mok zining, “the orchid folios”

Mok Zining
The Orchid Folios
(Ethos Books, Singapore; 2020)


I periodically read the fiction and poetry of Singapore, trying to be a good resident, ever hopeful that I will find something that I think is interesting. There’s a thriving literary industry, if not a profitable one, in Singapore (in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay as well as English, though there’s not much cross-translation); it’s generally competent, though most isn’t that inspiring, though that’s true of anywhere. But having read all Singaporean poetry, say, is still an achievable goal, if one has the desire to be so thorough. As an outsider making one’s way through the mass of Singaporean writing, it becomes possible to see why, for example, certain works would have been important historically; the contours of scenes present and past become visible. This type of reading is sociological rather than specifically aesthetic; that’s fine for my purposes, as one can read the literary productions of a culture as a way of coming to understand that culture. But what one ends up noticing when reading this way is the quirks: there’s a strong inclination towards science fiction over realism in contemporary Singaporean fiction, and Christianity – as subject and as a quarry for metaphor – shows up with astonishing frequency. These are books that are important to certain readerships and have their uses, though I’m not sure that I find them useful to me as a reader. In a world where a staggeringly high percentage of books are available nearly anywhere nearly instantaneously, there’s almost always something that seems more important for me to be reading.

I could, if pressed, come up with a handful of Singaporean books that I would recommend to non-Singaporean readers. I wish this number were bigger: Singapore is a place that’s probably more interesting than it imagines itself to be. The term that outsiders have a hard time getting around for Singapore is “boring”; much of the country could be mistaken for a well-heeled suburb of Los Angeles with a government that functions. Malaysia and Indonesia, twenty miles away on different directions, do not feel like that. What’s not immediately obvious, however, is that that feeling of boredom isn’t inherent; rather, it’s achieved. People successfully made Singapore boring. For me there’s an analogy to the American Midwest, a place that’s similarly boring. One looks at hundreds of miles of identical fields of corn or wheat or soybeans and forgets that the land wasn’t a terra nullius: there are thousands of years of human history in the Midwest – and a genocide! – that are forgotten, if they were ever remembered, when we look at the land and call it boring. The seeming blandness of Singapore functions similarly, though it’s complicated by colonialism and the struggle for independence. Singapore has done very well for itself since independence, though it’s done astonishingly little reflection on what it means to have escaped colonialism. Walking past police stations, for example, one sees posters congratulating the Singapore police on their two-hundredth anniversary. This is strange: the police spent three-quarters of their history keeping the non-white populations down. But this is not out of character. Stamford Raffles, who signed off on the acquisition of the island for the British Empire, is largely celebrated for having created something out of nothing, that something being today’s Singapore.

Which is all by way of introduction to Mok Zining’s The Orchid Folios, which uses the orchid as a lens to look at the past and present of Singapore, managing by this to present a clearer picture of what the country is like than any other recent volume I can think of. This is a book probably best considered as poetry, though it’s full of historical documents and illustrations, some annotated, and there are sections of what appears to be fiction. The approach wouldn’t feel out of place in the contemporary visual arts world, one can imagine a version of this book presented as an installation; the word hybrid feels too easy but is entirely apt. Susan Howe in “Sorting Facts” gets at the sort of language this is, mutatis mutandis:

. . . I am an American poet writing in the English language. I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.

(in The Quarry, p. 94)

It might be easiest to start by looking at how The Orchid Folios deals with the structure of history, which isn’t dissimilar to Howe’s investigations into American literary history. One of the book’s narrative threads starts in 1893, when Henry Ridley, director of the Singapore Botanical Garden, sends a new orchid hybrid back to London where it is acclaimed. That orchid, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, would become Singapore’s national flower in 1981; the orchid has been embraced by the country as a symbol, and Singapore has gone on to create hybrid orchids for any number of visiting dignitaries. (Margaret Thatcher was given her own orchid.) Mostly occluded in this telling is the person who was actually responsible for the initial hybridization – not Ridley, but one Agnes Joaquim, a woman of Armenian descent, who has, aside from her name, almost entirely vanished from history. Glory goes to the structures of power; one remembers that the Singapore Botanical Gardens, one of the glories of the country, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was started not to be the pleasure garden that it’s become, but rather to find ways for the Empire to exploit the vegetation of the tropics. Now it’s the national center for orchid breeding.

