A Fond Memory of Tropical Boredom: Sharlene Teo’s Ponti

A love letter to home, warts-and-all.

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

“My impression of Singapore is very much stamped in time. Ponti is a portrayal of, and a love letter to, the country that I grew up in,” said the author Sharlene Teo of her debut novel. Until she moved to the UK at the age of nineteen, the tropical island nation had been an object of love … and loathing. Perhaps that’s just how a home country is. If you hate it, you hate it wholeheartedly and consistently. If you love it, you wouldn’t realize that until you’re away from it. For some, this belatedly kindled love is nostalgia of a rosy hue that brightens the place of once-half-hearted fondness. Teo’s Singapore, too, takes on a bit of this rosy tint when it is “stamped in” her memory.

But for a nostalgic “love letter,” her confession of love does not look entirely pink. Teo is a brutally frank lover who acknowledges all the flaws and dullness of her love object. This is, however, not out of malice but rather the result of Teo’s intense attentiveness to her object’s every corner. Many nostalgic “love letters” make you cringe at their weepiness; Teo’s prompts an amused “huh” for their warts-and-all relationship.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Teo’s unromantic tropical love letter strikes a perplexing, and therefore refreshing, blow to easily consumable stories about tropical Asia. One such vision of tropical Singapore would be Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. Kwan paints over-the-top pictures of super-rich jetsetters who can afford to avoid breaking a sweat in the tropical nation. Kwan’s novels have been immensely popular among overseas readerships, especially since their film adaptations in 2018. The trilogy has all the necessary ingredients of exotically bent thrills: streaming-worthy romance peppered with in-law conflicts, insanely rich young globe trotters whose lives don’t know our mundane routines, and the nearly fantastical tropical flora amidst sleek skyscrapers.

A still from the wedding scene in the film Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
A still from the wedding scene in the film Crazy Rich Asians (2018) (image source: IMDB)

These scenes look fantastic, and they tickle their reader’s travel instincts. There is, however, nothing surprising about them. Crazy Rich Asians serves the conveniently cut bite-size Southeast Asianish ingredients for readers / potential travelers.

On the other hand, the ingredients of Ponti’s “exotics” are raw. One such raw morsel is the Singapore’s literally sweaty body. Touching it leaves sticky residues. It explodes your T-zone oil. It makes the “neon pink, acid green, boudoir red” bra straps emerge from blouses like “litmus blooming through filter paper.”

Unlike the novels providing bite-size Southeast Asianish exotics, Ponti‘s ingredients are raw.

These sweat-soaked bodies are vivid enough to be a first-hand report from the ground, yet Teo didn’t write Ponti in Singapore. In fact, Teo has been away from Singapore for more than two decades, pursuing advanced degrees in creative writing in UK. According to her instructor’s introduction in the Asia Creative Writing Programme, she specializes in “unreliable memory.” Perhaps her shaky memory of Singapore is such a one. Conjured up in the UK’s chilly, rainy atmosphere, Teo’s memories of Singapore might be “unreliable.” The tropical air would feel sultrier than it is. The discontented, fuming teenage years might now feel romantic. The Singapore in Ponti is not a Singapore captured in a snapshot. It is more of a painting in progress, filtered through an expat’s mind and body, with all its unsentimental strokes.

No wonder it is hard to pin down how “Singaporean” Ponti is. A review in South China Morning Post celebrates Ponti as “a great Singaporean novel” and says that it is a well-deserving “contender for the next Ondaatje Prize, awarded to a work that best evokes ‘spirit of a place.’” Other reviewers such as Lisa Lao couldn’t be more disappointed with the novel’s “pointless” narrative that does not seem to amount to any in-depth exploration of the contemporary Singapore society. Where are generational conflict, rapid modernization, multiculturalism, gender dynamics, etc.?

The debate here is what “Singaporeanness” means, and by extension what makes up “novel of place.” “Spirit” of a place could be something abstract or ephemeral such as the booming “spirit” of contemporary China or the serene atmosphere of Tokyo’s commuter subway. It could also be something as concrete as the multiracial topography of Chinese, Malay, and Indian in Kuala Lumpur.

Both and neither of these views defines the Singaporean “spirit” in Ponti. The novel couldn’t take place in anywhere but Singapore. Yet, its Singaporean spirit doesn’t seem to fit that well with the hypermodern Asian city with allegedly the strictest morality laws in the world. While Ponti is embedded in the workings of contemporary Singaporean society, no specific Singaporean issue–whether political, social, cultural, or economic– drives the novel.

