It’s a Thursday afternoon, the eve of National Day. I meet X’Ho at his pad in the western part of Singapore; X’Ho — the deejay-sometime frontman of Zircon Lounge-Illustrated Man-music-critic-writer. In his living room, CDs are stacked wall-to-wall. There are photos of Thai boxers, over-exposed (light-wise, not anatomy-wise) portraits of tattoos. Amber beaded curtains frame his kitchen window like a souvenir from a Saigon bar. How do you interview someone like X’Ho, whose resume would always threaten to outsize the article you’d be writing?

 

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 X’Ho 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 X’Ho’s. There isn’t 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. X’Ho the writer is as close you can get to X’Ho 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 you’re publishing soon.

It’s called Attack Of The SM Space Encroachers.

Hmmm… SM?

Yes, SM, short for Sng Muay, which is Hokkien for sour grapes.

Of course. Which brings to mind Shahnon Ahmad’s book called SHIT. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but Shahnon’s this Malaysian Literature Laureate who’s 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 "Mummy’s Vagina." Shahnon’s an obviously political, if not scatological, writer. How would you describe your own writing?

I’m not a "writer-writer." I’m from the school of Puke Journalism — that ugly flush of the toilet, retching everything out in a bad taste kind of way. There’s this writer called Julie Burchill, who’s 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, I’d describe it as very politically incorrect. That’s the phrase that sums up all of me.

You mentioned Julie Burchill — who else are your models?

Well, I’ve rediscovered my John Waters roots. He’s like some kind of mentor to another favourite of mine, the filmmaker Bruce la Bruce. As you’d know, retching and vomiting is a big metaphor in John Waters films. In other words, I think I’m 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 I’m 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 X’Ho-Files (X’Ho’s monthly column in BigO magazine) went into full bloom. My first observation was that Singaporeans are just so ****ing ugly. And I’m not just talking physically — about the bubblegum Ah Beng, Ah Lian subculture or the garish habits of those who’ve gone through fashion revolutions after they’ve spent two weeks in Harajuku. The ugliness I’m talking about is this manifestation of their frustrated aura. It’s a big cry for help. I’m interested in exploring what their behaviour is all about, and why they are what they are. They’re so unique, these Singaporean heartlanders, I don’t think any other country displays this kind of behaviour. And it’s not even an urban phenomenon, it’s just a Singaporean thing.

What is this behaviour, exactly?

It’s this sneaky desire to get back at the system. In however and whatever way they can. It comes out in the car scratching phenomenon, it’s mean and furtive, it’s something that explodes when everything is kept under the carpet. That’s why in Singapore we don’t 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. Don’t come into contact with these plebians/debris/mere mortals. Singaporeans wear this ugliness on their faces, and it’s expressed in the form of The Scowl. Why do you think everyone in Singapore seems to be scowling?

Because they’re… not happy?

Yes, and it goes down from one generation to another. The young inherit this unhappiness from their parents. But curiously, I don’t feel it as much among the Malays. They don’t scowl. Singapore is one of those unique places where the minority doesn’t scowl, it’s 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 you’re 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 you’re too sensitive you’ll do what Bruce la Bruce does in that movie Hustler White: he’s 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 let’s get back to something you’ve said earlier. I don’t know whether it’s a bit elitist to say that heartlanders are uglier Singaporeans than the ones you find in the… like what you’ve said, District 9, District 10 areas… I mean, we’ve 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 you’re rich, you can probably insulate yourself from these kinds of behaviour. Salespeople will suck up to you. When you’re rich, there’s no need to share space, interact with heartlanders. If you ever visit the heartlands, it’ll be by sheer choice, a quaint destination, you’re 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 can’t articulate this resentment very easily, so it comes out in all these berserk and anti-social gestures.

I’ve always been struck by how as Singaporeans, we’ve managed to become so vain about our own ugliness.

When I’m here in Singapore I’m perfectly fine. But the problem begins when I transplant myself to another place, like Thailand. When I’m 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 I’m home.

Let’s get back to the book now. How would you say this is different from your ‘Skew Me, You Rebel Meh?

I think this one’s a lot more focused. And angrier. There’re 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 you’ve managed to co-opt the State in your writing. What I mean is that you’re 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 there’s always a tone of menace in the way you do it and, if read ironically, you’re actually more critical than if you were to just stick a dissident label on yourself and rail against the system.

I think that’s 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 I’m very aware that I’m 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 it’s not an effectual voice.

It’s not, but it’s 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 State’s ideal. I see their idealism.

Wait, hold on, I can’t read you here. Are you being ironic?

No, it’s 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 we’ve given over to the State. I want to ask at what cost did we achieve what we have now? I’m 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 it’s killed the human spirit. We’ve 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 that’s like a kind of vermin candy that’s 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 it’s more than that. We don’t have gum being stuck in public places anymore, but there’s something else now that sticks to us. A sense of timidity, of surrender, of giving way to their arguments even when intuitively we feel there’s something wrong in what they’re 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?

There was 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 X’Ho-Files. It was catharsis for me.


I know also that another form of therapy for you is travelling. Tell me about your favourite city, Bangkok.

I’m way past my visit period! It’s 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 I’m 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. There’s 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, there’s 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 you’ve taken their freedoms away from them, and they start becoming calculative about everything. There’s this ugly phrase going around which I absolutely hate, it’s "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. It’s a win-win situation."

(Laughs) So you’re 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 he’s a patriot, I don’t 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 let’s just be a bit critical here. I’ll 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. I’m just getting myself ready, and giving myself a flexible time frame. Things will happen when it happens. It’ll be a gradual transition, a renunciation of the urban lifestyle. And move towards being a true Buddhist. I’ll 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, I’d just like to ask what you’d 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 can’t 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 Smith’s first album, she has this line in one of her songs: "Jesus died for someone’s sin, but not mine." And now she’s a devout Christian. All I can say is that LKY suffered for someone’s money, but it’s definitely not mine. Who knows what I’ll 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 X’Ho said that "in Singapore, there’s just one Singapore way." At the forum space on the ground floor, a giant video screen is playing Stefanie Sun’s music video, singing this year’s 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 year’s 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 doesn’t 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 Sun’s 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.

Note: The above interview was published in BigO #202 (October 2002).
Click here to order a copy of the issue (S$4.80). Overseas readers can email
mybigo@bigozine.com for rates.

Click here to order X'Ho's Attack Of The S.M. Space Encroachers.

 


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