‘A world too immense’: Confinement, escape and space in Tan Mei Ching's fiction


I first encountered Tan Mei Ching’s work at a literary reading I organised in late 1997, a cosy affair in the strangely intimate space of the History section in the bustling Borders Bookstore, Singapore. Tan read from her collection of short stories with easy, confident familiarity, her Singaporean accent a comforting lilt in the crowded, impersonal sprawl of this most American of bookstores. Her subject too, was close to home:

School was the place to cultivate the art of getting out of things.

(‘In the Quiet’, Crossing Distance, p.2 )

The audience chuckled appreciatively at this most commonplace of situations, not being aware of the tragic turn this tale would make just pages away. It was only upon closer reading much later that I realised that this startling shift from the familiar to the alien – these conscious subversions of expectation and perspective – pervade Tan’s two published prose works: her first novel "Beyond the Village Gate" and "Crossing Distance" (1995). I was subsequently bemused to come across on the Internet, a review of her prose, suggesting that:

The greatest hindrance that Tan runs into in her short stories is the simple fact that they are amazingly brief … as a result the individual worlds of Tan's short stories lack the richness we might hope for .

Tan’s two prose works are thematically congruous. Clearly their titles would initially suggest an author concerned with notions of space and boundaries – with bridging divides, transcending frontiers, as well as the ‘art of getting out of things’. Indeed, Tan’s two prose works complement each other in their mutual exploration of constraint and transgression, as they seek to map out the nebulous space within which identity resides. While "Beyond the Village Gate" traces the steps of Shi Ying, an foundling child within the intensely parochial confines of a rural village in China as she explores the boundaries of her self and her world, Crossing Distance is a series of vignettes offering significant glimpses into the no less parochial environs of modern Singaporean urbanity.

While the novel form allows a more sustained gaze at a specific set of characters, which no doubt led to Pitter’s claim for its ‘richness’, the short story form which defines Crossing Distance allows Tan to add a new dimension (or as it were, to subtract it) to her exploration of urban alienation. Her prose is full of incomplete histories, of pasts lost or hastily sketched in, but her characters – and, through the minimalist use of the short-story form, her readers – are also consciously led to grapple with this historical absence. Shi Ying’s burning need to find traces of her past and of her biological mother pervade the novel. Pitter also rightly points out that much of Tan’s writing is from ‘a child’s point of view … one in which events are reported but not interpreted’ . This is a perspective which is necessarily limited, lacking in the rich interpretative detail which characterises adult thought processes and therefore alienating. We never quite know, for instance in the story ‘The Giving’ , why Yee Yee’s father is estranged from the family, or how the protagonist in ‘Release’ came to be a pregnant housewife. The very first story of "Crossing Distance", ‘In The Quiet’ problematises the notion that any life, fictional or otherwise, can be summarised, captured or fully known within the confines of any one medium:

Audrey was in the newspaper the next day, with the same picture. She looked much younger, but of course she was. It wasn’t her at all. It was a piece from the past. This was not the face I saw two days ago. So who died?

(‘In The Quiet’, Crossing Distance, p. 12)

The teenage protagonist is deeply disquieted by the reductive impersonality of the public face of death:

I couldn’t look at Audrey because I didn’t want life to be just that. A face in a box.

(‘In the Quiet’, Crossing Distance, p. 14)

And yet, Tan suggests, it is precisely this reductive categorisation, this putting of human faces in the boxed perspectives of stereotypes, prejudices and social expectations, which constitute alienation and stagnation in urban modernity. Tan’s stories are replete with stock phrases, dismissals and generalisations:

People who rent rooms are so young nowadays. … Not sure I can trust them, you know.

(‘Song of the Wild’, Crossing Distance, p. 15)

Joo Beng, with ‘shirt-tails hanging out, hands in pockets, whistling away’ without a care in the world, who ‘never seemed to have proper schooling hours for a fourteen-year-old’ fits the popular profile of a never-do-well delinquent. Ritually, the narrator and her neighbours pronounce summary judgment on his fate:

…there were only two outcomes for that boy by the time he reached twenty: he’d be in jail, or he’d be dead.

