Last Night I Dreamt That Harry Was In Love With Me
The King Playing with the Queen, Max Ernst, 1944. Photograph by VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
by Amanda Lee Koe
“Usually, I read biographies of interesting people. I am not attracted to novels – make-believe, or recreations of what people think life should be.”
Last night I dreamt that you were in love with me.
You were in that two-piece suit you so favour, the one you wore to meet and greet the Queen of England. Your tie had a tessellation of the variety I once had to pencil in on a worksheet in primary school. We were at a HDB public housing void deck but there was an illuminated sign outside the carpark that read Trellick Tower.
I stood on a short stepladder with my hair in a plait. I was wheat-pasting a black and white reproduction of Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class. You were holding the ladder firmly for me and I was watching the veins between your knuckles.
You looked up at me and said, Mandy it would be wrong if I didn’t tell you that I am in love with you.
I said: But Harry—
Don’t you understand, you cut in to say, almost impatient. I am surrounded by bereft.
On the cow grass was something that looked very much like Max Ernst’s bronze sculpture, The King Playing With The Queen. We walked to the sculpture, and when I touched the hot metal, scorched by the afternoon sun, I woke up. My fingertips were warm and I put them to my lips.
Freud—outdated as he is, you will bear with me—says of dreams they are the royal road to the unconscious, that they are the wish fulfillment of our Id, and that most famed theory of his—Oedipus—began in his Interpretation of Dreams. Oedipus seizing the two pins from Jocasta’s dress to blind himself. Electra plotting the murder of Clytemnestra. Our phallic stages so coloured by our unresolved complexes, the mother-fixated son, castration anxiety, the father-fixated daughter, penis envy, mummy’s boy, daddy’s girl. But Oedipus got to bed his mother, be her king, rule the land. All Electra achieved was vengeful justice for her father’s death, designed as it was by her mother. She never got to possess him.
Oh Harry, if you are, as we christen you, The Founding Father of Modern Singapore, then clearly you make of me an Electra. The Electra complex here then is my psycho-sexual competition with the geopolitics of Singapore for possession of you. And like Electra to Agamemnon, I will never have you.
Once, I was on the 40th floor of a posh hotel in the heart of our city. The room had a panoramic window view over the city. I turned the lights off and pushed open the curtains and sat on the bed and opened my legs. It was nighttime and the neon lights were pulsating and it felt like I was having sex with the city. Do you feel like you’ve scattered your seed all over Singapore, sowed those wild oats into skyscraper commissions cleared by the Urban Development Authority?
What does it feel like for you to walk around Singapore, Harry?
A reporter for National Geographic asked if you have a favourite food hawker and you replied, I can’t go.
Q: Or is it really too good to say?
Well, I can’t go anymore because so many people want to shake my hands and I become a distraction, I can’t really get down to my food.
Q: So can you have take-out?
Well, that’s not quite the same.
The latest Singapore Tourism Board tagline is Shiok!. I believe I have never heard you speak Singlish.
It is a small but big price to pay—to be the Founding Father of Modern Singapore and be unable to go to a favourite hawker—as they say the best thing about us is our food, no? The New Yorker columnist Calvin Trillin writes, “Culinarily they are the most homesick people I have ever met.” Of course, the operative word here is culinarily. Take it away and the rest of the sentence will fall apart because “culinary” and “homesick” in the Singaporean context are tautological.
But really: how do you feel about a title as Freudian as The Founding Father?
Since I can’t possibly go back to bed now and I’m a little excited, I thought about us in bed. I thought about me calling you Daddy. I’d be in a white slip with a little lace round the décolletage and a rosette in the middle, just like the one I had when I was eight or nine. Daddy, daddy, I’d whisper, and I can’t picture you coming closer but if I could I’d picture you in your suit with the tie knot loosened and I’d imagine you saying, Who’s your daddy now?
