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Literary Arts

Pocket Cities in Singapore’s Speculative Fiction

Tales of resistance, escape and revelation


Published: 24 Apr 2023

By: Olivia Ho

Time taken : ~10mins

In Neon Yang’s short story Pocket Cities, a writer leaving Singapore for an overseas residency looks out of the plane window and sees her island nation writ small. On a whim, she reaches out and plucks this miniaturised Singapore out of the sea. It fits in her palm. It’s too late to put it back. She pockets the city.

For the inhabitants of Singapore who confront on a daily basis the overwhelming nature of urban living—the heat, the bureaucracy, the endless contestation for space—what a fantasy it must be to rise above it all, to hold one’s tiny, teeming city in one’s hand. There is enchantment to be found in the miniature. In 2021, The Arts House’s literary festival Textures chose as its theme The Bottled City; it filled a travelling library truck with tiny artworks inspired by local literature. Books are a “uniquely portable magic”, to quote Stephen King. Not for nothing is the tagline of indie publisher Epigram Books, “Hold Singapore in your hands”.

A miniature commissioned by Jason Wee for Textures 2021: The Bottled City, created by Lulo Paper Studio, inspired by Liyana Dhamirah's memoir <em>Homeless</em>. Credit: Arts House Limited

The urban speculative fiction of Singapore contains pocket cities and cities full of pockets. Here is Singapore scaled up or down, big picture or close-up, from a height or beneath the surface, microcosmic or magnified. In a land-scarce city, there is space to be found in the folds between the real and the imagined—if you know the right gaps to slip into. 

In these spaces, unmoored from the order of realism, one has the freedom to imagine new possibilities, explore alternate realities, engage with different ways of seeing the city. The narrator of Pocket Cities is inspired by her miniature city to write stories; it is a compact talisman of her love for Singapore, in a way that might not be possible were she the tiny one caught in its coils. There is much you can do with a pocket city: map it, tend it, hold it up to the light. Maybe even crush it.

A pocket guide

While Singapore’s writers have long imagined other worlds, speculative fiction, or “specfic” for short, has only really begun to gain ground in the last decade.

Specfic—here defined as a blanket term for literature that asks, “What if?”—spans science fiction, fantasy and those works which fall into the cracks between these genres.

There have been landmark publications such as Singapore Science Fiction, an anthology of the winning entries from the 1979 Science Fiction Short Story Competition; and Han May’s 1985 novel Star Sapphire, set on an intergalactic starship in the 23rd century. Despite this, specfic spent years relegated to the literary establishment’s margins, overshadowed by social realism.

It was in the 2010s that Singapore specfic truly hit its stride. In 2012, Jason Erik Lundberg founded LONTAR, the first biannual literary journal to focus on Southeast Asian specfic. That same year saw the publication of specfic anthologies such as Fish Eats Lion, edited by Lundberg; and The Ayam Curtain, edited by Yang and Joyce Chng.

In 2016, Nuraliah Norasid’s fantasy novel The Gatekeeper won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, beating other more “traditionally literary” works to the $25,000 award. Four years later, Ng Yi-Sheng’s specfic collection Lion City co-won the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction. 

Specfic also put Singapore on the world map when Yang and Vina Jie-Min Prasad became the first Singaporean finalists of both the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards in 2018. In 2020, Time Magazine included Yang’s novella The Black Tides Of Heaven (2017) on its list of The 100 Best Fantasy Books Of All Time.

“We must learn to find fantasy in hidden corners,” Nuraliah told The Straits Times in 2017. “I believe it’s there.” With the rise of Singapore specfic, more readers here are learning to look in those corners. 

Pocket scope

When the narrator of Pocket Cities looks at her miniature Singapore, it appears perfect. Its population of millions is invisible to her eye. Her friend quips, “Who wants an actual city when you can have a magical pocket construction where all the lights work?”.

French philosopher Michel de Certeau writes that seeing the city from a height transforms it into a “text that lies before one's eyes”. This god’s eye view reduces the complexity of the city to a comprehensible scale, making it readable. Yet it can only ever be a representation; those who live in the city, “below the thresholds at which visibility begins”, inhabit spaces that cannot be seen from above. As they move through the city, they write a text they themselves are unable to read. This is the paradox of the pocket city.

Because of its land scarcity, Singapore is characterised by verticality. Its HDB blocks extend neighbourhoods into another dimension; their elevators and corridors are what urbanist Jane Jacobs calls “streets piled up in the sky”. A fascination with the vertical city permeates Singapore literature, notably Judith Huang’s dystopian fantasy novel Sofia And The Utopia Machine (2018), which literalises social stratification.

In this futuristic Singapore, height is might. The elite inhabit the lofty Canopies; the middle class live in the hundreds of storeys that comprise the Midlevels. Beneath these are the shadowy Voids, older parts of the city flooded by rising sea levels. The rest of Singapore prefers to ignore the Voids, even though their server farms, factories and black market contribute a quarter of the nation’s GDP. When Midlevels teenager Sofia activates a government project called the Utopia Machine and accidentally creates another world, she must flee the authorities by descending into the Voids.

The Voids echo other subterranean spaces in local specfic, from the Tunnel City of Clara Chow’s story Cave Man to Nelroote in The Gatekeeper. In Cave Man, Singapore’s urban sprawl has been banished into mouldy underground housing and tunnelites can only enjoy surface living through balloting for above-ground time-shares. Nelroote, a settlement inside a hidden cavern, provides a refuge for non-humans. The ramshackle clusters of dwellings have “no discernible beginning or end, no distinguishable boundaries”; manoeuvring among them is akin to “scaling a vertical maze”. The name Nelroote has its roots in Tuyunri, an ancient language invented for the novel. The original word is Ne’rut, meaning “to see”.