(‘Song of the Wild’, Crossing Distance, p. 15)

The twist in Tan’s tale relies completely on the power of social presumption on Joo Beng’s character, and the subsequent suspicion of the narrator when Joo Beng ‘appears’ to have turned over a new leaf and embraced a socially amenable work ethic. At every step, the narrator questions Joo Beng’s motives, allowing his actions no space to speak for themselves. It is only at the end of the story that the narrator realises that she had been wrong about Joo Beng all along. Consequently, it is more than the bird which is freed at the end of the tale:

I finally understood him, as he had understood the song of the wild lark.

(‘Song of the Wild’, Crossing Distance, p. 22)

It is ironic, albeit understandable that Joo Beng finds his liberation in embracing the economic conventions of the work ethic. It is economics after all which informs life in urban Singapore, just as ‘use’ is a measure of value in rural China of Beyond the Village Gate:

Damned child, you really know how to answer back, don’t you? Feeding you is a waste of rice. Might as well save the rice to buy a trowel. At least it’s useful.

(Beyond the Village Gate, p. 76)

Such admonitions may not be fully heartfelt, but are indicative of the mode by which human worth is evaluated and identity defined:

You have to be better than everybody else because in this world there is place for second best. … I have been an accounts officer for twenty-six years, boy, twenty-six years, and I always do my best, always. Now you have to be best at everything and there will be countless choices open to you later.’

(‘Edge of Pain, Crossing Distance, pp. 48-9)

This calculated conception of existence leaves no room for failure nor the vagaries of the human spirit, as expressed in child’s play, so often enacted then curtailed, in Tan’s prose:

Why do you build these model planes? What good are they? Is that what you spend your pocket-money on?

(‘Edge of Pain, Crossing Distance, pp. 49)

The result is a curtailing and reduction of the human spirit; a divided self:

A part of him had sunk so deep that he didn’t want to touch it, for fear it might turn up something he didn’t want to know.

(‘Edge of Pain, Crossing Distance, pp. 60)

Tan’s prose worlds are constructs tightly governed by regulations and social norms to the point, on occasion, of claustrophobia – taking form as social pressure on children to be paragons of behaviour and academic excellence, or on women to be devoted and domesticated wives and mothers. It is perhaps understandable to see how the pragmatic demands and onerous routines of past rural life could have necessitated a regimentation of experience and identity, a narrowing of space. What is more insidious is the means by which this parochialism have been internalised in a supposedly modern urban setting. In ‘The Giving’ , the severe delineation placed upon gender roles appear to have been imported into a modern setting. The straitjacket of traditional female submission has manifested itself in the physical state of Mrs Yeo:

Mrs Yeo made things, as she made herself, as insignificant as possible. Through the years, she had physically achieved that, she gave so much and took so little … that she shrank and became like a pickled vegetable, wrinkled and thin.

(‘The Giving’, Crossing Distance, p. 25)

‘Too much a creature of habit’, Mrs Yeo has internalised the values of a patriarchal system which continues to attempt to constrain her daughters to the social expectations of the past, to the point where she is even willing to accept her husband’s blatant infidelity for the sake of keeping the peace. Significantly, it is economic independence which separates the generations and allows her daughters to defy and escape the compelling gravity of tradition:

It’s my money, my money, okay, I will be paying for it, everything, I don’t even want you to pay for her room at university. I’m not asking for your permission, I’m just telling you she will go study and that’s all you need to know.

(‘The Giving’, Crossing Distance, p. 29)

Eileen, the pregnant protagonist of ‘The Release’, is ostensibly a housewife, and is troubled by the obnoxious behaviour of her neighbours as well as the willingness of her husband Phillip to concede territorial space to them. Apparently, she is unable to take any action by herself and she is plagued throughout the story by ugly comparisons to the pregnant bitch kept by her neighbours in their compound. Her stress culminates, after the newborn baby is disturbed by the yelping of newborn puppies, with a phone call to the SPCA:

The voice at the other end of the line sounded cool, detached, not understanding anything, not about sleep, not about the baby not sleeping, not about the mess in the house, not about her husband being away more than he was home, not about her life, not about anything beyond when he could get off the phone. All she was asking, that would make life much easier to bear, all she was asking was please, do something about the dogs. All she was asking was to keep them quiet and let her baby sleep. Let her sleep. Please.