This brings us back to Teo’s words: Ponti is “a portrayal of, and a love letter to” Singapore. As the novel’s focal point, Teo has developed a bodily memory that is oddly faithful to, and fond of, the place that she remembers. And this oddity makes Ponti’s Singapore tangible in a perplexingly novel way.

Ponti is an odd sort of “love letter.” It builds up, literally and metaphorically, an overwhelming impossibility of escaping the small world of Singapore. There is “a miasma over the whole book, creating a claustrophobic horror,” says the NPR review. While this “miasma” is surely claustrophobic, it provides little to no adrenaline rush of “horror.” Whether in a tropical kampong or a chic business district, a static, drowsy feeling pervades the enclosed atmosphere like an endlessly repeating story. The stifling heat might be ideal for fir trees and wild dogs. But it doesn’t serve the humans so well.

All the main characters—Szu, Circe, and Amisa—appear to suffer from a prolonged heat stroke with a side-effect of ennui that gradually numbs them. Szu and Circe, the bored teenagers attending a colorless Catholic Girls’ school, are dying to escape the “hot, horrible earth” where they are stuck. The girls long for thrills, romantic sparks, and the clear, poreless skin of the girls living in a cooler climate. Juvenile though they may seem, those complaints are not entirely due on teenage angst. Nearly everything surrounding Szu and Circe is “overfamiliar” and tedious. The view outside Szu’s bedroom looks like “a low-budget film set” where “burnt-barbecue stench from yesterday lingers everywhere.” It looks ugly, and that, not even dramatically but just prosaically.

Adults don’t seem to fare any better than the teenage girls when it comes to dealing with daily unremarkableness. A one-time B-horror film actress who never made a name, Szu’s beautiful and self-absorbed mother Amisa is literally dying from ennui. Until she dies in her late forties, Amisa is forever irritated by her currently obscure life and cruelly unsatisfied with her unexceptional daughter. The “low-budget” view outside their house seems like a pitiable embodiment of Amisa’s thwarted dream and lackluster life. It recalls the tacky replica of a tropical village in Amisa’s film Ponti! that faded into obscurity with its star.

Central Business District by the Marina Bay in Singapore (image credit: photo by Uwe Schwarzbach at Flickr)

Even the passage of twenty-odd years doesn’t whip things up for Szu and Circe. Ponti moves back and forth among sixteen-year-old Szu, Amisa in her twenties, and Circe in her thirties. Soon to be thirty-five, divorced, and still fretfully bored, Circe works in a Marina Bay business district as a teenage pop starlet’s “social media manager,” writing trendy and cutesy SNS posts in the starlet’s name. She is indifferent to the “beautiful” view from her office: “[t]here must be a word–some German or Inuit term– that describes the stuck, dreadful feeling of disliking a beautiful view.” Even her native Chinese feels too worn as if there is no way to say anything in Chinese that doesn’t make her feel “stuck.” An exotic word from a remote, cold place might remove the “dreadful” film from Circe’s reality, cooling it down, making it cool. Or so she hopes.

Not only Szu and Circe, but Ponti’s narrative also struggles with a sense of stagnation. Nothing much happens. The “hot, horrible earth” that opened Ponti is still “hot” and “horrible” at the end, like the footage of the old Ponti! movie that “stutters and stalls into an imperfect blur.” Ponti is sure to disappoint the readers expecting a narrative arc with ups and downs. The novel just “chugs along,” as one review complained.

But that’s the point. Ponti is not that interested in dramatic literary tensions or character developments in the first place. It is sort of perversely focused on Singapore the physical place as if the country itself is “own character,” or more accurately, a dominant character that overshadows the rest.

The “boring” Singapore, the physical place, is a dominant character in Ponti that overshadows the rest.

The everyday realism of Teo’s novel doesn’t just refuse to imitate glossy tourist brochures. It also turns away from one of the other major tropes of the equatorial imagination, tropical gothic.

Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin

Teeming with unknown creatures behind a dark rain forest, folkloric ghosts, and a gruesome history, the genre of tropical gothic is geographically expansive, spanning from South and Southeast Asia to the Caribbean and South America. Nick Joaquin, Derek Walcott, and Jean Rhys are some of the classic champions of the genre. Haunted by historical violence and the unruly power of tropical nature, tropical gothic envisions the dreaded return of the colonizers’ crimes, revenge of the colonized humans and non-humans, and the rising menace of the supernatural forces lurking in a forest. These hauntings often merge to create at once a fantastical and realistic picture of the colonial and postcolonial worlds.

