(Reviewed by Wenkai Tay JUN 01, 2004)
Singaporean writing tends towards evocative “mood-pieces” that are reflective of life in a tranquil island-nation where nothing ever happens.
Enter Mammon Inc., a work by Singaporean writer Hwee Hwee Tan, proving that boring lives do not necessarily lead to boring literature.
Tan’s second novel tells the swashbuckling tale of Chiah Deng Gan, a Singaporean undergrad at Oxford who gets offered a job at Mammon Inc., an international conglomerate that either owns or controls much of the world's commercial enterprise.
The job: to become an Adapter, someone who helps clients adapt from one culture to another. Draco Sidious, CEO of Mammon Inc., is impressed by Chiah Deng’s multicultural credentials, and offers to pay Chiah Deng obscene amounts of money – that is, if she gets the job.
To do so, she must first pass a series of tests. Firstly, she must pass off as an über-chic member of the New York party scene. Next, she has to get her Singaporean sister Chiah Chen to fit into an Oxford crowd. Lastly, she has to turn Steve, her British roommate, into a believable, Singlish-spouting Singaporean.
But Chiah Deng had never envisioned a life amidst the filthy lucre of the corporate world. She was planning to pursue graduate studies at St L'leh College, researching the lives of Christian mystics under the supervision of her advisor Professor Ad-oy. Yet the allure of money and glamour proves too much for Chiah Deng to resist. She decides to go for the tests, and finds herself forced to make the ultimate choice of her life.
With its heightened emotions and elaborate imagery, Mammon Inc. reads like a modern mock epic. The writing's brisk, the plot's whimsical, but the importance of the big questions Chiah Deng is forced to answer looms in the background. Choose a high-salaried job or a more spiritually fulfilling pursuit? Live up to her parents’ expectations of her or live out her dreams? Each choice would have its own rewards, but also require some sacrifices.
When it comes down to a choice between God and Mammon, Chiah Deng finds she hasn’t much of a choice at all. “So Christ was like Mammon. He demanded that I give up my friends, family, my life itself before he would give me the kingdom, the pearl of great price. But what a painful price to pay...”
The Singaporean dilemma is not too different from Chiah Deng’s, albeit less keyed-up. In a city straddling East and West, Singaporeans are caught between Western ideas of freedom and Eastern ideas of obligation. This fundamental conflict shows up in Tan’s writing, which throws in a mishmash of cultural references from both West and East, as well as a disturbing dose of Star Wars imagery.
Hwee Hwee Tan’s bold attempts to bridge a yawning cross-cultural divide have earned her plenty of attention: her first work Foreign Bodies caught the eye of international publishing house Penguin. Yet Mammon Inc. has its flaws. Imaginative as it is, the book is not as polished as it should be, and the writing lacks tightness and discipline. Some repeated references to pop culture may appear frivolous and immature, especially on subsequent re-readings.
Moreover, the book suffers from having to cater to an international readership.
In Mammon Inc., Tan is frequently bogged down by the need to embed explanations of Singaporean references within the exposition of the novel. Her painstaking accounts of many idiosyncratic aspects of Singaporean life may delight international readers, but they slow the pace of the novel for people already familiar with Singaporean culture.
Also, her attempts at recreating dialogue in Singlish, the Singaporean brand of vernacular English, come across as a strained compromise between authenticity and readability. Non-Singaporeans will have little trouble working their way through the dialogue, but Singaporeans will recognize several passages as lacking genuineness.
In spite of the book’s difficulties, what is remarkably striking about Tan’s work is her ability to weave interesting textures into her book, using motifs from a society that many think of as staid and stuffy. For years, writers in Singapore have been fettered by their view of what Singaporean writing should sound like: brooding and slow-moving. In keeping with some bizarre self-fulfilling prophecy, many Singaporean novels end up becoming introspective pieces that involve little action and are inaccessible to a wider audience.
The arrival of Hwee Hwee Tan’s writing on the literary scene might provide the breath of fresh air Singaporean writing needs. In Mammon Inc., she paints a vision of the world, seen through Singaporean eyes, that could prove interesting and enduring to readers around the world.
- Amazon readers rating: not rated
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Hwee Hwee Tan
- The Literature, Culture and Society of Singapore on Hwee Hwee Tan
- Quarterly Literature Review Singapore interview with Hwee Hwee Tan
- The Asian Review of Books on Mammon, Inc
- AsiaWeek.com article on Hwee Hwee Tan and Mammon, Inc
- SFDOnline reivew of Mammon, Inc
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About the Author:
Hwee Hwee Tan grew up in Singapore and the Netherlands. She has a Masters in English Studies from the University of Oxford and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. She published her first novel, Foreign Bodies (Penguin), at aged 22, while she was still a graduate student at the University of Oxford.
After she returned to Singapore in 2001, she worked as a reporter for the Business Times and later on became the Senior Writer at Twenty4Seven, a lifestyle and entertainment magazine. She currently freelances as a journalist and has published over 50 freelance articles. Her credits include TIME, Harper's Bazaar, ELLE, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the BBC.
Her novel Mammon Inc has been staged as a play in the Singaporean Theatre.