While snooping around his formidable music library and all the rest of his inscrutable paraphernalia, I finally decide on how to make my life a little easier. Today, I will interview XHo the "writer." Absolutely conscious of my own biases, I alight at the notion that the writer persona is the most autobiographical, especially if your style of writing is as intimate and as anecdotal as XHos. There isnt the persona crafting his larynx behind the microphone, the burdens of being a publicly-recognised figure almost synonymous with local music and counter-culture angst. XHo the writer is as close you can get to XHo the man: Bangkok pilgrim, "forever 27," self-confessed "Cantonese snob" and Bruce la Bruce idolator.
Unless, of course, as one should always be mindful of when talking about writers in Singapore, there is self-censorship.
Tell us about this new book youre publishing soon.
Its called Attack Of The SM Space Encroachers.
Yes, SM, short for Sng Muay, which is Hokkien for sour grapes.
Of course. Which brings to mind Shahnon Ahmads book called SHIT. I dont know if youve heard of it, but Shahnons this Malaysian Literature Laureate whos a staunch PAS supporter. At the height of the Anwar Ibrahim-reformasi crisis, he wrote this novel, SHIT, with various references to "PM" meaning, of course, Puki Mak, which is Malay for "Mummys Vagina." Shahnons an obviously political, if not scatological, writer. How would you describe your own writing?
Im not a "writer-writer." Im from the school of Puke Journalism that ugly flush of the toilet, retching everything out in a bad taste kind of way. Theres this writer called Julie Burchill, whos my idol; she writes for The Guardian in the UK, and she once came right out to say that she earned more than Margaret Thatcher. If I have a style, Id describe it as very politically incorrect. Thats the phrase that sums up all of me.
You mentioned Julie Burchill who else are your models?
Well, Ive rediscovered my John Waters roots. Hes like some kind of mentor to another favourite of mine, the filmmaker Bruce la Bruce. As youd know, retching and vomiting is a big metaphor in John Waters films. In other words, I think Im just this pop culture trash writer. I have no aspirations to be a "serious" writer age has something to do with it, although you know that Im still "forever 27."
When did you realise this calling to become this "pop culture trash writer?"
A lot of it has to do with my migration into the heartlands. I grew up as a District 9, District 10 Cantonese snob, and moving into the heartland was a tremendous culture shock. It was at that time that The XHo-Files (XHos monthly column in BigO magazine) went into full bloom. My first observation was that Singaporeans are just so ****ing ugly. And Im not just talking physically about the bubblegum Ah Beng, Ah Lian subculture or the garish habits of those whove gone through fashion revolutions after theyve spent two weeks in Harajuku. The ugliness Im talking about is this manifestation of their frustrated aura. Its a big cry for help. Im interested in exploring what their behaviour is all about, and why they are what they are. Theyre so unique, these Singaporean heartlanders, I dont think any other country displays this kind of behaviour. And its not even an urban phenomenon, its just a Singaporean thing.
What is this behaviour, exactly?
Its this sneaky desire to get back at the system. In however and whatever way they can. It comes out in the car scratching phenomenon, its mean and furtive, its something that explodes when everything is kept under the carpet. Thats why in Singapore we dont have riots, we just have car scratchings.
But is that a specifically heartland phenomenon? Or
The only way to not be exposed to these things is to surround yourself with wealth. Keep yourself within your four walls and your own moving vehicle. Dont come into contact with these plebians/debris/mere mortals. Singaporeans wear this ugliness on their faces, and its expressed in the form of The Scowl. Why do you think everyone in Singapore seems to be scowling?
Because theyre not happy?
Yes, and it goes down from one generation to another. The young inherit this unhappiness from their parents. But curiously, I dont feel it as much among the Malays. They dont scowl. Singapore is one of those unique places where the minority doesnt scowl, its the majority that does.
Do you think, though, that this observation is peculiar only to your own experiences?
On the whole, I think a lot of people have become immune to the Ugly Singaporean. You require a certain sensitivity to detect this behavioural pattern. I think once youre used to such face-to-face encounters on a daily basis, you come to accept it, and you also tend to get infected by it, to take on The Scowl. I think if youre too sensitive youll do what Bruce la Bruce does in that movie Hustler White: hes surrounded by all these people, and he goes (in a manner both dismissive and revolted), "move, move, move." But really, even my mother talks about the Ugly Singaporean.
