She Dumped Him: The Emotionally Unavailable Artist

I’ve been thinking on and off about the song “We Do Not Belong Together” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and what the musical says about gender expectations, opposite-sex relationships and artistic talent. The only reason I like the song is that when taken in isolation, it is one of the few examples of boundary-setting – Dot honours her own need for clear communication and verbal affection by telling George that he has the agency to Use His Words something to get her to stay. I mean look, I accept that not everyone is comfortable with verbal affection, but I really dislike how Sondheim implies that the talent of the male artist trumps any responsibility to pay attention to his female partner’s emotional needs and communicate. George also has the gall to claim that Dot should have been content with the emotional scraps left over from his work, and that painting her should have been enough to signal her importance to him – riiiight, making her stand in the sun and scolding her whenever she moves is enough to show your love for your partner. (Dot arguably seems to have a better understanding of the creative process, since she knows that being one of his key models doesn’t make her emotionally significant to him as a person. There’s also the question of whether she would have continued being valuable to him as a model as she got older.) Let’s not even go into how most models’ lives receive a fraction of the attention that the men who painted them get.

It is hugely disappointing that every other moment in the musical dilutes the impact of Dot’ decision to get her emotional needs met and dump an unsatisfying partner. Sondheim continues to exalt George’s genius by presenting Dot’s decision to leave him as a bigger source of regret for her than it is for him – she states in multiple songs (“Everybody Loves Louis”) that she’s settling for Loving-But-Boring-and-Kinda-Dumb Baker Dude, because the choice seems to be either that or Perfect-If-Not-For-That-One-Thing Emotionally Unavailable Male Genius. Since the economic precariousness of being an artist’s model back in the day was real, couldn’t Sondheim have made the emotionally present dude is someone engaging in his own way, not just a consolation prize for the Emotionally Unavailable Artistic Genius?? For god’s sake, we even see Dot’s ageing daughter prize their family’s connection with George over, say, the man who actually parented her.

The most infuriating part for me is that the promise of the critique of male selfishness offered by the song “Sunday in the Park with George” went completely unfulfilled, and at the end, Dot is completely reduced to nothing more than a muse for another angsty male artist. Worst still, we’re left with the message that because she is the one who’s in his debt because he “taught her how to see / Notice every tree / Understand the light”, so, y’know, small things having her physical discomfort dismissed when she was modelling for him and all that emotional neglect wasn’t a big deal. The song’s nauseating ending literally has her saying “We have always belonged together!”

Okay so I have many feelings about the idea that cishet men with talent have no responsibilities to anything except their art, and the recent spate of revelations about sexual harassment (not gonna link because there are way too many examples, just google #metoo) and “misconduct” by cishet men in the arts has only intensified my revulsion at narratives that reinforce this trope. That’s basically the logic underpinning all the justifications of how we shouldn’t let the abusive and violating actions of cishet male artists overshadow the importance of their work.

I am not unsympathetic to artists for whom their work is their life, and I would not be willing to sacrifice the minimum time I need for my work for a partner. The solution to that, straight dude artists, is to get together with someone who is fulfilled by the level of attention I can offer, and not take advantage of women’s emotional generosity by getting into a relationship when you can’t be a fully present partner. And for fuck’s sake don’t whinge when your partner decides to stop subsuming her emotional needs to yours and dumps you.


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Letter to IMDA on the proposed Films Act amendments

Submitted this on the dot – definitely not my best writing, and not properly proofread, but I’ve been unwell over the last couple of days, so it is what it is.


Ms. Lee Ee Jia Director (Media Policy)
Info-communications Media Development Authority
(Attn: Ms. Tee Yock Sian)

 Dear Ms. Lee,

              I am writing as a concerned citizen regarding the proposed amendments to the Films Act and IMDA’s public consultation process.

1.      Proposed penalties in Section 21 (Annex pg 37) are applied too broadly.

              According to the proposed amendments:

12. Section 21 of the Films Act is amended —
(a) by deleting subsection (1) and substituting the following subsections:
“(1) A person commits an offence if —

(a) the person —
(i) distributes or publicly exhibits an unclassified film; or
(ii) has in the person’s possession a film that is an unclassified film, with the intention of distributing or publicly exhibiting the film;
(b) the person knows or ought reasonably to have known that, or is reckless as to whether, the film is an unclassified film.

