thing safe to say about Lau Siew Mei's debut novel, Playing
Madame Mao: It is unlike any other work of fiction
by any Singaporean author to date.
many homegrown efforts tend towards gritty social realism
or lyrical melodrama, the Singaporean-born Lau has concocted
a giddy, non-linear, anachronistic brew of multiple mythologies
and alternate histories, a sort of TheatreWorks production
in novel form.
theatrical metaphor is relevant because the novel's chief
protagonist is an accomplished actress who plays Mao Tse-tung's
consort, Chiang Ching, who is also her namesake. Inevitably,
her roles on and off stage conflate in a hallucinatory blend
of refracted identities. Set nominally in Singapore, the
novel is based loosely on the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy incident,
when a group of church activists and theatre practitioners
were detained for allegedly subversive activities under
the Internal Security Act.
and statecraft interplay in a complex wayang kulit of political
intrigue, betrayal and (real or perceived) oppression.
intellectual husband Tang is arrested under similar circumstances
after publishing an outspoken article in a journal, and
eventually hangs himself after his detention, following
a failed hunger strike. And in the background looms the
omnipotent, authoritarian presence of the "Chairman",
the city's founding father and Chiang's former lover.
city is a displaced dreamscape where historical facts co-mingle
with hungry ghosts and insidious "mirror creatures" out to reclaim lost ground and avenge past sins. References
to contemporary Singapore are juxtaposed seamlessly with
mythological figures from Asian mythology and the Chinese
Cultural Revolution, often in telling configurations sure
to raise eyebrows for their sly aptness.
novel raises political issues overtly -- not least those
regarding complicity, censorship, power and the place of
art. Yet the larger sense -- to Lau's credit -- is that
of the city as cultural palimpsest, upon which identities
have been written and rewritten. Each new regime -- from
the pre-British Malayan empire to the present establishment
-- has sought to brand this tiny island with its own iconography,
without fully erasing the residual imprint of past eras.
in more recent times, the ruthless churn of urban renewal
and economy progress has only accelerated the pace of change.
the city's multiplicities and confusions, represented by
the novel's narrative structure. In its broiling miscegenation
of the real and the imagined, the old and the new, the surreality
of homegrown idiosyncrasies becomes amplified, thus rendering
the city's claim to stolid reality, suspect.
determines meaning, as the novel's recurrent figure of the "Director" signifies implicitly. But for a woman
to lay claim to such author-rity by deigning to re-write
her own script, as Chiang attempts to do, is to violate
the male-dominated chain of being.
result is repression, paranoia and a deep disjunction of
identity, arguably the source of Chiang Ching/Madam Mao's
increasingly schizoid perspectives and madness.
novel's delirious stream of consciousness cools to measured
prose only upon Chiang's self-imposed "exile" to Brisbane, Australia.
is telling, perhaps, that Playing Madame Mao was
written only after the author had emigrated to Queensland,
Australia, in 1994. Certainly the novel -- which has received
distinguished literary accolades in Australia -- suggests
that one has to step outside the boundaries of one's reality
in order to see the big picture more clearly.
suspects the very condition of exile compels the emigre
to find new ways of perceiving and conceiving the world
she comes from. Or, as Lau's accomplished yet unsettling
Singaporean novel suggests, it might simply be the fate
of those born into this unreal city, this restless construction
of the enacted will:
the city, we have changed. Each time our identities rewritten,
I feel as if I suffer from amnesia. I am a person of no
past, only a continuously changing present.