But lets get back to something youve said earlier. I dont know whether its a bit elitist to say that heartlanders are uglier Singaporeans than the ones you find in the like what youve said, District 9, District 10 areas I mean, weve read about that country club that made such a fuss when one of their members brought along her Sri Lankan maid, as if that maid was something sub-human
My point is, if youre rich, you can probably insulate yourself from these kinds of behaviour. Salespeople will suck up to you. When youre rich, theres no need to share space, interact with heartlanders. If you ever visit the heartlands, itll be by sheer choice, a quaint destination, youre just slumming it out and then you can go back to your little bubble. But heartlanders live under this "No Choice" regime, and it breeds resentment, and eventually The Scowl. And they cant articulate this resentment very easily, so it comes out in all these berserk and anti-social gestures.
Ive always been struck by how as Singaporeans, weve managed to become so vain about our own ugliness.
When Im here in Singapore Im perfectly fine. But the problem begins when I transplant myself to another place, like Thailand. When Im there, I find that my guard is down, and I feel so vulnerable. In Singapore, my guard is up 24 hours a day. The minute I land back home at immigration, the way I get my passport thrown at me says, "Welcome Home." And when I order something at a snack bar, and the way the lady yells "three fifty!" at me, I know Im home.
Lets get back to the book now. How would you say this is different from your Skew Me, You Rebel Meh?
I think this ones a lot more focused. And angrier. Therere a lot of things in there I just had to get out of my system.
What I find interesting, after following your column over these years, is how youve managed to co-opt the State in your writing. What I mean is that youre not just blindly oppositional or critical, just for the sake of it. In some of your articles, you go as far as to praise State policies, but theres always a tone of menace in the way you do it and, if read ironically, youre actually more critical than if you were to just stick a dissident label on yourself and rail against the system.
I think thats the un-PC way I was talking about. To expose the farce by being a farce yourself. The people up there are a joke in a bad way. And Im very aware that Im not in any position to effect any change. So if I use the authorities voice and pass it off as my own point of view, I know its not an effectual voice.
Its not, but its a strategic voice. I think your writing exists in this third space, between that occupied by the State on one hand, and noisy opposition parties on another.
The thing is, I do see the States ideal. I see their idealism.
Wait, hold on, I cant read you here. Are you being ironic?
No, its genuine. And in fact in my book one of the people I give thanks to is LKY. Because from a budding little island, we became this prosperous nation. But what I find absolutely distasteful is the kiasu extent of control weve given over to the State. I want to ask at what cost did we achieve what we have now? Im not completely anti-establishment, you know. I recognise that our founding fathers probably had this good, noble ideal. But somewhere along the way the translation got haywire. And somewhere along the line its killed the human spirit. Weve become a country that sees nothing wrong in banning chewing gum.
I was just discussing the chewing gum issue with another friend the other day. I was wondering, basically, if there should have been a more vocal protest against it. But then again, the logic is: how do you defend candy, and furthermore one thats like a kind of vermin candy thats capable of jamming up your well-oiled machinery, from lift buttons to MRT train doors? But the point I made was that we let them open the floodgates. We all thought it was just gum, but for me its more than that. We dont have gum being stuck in public places anymore, but theres something else now that sticks to us. A sense of timidity, of surrender, of giving way to their arguments even when intuitively we feel theres something wrong in what theyre doing. I do feel it sticking on my body: this sense of shame, of perhaps even the feeling of letting a future generation down for giving up our ground so easily. By the way, have you ever felt like just switching off and becoming apathetic like everyone else?
this one time when I painted myself into a very fatalistic corner. Just
opening up the newspapers every day was enough to wreck my day. I was
actually method-acting this whole rebel persona. And then I realised that
writing about it was something therapeutic for me. At the risk of sounding
ridiculous, every day after reading the newspaper, I had to go back and
read my personal archives of The XHo-Files. It was catharsis for
I know also that another form of therapy for you is travelling. Tell me about your favourite city, Bangkok.
way past my visit period! Its been seven months since I last made
my pilgrimage. Two months ago, some very bad things were happening in
my life, and I felt that I desperately needed that sense of pilgrimage
and ritual. When I go to a temple in Thailand, I literally feel like Im
running back to my Lord. I have allowed myself to be bruised by going
back to Singapore, and Thailand is where I seek to be healed. It has to
do with the space, how the physical and geographical space is also a reflection
of your mental space. Theres this Iris Murdoch quote I stand by,
where she says, "The only freedom whatsoever, is the freedom of the
mind." That is what I want ultimately, that sense of divine fortitude.
