Inner Workings


by Cheryl Chia
16 May 2018

"Dream Storeys" by Clara Chow
(2017), Ethos Books

The fabric of any city, nation or country is made up of its people and the buildings they interact with.  Clara Chow paints that fabric across this easy-to-read compilation of short stories, Dream Storeys. In these pages, Clara extrapolates the threads of humanity – its beauty, its disappointment and all the layers in between, against various architectural settings dreamt up by notable Singapore-based architects. The resulting pages draw you into a world where human connection is still very much sought after.

From sentient houses that record your every move in “Archive House” to “Cave Man”, in which a man who was a tunnelite (born underground) yearns to live above-ground, her stories offer a peek into a possibility of a future Singapore, if we could be just a little more imaginative. What is remarkable is the way she creatively distills these stories from short interviews with the architects. Her talent lies in painting different worlds that not only embody what each architect has pictured, but stretching each world further and carving an ‘alternate universe’ that could have been.

An excerpt from “Archive House”:

“I was 10 when the Insta-Memoir programme was rolled out nation-wide. Everyone wanted in on it. We were the first generation to grow up always knowing the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and later, MarriageOpenBook, MinuteMate, and ToiletTalk (Fun Inter-Cubicle Chat!) – so we had never known privacy. It was overrated. So the idea of a private, commercial surveillance system that kept tabs on you, so that you could have a perfect, un-abridged record of your life, did not scare us. And, by then, the culture of vanity was so acceptable that having a computer-ghost-written memoir generated for you from this Big Data, surveillance record, appealed to everyone. Insta-Memoir was an instant hit…The city became porous, criss-crossed with Insta Memoir’s proprietary equipment. It acquired a Silicon Valley start-up which manufactured video-audio recording kits which came in the form of decorative wallpaper, ready to be stuck onto walls. Then it cut an exclusive deal with a paint manufacturer that added nano-cameras to its latex and acrylic-based colours.”

An excerpt from “Cave Man”:

“Soon, he would be swopping his apartment for the coveted above-ground house-unit. He had no idea what to expect: after all, he had been born underground. His father, having worked on the Tunnel City project, had had first pick of the units before the project’s completion. Alfred had never known anything different from his parents’ apartment, which was identical to this one, bought two years ago. To be honest, life here was not that bad. The city planners had come a long way from the old days of artificially lit, recycled air-filled corridors and barrel-vaulted atriums. The tunnels were engineered such that a smart configuration of skylights, glass and mirrors reflected natural light from the surface into much of the spaces underground. State-of-the-art ventilation and weather systems meant that it was always a kind of balmy, eternal summer – sans the searing heat- for the tunnelites.”

Clara’s journalistic roots can be seen in her keen attention to detail. The narrative becomes a magical weaving of a life that seems almost real. This works especially in “Bare Bones”, a story which relates how dinosaur bones were uncovered in Singapore and dino dwellings bought over by a private corporation. The story begins with a news report and segues into a heartfelt tale of a lady who refuses to vacate a flat to make way for a dino theme park.

An excerpt from “Bare Bones”:

“At the lift lobby, she jabbed the buttons shaped like dinosaur teeth and waited for the lift doors to open. Everything in her estate had been retrofitted in the last years to fit the dinosaur theme. A kind of prehistoric kitsch, palm fronds on the mural in the lobby artfully concealed T-Rexes, peeking out from behind the green leaves with their short arms, as coyly as powdered leathery old women parting the bead curtains of a bordello. Decals of triceratops bursting through the concrete festooned the walls. Staircase railings were shaped like dinosaur tails spiked with natural armour - like the timeworn sagas of Asian temples.”

These fantastical tales of Singapore’s cityscape could only be crafted by someone who truly understands her political, social and economic inner workings. Dream Storeys is your post-modernist take on Singapore on paper. I imagine it would make a great Netflix series.

Dream Storeys is available online and at leading Singapore bookstores.