Cathy and I had a few days in Singapore in 1999 on the way home from Japan for our  Christmas break in New Zealand.  A lot of people told me, both before and after this trip, that they didn’t like Singapore, but we liked it.  It’s a cool place to pass through if you’re a tourist.  Living there must be a totally different experience, but passing through was interesting.

In Singapore they have a prize for literature that is handed out every two years to four books.  There is a prize for the best book in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.  I decided that I would read the winner in English rather than one of the others in translation, but then discovered a problem: Singapore is not a country that artists in other countries pay any attention to.  I had to go back to 2004 to find an award winner that the Wellington Library had, Aro Street Video has one rental DVD from Singapore, and the major music awards in Singapore are open to all Asian countries and artists from Singapore don’t really feature that much (Korea is so hot right now).

The 2004 best book in English in Singapore was Mammon Inc. by Hwee Hwee Tan.  I don’t know how you say Hwee Hwee but it’s a pretty cool name in English.  In English it sounds exactly like the sound you might make as you get to the very top of the arc of a roller coaster track, and start to plummet down the other side.  Turns out the Hwee Hwee grew up in Singapore and the Netherlands, and went to universities to do numerous creative writing courses in England and New York.

It was a very uneven book, and it doesn’t surprise me that Hwee Hwee spent a lot of time doing creative writing courses.  The whole book has that flavour of writerly cleverness that these courses seem to produce.  There are passages of snapshot images seeking to create an impression of a place, there are postmodern discussions about Star Wars and the X-Files (remember when it was cool to do this?), and there is a very, very strange premise underlying it all.  The main character gets recruited by Mammon Inc. (some kind of huge corporate entity that owns most of the entertainment and media industries) to be an Adapter; a person who helps very rich people blend into a new culture.

Which seems like a job that will never exist, but makes a good excuse for a book-long explanation of what it is to be English, and what it is to be from Singapore, and what it is to be trying to be both (it sucks, apparently).

I found it all strangely enjoyable.  I say strangely because this isn’t a very glowing review, but if I am honest I found it a page turner, with enough interesting parts and one great character (the protagonist’s Singapore sister) to read straight through, and Hwee Hwee really is good when writing about Chinese-Singaporeans, and Singapore itself.

Cathy and I enjoyed all the cultural jostling in Singapore.  It makes nice eye candy, because Singapore is like some kind of fabulous living room in the home of the rich and famous which has been styled in the fashion of East(s) meet West(s).  Someone in Singapore has told the city officials that old imperial things look good if they are painted white.  So you get a large Anglican church sparkly white against the lush tropical foliage, and Raffles (sparkly white against the lush tropical foliage), and a statue of Raffles (sparkly white, etc, etc).  Also contrasting sizes makes a nice juxtaposition, so you get quite a bit of small, dinky rows of ethnic buildings tucked in rows amongst towering, sleek skyscrapers which may have been designed by Pei but just look like towering, sleek skyscrapers.

For the tourist Singapore is great food and shopping with a sexy backdrop.  For the local I think Singapore must be quite a different beast.  It is certainly very aspirational, but that aspiration seems to lead a lot of people into jobs in a massive, and very boring civil service.  But let’s not go there, because I really know nothing about Singapore, and pretending I do based on one short stay and one book is a bit crass.

Anyway, here is my favourite story about Singapore.

Cathy and I went to Raffles for a meal.  There are a few restaurants in this building and we went to a fancy Chinese-Asian-Fusion one.  The meal was fantastic.  Near the end of our degustation (such a terrible sounding word in English) I went to respond to a call from nature.  When I came back to the table (I spent some time in the bathroom because it was awesome), Cathy was looking both surprised and pleased with herself.  She said that when I left a waiter instantly appeared and said, “do I know you?”.  This seems like a pretty absurd question when you are passing though a city you have never been to half a world away from your own country, but I imagine Cathy did what I would have done and looked closely at the waiter and thought, “do I know you?”  She didn’t.  He was a dude in Singapore after all.  She said no.  This didn’t seem to bother the waiter.  “Would I know you from somewhere?”  Cathy thought this was unlikely, unless his hobby was collecting Mana College Yearbooks from the 1980s.  Again, the waiter seemed unconcerned.  He indicated the row of other waiters across the room all watching Cathy and the outcome of the conversation expectantly.  The waiter’s next question was odder, “Are you a musician?”.  Cathy has a music degree and plays a mean flute so her hesitation here probably encouraged the waiter to believe that Cathy was simply being coy, and that they were playing some elaborate game of mutual bluffing.  The waiter smiled, and went in for the kill: “are you Alanis Morrisette?”.

Now let’s be honest, the temptations at this point are enormous.  If I were in a foreign country and someone said “are you Brad Pitt?” (I get this a lot) there would be quite a large part of me that would want to say yes.  Cathy is far more sensible than me (and quick thinking – she realised she was at that very moment holding her credit card in order to pay and that her card did not say A. Morrisette), so she said no.

