Of disappearing coffee shops and identity

by Chua Han Au

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset

photo by me

I don’t know what Kopi-O means nor coffee’s manifold definitions (in Singapore context, that is)
My grandmother speaks Teochew — a dialect facing a fading relevance
her grandson howbeit lacks the ability to speak it authentically

in the interview they asked me how the Singaporean identity can be established
through Literature

we are young
but we are halfway through murdering a revered generation of Singaporeanness

we don’t know when Tomb-sweeping day is, but they do
what exactly Moon Cake Festival symbolises, but they do
we let go of things we don’t find relevant

my children will never speak Teochew or Hokkien because I don’t
mayhap they’ll ask me what Hokkien is if they were to consume Hokkien Mee
alack then, we’d be part of a generation of disappeared coffee shops and pungent medicated oil

notice their silent cries, the battle against modernism — crushing coke under their strong feet
there’ll be old women collecting scraps of cardboard no more
Fa Gao, Iced Gem Biscuits, Haw Flakes, Wheel Crackers, Pola Snack, Wang Zai biscuits, cheap mint sweets wrapped in translucent crimson wrappers would be here no more

I am, part of a generation that obliterates a revered generation of Singaporeanness;
the edge of a knife that slices the skin, gladly embracing — not blood but — a demonised modernisation

we are young
we are in search of our identity
we asked for it in SG50 and we’ll still do the same when SG100 comes
we’re attempting to find a set of ideals that characterises us as idiosyncratically Singaporeans
Singlish! Singlish! Singlish! they repeat instinctively
but in school, we condemn it
in Kinokuniya however, it seems to me that poetry peppered with Singlish is glorified
(tell me you’re not caught in betwixt clarity and utter mess)
is Singlish then peculiar to Singaporeans?

we are young
all we have are a few rare riots and a broken vernacular we think of as wholly Singaporean

there is no history —
as opposed to the Middle Ages and Romantic Period
no nothing we can feel gravely about
no nothing we can have our heartstrings move violently with fervency and interest

between progression and stagnation, we logically chose the former
we must let go

and so we’re back at the big question:
“What makes us Singaporean?”

we are young

“a novelist is not obliged to write directly about contemporary history, but a novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot.”

To Orwell: This is to Singapore and to you. Thank you for inspiring this poem — with your essay: “Inside the Whale” — written with profound impetus. Hopefully a new breed of Singaporeans would be discovered, whose language and characteristics would be utilitarian enough to be a hallmark of our identity, worth remembering through Literature.

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