The amendments also go on to state that anyone found guilty of an offence under these subsections are liable to a fine not exceeding $40,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both.

             These amendments are problematic on many counts, the first of which is making the intention of doing something illegal liable to the same penalties as having committed the offence. This is as absurd as making someone who owns a lockpick liable to the same penalties as someone who has used a lockpick to break into a house. Similarly, the addition of the term “is reckless as to” is also something that unfairly expands the range of people liable to be charged for this offence.


2.      Greater transparency regarding rationale for penalties in Section 21.

             I also call on IMDA to give a public statement on the following questions:

  • How did IMDA arrive at $40,000 as the maximum fine under this section?
  • How did IMDA arrive at 6 months as the maximum jail term under this section?
  • How does the distribution or exhibition of an unclassified film merit this fine and jail term?
  • What are the criteria by which IMDA determines the eventual fine and jail term for an offence under this section?
  • How does the nature of any given unclassified film determine the severity of the penalty? For example, under its proposed amendments, would exhibiting a party political film be treated by IMDA as more or less severe than exhibiting a child pornography film?


3.      Amendments permit IMDA overly broad powers of seizure.

              In Section 21 of the existing Films Act (pgs 15-16), IMDA already has substantial powers to enter any place where unclassified films are kept or about to be exhibited. As it stands, the Films Act empowers IMDA to examine the film, and only seize the film and any equipment used if on such examination he has reasonable grounds for believing that an offence under this section has been or is about to be committed”. While the “reasonable grounds” is still a vague term which could be applied over-broadly, the proposed amendments to Section 23 (Annex pg 46) allows IMDA to break and enter with even more impunity, as all it needs is for the IMDA officers to “[have] reason to suspect that the film, advertisement, equipment or material is evidence of an offence under this Act or any of its subsidiary legislation”.

              Furthermore, by expanding the scope of items from the existing Films Act’s “films and equipment” to “any material” or “any other thing”, the proposed amendments allow IMDA complete and total leeway to seize literally anything in the spaces they enter with very little justification – not just “film, advertisement, equipment or material”, but

  • “any document or any other thing”
  • “a disk, tape or other storage device that can be used or associated with the equipment”.

Moreover, IMDA does not need more than “reason to suspect” that a given object is evidence – so long as something “contains information relevant to the investigation”, it can be seized. This makes it easy for IMDA to unjustly and arbitrarily damage the livelihoods and invade the privacy of anyone whose possessions happen to be in that space.


4.      Scrap all existing and proposed conditions for forfeiture of films, advertisement, equipment or materials seized

At first glance, the proposed section 28A may seem better than the current section 21 of the Films Act (pg 16), which states that:

(3) Any film and equipment seized under subsection (2) in respect of which any person has been convicted under this section shall be forfeited and shall be destroyed or otherwise disposed of in such manner as the Minister may direct.

However, we have already established that the proposed amendments expand the range of items IMDA is permitted to seize and require less justification upon which to do so. Furthermore, according to section 28A of the proposed amendments (Annex pg 59):

28A. (2) If —

(a) no prosecution is instituted with regard to any film, advertisement for a film, equipment or material which has been seized under section 23A(1); or
(b) no claim is made for that film, advertisement, equipment or material under section 23A(8),
the film, advertisement, equipment or material item is deemed to be forfeited.

              Both subsections of this proposed amendment should be scrapped, as they expand the government’s power to hold onto objects without being required to prove that they are clearly connected to the commission of an offence. If no prosecution is instituted with regard to the films, equipment and materials seized, it is unjust to forfeit them. Only items used in the commission of offences after conviction should be deemed to be forfeited.

              As for 28A(2)(b), it gives too little time for people to claim seized items. The 48 hours given under section 23A(8) is too little if the people whose items have been seized are dealing with police investigations and/or have been denied access to their devices. Given that the objects seized are highly likely to include communication devices, this clause does not give people sufficient time to make arrangements to claim their seized objects. Moreover, this could lead to scenarios such as people unconnected to the offence having their important items seized and forfeited simply because they happened to be present when IMDA entered.