In Tropical Gothic by Filipino writer Nick Joaquin, a deep cave in the forest is inhabited by a haggard, penitent woman in rags.  She is the wasted ruin of a haughty, beautiful belle whose life used to brim with sexual innuendo. We also meet the spirit of a nameless plantation worker who perished laboring in brutal heat. The spirit walks in the shadows of thriving ferns. These ghostly apparitions and disquieting tropical flora intertwine to show the Philippines as a nation scarred by the consecutive colonial invasions, conflicts between Catholicism and folk religion, shifting gender norms, and the forest flora which is ravaged yet tenacious.

dark jungle
A rain forest in Sariaya, Quezon, the Philippines (image source: photo by Caleb Lumingkit on Unsplash)

Tropical ghosts are the victims of patriarchy, sexism, racism, and colonialism combined. Their dreadful physicality makes them visually terrifying. Woman’s decaying thighs and the plantation worker’s cloth drenched in blood, sweat, and forest mud lay bare the residues of violence. Tropical ghosts soil the aggressors’ sanctimonious propriety. These ghastly entities are sensuous, sensual, and sexual.

Stills from the film Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam 2 (2004)
Stills from the film Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam 2 (2004) (image sources: IMDB, MUBI)

This tradition of abject tropic spirits includes Ponti’s horrific heroine pontianak (or kuntilanak). Haunting the folklores in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, pontianak takes the form of a beautiful young woman with long black hair wearing a blood-smeared white dress. She either died in childbirth or was murdered for not being able to give birth. This vengeful spirit resides in banana trees during the day and attacks unsuspecting men for their blood during the night. Dainty fang holes on the neck do not satisfy her rage. She rips the men’s guts with her fingernails and gorges on their organs.

Teo’s Ponti is well equipped with these lush and terrifying tropes—the rain forest with “deep, spongy smell” and the beautiful pontianak / Amisa who came from a forested kampong:

The houses opened into the slate-green sea that some days slopped and slurred like a drunk, […] A mangrove swamp slurped every other corner of her neighborhood. There was no way to escape it, and it was beautiful in its own way, […] The roots of the mangroves poked out of the water like turnip stalks or witchy fingers.

She liked the stilt-rooted trees and the bird’s nest ferns with their splendidly obscene undersides of brown spores, and the deep, spongy smell of vegetation. Amisa breathed out slowly until her stomach domed a small curve, and she tried to keep walking this way with her tummy stuck out, imitating her pregnant mother and sister.

The “slurring” and “slurping” water and the swamp erotically caresses the body. And because there is no “escape” from this place, their touches feel more deliciously obscene. Naturally, this secluded, pulsating place is pregnant with “secret[s]” and something more sinister—the allegedly promiscuous pontianak / Amisa. Such a perfect tropical backdrop and disturbing ghosts seem enough to make Ponti exhilaratingly suspenseful.

Yet again, the novel refuses to stick to the established patterns. The stimulating effects of the rain forest and a hot monster are intentionally cut short and fade into the boring haze of routine. Amisa’s intimidating beauty gives her little power beyond marrying a nondescript, half-time husband and getting stuck with the badly made films by an egomaniac auteur-wannabe. With her “monster make-up caked on like papier mâché,” Amisa the pontianak looks sadly cheap rather than chilling. She strives to be that sensual and fearful presence in this pathetic circumstance, concealing her bloody figure behind the banana leaves amidst the “wet green paddy fields”—but the blood she draws from her victim is “slightly too pink to be fully convincing.” The youthful Amisa in pontianak’s white dress does look beautiful yet in a sentimentally “dated” way. “[S]he looks so happy,” thinks Circe, as she rewatches the film in 2020. “Happ[iness]” is not sexy, but sweet. It kindles sympathy rather than desire. Against the “sexy and trendy,” meaning juicier “super-spies” films, the pontianak is too corny to be electrifying.

Even the dark and sensuous rain forest and the horrifying and sexy monster pontianak fade into the boring haze of routine.

If even the goriest of ghosts like the pontianak can’t spice up things, it is understandable that everyone in the novel is thirsty for the smallest, most trivial sensation. Ponti is determinedly unsentimental when observing such thirst. Itching to confirm that she’s alive, Szu “glar[es] so hard until [her] vision blurs.” Sometimes, she just opens the refrigerator and “knead[s] the tofu, poke[s] the pig meat, tap[s] the princely jar of Khong Guan biscuits.” Note that she aims for the most texture-rich foods. What lingers, though, is just the same old stink of fermenting food.

