhood onwards.

The speaker’s focus on the cycling lesson, “on the driveway” and “what [she] see[s] in front of [her]” is a willful blindness for which she retroactively admonishes herself. Although her child-self is too naïve to understand the social and financial inequalities between herself and her helper, the instruction—“don’t wonder why she is doing this”—and the repetition of “focus on” show how she internalises this blindness, and therefore how, as an adult, her inaction propagates inequity. Even though Chan’s speaker has “read about workers’ rights, the global economy,” she still fails, or refuses, to acknowledge her helper’s precarious employment status and the social stigma that comes from not being a citizen of the country with “the right kind / of currency”. What’s more, Chan’s speaker denies that she and her helper share an identity as gay women: “the one time she said to you, ‘you and me are the same kind / aren’t we?’ [ . . . ] you smiled and shook your head”. Although the speaker now acknowledges her role and attempts to unlearn this willful blindness, she also realises that she is only a small part of a much larger systemic issue. Equality is applied unevenly, as “women in your country never really left the kitchen, they / just changed names and nationality”. Discrimination is not solved, it is simply outsourced, and until Singaporeans can acknowledge that the economic differentials between them and migrant workers do not justify the latter’s mistreatment, these abuses will continue.

Chan’s comedic sensibilities belie a keen eye for observation, and a drive to confront and correct social injustice. Witty, incisive, and startlingly original, she speaks in a distinctive voice that is all her own.

Works cited

Chan, Stephanie. “That Foreigner Poem.” www.stephdogfoot.wordpress.com. Personal blog, 2012. Web.

—. “The Merlion Poem.” www.stephdogfoot.wordpress.com. Personal blog, 2015. Web.

—. “When The World Ends You Will Be Eating Hokkien Mee.” www.stephdogfoot.wordpress.com. Personal blog, 2016. Web.

—. “You are Six Years Old.” WOMEN FOR THE RECORD. Youtube channel, 2015.  

 

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