Frame-stories and historical backgrounds in Love and Vertigo

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Hsu-Ming Teo's first novel, Love and Vertigo, juxtaposes two main plots: the first person narrator's reflections on her childhood and youth and her retelling of her mother's life-story. Opening up with Grace Tay's thoughts at the eve of her mother's wake, the novel moves forward and backward between these two main time-frames. Geopolitical events are frequently invoked to situate the stories in their historical backgrounds, connecting them through parallels and contrasts, while at the same time also emphasising the unbridgeable gap between the mother's and the daughter's experience.

Born in Malaysia, but having emigrated to Australia as a child, Grace sees herself as an Australian who finds her Malaysian roots alienating, even "unacceptable" (3), while she also recounts her painful and largely ineffectual struggles to assimilate into the predominantly white Australian society in the late seventies and eighties. Having arrived in Singapore after her mother's suicide, she recalls an earlier visit to Singapore as a teenager, when she discovered that the lives of her relatives and consequently also part of her mother and herself had become foreign to her:

For the first time in my life I saw my mother in relation to her family and I did not recognise her anymore. Her carefully maintained English disintegrated and she lapsed into the local Singlish patois, her vocabulary a melange of English, Malay and Chinese; her syntax abbreviated, chopped and wrenched into disconcerting unfamiliarity. These Singaporean roots of hers, this side of her – and possible of me too – were unacceptable. (2-3)

Dislocation and uprootedness are the connecting themes of the novel. Pandora Lim, Grace's mother, is born during the Japanese occupation and grows up in an emphatically modern post-war society that is still determined by its colonial legacy. As Grace, the first person narrator, comments in retrospect “those Singaporean schoolgirls tried to transform their Chinese beings into English souls. To be English was to live in a world of Enid Blyton books where young middle-class children underwent all manner of predictable adventures, demonstrated their recourcefulness and constantly outwitted dimmer working-class adults.” (64) The 1950s middle-class values of an Enid Blyton-world are strangely at odds with the Lims' melodramatic world of bustling and frequently riotous working-class life. The clashes between the realities and the abstract ideas of both oriental and occidental values are, in fact, central to the novel. Suffering from the noise and violence of her family, Pandora knows that the concept of the fond, voluble, working-class family is a myth, and also that this is precisely what attracts Jonah Tay, her future husband: "He was entranced by Pandora's rowdy family, mistaking the volume of noise for the depth of familial affection." (106) Ironically, the only thing that draws her to Jonah is his English education. As she reasons herself into the vertigo of love -- the leitmotif of the novel -- she is largely determined by what is termed her "schizophrenic life": "Pandora led a schizophrenic life throughout her school years. She was a dutiful Chinese daughter at home and an absurd lampoon of an English schoolgirl outside." (62)

In her attempts to distance herself as much as possible from her traditional Chinese mother-in-law, who delights in domineering their lives, she forces her husband to move, first, from Singapore to Malaysia, and then to Australia, in the process handing over her schizophrenic existence to her children. Oscillating between a mainstream white culture and different minority-groups, Grace and her brother Sonny experience ideals of assimilation and later multiculturalism and exotic hybridity at their worst. Sonny's progress from an immigrant striving to become Australian, the only Chinese among a loose group of other ethnicities, the only English-educated Malaysian among recently immigrated Hong Kong Chinese, whom he offends with his lack of Chinese-ness, to a fan of American jazz and hip-hop confronted with a different form of racism traces his repeated disillusionment:

In the late eighties, he abandoned jazz, zeroed in on hip-hop and basketball, and did his best to become black. His jeans grew voluminous -- giant denim windsocks […]. The LA riots after the Rodney King trial shook the foundations of his world, when he watched the televised images of black Americans looting and beating up Asian shopkeepers. Black was beautiful, black was best. He had only ever associated racism with white Aussies and Chinese. (179)

What both time-frames map is the schizophrenia of confused identities. In its exposure of the alleged advantages of cultural hybridity as well as of the drawbacks of both assimilation and multiculturalism as political strategies, the novel can indeed be read as a critique of the current myths of an integrated, but multicultural, society in which the exotic is safely contained and marketed in the consumption of food. After moving to Australia, Jonah Tay does his best to assimilate and remains a racist towards new immigrants throughout his life. As his daughter puts it, “in his attitude towards political correctness, John Howard is his role model” (182). What is more, he happily reconciles racism with the consumption of multiculturalism's consumer products: “He enjoyed the benefits of multiculturalism in the 1980s but clung to a belief in assimilation.” (180)

Most importantly, while the schizophrenia created by the colonial legacy, by emigration, and also by assimilation as a favoured policy and strategy is critiqued with a sustained biting humour, it is the effects of multiculturalism that are most emphatically ironised as just another schizophrenic policy -- one that moreover markets the exotic as a consumer product in the coming of late twentieth-century expanding globalisation. It is through the propagation of multicultural ideals in the 1980s that Grace is confronted with the new racism, which is so adroitly camouflaged as interest in ethnic minorities. Parrying what is surely the most obnoxious question put to any immigrant or expatriate, Grace bitingly critiques the exoticism underlying the propagation of multicultural awareness:

‘Where do you come from?’ This from a thirty-something woman with a yard of brunette hair and big 1980s two-for-the-price-of-one budget glasses. ‘Burwood,’ I said. ‘No, I mean, where do you really come from? Originally?’ ‘Helsinki,’ I said. ‘Oh, really? How interesting. Is that in Japan?’ (217)


Teo, Hsu-Ming. Love and Vertigo. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2000.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature

Last Modified: 7 November 2002