Book review: Ng Yi-Sheng's clever, colourful collection Lion City puts a fantasy twist on Singapore stereotypes

This collection takes apart the tropes trumpeted ad infinitum about Singapore - the Lion City, gone from fishing village to having great food and a world-class airport - and reveals the magic of myth that underpins them all.
This collection takes apart the tropes trumpeted ad infinitum about Singapore - the Lion City, gone from fishing village to having great food and a world-class airport - and reveals the magic of myth that underpins them all.PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

Review

FICTION

LION CITY

By Ng Yi-Sheng

Epigram Books/Paperback/223 pages/$18.90 before GST/Major bookstores

4 stars


A woman runs through time and space. She runs through the history of Singapore, real and otherwise. She runs through the madness of Sir Stamford Raffles' final days; past folk hero Hang Tuah wrestling a crocodile; through myriad post-apocalyptic Singapores.

If she runs, turn to 1987.

If she stays, turn to 2287.

The short story Garden, told in the now-antiquated form of the Choose Your Own Adventure book, is one of many highlights in Lion City, Singaporean writer Ng Yi-Sheng's giddily rich collection.

He has been present in Singapore's budding speculative fiction scene for years, but this is his first solo foray, and the time he has given his stories to percolate and ripen shows.

This collection takes apart the tropes trumpeted ad infinitum about Singapore - the Lion City, gone from fishing village to having great food and a world-class airport - and reveals the magic of myth that underpins them all.

The stories, with their subtle explorations of colonialism, capitalism and alienation, are delightful and discomfiting in equal measure.

A Day At Terminal Aleph imagines a Changi Airport terminal exclusively for gods from the point of view of the long-suffering local staff, who must clean up divine excrement, whip up meals to order (human sacrifices included) and keep the Monkey King off the chandeliers.

In Port - not for the trypophobic - a middle-aged couple grow apart after the husband discovers metallic holes appearing on his body - ports, in the electronic sense.

Ng's long fascination with the origin story of Bukit Merah escalates in the metatextual tale The Boy, The Swordfish, The Bleeding Island.

In the original myth, villagers on the coast were plagued by swordfish attacks until a clever boy called Hang Nadim told them to erect a wall of banana stems, in which the swordfish's snouts got stuck. The jealous king later ordered Hang Nadim killed; his blood stained the hill and gave rise to the name of Bukit Merah ("red hill" in Malay).

Ng invents an alternate history through the novels of fictional local author Iris Fonseka, in which Hang Nadim survives the king's scheme and founds a South-east Asian empire that comes to dominate the world. He meets real historical figures such as Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci, Chinese pirate Cheng I-Sao and Mary Godwin, better known as the writer Mary Shelley.

 

In Garden, the Scheherazade-esque Dang Anom moves through moments in not just Singapore's history but its speculative fiction - from 1985 sci-fi novel Star Sapphire by Han May to Kevin Martens Wong's novel Altered Straits (2017), even up to Jenny Quantum, a DC Comics superhero who was born in Singapore and, in Garden, dies in the climactic Battle of Changi Airport.

In such stories, Ng shows not just keen awareness of the existing canons of genre, but a blithe faith that Singapore belongs in these canons. This clever, colourful collection certainly makes a good case for that.

If you liked this, read: The Infinite Library And Other Stories by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (Math Paper Press, 2017, $19 before GST, Books Kinokuniya and BooksActually), a collection of speculative stories of Filipino drifters in steampunk Europe, space ship revolutions and a disaster in which the residents of Bukit Batok slowly turn into living mathematical equations.