Jini Kim Watson


On her book The New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form

Cover Interview of May 28, 2012

A close-up

The final three chapters of The New Asian City each examine in detail one national site and one aesthetic form: Singaporean city poetry, Taiwanese New Cinema, and Korean minjung (people’s or popular) literature.

Chapter Five’s analysis of Singapore’s long-time leader Lee Kuan Yew (in power from 1959-1990), and the poets Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap, is a good example of the way the last section of the book works.  Here, I examine the way writings and speeches by each political leader invoke the newly built infrastructure of the country in order to narrate a national future, while literary and cinematic movements complicate this vision.

Lee Kuan Yew explicitly equates the modernism of the government’s urban renewal program and the cleanliness of the streets with Singapore’s ability to attract foreign investment and build national prosperity.  In contrast, the Singaporean poet Arthur Yap writes about such physical changes in a fundamentally different way, revealing the absurdity of a developmental logic that overemphasizes productivity and applies too neatly to every housing block or reclaimed seashore.

Most interesting here is the way one can see the battle over the symbolic meaning of urban form, that is, how two different perspectives—the political-developmental and the poetic—each vie to incorporate developmental landscapes into a particular vision of the nation.