The Voids, Tunnel City and Nelroote are below the threshold of visibility from those looking down from above; they are kept out of sight and thus out of mind. They are spaces for those unhoused by a lack of privilege or dispossessed by persecution, and life in them is precarious and not too pleasant. Yet their invisibility also makes them sanctuaries. Their existence is a kind of resistance.

In Huang’s novel, the only way to escape the stultifying inequality of the stratified city is by creating your own world: a utopia that fits into your pocket.

Pocket dimensions

In Chow’s story The Mountain, a group of architecture students build a structure in East Coast Park out of discarded doors, salvaged from abandoned housing estates before they are bulldozed. The doors are “a plethora of entryways to nowhere”, a “space of infinite possibilities”. Children, drawn to the playground-like structure, clamber around it and open its doors. And then they disappear.

The structure is among a number of “dream buildings” constructed by Chow in her 2016 collection Dream Storeys, loosely inspired by interviews with architects. These range from a self-destructing mall to the Singapore Flyer repurposed as a prison. Chow describes the result as a “hybrid creature: a document of what Singapore could be, as well as a map of the imaginary”. Like the doors of the structure in The Mountain, these stories are entryways to nowhere that open up infinite possibilities in the finite city.

Urban specfic suggests that what seems like impenetrable city space is in fact riddled with seams into pocket dimensions. It has the capacity to make the familiar unfamiliar, and thus be seen anew. In Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee’s horror comic Through The Longkang (2021), a drain leads into a sinister otherworld. In Daryl Qilin Yam’s novel Kappa Quartet (2016), a burning taxi in the Kampong Java tunnel has a strange effect on the reporter assigned to cover the story.

It is in such liminal spaces that the architectural uncanny emerges. Architectural historian Anthony Vidler describes how the clearing of historical structures for urban development and the absence of a lived past can cause this eruption of the uncanny. In Kappa Quartet, in the tunnel that seems longer than it should be, regarding the taxi that is no longer a taxi, the reporter loses his soul. By the time he is tracked down–in an empty room behind a door hidden in the tunnel wall—he has been irrevocably transformed.

In Suburbia from Ng’s Lion City, a lost city is discovered beneath an old Chinese cemetery. The story takes the form of a government report that denies the entire affair, beginning with, “We did not discover the city.” It stresses the sheer impossibility of such a city’s existence, with its sophisticated urban plan and its “grandiose and bone-chillingly inhuman” dimensions; it abjures the notion of a cover-up and threatens that future inquiries will lead to prosecution.

But the architectural uncanny of the city cannot be repressed forever. Sooner or later, to borrow the language of certain bureaucracies, these concerns will be surfaced. As in Ng’s story: “The cities below will rise to reclaim the world above”.

A pocket collapse

There was a period of time when it seemed like everyone wanted to destroy Singapore—in fiction, that is.

Apocalyptic tales of the city have mushroomed in the past decade. Gabby Tye’s Run (2013) unleashed biological catastrophe on the urban landscape; Nicholas Yong’s Land Of The Meat Munchers (2013) did the same with zombies. In Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits (2017), a hive intelligence is consuming Singapore in 2047 and can only be stopped by the retrieval of a weaponised Merlion from 100 years earlier. In Lu Huiyi’s Beng Beng Revolution (2019), society collapses after fuel runs out and smog descends.

In Victor Fernando R. Ocampo’s short story Big Enough for The Entire Universe, a grieving mathematician causes first her HDB block in Bukit Batok, then the rest of Singapore, to be transformed into a grey goo—an algorithmic rewriting of the city in the name of love.

'Apocalypse' is derived from the ancient Greek word for ‘revelation’. Speculating on Singapore’s collapse in fiction can reveal truths about its reality, whether that is the urgency of the climate crisis or the power of love. Apocalypse stories serve as pocket experiments for real-world crises and anxieties, allowing for a contained detonation within the safety of the genre. They let you wonder: What would you do if Singapore as you know it ceased to exist?

The narrator of Pocket Cities is initially terrified of destroying her miniature city—what if the top of Marina Bay Financial Centre snaps off during transit?—but the rest of the world does not seem to notice that Singapore has disappeared. We see perhaps the flipside of this in No Other City, the story that closes Lion City, in which Singapore vanishes off the face of the earth overnight. Only those Singaporeans who have emigrated abroad remember their country; nobody else has heard of Singapore. Over the years, Singapore becomes a myth, like Atlantis; it gains a cult following of fans “united by the dream of this fabled utopia that somehow slipped out of existence”.

This is the seed of fear buried at the heart of our gleaming national narrative, that fuels every frenetic effort to “put Singapore on the world map”. It is, after all, such a small city. How easy would it be to break it, or brush it out of existence? Who would miss it if it were gone?

And then one day, Singapore reappears without fanfare or explanation, as if it never left at all; just as at the end of Pocket Cities, the narrator discovers on her return to Changi Airport that her pocket is empty and her miniature city is gone. All that is left to her—and us—is what she wrote about it, and the real city we are returned to, of which there is no other.

Contributed by:

Olivia Ho

Olivia Ho is a PhD candidate in literature at University College London. Her research interests include the interstitial city and postmodern urban space in speculative fiction. She was formerly arts editor and books correspondent at The Straits Times. She posts about books on Instagram as @ohomatopoeia.

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