Still, pretty cool.

The Happiest Refugee

I decided to bring forward all the material that would prove to them I was just an Aussie kid.  So I did a number of jokes about bull terriers and Datsuns and housing commission estates, and slowly I was getting a few chuckles.  Then I moved on to footy jokes, farming jokes and kiwi jokes.

Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee

For about a year I worked at the Sakai-Higashi branch of NOVA teaching English in Japan.  There were twelve teachers.  11 Australians and me.  The Australians were curiously relentless with their jokes about New Zealanders having sex with sheep.  To be polite I joked along for a while initially assuming that they would stop eventually.  They didn’t.  I tried being cross, then totally ignoring them, and then finally settled on treating a joke about my birthplace and bestiality as a sort of joke on Australians.  They said something about kiwis and sheep, and I would nod cheerily and wonder what was the matter with them.  I concluded that there was some deep-seated need in the Aussie male to talk about having sex with sheep; impossible to fathom and difficult to sympathise with.

You can see Anh Do’s train of thought in the order of jokes above.  First: establish that he is a real working class Aussie (this gets us to footy jokes), then move seamlessly from making fun of farmers, to sheep, to Kiwis.


That’s all I’ve got though.  Anh Do is a cool guy and highly likeable.  His Mum and Dad are cool, and his brother and sister are cool.  The story he tells is interesting.  He’s done some fairly impressive things: made a few films, came second on Dancing With the Stars, won the $200,000 on Deal or no Deal, been a successful stand-up comic.  His brother was named Australian of the Year.  You can see from this list that there are some good things, and some publicity generating who-really-cares things.  He can now add writing the 2011 Australian Book of the Year to his list.  I think he’s about 34.

I don’t read feel-good biographies so reading this was a stretch for me.  There is a lot of hardship in this story but like a Hollywood movie of a certain type you know that everything will work out ok.  I am in no way diminishing the hardship.  Escaping Vietnam in the late 70s and very nearly dying as boat people a few times is not something you can make light of.  The problem is that I always want to know a bit more.  Seems like Anh’s family were Roman Catholics.  I imagine this made life pretty interesting during the later stages of the Vietnam War.

But that would be why he has written a successful book and (one of the reasons) I haven’t.  He tells a good story, and I get bogged down in details very (very) few people are actually interested in.

The good news we can take from this book  is that Australia isn’t really racist, and that pitbulls, footy and kiwi jokes are the ties that bind.

Still, I really know next to nothing about Australia, and most of what I do know came from working with Australians in Japan.  When I went to Japan I assumed that Australian Europeans and New Zealand Pakehas were the same.  When I came back from Japan I knew that they weren’t.  Related sure, but different.  New Zealanders tend to be quieter, gloomier, deadpan, and generally less inclined to sneer at the indigenous culture of their country.  Of course any generalisation leads to trouble, but that seems about right if you’re painting with big strokes and not worrying about individuals.

Unusually for a New Zealander I have only been to Australia once (twice if you count Sydney Airport).  On the way home from Japan for a holiday Cathy and I stopped off at Brisbane Airport for about eight hours.  We landed, rented a car, drove to Burleigh Heads, had lunch with Cathy’s grandparents, drove back to the airport and flew to New Zealand.

Even in eight hours I could tell that the Australian landscape was nothing like New Zealand’s and that this would probably create peoples with different outlooks on life.  Brisbane Airport seemed to be surrounded by endless stretches of dense, green bush that looked tropical, and the road to Burleigh Heads was a stretch of blacktop surrounded by red earth and lush green.  The road sings listed destinations with impossible distances of over 1000 kilometres.  It absolutely poured for about half an hour; sheets of water falling in torrents as our windscreen wipers beat feeble moments of clarity for me to glimpse the road ahead.  And then it cleared, and the road took us out to the coast where hotel skyscrapers rose up next to long white beaches, and a clear, blue sea.

In 1998, when Cathy and I left New Zealand to start our adventure in Japan, our first stop was at Sydney Airport which seemed impossibly big, with rows and rows of planes waiting on tarmac that apparently stretched to the horizon.  It made me feel like a small town boy, and rather tiny.  A country cousin in fact.  Which explains that train of thought in the Australian comedian’s mind: from footy, to farms and Kiwis.  We must seem like the outback country cousin at times as we make our way in droves across the Tasman and onto the streets of Sydney.  Perhaps that’s why we’re lost in an endless sheep joke.

Last year I discovered The Magic Pudding, and Seven Little Australians, which are wonderful books for kids, and My Brother Jack, which is just a wonderful book.  The Happiest Refugee didn’t do a lot for me, but I hope to get back to Australia’s books and its red earth one day soon.