Szu’s mother Amisa seeks a movie theater’s insulated and thrilling chamber. Even without the visuals, the darkened theater is sensorially enriching with “nothing but the soft puttering of the film reel through the projector, the rustle of snacks, and the breathing of an audience either aroused or half asleep.” In this temporary microcosm, Amisa plunges into an “incredibly unreal” world, forgetting about her dreary day working at a seafood market.

The market has its own sensory life: “whiskery grey prawns slipping from her grip, shucked shells and wet floors and the rush and furore of the market before it opened.” This description recalls some clichés about Singapore. After all, Singapore is known for its rich seafood culture, and its vibrant displays are often featured in a list of things-to-do-in-Singapore.

A stall in a seafood market in Singapore (image source: Wikimedia Commons).
A stall in a seafood market in Singapore (image source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Tactile, visual, aural, and olfactory senses hit you at once. These are not always pleasant shocks, unlike those of sweet and juicy coconut, mango, dragon fruit, and whatnot that have dominated the tropical imageries. Think of, for example, the scene in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl where a disillusioned white corporate worker bites into a seductively sweet tropical fruit called ngaw: “A fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue.” This Gauguin-like fantasy makes eating fruit a delirious act rather than an everyday experience. Compared to this intoxicatingly fragrant and “fecund” ngaw, the prawn’s “grey,” “slipper[y]” shell and fishy smell are repulsive. The salty water mixed with fish gut doesn’t sound as enticing to touch as the ngaw’s “flower[y]” juice. Ponti seems especially interested in replacing both the hackneyed fruity trope and the tourist brochures selling Singapore’s marine reputation.

The seafood market is invigorating only when it’s not a part of your daily life, since even the strongest shock loses its edge when repeated. That’s exactly how days go by for Amisa as a seafood handler. “Life went on this way.” This is Ponti’s well-timed slap at the exotic-thirsty, touristy readers. There is nothing deliciously charged in the tropics when you live there. Tropics are just tropics, as mundane as anywhere else.

There is nothing deliciously charged in the tropics when you live there. Tropics are just tropics.

Ponti doesn’t stop at de-juicing tropical exotics. The novel even dares to allow the quotidian to consume Singapore’s tumultuous history and dire urban problems. And Ponti does this casually. References to the Japanese occupation, indiscriminate industrial developments, and the deteriorating air quality are peppered across the novel as parts of the daily happenings in an apparently nonchalant manner.

About her house where the bougainvilleas’ “white and pink petals [are] curled by heat, sodden with rain,” Szu says: “[t]he building is flat and ugly, almost like a military barrack. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese used to torture people here during the war.” The brutal history of colonization is evoked not for its own sake but as a metaphor to show the state of the heat-stricken house. Similarly, buried in one of Amisa’s monotonous days are the reflections on her brother Didi’s death in a highway landslide accident. Amisa knows too well how these accidents happen. “Slurry of muddy water and rocks […] toppled and flowed. Masala-coloured gushing dirt. It happened like that” (italics added). The roads in tropical Southeast Asia are prone to flash floods and landslides, and these accidents have been more frequent as large-scale construction projects accelerated. Their horror notwithstanding, Amisa is used to mudslide accidents. She is aggrieved, but her days drone on.

Landslide at Sungei Pandan Clementi, Singapore (image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Besides mudslides, Singapore has been tormented also by serious air pollution due to an unsustainable “slash and burn” agricultural method favored by the large plantations in the neighboring regions. “Slash and burn” systematically denudes forestry and produces greenhouse gas by bulldozing and burning the land. The method itself is not new and perhaps not even the most environmentally lethal one, having been practiced by individual farmers around the world to enrich the soil and offer a proper resting period in between farming. It is, however, a different story when the scale gets bigger with corporate agriculture. The land simply can’t catch up with the magnitude and speed of burning, and the smoke byproduct builds at an alarming rate. In 2014, the Singaporean parliament passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act which holds civilly and criminally accountable the companies and individuals who cause air pollution by forest burning. The National Environment Agency runs a website solely devoted to providing information and live updates on the day’s air quality.