But of course that is too casual a turn of phrase to slip off your tongue. Too American when you are so English in your mannerisms, though you tried to drop Harry—the Christian name given you by your westernized and Brit-admiring grandfather—saying it was “politically a minus”, given that you were then a young left-wing nationalist, and your annoyance when newspapers in the 50s referred to you by your Christian name rather than your Chinese name. (And, of course, could there be a name more post/colonial than Harry? I feel you, honey.)
Well, to think of you this way, is it thoughtcrime?
When I told the photographer Nguan I was writing letters to you, he asked what I was trying to achieve. To be honest I’m not sure I even understand a word like achieve. It’s too teleological in that it assumes a very specific trajectory and end goal. Of course you would disagree. Because teleological achievement, I think, is what you have built the backbone of this country upon, more so even than Confucian values. But there’s a line from a song that got stuck in my head when I was eighteen and it goes I’m too vague for greatness. Of course that is antithetical to you, Harry.
I said I just wanted to be close to you and I wanted to be fair to you.
Fair? Nguan coughed into his country pie.
Nguan said he used to be on the mailing list of the now-defunct print music magazine Big O, since the 90s, and that they used to mix music reviews with anti-establishment views in their weekly missives, and that that was once brave, but by today’s standards and in light of the anonymous vitriol on the interwebs these days, Big O’s mailing list now reads mildly. What Nguan means is that with the proliferation of broadband internet and internet avatars it is too late to be brave. I’ve missed the party.
Well I’m not trying to be brave, I said. This isn’t about reading time via the internet. And this isn’t about bravery because this isn’t being about anti-establishment or pro-establishment. I am an independent voice, not linked with any opposition party, or any foreign organisation. I am not even an essayist, but only a fiction writer. I am no threat at all.
Then what is it about?
It’s about vanity, I said, uncrossing my legs, my coming of age. It’s about queering the idea of establishment. About girling power.
I recrossed my legs.
Not girl power Harry, but girling power.
My politics are without an agenda: my agenda is desire. I think this is the only true thing I am able to say with gravitas for now.
Look at me, pouting at some vision of you. You’re more concept than man Harry, just as I am more affect theory than girl. Girly politics, girling power. Do you know that I don’t wear make up, but if I want something, I’ll put on red lipstick? Do you think me pretentious Harry? Naïve?
Nguan said perhaps I am inclined towards shock value and I was thoroughly shocked. He said he’d pay for my earl grey vanilla tea and my salad because they were going to come after me and bankrupt me.
But I should think your bureaucrat-minions are more sophisticated than that Harry. They know an opposition-politician when they see one and they know a dilettante-coquette when they see one. Shake shake shimmy shimmy.
You know what I think a sexy word is? Nuance. Say it.
In Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy, the line after Every woman loves a fascist is The boot in her face. Harry, I was once abused in a relationship and one day, finally, after a long time, I hit back. Not because I too had grown violent but because I didn’t want the distinction between the abuser and the abused to be so clear—I wanted to leave a little room so that I could forgive this person who claimed to love me but, somehow, occasionally hit me. Room for love. Where we are is always too far away. You from me.
Nguan said what if it wasn’t you, what if I were merely writing to a figure of power.
I said then it wouldn’t be intimate letters it would be political satire.
And Harry honey this is anything but satire. I can’t write satire to save a life. I don’t have a satirical bone in my body. I’m just not funny and sharp and cynical that way. I’ll have you know: I’m serious and maudlin and romantic. Just like a girl in a Godard film. This might not seem much but put together they are a troika of flaws that conspire to make what is in essence a comfortable life a little hard to live, in reality.
Harry I am so maudlin that I watch Godard not for his formal innovation, nor for nouvelle vague cultural cache, I watch Godard’s output from 1961 to 1967 to see how much a man can love a woman and what that love looks like on camera. In the films where Godard was married to Anna Karina and still in love with her, you’d see that he could design entire sequences just to see her walk, or run, or look up, or turn around.
