Great leap backward

(Brandl & Schlesinger, 2001)

ONE 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.

While 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.

The 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.

Stagecraft and statecraft interplay in a complex wayang kulit of political intrigue, betrayal and (real or perceived) oppression.

Chiang's 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.

Lau's 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.

The 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.

And in more recent times, the ruthless churn of urban renewal and economy progress has only accelerated the pace of change.

Hence 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.

Power 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.

The result is repression, paranoia and a deep disjunction of identity, arguably the source of Chiang Ching/Madam Mao's increasingly schizoid perspectives and madness.

The novel's delirious stream of consciousness cools to measured prose only upon Chiang's self-imposed "exile" to Brisbane, Australia.

It 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.

One 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:

Like 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.