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Daren Shiau: Heartland

This novel might be described as Singapore’s teenage rebel novel but, if you are expecting sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, you will be sorely disappointed. One character – Eugene – does flirt with drugs, we get – shock! horror! – an oblique reference to oral sex and Joshua does play in a band but the rest is (very mild) teen angst. Wing Seng Foo is our hero. The period is the mid-1990s. He is not very well off, as his father died when he was young (though one of the plot threads concerns and elucidates this issue). He lives with his mother who struggles to support him and send him to school. He likes and does well in literature but likes less and does less well in other subjects. This will be reflected in his A level results, which will be announced later on. Like many of his generation, both in Singapore and as reflected in any number of teen angst novels from all over the world he never really though about his future. Indeed, not only does he not think about his future, he thinks little about his past. There are numerous references to this, such as his ability to recognise W B Yeats, but not the Chinese poets, or his ignorance of the past of his city (Shiau gives us a potted history of Singapore in several chapters scattered throughout the book) or his family (key for the Chinese).

Much of the book is about his romantic relationships. He clearly is interested in Audrey but treats her just as another friend. She maintains that she does not want a boyfriend but is obviously keen on him. This non-relationship will carry on throughout the book. He has two main romantic relationships. The first is Chloe, the environmentalist from a better family than his. They do not last long. The second is with May, sister of his friend Yong, which has a few rocky moments, such as when he orders beef at May’s grandmother’s birthday celebration. The grandmother is a Buddhist for whom meat-eating is anathema. The other key theme of the book is his national service. He registers at the beginning of the book – no draft-dodging here – and serves his time, which is fairly conventional. There is the usual tough sergeant and the arduous drills. When he gets his A Level results, he is not good enough for officer training but is good enough for NCO training and ends up a sergeant. The fairly low-key questions are will he stay with May or go to Audrey and what will he do for a living. They are only partially answered.

Though they talk of rebellion, Wing and his friends do not even vaguely approach the rebellion of the standard Western teen angst novels. Their culture and tradition would not tolerate it. Wing questions certain things but not too deeply. However, he is not nihilistic but, rather, mildly indifferent. While Sham is discovering the Internet – chat rooms and online porn, Eugene is discovering drugs, Joshua Western pop music (but nothing too outrageous) and Chloe is discovering shopping. Wing does not know what he is looking for nor where he has come from. Even his mother seems reconciled with the changes she must face but Wing is left unsure. But it certainly isn’t rebellion as we know it in the West.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by the SNP Editions