              Furthermore, this gives IMDA the leeway to impose penalties that go far beyond the aim of preventing or penalising the distribution or public exhibition of unclassified films – it essentially allows the government to forfeit every item they can get hold of regardless of whether an offence has been committed. The government should not have the leeway to keep or dispose of every single object owned by any person, regardless of their involvement in the offence; everyone should be left with the means to continue legal economic and personal activities


5.      Contradictions in statements.

Something which stood out to me upon reading both the 15-page document summarising the amendments and the 92-page document was the contradictions in their statements. On page 8 of the public consultation document, it is stated:

2.21 In keeping with the intent of focusing our regulatory efforts on the distribution and public exhibition of films, MCI/IMDA propose to narrow the classification scope so that only films intended for distribution and public exhibition need to be classified. However, for films containing content that is against the public interest, IMDA will have the power to require any film to be submitted for classification.

              Chong Ja Ian’s submission has already raised questions about the vagueness of terms like “public interest” and “national security”, and how this might lead to arbitrary applications of the law. My questions are somewhat related:

  • How does IMDA determine whether a film that is not distributed or publicly exhibited is against public interest?
  • Why would a film not intended for distribution or public exhibition require classification even if it contains content that IMDA objects to?

I call upon IMDA to be consistent with its assertion that it proposes to narrow the classification scope. Films not intended for distribution or public exhibition should not be liable to being called in for classification.


6.      Appeals deemed to undermine National Security should not be determined solely by the Minister.

              I second the changes called for in Jason SOo’s petition “Say YES to Film Ratings that are transparent, accountable, and fair”. While I understand that it is effective and necessary to cut bureaucratic procedures in certain contexts, the classification of a film should not be treated as requiring the same level of urgency as declaring a state of emergency or defending the country against external attacks.


7.      Public consultation process should be extended and made more accessible.

For those who want to fully engage with the process needed to [grammar/typo – it should be “Those who want to fully engage with the process needed to:]

1.       Read through the following documents:
a.       15-page summary
b.       92-page annex
c.       30-page existing Films Act

2.       Process each document
3.       Cross-reference the documents
4.       Look up legal terminology
5.       Discuss thoughts with those around them / participate in unofficial discussions

               For these proposed amendments, IMDA initially gave 11 days for the public to engage, before extending the consultation process till December 30th. It is still too short a time for people to engage with this legislation while juggling their other professional and domestic commitments. Furthermore, since many people will have made holiday plans long before the release of the proposed amendments, the short consultation period excludes many people. IMDA should also not need public pressure to extend the consultation period to a mere 26 days.

              IMDA should also go beyond the 15-page summary to provide a glossary of the addition of new terms, such as “is reckless as to” and “reason to suspect”. The 15-page summary should also reflect key changes more accurately; there was no mention of the expanded police powers.

               All these documents should also be translated into Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, so as to make them accessible to non-English-speaking Singaporeans.


8.      Conclusion

              In the light of the plethora of issues in both the amendments and the consultation process, IMDA should withhold these proposed amendments and focus on revising their consultation process.

               I am happy for IMDA to make this submission public together with my name. However, I request that IMDA kindly refrain from publishing any of my personal contact details.


Yours sincerely,
Teng Qian Xi


Other individual and group responses I found illuminating:

SG Film Community’s Position Paper

Dr Kevin Y. L. Tan and Dr Ang Peng Hwa on the legal ramifications, explaining in terrifying detail the ways the amendments could be used against us

Ian Chong’s letter

Martyn See’s post

Choo Zheng Xi op-ed: Proposed Films Act amendments: Leave policing to the police

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Working with found text, the climate of fear, and why I’m back

