Rather than being set in the city state, most of the stories are instead about Singaporeans abroad. This angle cleverly allows Tiang to tease out answers to the questions: What does it mean to be Singaporean? How do Singaporeans define themselves in relation to the world?
The last two stories, centred on Singapore’s National Day and set in Singapore, then pose the questions: Who is Singaporean? Are the migrant workers who built (and are building) the city any less Singaporean than the people who live there? Is the British man married to a Singaporean woman ever going to be brought into the nationalistic fold? (The blunt answers: It’s tricky. Yes. No.)
Tiang’s take is particularly interesting as Singapore is such an unlikely nation. As such, the government arguably relies more on the manufactured idea of being Singaporean and patriotic displays such as those surrounding National Day than other nations. Placing Singaporean characters abroad allows them to tease out for themselves what their nationality means.
For instance, teacher Joy tells her new Swedish friends (they have met in Germany) that “Singaporeans are famous for being well-behaved”:
‘ “Oh, you are from Singapore.” Joy smiles warily, ready for the next question, which is usually something about chewing gum or how small the country is. Instead, Peter says thoughtfully, his head as if to study her from a different angle, “But you are not, Chinese? Sorry, I do not—”
“Eurasian,” says Joy. “There are a lot of races in Singapore.”
“What means Eurasian?”
She shrugs. “A mixture. A bit of Europe, a bit of Asia.” ’
The short stories are tangentially connected through their characters, some of whom pop up a few times over the course of the book. Joy appears again in the final story, where friends have gathered in a flat to watch the National Day parade on television.
‘On the stage, a handful of schoolchildren are performing a sketch… As is expected, they are scrupulously diverse—both boys and girls, two Chinese, one Malay, one Indian, and an indeterminate one who is probably Eurasian…
Multi-racialism, Singapore style, rejoices the announcer.
Multi-racial if you’re Chinese, Malay or Indian, says Joy, who is some complicated blend of Portuguese, Javanese and Thai, and frequently complains that the only category available to her on forms is “Other”. There isn’t a pigeonhole for Nicholas either, but he says nothing.’
Placing Singaporeans overseas also allows Tiang to describe other places from a Singaporean perspective (whatever that means!). A character whose name we don’t discover and who has fled Singapore finds that Toronto, for instance, has edges that are “too hard for the mood she is in. Every road junction is a precise right angle, and even the trees grow straight up, perfectly vertical. When she stands for too long by the side of the road, trying to work out which way is north, cars stop and wait patiently for her to cross. She yearns to find litter in the road, or someone as dishevelled as she is, but everything is well-ordered and well-fed.”
Sophia meanwhile has to navigate Beijing and her relationship with her doctor aunt from a branch of her family who stayed in China when her own family left for Singapore decades ago. Her aunt has made her husband go to a Chinese hospital for his heart ailment to be treated rather than a private clinic because "the care wouldn’t be as good. Korean doctors, [the aunt] sniffed. Japanese nurses."
It Never Rains on National Day is a quietly political book. In “Harmonious Residences”, Li Hsia had earlier been sent by the government to Oxford to read Geography, and “now she was on a fast-track to the top. She would clearly not be spending much longer hanging around construction sites, but the Party always makes you spend a bit of time getting to know people on the ground before you leave them behind, so if you do well enough to stand for election you can claim to have grassroots support.”
In “National Day”, migrant workers give their take on Singapore: “Even the ferry terminal is packed. This country is so small that people slosh around and are pushed into each corner,” says the protagonist. His group of friends is later challenged by a Christian group camping with them on St John’s island: “We are all motionless now, we have faced people like this before, whenever we try to rest in a park or under a block of flats they come and tell us to leave, not to make the place untidy, not to sit so close to their children.”
Quieter stories feature in the collection, too, such as “Tick”, where a writer slowly unravels as he tucks himself away in a cabin to unsuccessfully write for weeks on end, but it’s the stories where the idea of home and how it relates to identity that Tiang hits his stride best (and even in Tick, escaping from home in a bid to find some kind of essential centre is a theme).
It Never Rains on National Day is nuanced and mature. It eschews tired tropes about Signapore—or raises them just to show how irritating they are, as in the chewing example above—and asks what it means to be a Singaporean, and indeed a global citizen, today.
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