Feeling a Foreigner in Your Own Country

Did you ever look at the roots of a plant?

Roots. Often intertwined. Always tentacular, gnarled, musty. Buried deep down, the way they grip and furrow through the earth to sustain the life of foliage and flowers is utterly fascinating. As a little girl I would wiggle my nose at them, unable to understand how something ugly to my eyes is vital in the true sense of the word. Thanks to my late father’s giving nature and my love for authenticity, many moons later, roots as an expression of unconditional love to support life and moreover, their necessity to explain where we come from and where we stand unfolded with increasing clarity.

These musings hit me a couple of hours ago when I got home with three verdant houseplants just in time to get the news of yet another instance of Malta’s traditional urban and rural landscape being bulldozered into oblivion to make way for a hideous, treeless concrete jungle which now covers most of the island.

Given the strangeness of how the mind works I would like to share my commentary on Arthur Yap’s poem entitled ‘old house at ang siang hill’ published in 1971. Yap was a Singaporean poet who lived through the transformation from traditional to modern Singapore.

‘old house at ang siang hill’

an unusual house this is

dreams are here before you sleep

tread softly

into the three-storeyed gloom

sit gently

on the straits-born furniture

imported from china

speak quietly

to the contemporary occupants

they are not afraid of you

waiting for you to go

before they dislocate your intentions

so what if this is

your grandfather’s house

his ghost doesn’t live here anymore

your family past is

superannuated grime

which increases with time

otherwise nothing adds or subtracts

the bricks and tiles

until re-development

which will greatly change

this house-that-was

dozens like it along the street

the next and the next as well

nothing much will be missed
eyes not tradition tell you this

In Old House at Ang Siang Hill, Yap takes us to one of the oldest districts in Singapore under assault of cash-register eyed developers who do not give a second’s thought to tradition and heritage.

Citing an old house in the title we are bound to expect a nostalgic tone.  Unsurprisingly, the poem explores the emotions and memories that the old house stirs in the persona, for the house had once belonged to his dead grandfather. Now it belongs to outsiders.

His pleas to respect the “three-storeyed house” denoted by “tread softly”, “sit gently” and “speak quietly” makes us intuit that the persona has been forced to sell the house of his ancestors even though we are never told why he has to sell it.  His nostalgia stands in sharp contrast to the materialistic attitude of “the contemporary occupants” who regard the house as a mere pile of “bricks and tiles” devoid of any emotional connection.

The poem is unusual in form.  It is written in free verse with a notable lack of punctuation that conjures and enacts the passage of time. This is further emphasised by the run-on lines permeating the poem.  In fact, on the surface the three unequal stanzas correspond to the linear sequence of past, present and future.  Yet the bitter-sweet tone running throughout the poem forms a web of shifts of time so that we see the persona’s memories, thoughts and emotions flow into one another unhindered by grammatical and chronological constraints.

The first stanza describes the house as “unusual” because “dreams are here before you sleep”.  The reference to dreams evokes a feeling of mystery and of the supernatural, which helps us to feel the persona’s respect for his ancestors. Although he does not specify an incident or event, he still communicates cherished memories of his grandfather so that we can imagine him having had a very happy and secure childhood. It is also at this point that we feel the presence of the grandfather’s ghost at its most powerful.

The reference to the ‘”straits-born” furniture alludes to the persona’s migrant family who like many Chinese laid anchor in Ang Siang, a one-way road in Singapore’s Chinatown. Named after Chia Ann Siang, a wealthy businessman, the Chinese families who settled there called it qing shang ting which means emotional intelligence.

The series of toned-down imperatives such as “tread softly”, “sit gently” and “speak quietly” are acknowledgement of respect to the memory of previous lives. These gentle pleas create a delicate nostalgia wrapped in dreams, emotions and loving memories.  As a result, we get the feeling of a dialogue between the persona and the ghost of his grandfather.

“Tread softly” is also an echo from W.B. Yeats’ poem, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.  Yap’s use of intertextuality also throws open a window to the imprint of colonization leading to a Prospero and Caliban perspective to the poem. Significantly, redevelopment may correctly be regarded as a clash between colonizer and colonized, yet this time more painful since it renders people foreigners in their own country.

The second stanza immediately introduces a shift in tone, though the idea of a dialogue is kept up.  Gone is the beckoning, gentle and respectful voice.  It is replaced by the blunt, down-to-earth scorn of the “contemporary occupants”.  They are not afraid of the speaker and defy his request for respect.  The use of free verse is truly ingenious in the second stanza because Yap introduces them and their personalities in a most economical yet forceful manner; and without losing sight of the persona’s innermost feelings and sense of judgment:

so what if this is

your grandfather’s house

his ghost doesn’t live here anymore

The previous atmosphere of tranquility and mystery is broken.  The present owners are indeed intent on demystifying and denying the aura of the past.  They relegate the past of the persona’s family to “superannuated grime/which increases with time”.  Their arrogant remarks suggest ingrained dirt that must be completely washed away. But rather than suggesting a putrid (mouldy) past that savagely mocks the persona’s sentimentality and nostalgia, the harsh tone startles us with its callousness.