It’s taken a while, but this blog is back, complete with drop-down menus and updated pages linking to my poetry, translation and journalism elsewhere, and selected press (I’ve finally uploaded coverage of They hear salt crystallising, including a review and an article about the Singapore Literature Prize nominees). In the five-odd years since my first post, I haven’t been completely silent – a handful of opinion pieces have been published as Facebook notes – but it feels like time to have a more consolidated platform. For the past few years, Facebook has scratched my itch to express my views on a (semi-)public platform,  and I particularly like being able to conduct conversations at varying levels of privacy, but getting instant gratification like that is basically what made me procrastinate writing  the kind of long-form commentary I’ve wanted to write for years. But it feels like something I can’t put off any longer; perhaps it’s the effect of creeping towards my mid-thirties. I hope this blog will provide the necessary push and the equally necessary space for me to work on what interests me – no deadlines, no restrictions, but still reaching readers in some way.


I’ve been writing poetry since I was fifteen, but this year was the first time I’ve tried writing poetry that engages with a physical space, and I might be hooked. Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in the Singapore Writers’ Festival’s invitation to participate in their Poets Among the Stars event on June 4th, and write something in response to the Science Centre’s Omnimax show, “Cosmic Surfing”. I accepted, albeit with a tinge of arghwhatifican’tcomeupwithanything – I’d only just started collecting bits of text, and wasn’t even sure if anything would ever find its way out as a poem ever again. Notwithstanding that, I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with a space as amazing as the Omni-Theatre, and I guess it unlocked something in me. By the time I got to see a preview of their “Cosmic Surfing” live show in April, I felt that I had to see this through. The visuals was pretty spectacular – we were taken through outer space, moving away from Earth to see constellations, then away from the solar system into the Milky Way, then circling other galaxies, plummeting down black holes (one of the most vertiginous effects), and so on, in a flurry of gorgeous colours (lots of neutral tones and black, which is very much to my taste!). The segments where we were floating among the stars were particularly pretty:

The perfectionist nerd/model student side of me wanted to write something that would explore all these different concepts, but after dutifully mugging up on astronomy, I accepted that I would have to actually narrow things down, since I didn’t have time to let the ideas percolate deeply enough to come up with a nuanced exploration of all of them (see aforementioned model student syndrome; let’s just say I never had issues with minimum page requirements for my college essays). Now that I think about it, the sequence in which my piece developed was slightly different from what I said in Kitaab – I collated all the lines from They hear salt crystallising with images taken from astronomy before I settled on constellations as a conceptual framework. I think the constellation metaphor from “The Evolution of Language” stood out somehow, and the more I read about the history of constellation maps, the more I could see parallels to the ideas explored in the original lines. Humans have used constellations and stars to locate themselves for centuries, yet the stars remain unimaginably (if not immeasurably) distant from us. our relationships with other people are a huge part of how we locate our identities, yet for me, no matter how close or longstanding the relationship is, there’s always something about the other person that we can’t quite engage with, even if we can sense what we can’t access.

Reconfigurations fragment

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First launch, best preface

My first book of poetry, They hear salt crystallising, will be launched with several other books published by firstfruits publications on Saturday 6th November 2010 at the National Museum Salon, from 7.30-10.30pm. More information about the event can be found at the Facebook page for this group launch.

When I was discussing my manuscript with poet and publisher Enoch Ng (there’s an extensive interview with him and Yeo Wei Wei at Full Tilt), he suggested that I get someone to write a preface, and suggested Philip Holden. Philip was really the perfect person for the task – he’s steeped in Singapore literature, has written extensively about postcolonial and gender issues (including a book on W. Somerset Maugham, whose fiction I read far too much of as an adolescent). Just look at his introduction on his NUS staff homepage:

My previous work has been on colonial modernity, autobiography and transnational literatures, and I’ve published a number of articles on Singapore Literature and Culture. I have recently been teaching introductory modules and modules in Singapore Literature and Culture, although my primary interest hasn’t so much been in establishing a Singaporean literary canon as in thinking about how such texts might make us engage more deeply with the society in which we live: my own thought is that questions raised by Singapore writing are best informed by regional and comparative perspectives, rather than simply national ones.

Philip has since become a good friend who is, thank fortune, very aware of the privilege he has in Singapore as a white middle-class male academic, and one of the few people I know who really gets the noxiousness of the kyriarchy. Due to various production issues, this preface ended up being cut from the actual volume, but he has given me permission to publish it here. I feel pretty lucky to have had my work discussed so lucidly, particularly by someone I have great respect for; this combination doesn’t occur that often for most writers, I think.

By Way of Introduction
Philip Holden

In her poem “British Concession,” Teng Qian Xi describes acutely a central paradox of Singapore modernity. As a student at what was then Hwa Chong Junior College, a modern offshoot of Chinese High School, historically one of the most important centres of Chinese learning in Singapore, she entered the elite Humanities Programme. Yet in the programme she did not study Chinese culture but rather took Cambridge University Literature ‘A’ and ‘S’ levels under the tutelage of British expatriate staff whose terms of employment were much superior to their local colleagues. They deepened her understanding of English Literature, and with kind condescension, complimented her on the wonderfully unSingaporean nature of the poetry she began to write.

At first sight, such a situation seems to be a colonial hangover, a remnant of what Martiniquean anticolonial activist Frantz Fanon had characterized as the “unqualified assimilation” of a coloniser’s culture. Yet here the paradoxes begin: the Humanities Programme was not a colonial remnant, but a new programme with specific aims of creating an elite hosted by a relatively new institution–the Junior College–which itself was produced by postcolonial education reforms. And the programme was part of a much larger, and more complex, reworking of culture by the state in postcolonial Singapore. As “Casualties of the Efficient World” testifies, the bilingual policy and the Speak Mandarin Campaign reconfigured Chinese and other cultural identities: the vision of Chinese culture encouraged by the state relegated other Chinese languages (or “dialects”) to obsolescence. At the same time, Singapore’s rapid economic development resulted in an amnesia concerning the complex struggles of the past, and a simplified narrative of national development. Qian Xi’s engagement with the valences of many literary contexts and traditions needs to be seen in this context.

As the poems in They hear salt crystallising reveal, Qian Xi is a political poet, but a poet with a new and versatile politics. Earlier generations of English-language poets in Singapore engaged with the politics of nationalism. The poets at the University of Malaya in Singapore in the 1950s dreamed of a shared Malayan culture, while for two decades after Singapore’s independence 1965 poets faced a choice between a public politics of national pronouncement and a more private concern with aesthetics. From the late 1980s onwards, however, things changed. As a developed country dependent on capital flows, Singapore is caught in a web of relations with the region and beyond. On one level, literary production has become increasingly transnational in scope; on another, it has become possible to explore local, distinctively Singaporean spaces that are relatively unmarked by national concerns. Current Singaporean literary production, of which Qian Xi’s collection is an important example, thus looks both beyond the nation and below, seeking out settings both outside the island’s geographical boundaries, and Singaporean settings which are always already marked by the global.

This is a political poetics, then, but it is a poetics of situations. In Qian Xi’s poetry, the universal signifiers of literary traditions are decomposed and reconfigured. In “three love objects” the work of poets from different continents over two millennia is cut up and interleaved with the writer’s own words. Ekphrastic poems such as “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” and the paired “Two Afterlives of Medusa” reconfigure the paintings to which they refer: Boyle’s air pump figures an attempted suicide, while Medusa’s gaze moves from the petrified heroes of Greek mythology inwards into meditation on appearances, desire, and transgression. Such concern with transformation of literary signifiers is also apparent in the more assertive gender politics of “Caeneus to Caenis: Reminiscences,” and also, more meditatively, in the domestication of the scholar Xu Xian from the story of Madam White Snake, trapped in a Singapore condominium and condemned to weekly rounds of golf.

In other poems that make less obvious intertextual literary reference, the personal and political in engage in complex ways. Poems such as “Truth Swings By the Neck,” “Trees,” and “Rescue” are much more intimate in tone, but are marked by a poetics of metamorphosis, in which the persona or loved ones transform into trees, animals, or other natural objects. Other poems are more public: “On History” memorialises the life of the leftist political leader Lim Chin Siong, following him from his release from prison in 1959 to his later exile in London; “Wrestlers” commences with wry reference to Speakers’ Corner, established in 2000 in Hong Lim Park as a designated place of free speech in Singapore. Yet even these poems shift in register, moving from a political event or policy to its reflection in a private life or lives. In “On History” the celebratory dove released by Lim on being freed from prison returns again in the “fattened wings” of contemporary citizens who “no longer sing at twilight.” “Wrestlers,” ends more ambiguously, moving from Hong Lim Park to “an image of strength” that loses its coherence in mediation: flickering wrestlers seen on television by old men, their “skinfolds” now “like dead petals under the sun.”

