Issue 28: Jee Leong Koh
from A SIMPLE HISTORY OF SINGAPOREANS IN AMERICA
for Christopher Chew (Rasa Malaysian Restaurant, NYC, September 4, 2019)
The funeral bells, the roadside operas—
Sago Lane was too noisy for his studies
and so his parents shipped him to a flat
in the East Coast, bought with the steaming blood
of slaughtered chickens, squawking in big barrels.
Business dropped after they were relocated
from street to basement of Smith Street Complex,
as part of the clean-up of Chinatown,
and the construction of the train station began.
He did his ‘A’ levels in KFC,
it could be said, he did it in air-con,
and chose his field for the six years it gave
to decide what to do. Or not to do.
He was quite lost and over-overworked
till Tan Hock Beng took him under his wing
and taught the kid, for the first time, to think.
The World of Architecture at Beijing,
a Communist showcase, singlehandedly
he edited into a monograph.
Back in NUS, his final-year project,
a movie theater, with an outré poster,
was graded F by the local examiner
and by the Brit and Yankee, a high A.
The way was clear: go where they understand.
He was not the only one to get such grades
and choose to go abroad, but he went alone
not to the Strand but to Sesame Street,
where Big Bird made Columbia feel like home,
and where he read the original writings
of Frank Lloyd Wright and of Corbusier.
“If it’s not in English,” said the eight-foot-tall
canary, “find a way to learn the language.”
And so he did, with all his indigenous
understandings and misunderstandings,
studied, worked, and built in America
its retail stores and private residences,
its home, head, haute, and start-up offices,
until he had to cancel his annual visit
to Singapore because of a bully boss,
found himself again over-overworked.
Time, he thought, to take a sabbatical.
He quit his job and made his quiet way
through Kenneth Frampton’s bibliography, big
as it was, searching out the inclinations,
priorities, and changes in the thinking
of this woke expat historian from Woking.
How far could “critical regionalism” go,
this idea of synthesizing two forces,
modernity—science, tech, democracy—
and nervous, fervid, louche vernaculars,
the universals and pre-universals?
Skyscrapers say nothing about a people,
but there’s no return to Tudor cottages,
Chris clarified, impaling the steamed chicken
before dipping it in the chili sauce.
I had another bowl of rice. He did not.
The danger is nostalgia and not just
the warp-speed development of Singapore.
Petitions to keep up People’s Park Complex,
William Lim’s interpretation of Unité,
were mounted but how many petitioners
would live there? Not the parents of his friend
who suffer lift breakdowns and fire hazards.
Neither a sculpture nor a dinosaur,
for the art market or the history museum,
a building should respond to human needs,
or else it is another worthless Vessel,
and as the architect in Chris continued
way past the friend’s typical reticence,
a twist on an old poem turned my mind,
a poem itself a twist on an old idiom—
a building should be renovated like
a nest, for chickens to come home to roost
for Justin Chin (b. 1969–d. 2015)
He took his fortune on the road—a toke
of toxic stories, like the moths in May
so easily swatted into pure asbestos.
Hawaii was the first stop, but Frisco
beckoned with its buff fags and druggy poets,
Tom Sellecks into golden showers while
reciting Les Fleurs du fucking mal.
To use the body up, disintegrate
into the yellow shards of the forsythia,
to savor the next day the rally, slow
and painstaking, of muscle, bone, and blood
in morning muck and in the sty of style
was well worth living for, dying for, even.
How proud he was, the prodigal, when he
hit upon making the mom watch her son,
she hazy with Alzheimer’s, he with coke,
receive the shit unreeling from his trick
into his mouth, like a communion wafer,
while she disposes, satchel after satchel,
sugar into hers, scattering stray crystals
onto her front, transforming her housedress
into the sequined gown of a drag queen.
There is no turning point in Justin’s story,
no moment when the son came to his senses
(he was already living through his senses),
not even when he got his diagnosis.
Just this: you’re watching TV with your dad,
about the water parks in the Middle East,
and the man makes a mess due to his meds.
When he gets up quietly, without a word,
to change his clothes and find the air freshener,
you look ahead, you do not turn your head,
at the fun waterslide, long as a mile,
with jets so powerful they can propel
a half-pint up and back from where he came.
Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by UK’s Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary in the US. He has published four other books of poems, a volume of essays, a collection of zuihitsu, and a hybrid work of fiction called Snow at 5 PM: Translations of an Insignificant Japanese Poet. His second Carcanet collection Inspector Inspector is forthcoming in August 2022.
Copyright © 2022 by Jee Leong Koh, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.