Academic journal article ARIEL

Singapore's New Thrillers: Boldly Going beyond the Ethnographic Map

Academic journal article ARIEL

Singapore's New Thrillers: Boldly Going beyond the Ethnographic Map

Article excerpt

Douglas Chua's The Missing Page, published by Angsana Books in Singapore in 1999, opens with the construction of a massive development project to link Singapore with Malaysia through a tunnel "modelled after the 51 km Eurotunnel" (14). But the workers stumble upon a disturbing, possibly threatening find: a mysterious territorial document that disputes Singapore's sovereignty. The super-agent who saves the day after various action-packed confrontations is the James Bond like Alex Han, who "thinks he is Mel Gibson chasing after thugs" (45) and repeatedly has to remind himself that he is "no Rambo" (317). He is the native answer to the superheroes of imported popular culture. Testifying to a new interest in regionally produced fiction that has definitely invigorated Singapore's book-market, Chua's science fiction thrillers with a local twist form a respite from narratives that Shirley Lim has diagnosed as "almost ethnographic in their fidelity to ethnic surface and social interactions" (138). Even more pointedly, those narratives emulate the popular historical "exotic" of diasporic and postcolonial writing--a globally immensely marketable genre, which the Singaporean novelist Tan Hwee Hwee has dismissed as "Chinese Chick Lit" (66). (1) Instead, they indicate a new direction in localized literature that generally bodes well for the regional book-market's coming of age, even when it generates some cliched narratives along the way. This article aims to trace these new developments to go beyond studies that emphasise the globally marketed fictions of the island-state Singapore and Southeast Asia generally. A re-examination of the thriller's growing local popularity promises to shed a new light on the Singaporean novel, its potential, versatility, and interest for a local readership rather than for consumers of what Graham Huge has recently termed the "postcolonial exotic." This analysis reassesses the growing export of these new fictions and the ways they set out to rework insular analyses of the region's "exotic" representations.

The greatest appeal of Chua's thrillers is clearly their specific imaginary. Han is a cross between James Bond and Jackie Chan, and his adventures show how regional preoccupations can be translated into different genres. The dispute over the island-state's sovereignty in The Missing Page, Malaysia's threatened invasion of Singapore in Crisis in the Straits: Malaysia Invades Singapore (2001), the take on current water-disputes in Ransom (2002), and the disappearance of Singapore during a diplomatic crisis between China and the USA in The Missing Island (2002) set familiar action-stories in the region. The horrors associated with imported fictions break into a familiar world, and there is a certain degree of originality in the transposition of science fiction or horror cliches into the quietude of Singaporean daily life. In Crisis in the Straits, for example, Han's wife runs amok in the Takashimaya, an upmarket department store (131), and a baby is attacked by birds that are manipulated by mysterious technology while living in an expatriate enclave (19). Sensitive issues are taken up; anxieties are spelled out and projected onto dystopian near-cataclysms; and local issues become the concern of impressive super-agents. Focusing on terrorist attempts to poison Singapore's water supply, Ransom engages with rising concerns about terrorist networks in the region and a water-dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. Simultaneously, the interweaving of local jokes that stab at international politics pokes fun at the science fiction genre itself. The plausible meets the blatantly ridiculous almost seamlessly. Ransom opens with the Singaporean football team set to enter the world cup; The Missing Page announces that Harrison Ford has become the president of the United States and that the Americans have landed two men on Mars; Crisis in the Straits lists a conglomeration of futuristic events:

  A 40-year-old man in Sweden became the first male to give birth to a
  child. … 
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