(‘The Release’ Crossing Distance, p. 44)

Her frustration with her situation beyond the immediate tension with her neighbours is only subtly hinted at here, as is the perceived indifference of the world at large. The startling denouement of the story – where the puppies are bludgeoned to death – suggest not merely an animal terror at the brutality necessary to secure her ‘peace’, but – because of the recurrent association of the puppies with her baby and hence with her assigned roles as housewife and mother – a realisation that a true release from the confines of her present situation would be much more devilish to secure.

Eileen’s modern frustration and quiet desperation are a poignant echo of Shi Ying’s foster mother in Beyond the Village Gate, whose inner life too, is never fully revealed to the reader. Taken ill after the death of Shi Ying’s foster father, she is lost in a state of stupor, upon which her grandmother comments:

I think my son, your father, is calling for her in the nether world and her spirit does not know what to do, what to choose. Life here or duty to her husband? Very frustrated.

(Beyond the Village Gate, p.135)

Shi Ying’s foster mother’s inarticulateness, ‘as if she wants to tell me something, but cannot find the words for it, she does not know how to say it, or she cannot say it’ comes at a point in the novel where Shi Ying begins to realise that her foster mother too, is a trapped, voiceless being, caught in the tension between the security of confinement and the uncertainties of freedom. It is an ambivalence which Shi Ying too, had experienced in her dreams:

Maybe one day, I will disappear from this here and appear in another, as someone else, a bird, a spirit? Then I am just a guest here, maybe all of us are, trapped in a world, caught in the worlds of other souls, the only way to leave is to die. Just a pretence, though, just to escape to somewhere else.
Some people may not succeed and their soul is torn apart between going and staying and they become crazy. others who succeed, they lie contentedly with a smile.

(Beyond the Village Gate, p. 5, italics mine)

The promise of freedom tears at the soul because liberation is hardly an unambiguous gift – it demands a deviation from the norm, abandoning the security and certainty of the ‘strong gate and heavy wooden bar’ of the village gate and the parochial, familiar world it stands for. It means a departure from the womb, the very source which Shi Ying hopes to find and from which she seeks to derive her true identity and lasting acceptance:

What is it like to be so small, all cramped into a person’s stomach? … To pass from sleep to sleep …in this warm shelter, so safe, so protected, contentedly waiting to be born.

(Beyond the Village Gate, pp. 54-5)

Yet to be born is already to experience this individuation from the unequivocal oneness of the fetus and its mother. But Shi Ying’s only conscious experience of identity is expressed through her alienation from her foster parents and with the rejection of having been abandoned at birth. Her identity to this point has been constructed of absences and empty spaces where other, more conventional selves have comfortable relations and roles in the larger web of village life. Xiao Ling, who also cuts herself off from the village mainstream by her illicit sexual relationship, is seen not as a model of liberation but of transgression: the price of her freedom is ostracism, then madness , even though she achieves a kind of liberation, an oblivion to the disapproval of staring villagers as she buries her dead child with her bare hands:

Did the villagers see the bundle by Xiao Ling? Do they know she is doing this for her baby and not because she is mad? In a way … I am relieved. Now Xiao Ling and I do not have to hide smiles for each other any more.

(Beyond the Village Gate, p. 54, italics mine)

During the cathartic frenzy of Xiao Ling’s digging, Shi Ying experiences an intimation of space, a glimpse of how the distances imposed by social norms between the self and its aspirations, between the ‘ifs’ and ‘what is’ might be overcome :

I sit by and watch. On higher ground, I can see the wide fields and the wide sky, the wide, wide ocean. Everything is so wide, this place. Wideness have a way of touching each other, as the mountain touches the sky, and the sky dips into the sea. When the fog comes, they seem to join hands perfectly, and there is no distance.

