In Yeng Pway Ngon’s novels, nobody gets what they want. Through family sagas spanning decades and characters plunged into existential despair, Yeng asks, again and again: How can you live with dignity in a world that forcibly strips you of your ideals and ambition?
He seems most concerned, in particular, with two sets of ideals: those of marriage, and socialism.
In Lonely Face, our male narrator’s marriage is crumbling, and along with it, his entire worldview. At his most bitter, he asks: “How has it come to this? [...] His father did not tell him—no one did—that life would be like this. That marriage would be like this.”
Costume, as its title suggests, is concerned with the opera. Throughout the novel, Yeng’s characters yearn for a glamour associated with life as an opera performer: “At home, he would walk around the living room with a towel round his shoulders, copying the performers striding around the stage, singing passages with utmost earnestness.” The opera comes to stand for a better, less banal, life.
In Unrest, the novel’s four central characters — student activists in 1950s Malaya — are first introduced holding fervent socialist ideals, which they gradually shed as the novel unfolds. One of them, named Daming, comes to embrace capitalism in his adulthood, after becoming a small business-owner. He is the only one to espouse his new beliefs so intensely. And for him, Yeng is especially ruthless in his scorn.
Daming is tragically, comically uncomfortable with himself. The lengths he goes to to explain away his self-contradictions are absurd. To explain the profound dissatisfaction with his life, he theorises at one point: The only possible source of meaning in life, aside from the revolution, is sex. “Were sex and politics linked in this way? Passionate, red-blooded young people could throw themselves into rising up and denouncing others, or else they had crazy sex.” Elsewhere, he turns to Western existentialism to explain his sex drive: “Karl Jaspers wrote that only by relating to other people can we actualise ourselves. [...] Daming’s belief, by contrast, is that his only path to self-actualisation is through sex.”
In numerous ways, Yeng dramatises the idea of a life lived not according to plan. For starters, he deals heavily with memory. All three novels flit between the present-day and the past. And in Yeng’s worlds, the past is felt as a period where a better future is still possible, while the present is almost entirely caught up with the question: Where did things go wrong?
Elsewhere, characters meet again after decades apart with no information about each other. In these moments, the woe of how far their lives have strayed from what they dreamed together is most acutely felt. Towards the close of Unrest, two of the four main characters meet in Hong Kong in their middle age. The last time they met, they were teenagers.
He can see that the woman before him isn’t the innocent girl he knew in Singapore. No, she is now a poised, elegant lady. This is not Singapore of the 1950s, but a luxuriously-appointed hotel in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Behind the middle-aged woman a huge glass window as wide as a cinema screen opens out onto an ocean view, and Hong Kong Island glistens in the darkness.
Yeng is not without fault. Women, for the most part, are described through the lens of his (often bitter) male narrators. In all three novels, women are constantly objectified. In a fit of jealousy, for example, the narrator in Lonely Face writes that he “rode [his wife] all night long.” Even in Unrest, where Yeng makes his most ardent attempt at challenging misogyny in fiction, female characters are never allowed to speak for themselves. Midway through the novel, Yeng interrupts the plot to declare: he doesn’t know how to continue with his main female characters’ story and do her justice. But it is telling that Yeng lurches into metafiction to make his point. If the goal is to portray complex female characters, why not just do that?
At age 72, Yeng is still writing. Costume, published in 2015, is arguably his best work. For one thing, his prose in Costume is at its most stunning:
[H]e’d heard the Japanese had shot quite a few resistance fighters in Bukit Timah, including old people, women and children. Tat Yan hadn’t been sure if Ah Yoke and her family had fled to Hougang or Bukit Timah, and had been filled with anxiety.
“Hougang, we went to Hougang,” Ah Yoke managed to say, weeping as she held her brother’s hand.
His novels serve as an essential Singaporean critique. We are often asked to accept that (modern) life is, by nature, incompatible with any sort of idealism — that ideals are child's play, and something to be shed as one enters adulthood. What Yeng does is place precisely what we are asked to accept into sharp focus, so that the questions can emerge, quietly: Why accept all this as inevitable? Why not ask for more?
by Noella Chye