I’m sorry, but I’m leaving you. I’ve fallen in love with somewhere else, and you wouldn’t like her. But London is the place for me. I’ve fallen for her dingy, narrow streets. The 24-hour bagels on Brick Lane; the club kids in neon and glitter falling out of Boombox at 3 in the morning; the bands with their urgent, clashing guitars, cigarettes and floppy hair. I’ve fallen for boys who play in bands with a copy of The Female Eunuch in their bedrooms; I’ve fallen for girls who write poetry and play guitar in Leicester Square pubs. I’ve fallen for the Chinese boy I saw at Kings Cross holding hands with his boyfriend, while his mother smiled and hailed a taxi for them all. I’ve fallen in love with the Irish. I’ve fallen in love with the Welsh. They’re all here, Singapore, in tiny corners, in crammed spaces, in underground dancehalls and abandoned warehouses.
We had a good run, but I was never really comfortable with you. You were always liberal when it suited you, small-minded when it didn’t. You used to say, “Careful you don’t be so open-minded, otherwise your brains fall out”. But maybe some fresh air would be good for your head. You were always scared of my clothes, the way I spoke, what I wanted to do. “So smart, is it?” you used to say. “Have some common sense. Later in life, what matters is money. Sad but true. You have to think ahead.”
I’m 20 years old and I don’t want to be jaded, but you’re already feeding me defeatism and banality as a lifestyle choice. I want to be more than an office drone. I want to be more than my salary. You need to dream big to be big, Singapore. I looked into your dreams one night and they were full of dollar signs. They were full of people getting by on their Mercedes, their two maids, their country club membership. Getting by and not living. Getting but not achieving. Buying and selling but not giving. I d reamed we went to a Club Med on holiday, and I told the receptionist, “You live in a beautiful country,” and she replied, “You don’t live here.” That night, I said, “I wish we’d gone somewhere else.” You said, “Like where? All the places you want to go are dirty, no air-con.”
I’m in love, of course I take a romantic view of London. But I’ve seen the dark alleys; I’ve seen the feral children with their knives and guns; I’ve been mugged and it wasn’t fun. I almost had to get stitches. I met a drag queen at A&E who’d been gaybashed on night bus number 54. We looked at each other in recognition, and she smiled grimly and said, “Honey, I’ve always wanted a nose job on the NHS.”
In London, I can be a saint or a sinner. I can be City boy, goth girl, punk kid; I can be in with the media, in with the cool kids, I can drop rhymes in East End ghettos and I can drop cash in Mahiki on cocktails. I can be posh, p oor, upmarket, downmarket, chav, toff, hippie, indie. I can be gay or straight, man or woman. I can make myself up, make myself down. And London will still embrace me, and I will always find somewhere that will take me in, and raise no eyebrows should I wear hoop skirts and pierce my lip and call myself Bettie Page.
I’m not sure you could ever do that, Singapore. You say you celebrate diversity, but really you only grudgingly tolerate it. You know what always pissed me off? When you would shrug your shoulders and say, “What to do? It’s like that, what. I’ll never change.” I would try and try to change your mind, but you would just shrug. That same reply. Then, accusingly, you would say that you were an Asian and you were conservative, and I was trying to make you something you weren’t. Then, defiantly: “If people don’t like it, not my problem!”
But I’m not trying to make you something you’re not, I’m really not. I’m just trying to make you see that you’re more than dollar signs. You’re more than people just scraping by, dreaming of money and five-star hotels. You’re a hell of a lot more than just a good air-conditioning system. You’re everybody, not just the dream citizen; you’re the Malay kids skipping school, hanging out at Peninsula Plaza in black jeans and trucker caps. You’re the unemployed kopitiam uncle with his songbirds. You’re the schoolgirl holding hands with her classmate, hoping the teacher doesn’t see. You’re every one of them, but for some reason you just won’t acknowledge this. You like to hold on to this idea of you being this clean, perfectly efficiently city, when really it’s the dirt that makes you who you are.
And at this point in my life, I don’t want to deal with this amount of self-loathing and deception. I don’t want to deal with somebody who sees their history as something to be packaged and sold to tourists, who sees every citizen as an economic unit to be moved around on a chess board. We are the only resource? Who said people can be resources? What are we, oil? Trees?
(Plus, I don’t want to be with somebody who says “well, you just don’t understand – this is for our SURVIVAL” should anybody dare to disagree. You’re more than surviving. You’ve done well. But now you need to stop holding your breath, stop acting like everything can be taken away from you in an instant. This kind of warlike paranoia isn’t doing you favours. You could be so great if you just relaxed and let go, just a little.)
I want truth, beauty… you know the rest. I’m twenty and the world’s an open book to me, but you… I’m afraid that maybe, just maybe, you’re a closed case.
I love you, but I can’t do this anymore.