(Beyond the Village Gate, p. 74)

Shi Ying’s epiphany shows her a way to see beyond the painful realities of ‘what is’ by taking in the larger context of a world and a life beyond the comfort and confines of the village gates. She comes to realise that the solitude of the outsider also embraces an opportunity to move and grow beyond the limitations of her village circle, that the ‘half-lit world’ of the unknown may hold danger but also discovery, and peace. It gives her eventual courage to embark on her lone journey into the unknown in search for her lost mother and her true identity. Her moments Beyond the Village Gate are an escape as much as a quest:

Part of me knows I shouldn’t be running out the gate at night, like part of me knows that I shouldn’t throw the wooden bar of the gate on the ground, but I don’t care. Remember the dogs, that part of me says. And the rest of me shouts” Yes! Yes! I remember them! Even they don’t want me, so what am I afraid of? Nothing! Nothing in the world wants me, so I am free! I am untouched! Like lepers!

(Beyond the Village Gate, p.77)

The response of Tan’s characters to suffocating constraints and circumstances appear to be an abandonment to the wild, in a moment of profound exhilaration or frenzy. In ‘The Running Game’ , Ah Seng, who suffers domestic violence from an abusive father (a recurrent recipe of frustration and alienation within a conventional framework of intimacy), runs to the edge of the corridor ledge in an apparently suicidal gesture which horrifies the narrator:

All of a sudden, I wanted lots and lots of air, cool air, all around me, and not these black, flat walls and closed doors. … I could go down to the void deck. That was off limits to the game, but I wanted to get out of this trap, so I ran downstairs as quickly as I could, going so fast I burst onto the airy ground floor almost flying. … It was near sunset and the air wasn’t so thick and suffocating any more … We both knew we were cheating … But Ah Seng did think of the same thing. When he appeared from the stairs, I could tell he didn’t care any more about the game either. He sat down beside us. We didn’t say anything. We just sat by one another until our sweat dried and the sun set.

Unbridgeable divides, be it the unrecoverable past, irreconcilable differences, inconsolable grief or the mystery of death become catalysts for a quantum shift in perception:

Two worlds collided and merged …It was a new world, and I expected different rules. I wanted different rules, maybe how it should change our lives, how we shouldn’t be walking around doing the same old things…

(‘In the Quiet’, Crossing Distance, p. 12)

The confrontation with death which appears both in her novel and volume of short stories underline the ultimate unbridgeable distance and chasm which can separate ‘the conscious from the unconscious’ and self from self. A most alien experience which defies language and the human imagination, death is at the same time intimately definitive of mortal experience, and is therefore relentlessly mundane. In her dream of her foster mother’s death, Shi Ying comes to realise the cycle of life and death which constitute a world at once familiar in scope, yet in scale too immense for human comprehension to apprehend:

I am not walking, I am floating. The coffin becomes a bed, and Mother is sleeping on it, her back turned towards me. I reach out to touch it. My arm stretches, lengthens. I look at it in wonder. It stretches over the floor, which is not the floor after all, but crops in the fields, then they are not crops either, by hours and minutes, days divide into rows, rows crowd into years, and I pass years and years before I reach the bedside. Trembling with amazement, I touch Mother’s back.

(Beyond the Village Gate, p .145)

It is this larger reality to which the consciousness owes its existence, held in a parenthesis within which it finds its meaning, even if its boundaries can never be fully explored or breached. It is only when Shi Ying comes to terms with this shared humanity and its implicit limitations, that she is able to achieve true emotional release, true escape and a lasting sense of identity in relation to the human continuum:

For the first time since Mother’s death, I cry. I cry for everything, for Mother lying so stiff, for Father and his young days, for Grandmother in her old years, for Ah Chang in his youth, for Xiao Ling guarding her grace on the mountainside, for all the distance around me, the wideness of fields, the immensity of mountains, the sea, the sky, all the space, all the anger, all the hopes. I cry for me, unable to close the distance and yet, unable to separate myself from it.

(Beyond the Village Gate, pp. 145-6, italics mine.)

