Indelible City by Chew Yi Wei / Marshall Cavendish International / 2018 / 9789814794251
/ 112 pages
Chew Yi Wei’s book Indelible City begins with a map. It is haphazardly drawn and populated by pillows which reside in districts like “Coaster Cottages.” This is a land called “Singa-poo,” a country imagined by an eight-year-old Chew and inspired by her native Singapore: ”The map was a conflation of my memories, my desires, my imaginings, and my hope – a hope that I would, one day, get to walk into that map.” This you could call cartography as a creative act; Singapoo’s purpose isn’t to accurately represent a real time or place, but an exercise in imagination.
Yet in cartography there is a competing impulse: to represent a time and place with maxi-mum accuracy. Jorge Luis Borges wrote about this drive taken to an extreme in “On the Exactitude of Science.” In this story, imperial cartographers create larger and more precise maps, until one matches the scale of the empire itself. But their pursuit is doomed to fail. Subsequent generations abandon the map, and its tattered fragments are strewn across the empire. If anything, the cartographers succeed only in projecting their will onto the territory, and in doing so they alter the landscape they sought to faithfully represent.
Is the goal of cartography creation or cataloguing? How about when what we are trying to map is not the present but the past – the unstable territory of memory?
Chew wrestles with these questions throughout Indelible City, her first collection of essays. Drawing on her life lived in Singapore, a city whose national character and landscape has undergone a rapid transformation since becoming a sovereign state in 1965, Chew grounds her exploration of the universal in the particular. Each essay features an object or place, which serves as the nucleus around which her reflections form: the bamboo plant where an olive-backed sunbird builds its nest; the Lamppost of Tanglin Halt where it is said the ghosts of suicides reside; the rooftop of her apartment building which served as her personal refuge through her adolescent years. Many of these essays depart from the lighthearted play that characterized the “Singapoo” prologue in favor of a somewhat fevered search for the perfect representation that is more reminiscent of Borges’s imperial cartographers.
For instance, in the essay on her rooftop hideaway, “Room Without a Roof,” Chew Yi Wei’s apartment building is razed to make room for a new property development. At essay’s end, Chew ruminates on urbanization as a kind of death, and how when a building is destroyed, the ability to recall the memories created there is forever compromised: “that eternally lost but indelible place in this city that can only be justifiably remembered by writing it into re-existence, by prosaic confabulations.”
This is the central tension of the book. Accelerated by modern forces, the collective and personal past slides into oblivion, and though the writer can partially reconstruct a place or memory, she can only do so by replacing what is lost to time with her own falsifications. The perfect representation is forever out of reach.
Chew Yi Wei’s frustration with this fact reaches its height in the essay “Going Back to Emerald Hill”. Chew returns to the neighborhood of her student days to chronicle what has changed and what has remained the same: the old antique shops are still there; though, regrettably, the grass field lovingly called “the cabbage patch” has been replaced with astroturf. Narration of the sights and smells of the trip are interspersed with memories of past lessons, meals, and games. Chew finds herself in front of the gate watching children playing basketball in the schoolyard:
“Palimpsests are all I am left with now, and when I see the place that was once almost my second home being used by complete strangers, I am seized with an unhealthy combination of envy and annoyance. Their present mocks my past, which I can now only experience as a trace, an apparition that is frustratingly so real and so impossible.”
Palimpsests, manuscripts in which the original text has been scraped off and written over, is an apt metaphor. Writing, like memory, is unsatisfying in so far as each recording overwrites, smudges, consolidates. Each rewriting does a kind of violence to the exactitude of the past, and covers over previous writings. Though the trace of an unmediated past experience pulses underneath the text, the writer knows that her borrowed words reaching back fail in some vital, visceral way to recapture the moment. At the same time, however, it’s clear that the act of writing is not simply self-flagellation; rather, by tracing the past, Chew often arrives at a fuller understanding of her relationship to experiences, places, and people.
The most thrilling part of the book is to watch Chew Yi Wei work through this tension so candidly: on the one hand the inability of writing to capture the past with the level of fidelity she desires; on the other hand, the fact that writing is the way for her to process what has happened. In this way, Indelible City is a book about memory, but it also a book about writing, and how the two are intertwined.
The closing essay completes the book’s narrative arc by returning the reader to the theme of maps:
“Here, I am a native who redraws the lines that map my city. With each new interaction of old and new memories, the map lines shift, the places change again as they stay the same again. Lines fade, get bolder simultaneously. In this city, I am split into multiple histories and geographies, my body blends into time and space. In this city, the past layers over and under the present, and I am transported back into a patina of other places, still existing, always fading, but never disappearing.”
Mapmaking is again an act of creation, though this time it is invoked not as a symbol of youthful imagination but as a potentiality for self-overcoming. Chew’s hope to construct a perfect representation of the past, which dominates the middle essays, is replaced with a willingness to embrace a conception of the self that is permeable to the flow of time. The belief in a single “real” narrative gives way to a comfortableness with multiplicities. The unreliability of memory – and of writing – is no longer an obstacle to overcome, but a site for creating the self.