John Waters has this quote also, "Once you have your freedom, theres
no need to attack." This is such a self-fulfilling prophecy. Human
beings, to begin with, can be such ugly creatures. And you add the fact
that youve taken their freedoms away from them, and they start becoming
calculative about everything. Theres this ugly phrase going around
which I absolutely hate, its "win-win situation." There
was one time even a restaurant captain used the phrase on me, he said,
"For this amount, you get this amount. Its a win-win situation."
(Laughs) So youre saying Singaporeans are ugly because of the freedoms that have been deprived from them?
Yes, and because of that, I feel the need to be perverse. For me, perversity is a way of reining yourself in, so as not to lose control. The fundamental difference between Singapore and other countries is that we have yet to taste what freedom is really like. Singaporeans are so denied of the feeling that they have the right to be. When I go to Bangkok, and I see that dignity, I just weep. I really do. To see anybody living in a place where hes a patriot, I dont think many of us know that feeling. And the sad thing is if we ask Singaporeans if they have dignity, the answer will be a curt, unreflective, "Got what."
But lets just be a bit critical here. Ill argue that dignity is not something that someone gives to you.
But it can be taken away from you.
I second that. Chris, will you ever leave Singapore some day?
I hope to. Im just getting myself ready, and giving myself a flexible time frame. Things will happen when it happens. Itll be a gradual transition, a renunciation of the urban lifestyle. And move towards being a true Buddhist. Ill even be a hermit if it comes to that. But when I make that transition, I will have to give up rock n roll. I seem to be moving more towards country music nowadays, people like Gillian Welch.
OK, a few final questions. Since tomorrow is National Day, Id just like to ask what youd define as patriotism.
Let me think about that for a while. OK, I know. For me, one very poignant image of patriotism was that of Somluck Kamsing, a bantamweight boxer, who won a gold at the Olympics. When he went up to receive the medal, he held up a portrait of the Thai King.
Wow. I cant imagine any Singaporean doing something like that. And even if they do, what will they hold up? The Merlion? LKY?
Who knows? But things change. And people change.
On Patti Smiths first album, she has this line in one of her songs: "Jesus died for someones sin, but not mine." And now shes a devout Christian. All I can say is that LKY suffered for someones money, but its definitely not mine. Who knows what Ill become many years down the road
As we make our way out from West Mall, I reflect on our interview. When we were first looking for seats, I was desperately trying to find one which was sufficiently quiet. The disposable boyband pop blaring from speakers seemed to permeate all corners of the food court, and it was in a way a fitting illustration of what XHo said that "in Singapore, theres just one Singapore way." At the forum space on the ground floor, a giant video screen is playing Stefanie Suns music video, singing this years National Day Song, We Will Get There. A pair of primary school girls just next to us break out, almost reflexively, into muted gestures of the "Fun Dance," that series of steps that Singaporeans will learn for this years National Day Parade. I wonder how much of it will be remembered even three years down the road, just like the Singapore Cheer or even the motions of the Great Singapore Workout.
A few years
back, if someone had posed me the question of whether I would ever leave
Singapore, I would have offered a tentative "no." But just as
Chris has discovered Bangkok, I have been seduced by the charms of Kuala
Lumpur. I know what he means by the importance of dignity, and even humility,
that Asian Value that doesnt seem to crop up in our account books.
I know the soul-deadening effects of The Scowl, to the point where we
have to mount campaigns to tell our citizens to smile. Unconsciously,
I mouth the lyrics to Stefanie Suns song, herself a singer who had
to make it big in Taiwan first before she was ecstatically welcomed back
by her fellow Singaporeans. Yes, Chris, we will get there. Someday, we
will get there.
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