Her foster parents’ deaths and the subsequent acceptance of the transience of all things, including identity, frees Shi Ying from the crippling need to recover her past and from the stultifying determinism of history and geography. It allows her to formulate a strategy to achieve release without madness, self-determination which need not be divorced from human nor social concerns, human intimacy which does not suffocate. Shi Ying realises that the need to live anew, embracing change – in the face of a death that cannot be escaped – is itself profoundly human:

We live different seasons as if we have never lived any other.
Some things change permanently … Other things neither change, nor stay still. Like water, they carve out new notches in the stream, reach higher shores in the sea. Like wind, they make new shapes with old sand. Like them, I learn to tell my story.
(Beyond the Village Gate, p. 148)

A life, Tan suggests, is defined not by what has past but what is yet to come; how one builds on the firmament of the past in order to ‘make new shapes with old sand’, just as Shi Ying learns to fashion her own history, her own parents and ultimately, her sense of self.

I close with Tan’s final and eponymous story in her collection . It is ostensibly biographical in style, and draws together many of the themes which surface throughout her prose – the apparent disparity in perception between young and old, the otherness of the foreign, the curtailing of women’s rights in a deeply traditional patriarchal society, as well as the deeper understanding that both societies – rural China and urban Singapore – are rife with assumptions, prejudices, habits and constraints which their inhabitants imbibe and internalise. The narrator misreads her Gran’s apparent lack of nostalgia for the relics of her childhood home, presuming a sentimentality for objects which her Gran clearly doesn’t share. She realises later that her Gran had in fact escaped her village long ago – her language and values are no longer quite those of her home village:

There were actually two foreign guests here, I realized, not just me.

(Crossing Distance, Crossing Distance, p.94)

Gran is able to discount place and artifact because her sense of her roots is derived from bonds of common humanity and intimacy rather than false claims to material ‘richness’ or the anxious imperatives of ethnicity and history.

It is when the striking resemblance of Gran’s history (p. 103) to Shi Ying’s own past is realised, that the reader is startled into bridging the apparent gulf between the two prose works, and speculate that ‘Gran’ was the source for the protagonist of Tan’s novel. While there is no need to speculate on the historical accuracy of such a link, there is a thematic poignancy in suggesting that the girl did physically and spiritually escape her village eventually, and founded a life of her own in the world beyond the sea, saved like the seahorses she was so keen to rescue by tossing them back into the waters, finding her way into another story. ‘Crossing Distance’, then, is a most apposite denouement to the thematic development of Tan Mei Ching’s prose; an account of the aftermath of survival and escape, the final ritual of which is a return to one’s origins to ‘settle matters’ and then to let go, just as Tan does symbolically by exploring and confronting her cultural roots through her prose. It is perhaps through Gran, who has survived escape and who straddles two realms and two volumes, that the narrator and the reader learns to bridge the distances between disparate souls, generations and worlds, rediscovering both spiritual continuity and a rich sense of wonder in the ongoing journey through life:

… we would not be able to ride without helmets in Singapore – what a laugh, the police would be down on us in a minute. … I felt the wind on my face, in my hair, around my arms and legs, on my back, the glorious air about us, uninhibited, full of the smells of salt and crops and earth.

How things have changed, for the child-grandma and the woman-grandma. What I picked from the seashore, they could not be mine. But this was mine, this ride I was in motion with, so smoothly, Gran between me and China .


1. From Crossing Distance, (EPB Publishers Pte Ltd, Singapore, June 1995), a collection of short stories.
2. Beyond the Village Gate, (EPB Publishers Pte Ltd, Singapore, September 1994 ), a novel.
3. ‘The Author as God: The Worlds of Tan Mei Ching’ by Greg Pitter, March 30, 1996. Published on the web: http://www.magpie.org/pitter/vulture/tan.htm .
4. Ibid.
5. Crossing Distance, pp. 23- 36
6. Crossing Distance, pp. 37-46
7. Crossing Distance, pp. 23-36
8. Beyond the Village Gate, p. 140
9. cf. Jaz’s crazed laughter and descent into self-destructiveness and hatred in ‘Edge of Pain’, Crossing Distance, p.62.
10. cf. Xiao Ling’s advice to Shi Ying: “There are too many ‘ifs’ in the world. Just think about the ‘is’ – the what is.” (Beyond the Village Gate, p. 62)
11. Crossing Distance, 73-82
12. ‘Crossing Distance’, Crossing Distance, pp. 83-106
13. ‘Crossing Distance’, Crossing Distance, p. 106