Sunday, April 4,1999
Sunday Plus: Page 4

I may take China, drop my mistress

Home Away From Home

Some day, I may just relocate to Xiamen for my last great adventure even at the risk of losing my command of my beloved English language

IF I could spend a short part of every year in another city, it would be Xiamen, the commercial port and gateway to Fujian province in China.

During a three-day visit last week, I was charmed again by the city, although much has changed since I last visited it two years ago.

Many tall apartment blocks have come up, and although there is a tendency towards the ornate, they generally do not cross the line into the garish or vulgar.

I noticed many more McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken shops, but no Asian city can escape these, just as it cannot shut out CNN and CNBC.

In the old part of the city, many shophouses, especially those along Chongsan Road, the main artery, wear a new gentrified front.

The roads are clean and orderly. People travel in cars, whose entry into the central business district is restricted by a system that allows only those with even-number licence plates in on one day and those with odd numbers on the next.

The narrower roads can be fairly noisy, with people honking their cars incessantly. Unlike the case of most big Chinese cities, there are few bicycles about. I saw people on motorcycles, but these may be banned from the city centre soon, I was told.

The more vivid street life is to be found in the many little lanes that lead off the main roads. Any time of the day, you can find groups congregating here, among the tiny shops and eating houses, and the hawkers who sit behind their wares on the ground.

A new ring road on the seafront is being completed. Travelling along the finished stretch, I saw how postcard pretty the east coast of Xiamen is.

Across the water, you can see several offshore islands, including Quemoy, which is held by Taiwan's Nationalist troops. And everywhere you look, there are mountains in the distance, as in a Chinese scroll painting.

Travelling on the new highway from Xiamen to Guangzhou, I dwelled on the idea of making this place my home away from home.

I can live fairly well here, since the cost of living is so much lower than Singapore's. And with satellite TV, a computer and telephones, I can stay plugged in to home and the rest of the world.

If there is anything that will hold me back, it is the fear of losing my always tenuous grip on English, the language which I learnt to speak only when I started schooling, but with which I now earn my living.

In Xiamen, I will be forced to speak Hokkien, which is really my mother tongue, although I had distanced myself from it early in my career as a journalist writing in English.

I will also get to work on my poor Mandarin, which is not a bad thing, except that this will come at a tremendous cost -- the dilution of my English.

I wish I could be effectively bilingual and therefore have full access to two worlds, but I know my limitations.

I am grateful enough to have command of a rudimentary Chinese, and to know that although I have to explore Chinese culture through English, I am very much helped by the fact that I have certain cue words in Chinese.

Some of these cue words can resonate deep within me, more than English, evoking vistas from the distant past and stirring up long forgotten feelings.

Certainly, one can have access to many other cultures with just one language, but much is lost in translation.

I remember what the great Italian film director Federico Fellini said when he was asked if he could ever make a movie in English, in a Time magazine interview in 1986.

"How can I?" he said. "A language is not just a dictionary of words, sounds and syntax. It is a different way of interpreting reality, refined by generations that developed that language.

"I speak a bit of English but how can I express in English the sentiments of another way of looking at life, of other myths, of other rites, of other philosophies and another history?"

In translation, the signifier can get severed from the signified. As Eva Hoffman, the Polish-born writer who emigrated to America when she was 13, recounts in her autobiography, Lost In Translation: Life In A New Language (1989):

"The words I learn now don't stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. 'River' in Polish was a vital sound, energised with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers.

"Rivers in English is cold -- a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke."

The process also works in reverse.

"When I see a river now," Hoffman writes, "it is not shaped, assimilated by the word that accommodates it to the psyche... The river before me remains a thing, absolutely other, absolutely unbending to the grasp of my mind." ON MY way back to Xiamen from Guangzhou, I stopped over in Tongan, where my grandfather and father came from.

Until very recently, much of the area was farmland. Now the farmers, who can harvest several crops of vegetables and sweet potatoes in a year and sell them in the north especially in winter, are wealthy enough to build their own relatively expensive houses.

The city centre is a bustle of construction as new highrises are being put up.

A lot of huaqiao or Overseas Chinese money has flowed back here, as it also has in Xiamen, Guangzhou and Fuzhou. Not a few huaqiao have also chosen to live here.

I thought about Eva Hoffman who opted to live in Poland after she had written a book on her journey through post-Cold War Eastern Europe, called Exit Into History (1993).

When she was an editor on The New York Times Book Review, she lived in both New York and London.

I thought about Lynn Pan who, when her three-year contract as director of the Chinese Heritage Centre in Singapore was finished, chose to relocate to Shanghai.

She had lived mostly in the West and spent some time in Hongkong, from where she made forays into China at the time when it was just opening up.

"I have one more adventure left in me," she told me, and Shanghai was where she would live it out, and perhaps even record it. Singapore didn't engage her emotionally.

I don't pretend to belong to the class of these two talented, bilingual writers, but inspired by their examples, I may just go to Xiamen or Tongan when it comes time to live my last adventure. Even if it means renouncing English my mistress.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia