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What I Talk About When I Talk About Being Chinese

A few weeks back in Singapore, many of us celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival. Other than munching on mooncakes and playing with fire (I mean lanterns), one activity that has always intrigued me is lantern riddle- guessing (cai deng mi 猜灯谜). For the lantern riddle novice, riddles are written (in Chinese of course) on colourful strips of paper and hung from lanterns. Everyone taking part must guess the answer to the riddle, based on a word, poem or phrase. As a kid, I had imagined that one day I would spout answers to these riddles like Chinese scholars in period dramas. Sadly, after years of taking Higher Chinese classes, this still has not happened.

These riddles are traditionally so difficult and fearsome that another name for “lantern riddle” (deng mi灯谜) is actually deng hu (灯虎) which translates to “lantern tiger.” For most Singaporean Chinese, trying to participate in such an activity is undoubtedly as hard as fighting with a tiger.

So, are Singaporean Chinese illiterates/illiterati?

What does it mean to be both Singaporean and Chinese at the same time? Vertical Submarine’s installation Chinese Illiterati 非文人 at the Earl Lu Gallery explores these conflicts:

In this installation, a paper scroll, with hand-written (copied) Chinese words, is laid across the room. Written horizontally from left to right, is the Chinese translation of “I imagine if I were Chinese and were about to go home (indeed I am Chinese and I am going home), I would make sure of returning soon, and at any price,” from Franz Kafka’s letter to his fiancée Felice Bauer (read more about the letters here).

And written vertically, also from left to right, and in much smaller font, is a quote from Benedict Anderson’s The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, the World:

“I experienced the poignancy of this conundrum when teaching a graduate class at Yale University in the autumn of 1996. Among the students was one American-born, with a completely American style of speech, who insisted that he was “absolutely” Chinese. A second student, born to an elite Kuomintang mainland family, informed me that he considered himself Taiwanese and had come to Yale partly to learn to be fluent in Taiwanese. A third expressed his fury at constantly being picked out as Chinese in America. “I am not Chinese,” he said, with the most determinedly winning of smiles. “I am Singaporean.””

The English versions of these quotes are also displayed on the walls of the exhibition space. As someone who reads Chinese, it was easy to detect that the writings were done by a person who is Chinese illiterate – the style of writing is somewhat childish, and some words were copied wrongly (1 more stroke here, 1 less stroke there etc).

Also, in traditional Chinese scrolls, the writings are normally vertical and are to be read from right to left. I was really confused when I attempted to read Anderson’s quote in this way, i.e. vertically, and from right to left. It made no sense until I realised that it was actually written from left to right, as in the manner of English writing.

This is a work that reflects the dilemma which I feel many Singaporean Chinese experience. While we are ethnic Chinese, many of us first identify with being Singaporeans and would be quite upset if anyone referred to Singapore as being a part of China. Few of us would dare to claim to be Chinese literati. In fact, few of us truly are Chinese literate! Strangely, it was once fashionable (or still is?) for some to declare that they cannot speak Chinese and to wear such statements as a badge of honour. Does the fact that we do not speak Chinese make us any less Chinese? I mean, we all speak English, but that does not make us English, does it? This work prompts many questions and is indeed a good starting point to ponder and reflect on what “Chinese-ness” means to us.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival with our families and friends. It is the most important Chinese festival after the Lunar New Year and is also an occasion for going home to reunite with family. Perhaps while eating mooncakes and gazing at the moon, those of us who viewed Chinese Illiterati also pondered what Kafka’s quote on being Chinese and returning home, meant to us.


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