Besides this narrative, Mok excerpts documents concerning the founding of Singapore. The official narrative can be found inscribed on a plinth under a statue by the Singapore River in four languages:

ON THIS HISTORIC SITE
SIR THOMAS STAMFORD RAFFLES
FIRST LANDED IN SINGAPORE
ON 28TH JANUARY 1810
AND WITH GENUS AND PERCEPTION
CHANGED THE DESTINY OF SINGAPORE
FROM AN OBSCURE FISHING VILLAGE
TO A GREAT SEAPORT AND
MODERN METROPOLIS.

Although this feels like a colonial relic, a note points out that this monument was actually added in 1972, after the country had become fully independent. This is a narrative complicated by actual history: in a letter from Raffles to his patron in 1819, Mok blacks out a phrase describing the situation of the island and places it on the facing page, pointing out that Raffles didn’t think of Singapore as an “obscure fishing village”:

the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays, and within the walls of these fortifications, raised not less than six centuries ago,

Four years later, Raffles, temporarily triumphing over death, again writes to his patron and again Mok excerpts a bit of his letter:

where, if my bones must remain in the East, they would have the honour of mixing with the ashes of the Malayan kings, and the result has been, that instead of dying, I have almost entirely recovered.

In between Raffles’s correspondence, he has been laying out a plan for the city he imagines, where different ethnic groups will be carefully segregated; he is angry at William Farquahar, his lieutenant – and the man who did most of the actual work involved in founding the colony – for neglecting his plan. It is not exactly novel, of course, to be pointing out the racism and wrong-headedness of the British colonial project. What Mok is more interested in is how things can be selectively forgotten; in Singapore’s case for seemingly pragmatic reasons. Another quotation, from government minister S. Rajaratnam in 1984, where he explains that Singapore’s history before 1819 is lost to the mists of time:

. . . from our point of view, to push a Singaporean’s historic awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history; to plunge Singapore into the kind of genocidal madness that racial, communal and religious imperialism is today devastating so many underdeveloped and even developed countries.

Neocolonialism succeeds colonialism; what can be preserved and what is forgotten are powers reserved to the state. Raffles wasn’t actually in Singapore long enough to do anything terribly bad – his time in Java is another story – so he can be kept around. On another level, contemporary Singapore takes from the British Empire the core of its legal code; it also takes (and upholds) the Empire’s Victorian racial distinctions, slotting everyone into the CMIO (Chinese/­Malay/­Indian/­Other) framework that the British used, dumping those that can’t fit into a named category – or those that go in between – into “other.” Something similar happens with Singapore’s linguistic policies, which also come under scrutiny in this book.

At the same time, Singapore does celebrate – at least on paper, at least with orchids – the idea of hybridity as being central to the identity of the nation. There are tensions here on multiple levels, a biological messiness pulling against official urge to structure. Using the orchid, Mok casts this in botanical terms: growth can be defined in a monopodial way, which notates the plant growing from root to flower:

[root] [main stem] [leaf] [inflorescence]

A few pages later, however, the sympodial model of growth is described, which “allows variation of thought / to coexist as rhythmic / shoots.” The monopodial diagram is graphically complicated: while there is always a root, what were “main stem,” “leaf,” and “inflorescence” in the monopodial arrangement can here be a variety of different things: “leaf / pseudobulb / eye / rhizome / rhizome / new root”. A straight line becomes multidimensional: the growth of an orchid is more complex than the monopodial model allows. In the real world, boundaries are not as clear as we’d like to imagine. A leaf may be a root; the boundaries between plants are nebulous. A statement may be read in multiple ways. Legal categories don’t map on to biological realities. Language will always escape any structures authorities put up for it.

My treatment of this book is blunter than it needs to be, attempting to present it to an audience that might not be familiar with Singapore; I’m giving short shrift to much of the content of the book as well as most of its charms. Mok flips through forms deftly – there’s a page that might be torn from Laurence Sterne – but the result is a book that’s accessible but deep. This is a book that resembles those of Claudia Rankine, Nathalie Léger, and Sven Lindqvist (as suggested above); at the same time, it doesn’t presume knowledge of the literary traditions that it springs from, which might help it find a local readership. It’s also, necessarily, a delicate book: clearly attributed quotations are necessary to interrogate the history of a country that doesn’t have freedom of the press. (Local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who provides an epigraph for the book, was bafflingly demonized in the recent election for not loving Singapore enough; one might argue that one reason for the preponderance of science fiction in Singapore fiction is its useful indirection.)

Mok uses poetry and the placement of words and images on the pages as ways to think through the world she lives in. It’s a valuable book, and I’m curious what the local response will be. But this is a book that deserves an audience outside of Singapore as well, and it deserves attention.

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