Smoke haze in Singapore (image source: photo by Charles EYES PiX on Flickr)

Air pollution has certainly become a critical item on Singapore’s national and transnational agendas. In Ponti, however, such severity is flattened into another annoying warning about “an unhealthy reading” of the day’s PSI (Pollution Standards Index) in a lousy morning commute. Sickened, Szu tries to block the radio announcer’s “phoney, quasi-American” voice with her earphones:

So I’ve heard the rumbles. The newspaper reports on forest fires in Sumatra, slash and burn, which sounds like the name of a bad rock band. I don’t like rock music. I prefer the fuzzy distortions of shoegaze. […]
            This shoegazey kind of music is made for me. It cancels everything out: the tedious hours ahead, the pollution all around me. Most of these bands are from northern England. I picture castles and cold air, […]

Szu’s juvenile grumbling and self-pity might be laughable. But her completely resigned tone when she talks about the air pollution is unsettling—as if she is too used to the contaminants to make a moral fuss about them. If you were ever stuck in the eternally dank, smoky air, it would’t be so easy to simply laugh off Szu’s escape to the shoegaze’s “cold,” crisp vibe.

It is not that Ponti is flippant about the emotional, mental, and intellectual weight of the country’s history and social problems. Rather, the novel wants to expose the severe lethargy that numbs people from even contemplating such problems. However morally distasteful this might read, Ponti prefers crude honesty to moral righteousness.

Unfortunately, even the unflattering frankness does not seem enough to overcome the boredom in the three women’s lives. Ponti is certainly not a fast and easy read. Until the end, Ponti keeps you in the sweaty mesh of the past and present while refusing to give a cathartic picture of the future. The stubborn, mundane misery can be absolutely draining as one review says: “The gift of Ponti is the moment you set it down, return to your own flawed-but-lovely life, and remember there are at least a few nice things left on this hot and horrible earth.”

But I want to suggest that this is where Teo’s oddly fond memory of Singapore really shines. Readers outside Singapore may only see sticky nihilism. However, for those who really take in this place with their bodies—Szu, Circe, Amisa, and Teo—, Ponti is uncompromisingly faithful to how they feel every day, being in that place. The novel’s loyalty lies firmly with the islanders. It doesn’t cower at the potential exhaustion or disappointment of one-time visitors.

Ponti‘s loyalty lies firmly with the islanders. It doesn’t cower at the potential exhaustion or disappointment of one-time visitors.

Perhaps for this reason, Teo does not pass judgment on her less-than-likable characters for their languidness or stupefied social conscience. The women exist steadfastly within the steamy Singapore atmosphere and Teo demands that the readers take them in the way they exist, however vexing or “pointless” it looks. On the colorful descriptions of Amisa’s hometown kampong, writer Tash Aw remarked: “they never slip into lazy nostalgia.” Such refusal of leisurely exoticism and easy moralism is Ponti’s language of stark love.

Work Cited

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. Night Shade Books, 2009.

Joaquin, Nick. Tropical Gothic. U of Queensland P, 1972.

Kwan, Kevin. Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy. Anchor Books, 2018.

Lau, Lisa. “Tropical Disappointment.” Turning the Pages, 13 May 2019, https://turningthepages.org/2019/05/13/tropical-disappointment/.

Milne, Rosie. “Ponti is a great Singaporean novel – compelling, evocative coming-of-age tale and portrait of a nation.” South China Morning Post, 9 Apr 2018, https://www.scmp.com/culture/books/article/2140522/ponti-great-singaporean-novel-compelling-evocative-coming-age-tale-and/.

“Sharlene Teo: Visiting Writers.” ACWP, https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/acwp/sharlene-teo/.

Singapore Government. Haze. https://www.haze.gov.sg/. Accessed 4 Jan 2023.

Sophie Roell, “Best Books on Singapore by Singaporean Authors: recommended by Sharlene Teo.” Five Books, https://fivebooks.com/best-books/singapore-sharlene-teo/.

Teo, Sharlene, Ponti, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Tilton, Emily. “Ponti Is About How Society Turns Women Into Monsters.” Electric Literature, 28 Aug 2018, electricliterature.com/ponti-is-about-how-society-turns-women-into-monsters/.

Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014. Singapore Statutes Online, https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/THPA2014. Accessed 2 Jan 2023.

Quinn, Annalisa. “Everyone’s Miserable In The ‘Hot, Horrible’ World Of ‘Ponti'”. NPR, 11 Sep 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/09/11/639599665/everyones-miserable-in-the-hot-horrible-world-of-ponti.

Cover image credit: photo by Danish Prakash on Unsplash

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