Unlike the persona’s loving memories of the “straits born furniture”, the “contemporary occupants” cannot wait to make a fortune from redevelopment.  The defacing of the old house looks forward to the suburban nightmare of autonomous, identical houses:

dozens like it along the street

the next and the next as well

The final stanza sums up the attitude displayed in the second stanza’s sarcasm:

nothing much will be missed

eyes not tradition tell you this

This is an attempt to undo and ridicule the speaker’s associations of the house with his family’s traditions, memories and feelings.  The personification of the eyes doubles up as metonymy that further emphasises the dehumanising effect of cold-hearted development.

Therefore, apart from projecting a sad personal story, the poem also makes a highly relevant social comment as it condemns governments and property mongers forcefully championing modernity in the name of progress which obliterates the uniqueness of heritage and tradition. In other words, annihilating all roots.

Sensitive souls empathise with the persona. Others are likely to scoff at his sentimentality. Ask yourself whether like him you are shocked and upset at the total disregard for roots and human bonding and the soulless drive for development.

Do you remember what roots signify? Why is the total disregard to heritage and tradition called progress?

#Arthur Yap #Singapore #free verse #roots #development #progress


Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. beautiful essay Noemi, and thank you for introducing me to this new poet. In San Francisco we have lost housing for ordinary people, bakers, teachers, policemen, government workers. These folks sometimes commute over two hours each way in traffic from as far away as Sacramento. Other are living in their cars north of the GG bridge. Tech firms and developers have taken over my adopted home, and friends are leaving by the droves. Not from oppression and politics, from bad planning, a bias toward wealth and commerce, and a riot of self-interest.. It breaks my heart to see so many homeless on the street. And still no solution. They are being treated miserably in Berkeley where guys with briefcases yell and taunt them. In my New York days I had many friends who had similarly lost their countries due to violence, coups or civil war. The sanctity of home should be an inalienable right.

    • Thank you, Valerie, for your time and appreciation. It saddens me a great deal to hear what’s going in your part of the world and to see a total disregard for human dignity to satisfy insatiable greed a global epidemic. I am totally with you that ‘ the sanctity of home should be an inalienable right’. It is also our duty to cultivate and nourish loving and caring nests in our homes to live and impart sound family values which will hopefully create a ripple effect.

  2. Noemi, you are a gifted writer. Nobody can say that “people” will not read what you write.or you are not writing about subjects people have no interest in. Write as your heart tells you to. Just as you talk about roots in your article know where you are rooted in. Arthur Yap is not a relationship is not a poet I have any familiarity with. You expertly interpreted his poem. That is a gift you have. Like any newspaper or other medium is looking for readers they catch with the opening. You brilliantly started out by enriching us to read your prose about roots after which you deftly introduced us to Arthur Yap. There were many parts of the poem that escaped me but here again you reeled your readers back to you with your interpretations. All around this was superb.

    • I cannot thank you enough, Joel, for your heartfelt appreciation. That some parts of the poem ‘escaped’ you is not much of a problem because its beauty communicates before it is understood. That’s T.E. Elliot’s perception not mine.

    • You are welcome, Noemi. I can appreciate how you must feel when you put your heat into writing only to have somebody like me totally misunderstand what you were trying to convey. Although I took many poetry and literature courses in college I only remember a couple of names but not their work. Over the years I gravitated towards different poets who were singer/songwriters from the protest folk music era who went away from protest music as the ’60s were coming to a close and started write beautiful introspective songs that were ripe with poetry. These artists include Phil Ochs (my favorite to this day), Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, and Bob Dylan to name just a few. As I said you have to write in a style that you feel suits you best. As I mentioned I think you are an amazing writer with great interpretation skills that I clearly do not have. I hope you will keep writing.

    • Joel, how can you say that you have misunderstood when your feedback is so sensitive and insightful!!! As for soulful introspective songs, they are the quintessence of poetry that harks back to the original custom of singing poetic texts. So, it’s no surprise that such songs resonate deeply. I feel the same way about many songs, Italian ones in particular though not exclusively. As for your writing, I am returning your compliments in spades. The way you simultaneously interiorise and externalise every word you write rocks with poetic alchemy. I look forward to much more.

    • Noemi, this was incredibly kind of you. I was sure I misunderstood your article. Sometimes when I am rushing things escape me which I realize later on. Thank you so much for everything. I have a hard time accepting compliments since I never feel that they are earned not to mention I always to prefer to be the giver of the compliments, not the receiver.

  3. “the poem also makes a highly relevant social comment as it condemns governments and property mongers forcefully championing modernity in the name of progress which obliterates the uniqueness of heritage and tradition. In other words, annihilating all roots.” – I agree with this, as I recall the commentary from conversations with my father and in laws. They left their countries of birth between 40-55 years ago under economic and dictatorial hardship, yet when they talk about their lives back home they talk with a sense of nostalgia. When I was last in Malta over 10 years ago, I remember my experiences as they were then in that time, and the times that I had visited beforehand. Based on what I’ve read, seen and heard, this “progress” seems to obliterate all the heritage and tradition I experienced then, to the point where I wonder if I visit next, will it be a holiday to savour the life my father and my older relatives had, or will it be to mourn its passing? – Jason

    • Jason, thank you as always for your perceptive comments. Poetry appraisal as a social comment is the whole point of this write-up and more are in the pipeline. You have easily intuited how what is happening on our beloved Rock is precisely what Yap is talking about. I do not dare answer your last question.