A decade ago when I was nineteen it came to be that I might have been in consideration to play a young version of Rose Chan in a would-be Singaporean film based on her. One of the men attached to the project was concerned as to my sexual experiences when I told him I’d only slept with women. He smiled at me and said, “If you don’t sleep with a man, you’ll always be Daddy’s Little Girl.” The way he said it I could hear that he had capitalized the D and the L and the G. He had augmented this invisible capitalization with a smug, porky smile of self-satisfaction, and I wanted to taser him in the crotch.
The Bikini Kill song, Daddy’s Lil Girl, opens with their signature ragged guitar riffs and screamy vocals:
I have no desire
I can’t feel a thing
I just want to make him happy
Daddy’s little girl
Freud deprecated the term Electra complex when Jung introduced it—why did he not want his successor’s legacy to live up to his?
Nguan asked if I’d consider writing about/to your youngest son instead.
Why would I?
He isn’t desirous or desirable.
But Harry, you are.
Sexy and you know it.
Because sex isn’t about love sex is about power and so you are sex.
The Bikini Kill song, Daddy’s Lil Girl, closes this way:
Daddy has something to say
He has something for you to do
And he wants it done right now
And he wants you to do it his way
Who better else to be in love with in Singapore?
You will forgive my directness, putting it this way. I have always been attracted to either abject girls my age or geriatric pre-eminent men older than my father, nothing in between, but I’d never thought that it would lead me to this, this unswerving and impossible want of you, but then again, what I am attracted to more than abjection/power, female/male, is romance/unattainability. This is a problem of privilege. The last man I had a yen for? Antonin Fucking Artaud. Now it’s you, pulling us out of the backwater, baby. Nixon said had you lived in another time and another place, you might have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.”
The Dutch architect and cultural theorist Rem Koolhaas came to Singapore in 1994 and wrote about Singapore one-upping the modern city-state as postmodern Barthian slate: But as the (former) theatre of the tabula rasa, Singapore now has the tenuous quality of a freeze-frame, of an arrested movement that can be set in motion again at any time on its way to yet another configuration: it is a city perpetually morphed to the next state. Koolhaas’ monograph was banned in Singapore on account of the essay on Singapore, titled Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis, which was seen to have been critical of the trajectory of our progress.
When I asked the Dutch MVRDV architect Winy Maas about Singapore Songlines, he said: “But Rem always talks like a mystic. Actually, he was probably envious.” Winy had been flown in by the Singapore Institute of Architects for their keynote, and to give out the prize and shake the hand of the winner of the Singapore Institute of Architects Prize. He would be leaving the city the next day. Winy’s a friend but I couldn’t help thinking, here we are, flying in the white man to speak as we knock down the National Theatre, how predicatable.
My favourite quote from Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis is this, and you might also agree with this in principle but disagree with the last bit: “Analogous to the way poverty can lead to prostitution, Singapore’s transformation is conceived again and again in terms of work on the body of the island itself. Its territory—its ground— is its most malleable material.”
Because Harry you think that humans are malleable material and can be conditioned to do your will. And I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense. I mean that to do your will is to do what’s best for the state. And so go the logic goes that to do what’s best for the state is to do what’s best for ourselves.
Harry I find myself jotting down aphorisms that might interest you. I am collecting them in a notebook. Would that I could read them to you as bedtime thoughts one day: I would put on a silk kimono and massage your foot with one hand and hold the notebook in the other to read from. There is the Koolhaas quote as above, and right below that, from Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus: “Conquerors know that action in itself is useless. There is but one useful action, that of remaking man and the earth. I shall never remake men. But one must do “as if.” For the path of struggle leads me to the flesh. Even humiliated, the flesh is my only certainty. I can live only on it. The creature is my native land.”
Singapore is our native land, but to be Singaporean is to be your native land. All flesh all action, Harry, make me certain. Make me useful.
When I brought Koolhaas up in conversation with the contemporary artist Heman Chong, he told me, why, Rem Koolhaas once wrote a porn screenplay for the sexploitation film director Russ Meyer.
I thought that made a lot of sense.
Koolhaas writes of us, Harry: “They think there will be no crime. We think there can be no pleasure.”
