“The use of symbolism is interestingly used to express the theme of ‘seeing’ and the effects of modernism in Tanjong Rhu and Lee”
The stories in Island Voices were compiled to highlight the consequences faced by Singaporean as the city transformed from a traditional society to a cosmopolitan Asian city. Many of the authors of these short stories use literary devices to emphasize their message. I feel that Tanjong Rhu and Lee both use symbolisms to emphasize the speed at which our world is changing. It also tells us how the different generations view or ‘see’ their culture. Tanjong Rhu tells us of the relationship between a successful executive named Mr Li and his mother. Tanjong Rhu also looks into the different meanings of ‘seeing’. We learn about this when we read how Mr Li buys a pair of binoculars for his mother, who has cataract, to see clearly. Lee, on the other hand, is a story of how a Singaporean Chinese father explains to his Americanized, street-wise daughter how Singaporeans and immigrants have to try extremely hard to be respected in a competitive world.
The theme of ‘seeing’ is prevalent in the entire story of Tanjong Rhu. The first example of symbolism used to express this theme of ‘seeing’ in Tanjong Rhu is the binoculars itself. When he first informs his mother about the binoculars, he is instantly rebuffed. This is one of the effects of modernism. Modernism causes us to look at material goods as sources of happiness and a better life. Mr Li assumes his mother wants a pair of binoculars to see more clearly and will ensure that the rest of her time spent of earth would be much better. Later she finally relents in the hope of ‘seeing’ Tanjong Rhu, “If they can see as far away as Tanjong Rhu, I will try them”.
Also, later in the story, we find out that his mother had not meant ‘seeing’ in the literal sense but ‘seeing’, metaphorically, back into the past, “I see our attap hut the sea, among the half-built hulls of fishing boats…”. She wanted to relive the past again, back to the time when Mr Li was a young boy. The binoculars also tell us of how easily the past can be lost and forgotten. The older generation, like Mr Li’s mother, wants to remember it but the younger generation, which includes Mr Li, refuses to remember his past, as though he is ashamed of it, “Stop it… That’s enough…”. Mr Li’s mother has also lost her eyesight due to cataracts, “Cloudy with the pale thickness of accumulated years”.
The theme of ‘seeing’ also appears as Mr Li continually ‘looks’ for something better. He is constantly searching for what makes him happier in life, “Mr Li stood for a long time looking out of his office window high above Shenton Way.” His mother is also constantly searching for a way to view the past. She has a totally different meaning of what can make her happy. For Mr Li, it’s the materialistic things that satisfy him initially. But for his mother, she values relationships and the existence of life above wealth. This can be seen as she tells Mr Li, “things you can buy, I don’t need”.
In Tanjong Rhu, we also learn how the different generations ‘view or see’ their culture. The younger generation, like Mr Li and his daughter, rarely speak Cantonese. The process of learning one’s native language involves the learning of the related culture and traditions. The inability to speak in one’s native language means there is loss in tradition and culture. The death of a language results from a complex of internal and external pressures that induce a speech community to adopt a language spoken by others. One of the pressures is modernization. The influence of modernization has caused us to forget how to speak our native language as English is internationally recognized, “He felt tongue-tied speaking Cantonese after a day’s use of English”. Mr Li is also filled with loss when his mother dies. He regrets not spending time with her and listening to her talk about the past, “I...
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