Diaspora, Q&A

Singapore with a Republican Accent5 min read

Rebecca Choong Wilkins interviews Jannis Jizhou Chen about the Sinophonic voice

Jannis Jizhou Chen was born in Chengdu and left China in his teens. Since then he has sojourned in Singapore, Germany and the United States. His publishing debut is a collection of short stories in Chinese, The Stories of Eng Watt Street (永發街事), released in January. Rebecca Choong Wilkins sat down with him as part of her Diaspora column for the China Channel to talk about the controversies of the Sinophonic voice, in all of its varieties.

Can you tell me about your debut work?

It is a collection of 12 short stories taking place in Singapore on Eng Watt Street. I had lived there for six years and got to know many lovely neighbors. I started writing some of the stories while there, and turned many of my dear neighbors into fictional characters. Each story focuses on one household, but when read together, they form certain connections with each other.

Do you write yourself into the stories?

I am everywhere in the book, yet I am nowhere. I have broken myself up, splintered myself into hundreds and thousands of fragments, and reshuffled the pieces before reassembling them into these fictional characters. It is a form of ventriloquism. There are tiny pieces of me in the characters, as well as in the plants and objects which appear in the book.

How did you approach voicing Singaporean stories in Chinese and the broader multilingual context of Malay, Tamil, English and Singlish?

I tried doing this in the early stories, then I realized that I was forcing myself. The language that I hold most dear, in terms of writing, is Chinese. If I force myself to portray multilingualism, then it is really imposing the Sinophone on myself. So I eventually gave it up. I just want to write good stories, not stories that make everyone feel represented or happy.

I didn’t think about readers when I wrote Eng Watt Street. Regarding writing Singaporeans in Chinese, I also talked about this at the end of my book: I was very afraid of writing at the beginning because none of my characters talk or behave like a real Singaporeans. One of my close Singaporean friends, who is now a literature professor, asked me how come the characters all speak with a Republican-era accent? Well, what is real Singapore? And who is a real Singaporean? It’s like asking what is a really British or Chinese. There is nothing stable in these identity constructions.

I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with speaking with this accent. But I can understand why people feel uncomfortable, because it might be a sign of disrespect if I don’t adhere to the basic “fact”: people in Singapore don’t speak like my characters. They are uncomfortable because they feel I have claimed their “stories” and am not creating a “truthful portrayal” of Singapore.

How does your work explore exile?

I didn’t intentionally explore the notion of exile, but after writing, in hindsight, the theme might have emerged by itself. I envy writers who grew up in one culture and got solid training in that cultural background. They can comfortably claim that cultural nativity, but I can’t. If my characters don’t move, they are not even characters, they are nothing. And in the attempt to try to weave my personal experience into these stories, they also naturally move around, because I have travelled a lot, just like many young Chinese.

In “real life,” I have no home. In literature, I am free to construct as many homes as I want. What I am trying to do unconsciously, and only in hindsight, is to collapse the myth of nativity, both in terms of language and country.

How does the Sinophone play out in the stories?

This is a tricky question, because I have already been attacked by “critics” on Douban for using an academic framework to appeal to a Sinophone fad. The Sinophone is not and never was some fancy theory, it is lived life. If my wandering, my journey, my not-being-able-to-settle-down, all happen to fit into this Sinophone framework, be that as it may, but it is people’s lives, hundreds and thousands of people like me, who give rise to the Sinophone, not the other way round.

I am not Singaporean, and I do not pretend to be. Nor do I claim that my description of Singapore is even “accurate.” Perhaps that is why none of my characters are true-blue Singaporean, in the sense that some are first generation immigrants, some have sojourned overseas outside of Singapore, and some have even emigrated. The characters move between countries, not because I want to make them move, but because people do. And this what I have observed in my neighbors.

I don’t think such hostility is targeted at the themes of my stories, but at the “image” of the Sinophone which is wrongly associated with international mobility, bourgeois privileges and so on. That gets to people. And to be frank, I am not certain how the Sinophone is portrayed in mainland China. I only know that you cannot talk about it, right? ∎

Jannis Jizhou Chen,永發街事 (Linking Publishing, January 2019). Available from ReadMoo, books.com.tw, and Rakuten Kobo.
This column was made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon. Header: Reproduced with thanks to www.commonwanderer.com. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Choong Wilkins

Rebecca Choong Wilkins is a writer who completed her Master’s in East Asian Studies at Harvard. She grew up between London and Southeast Asia, and her research explores Sinitic languages and pluralistic Chinese influence beyond the mainland.