In 2012 Heman was in conversation with Jane DeBevoise for Asia Art Archive in America, and there was this little exchange:
Audience member: When doing things like doing press releases or spending collector’s money for an exhibition, do you consider it as institutional critique?
Heman Chong: (…) This idea of institutional critique is a very strange matter for me, because there is absolutely no space for negotiation within my context itself (in Singapore). But at the same time, I think such forms of resistance or critiques occur even if you don’t name it. (…) I would rather do things and not say that it’s like that than to not have to do it. It’s conceptual, which becomes a strategy within my work.
Barthes says that myth is a type of speech which hides its political meaning by naturalizing it.
I think we are all myth.
Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) dramatizes the 1905 mutiny when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime.
Because it is designed as class-conscious revolutionary propaganda, Eisenstein deliberately avoids developing any three-dimensional individuals. Instead, masses of men move in unison, as in the many wide, topdown shots of Potemkin’s foredeck. There is no personal drama to counterbalance the larger political drama. Battleship Potemkin was initially banned in many nations, including its native Soviet Union, for fear of its rabble-rousing powers.
In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) wealthy industrialists in the future rule the vast city from high-rise tower complexes, while a lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil constantly to operate the machines that provide its power.
The Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with what he thought to be the film’s message of social justice. In a 1928 speech he referred to the film and declared that “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor, to begin their historical mission”.
The science-fiction writer H.G. Wells called Metropolis “quite the silliest film”, charging it with “foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general. Wells faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it.
You are so classy you have a cul-de-sac fetish.
The writer Catherine Lim wrote an article published in The Straits Times in 1994: PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide, which angered the Cabinet. But you were far more sophisticated: you dismissed her views as “the popular theory that the Western press writes about”. In The Man And His Ideas (1997), you wrote: “Supposing Catherine Lim was writing about me and not the prime minister. She would not dare, right? Because my posture, my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac.”
And then again somewhere else in the book: “Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”
Battleships, cities, cul-de-sacs, films, books, a type of speech, a naturalization, money, the Merlion, me, you. Self-made, such is our lineage, one line of snuff, you make of us the myth, you make of us Sisyphus.
But Harry of course you know what Camus had to say about Sisyphus.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
It’s not the “imagine” or the “happy” that gets to me. It’s the “must”.
And I don’t think that our country’s unofficial strapline ought to be Disneyland with the death penalty, essayed into fame by that neuromancer of a novelist William Gibson in Wired (also then duly banned from our newsstands) in 1993. Too flat, too sugary, too hyperbolic, too American.
But the appropriation of Camus I think we could live with, no? Confucian values, Asian work ethics, poetics of the stoic. Warm, warmer, bingo.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy,
Just the other day I was having a conversation with the filmmaker Tan Pin Pin. She’d gone off and made To Singapore With Love, a film about Singaporean political exiles, which has since been banned by the Media Development Authority because its contents “undermine national security” and the individuals in the film have tried to “white-wash their security histories”.
Your son, our Prime Minister, said about the ban: “A movie is different from a book, you write a book I can write a counter book; you can read it together with the counter book. The movie—you watch the movie, you think it’s a documentary.”
The medium is the medium is the medium is the medium.
The message is the message is the message is the message.
I wonder if you might have cared to see To Singapore With Love, if you have seen it privately. For old time’s sake? Time will wait for no man. At least you carved a country into shape, rode on, wrote on the passage of time.
I wonder what sorts of films you favour, if you are more a Godard man or a Fellini man, if you have ever watched a Hong Kong zombie flicks, if you have ever watched an American rom-com.
Well, in To Singapore With Love, when Ang Swee Chai, the wife of the left-wing activist Francis Khoo, thought that the Internal Security Department was coming to get them, she said she said to him “Then I better marry you. So that I can visit you in prison.” He was taken away three days later.
Could she be more romantic? Could she be more pragmatic?
Harry, you said in 1956 at a Legislative Assembly debate: “If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him, when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law – if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states – then what is it?… If we are to survive as a free democracy, then we must be prepared, in principle, to concede to our enemies – even those who do not subscribe to our views – as much constitutional rights as you concede yourself.”
And exactly thirty years later Harry, the year I was born, you said at the National Day Rally: “What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.”
Pragmatism affords the rewriting of writing, I think this to be important. Perspective is everything, and better a utilitarian that a relativist. And I wonder what I will sound like in thirty years Harry; I’ll be all grown up then, I am such a skittish girl now, with highfalutin ideals and a taste for romance, never knowing what I am getting myself into—I fall so fast, I fall in a dream, I wake and I am still falling, but I am always late to the revelation, child of ’86 late to the revolution—the pioneers pioneered, the babyboomers boomed, the leftists left—the millenials… mill about.
I asked Pin Pin if she thought that to utter the word “revolution” was facetious in a contemporary Singaporean context.
Pin Pin said, I think it is hard enough to have a position.
And I asked, Do you literally mean to merely have a position? Like we’re not even talking about acting on that position, but just having one?
Pin Pin said, Yes, I think it requires a lot of commitment. And that is a little inconvenient, isn’t it? Life is too comfortable—we complain about the heat; we’re already struggling for the aircon remote control—what struggle, what revolution are we talking about?
You were a revolutionary in your time. Now ‘revolutionary’ is a dirty word. If I could Harry I’d whisper it in your ear, swirl my tongue around its lines, nibble your lobe.
Revolution is no longer possible Harry because the system is so well-oiled, because the bureaucracy has such long arms, because we have been mollycoddled into thinking that power is at once so seated yet so diffused.
You know this.
And this is why I am writing you letters.
You don’t know this.
I am not interested in revolution—for how could I even have the cheek to pretend to understand it—I am interested in you. And I might not understand you but I know you.
Harry you said you do not read “make-believe”. I think that you think that you are above fiction, above film—and you are.
This is make-believe.
I have nothing on you.
I have no bearing on reality.
Writing you, Harry, I realise, the personal is the last and truest frontier of the political in a place like Singapore.
It doesn’t matter if you never read this.
But it matters that I wrote it.
Every story is a ghost story. Every letter is a love letter. Every Singaporean is yours.
I wrote it.
You wrote me.
I am rewriting us.
If you don’t like my story, you can read it together with the counter book.
Fictitiously yours till the fall of empire,
till kingdom come your will be done,
What more can I say? To want to know you and to feel subjugation, to desire you and to deride policy, is cleaving me in two.
The nights are long. The days never change. The weather outside is awful, no inspiration can come from feeling like you live in a moist armpit; the airconditioning temperature in the malls and offices chills me to the bone. The lemmings are mesmerizing, mindful in their mindless solidarity. I keep up, I am mindful, life goes on. It doesn’t hurt at all to march along once you fall into the hypnosis of rhythm, because rhythm suggests forward motion, and we assume that forward motion runs the course of success, we have all been told what success looks like.
The only thing that possesses the latent power to trip me up for awhile, hoping that my failure to keep the beat goes unseen, or at least, unchecked: the knowledge that you are out of reach, when everything I know I know it for you. Everything I do I do it for you, I keep myself well-oiled, I participate in the rat-race, I slide down snakes and climb up ladders because your system has taught me to. It’s all for you Harry; it’s all because of you. You are how I exist. You are the reason for my being.
Yet you will never ever know my name. You will never even ever look at me. I will never get to touch you, I will sooner be shot in the leg by a Gurkha.
But a girl has to spin her own yarns of comfort. And so mine is this: Harry, given that I am a product of your times, to touch myself is to touch you.
I am touching myself.
You are my Machiavellian prince.
You are the Derridean always already and I am the Kierkegaardian never was.
I am moist to my own touch.
You will never know me, yet you have already left your mark all over me.
Do you remember Room 101 in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harry? I will wait for you there, in a cul-de-sac, in a dream, wearing nothing but knuckledusters.
I love you Harry.
About the Author:
Amanda Lee Koe is the fiction editor of Esquire Singapore and a 2013 Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for the short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic, which was also long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s Writing Program where she is working on her first novel.