Singapore Literature Festival 2014: Twenty-First Century Family

“The Twenty-First Century Family”
Singapore Literature Festival 2014
3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m., October 11, 2014
92nd Street Y, Warburg Lounge, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128
Authors: Christine Chia, Colin Goh and Kirstin Chen. Introduced by Monique Truong.
More information here

The second panel of the Singapore Literature Festival’s Saturday afternoon of ticketed readings at the 92nd Street Y was titled “The Twenty-First Century Family,” and focused on modern dynamics and pressures between parents and children in Singaporean society. It’s worth noting that the larger festival’s participating author count featured eight flying in from Singapore, and six based in America. Noteworthy, because all three of this panel’s authors were examples of Singaporeans who travel to the US to study and/or work—not a few choosing life as expatriates, rather than return home. 

Kirstin Chen’s narrator in Soy Sauce for Beginners moves back home to Singapore from San Francisco, and reckons with a troubled mother who in her own youth left Singapore to be a graduate student at Cornell University. In Christine Chia’s case though, it was her parents departing Singapore (exporting fish from Japan to Thailand), and leaving their young daughter to be raised by a nanny she came to regard as a mother. Chia recounted that experience with a reading from her autobiographical book of poems, The Law of Second Marriages, and later said of her earliest nanny-raised Singapore period, “definitely for the first nine years of my life, I felt I was part of a family, even though it was not the typical family.” Queens-based author and filmmaker, Colin Goh recalled how, “growing up in Singapore, my family looked like the ideal Singapore family of the time,” due to his parents adherence to the local “’please stop at two’ campaign” of suggested children limits. An identically-sized family was the subject of 2006 film Singapore Dreaming, written and directed by Goh and his wife Yen Yen Woo, and featuring a dysfunctional relationship between parents and a son who returns home from university in the US. Goh shared an excerpt from his short story “Last Time,” found in the Singapore Noir anthology (published by Akashic Books) edited by “Rich Words, Poor Words” panelist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. He later expressed a “take what you get” mantra for the modern family, quipping of how it compares to past versions, “the difference between a 20th-century family and a 19th-century family was probably better hygiene—and a 21st-century family and 20th-century family was better Internet access.” 

For Chia, “love” was the key word for forming familial bonds, even if only between two people, and “no matter what gender, no matter what sexuality. That’s it.” For Chen, who left Singapore at 15 to attend boarding school in the US after a youth spent in close proximity to extended family, the choice was “togetherness.” Though she recalled her need for distance from that family in order to better pursue a writing career—the legacy of being a younger sibling whose parent-chosen childhood pursuits were the same as her older brother’s. Chen added that she and her brother are the last of their circle of childhood Singapore friends to have not moved back. Now in the US for 16 years, Goh said that when asked about a Singapore return, he’d answer with another neutral mantra, “never say never.” But being the father of a young daughter has now made him rethink such a return, linked to the possibility of caring for his aging parents. Of his own aging into that opinion, he murmurs into the microphone, “Part of growing old?” then quickly answers himself, “I don’t know.”

Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.