Themes and Contexts of Lau's Playing Madame Mao

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Lau Siew Mei’s first novel, Playing Madame Mao, is an intriguing journey into the histories of Singapore, providing a kaleidoscopic panorama of the political and personal lives of its inhabitants, of the clashes and slippages of the public and the hidden. The novel’s intricate plot emerges from the main protagonists’ juxtaposed interior monologues, occasionally interspersed with brief passages written in the third person. The famous actress Chiang Ching, who shares her unusual name with Chairman Mao’s third wife, the role that she plays at a theatre or opera, forms the enigmatic centre. Although her thoughts comprise most of the novel, they remain oblique, reflecting a general concern with unstable identities. Her easy sliding from one role into another is mirrored by the mysterious quaking of the city, the unrest of its inhabitants, and the resurfacing of a mythical underwater mirror-world of vengeful spirits, which accentuates the novel’s overarching pattern of doubling.

While this theme of unstable identities is of general interest, reflecting a crisis that has often been seen as particularly modern – or postmodern – and as such forming a recurring preoccupation in contemporary literature, it also highlights the uncertainties of postcolonial Singapore. Predominantly set in 1987, the plot focuses on the internal security act that was implemented in Singapore that year and on the subsequent rounds of arrest.

To call Playing Madame Mao a novel about contemporary Singapore is therefore misleading. Like Catherine Lim’s Following the Wrong God Home (2001), it deals specifically with the politics of the Singapore of the 1980s and is consequently a historical novel about the recent past. In Lau’s novel, this retrospective presentation of ongoing problematics is further foregrounded by its juxtaposition (and interweaving) with the repercussions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Superimposing the actions of Chairman Mao and his Red Guards on the authoritarian development in the Singapore of 1987, the novel emphasises the cyclic nature of history and further connects these parallels to a mysterious mirror-world that tries to surface, externalising suppressed violence and uncertainties.

Lau, Siew Mei. Playing Madame Mao. [2000] Chichester: Summersdale Publishers Ltd, 2002.

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