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Thoughts on Malacca Grandmother by Robert Yeo
Thursday, March 28, 2013 | 12:52 AM | 0 comments

Robert Yeo writes of Malacca Grandmother with his usual reserved and tempered reflectiveness on his observations and comprehension of the vagaries and absurdities of the modern life and Singapore. In this poem, he elegiacally wrote about the tenuity of retrieving one's past and heritage and the fragility of its continuity but at the same time, the ironic tendency or intent to forget this past. The forceful severity between the past and the present, the detachment of two generations is metaphorically represented by the death of his matriarchal nonya grandmother of a Malaccan past. (To read more about women in the Peranakan family and Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill, click here)

The notion of modern Singapore and the sense of exile (or self-exile) has almost always been mentioned by Singapore writers and in Singapore literary works. Yeo wittily equates the death of his Grandmother and his Granduncle's migration to Southampton, expressing his views on globalisation and its detriment on Singapore and its people; of those who choose to leave behind their traditions for overseas endeavours.

At first glance, Yeo writes of his sense of loss and mourning on the loss of culture. He realises that his grandmother represented more than an individual, but of "an age" and being "the sole remaining representative" of the age. Her departure and his unwillingness to acknowledge it hints at the importance and significance of her role in his life and the role of the older generation in the larger picture of the Peranakan tradition.

Yet, at the same time, the attempt at trying to revive his traditions was matched with contradictory thoughts of resentment and bitterness; the umbrella theme of the poem - wanting to remember the past and yet forgetting about it. The trespassing of his grandmother's generation with their alien influence leading to the "two tongues that [he] sputter", suggests strong inclinations of the younger generation to reject the notion of tradition and culture. From his almost retrospective and non-emotional recollection of his grandmother, Yeo seemed indifferent to the departure of his grandmother ("could it be that I realise now"), emphasised by the distance of their relationship (how he calls her by grandmother first followed by grandma later). His poem writes of the significance of her departure rather than the direct emotional impact it had on him. The older generation seemed to play a role only as a "tenuous" link between two families, and this role ceased with the gradual demise of its generation.

Yeo akins his Peranakan family to the "aloof and strangely antique...silver kerosang", which only has a purpose in ornamenting clothing, further proving his distance between his modern embracing identity and his grandmother or tradition. The unflattering description of Heeren Street which "peels in paint"and "Twilight... trapped", lingers as a half-remembered dream as Singapore then surged towards a clean and bright future. The almost cynical approach to the traditional notion of where womenfolk were supposed to be ("in kitchens and in bedrooms"), juxtaposed the backward values his grandmother's generation seemed to uphold against Yeo's "aggressive sense of modernity". His relationship with his grandmother and her impact on his identity, or conversely the relationship between tradition and its impact on modernity, was seemingly undeniable but disposable. It becomes evident now that his tradition was an impediment to discovering his modern identity yet ironically it is so embedded in his consciousness that he cannot leave behind.

Finally, the enjambment adopted that breaks Yeo's thoughts into 3 lines at the end of the poem concludes his feelings of scepticism, hesitation and deliberation.

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