Technically, the poems work in two related ways. First, they look obliquely at familiar objects or relationships, and thus defamiliarise them. Most of the poems are conversational in that they are written in the first person, and are often addressed to a third party, someone other than the reader. “Crossings at the Green Man” is exemplifies this. It begins conversationally with a question, recalling the experience of waiting with a friend at a pedestrian crossing on the way to school. Yet it quickly moves, through a revisioning of the image of the green man on the crossing, beyond this immediate situation. The green man becomes the Green Man of the English Middle Ages, whom the speaker then connects with the English poet John Clare, a figure who in turn becomes an icon of a poet who insists on his own particular identity and vision despite social ridicule and mental illness, even after his popularity has waned. And then the poem returns to the situation it has left, filling it with new meanings. The meetings by the green man, we are told, were only temporary, part of a much larger story of a life in which many things remain hidden “behind a wild green coat”: there seems here to be a hint—and it is nothing more– of a public meeting place of conformity and acquiescence that covers over the contours of individual lives. A quotidian meeting is thus seen obliquely, and in invested with a new, troubling, significance.

In a parallel manner, “The End of Every Field” begins with a mother’s words to her daughter, then extends and supplements them. The metaphors of both a kite on a string and a horse on a tethering rope are held in suspension for most of the poem, and united in the image of a scissored umbilical cord. We return to a physical origin that is both a moment of separation and of renewed dependence, as evinced in the image of the “breakable child bones” of an infancy now left behind.

A second way in which the poems are distinctive is in their use of juxtaposition and transposition; two subjects that seem distinct, or indeed opposed, are brought into collision by formal elements of the poem. At times this technique works simply through the interpolation of intertextual elements: quotations from King Lear in “Eye and Tongue” that enter a very different, contemporary, father-daughter relationship, or the interleaving of two different poetic voices in each section of “three love objects.” At others, mythical elements intrude: in “Independence” the Chinese immortal Zhangguo Lao’s habit of riding a donkey backwards contrasts with parental and social expectations placed on “gifted” children, their faces “turned always to the shore” of a future career. Such transposition is precise enough to give aesthetic pleasure, but not fully determining in terms of meaning: the result is an open text which the reader can enter and discover significance of her own. “A Bridge of Birds,” for example, uses the motif of birds flocking together to link together two apparently unrelated events: flag-raising in the morning at school, where the Singapore pledge is recited, and the Milky Way as a “highway of wings” formed by magpies in Chinese mythology, uniting two divided lovers once a year: the result is an unsettling conflux of the mundane and the aspirational, neither of which entirely cancels out the other. “Who Subtitles Fireworks” yokes together Stephen Sondheim’s encyclopedic musical Into the Woods, a bricolage of fairy stories assembled into a new narrative, with contemporary Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore GaGa, which pushes fractured, marginal experiences of Singaporeans who occupy liminal spaces in the built environment to centre stage.

Most readers of Singapore poetry will have encountered Qian Xi’s writing before in fleeting glimpses over the last decade: in the press, anthologies, or online sites such as the2ndrule, Slope, and QLRS. The glimpses we have had have hinted at astonishing sophistication and variety in terms of formal construction, intertextual reference, and engagement with social and political issues in Singapore and beyond. They hear salt crystallising as a collection now offers something additional: the possibility of placing the elements of a body of work in comparison, and the volume is thus very much more than a sum of individual parts. Like the kite string of “The End of Every Field,” Qian Xi’s poems draw us after them, but we do not need to let go: as they pull us out of our own experience into the beautiful discomfort of their various settings, they also cause us to reflect on our own society, the communities we belong to, and above all ourselves.

© Philip Holden 2009

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