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Clara Chow (赵燕芬) is a Singaporean writer. Her books include the story collections, Dream Storeys, Modern Myths, Not Great But At Least Something and Tales From The K-pop. Under her indie Hermit Press imprint, she has also published two travelogues, New Orleans and Caves; the bilingual poetry title Lousy Love Poems/几首烂情诗 and an experimental prose chapbook There Is No Why, Only... Her writing has been supported by residencies at the University of Iowa, Toji Cultural Center in South Korea and the Shanghai Writers’ Program. Find her on Instagram @midoricomplex.



  1. Do not use the words for greatness, expansiveness or hard-metal radicals. These will give her ideas. Use instead the ones that evoke beauty, virtue and homeliness. For example: Use the Chinese character for swallow 燕, rather than the one for wild migratory goose 雁. Smallness, daintiness is key. Even though they sound the same. Even though she will grow up and fly away, anyway.

  2. Do not give them false hope. Keep it simple—and somewhat illogical. Beautiful Bell, for instance. Or Demure Moon. Render them as part of the landscape, so they will never see themselves as protagonists. Non-playable characters. Let them wander through life cognisant of how little you had wished for them, every time they write their name on a worksheet, fill up a government form. Later, their hand might hesitate as they autograph the fly-leaf of a book they’ve authored, torn between the desire to rename themselves, and the need to remember the slightness you’ve imbued them with, so that they might draw acid from their gut, sit at a keyboard and transcend your pettiness.

  3. Do not bother to remember the name you have given her. Call her by the wrong name—off by the last character—for the rest of your life. In her name, you have inserted the first syllable of the term for “fragrance”, 芬, which her father, your second son, had dutifully inscribed in his neat Maris Stella High-honed handwriting on her birth certificate. But it is the second syllable that you keep calling her—芳. She does not correct you. Not for 45 years. Not even on your deathbed. In fact, she does not go to the hospital to watch you breathe your last, surrounded by your concubines and their condo-grubbing offspring. The names of girls are not important. In fact, the whole business of being asked to name yet another granddaughter is tedious.

  4. You named your seven sons in accordance to empire-building, enshrining in their monikers your ambition to nourish the country, ocean, common populace and eventually the entire planet. They have names like Dragon, Formidable Strength and Glory.

  5. Your daughters have names like Autumn Red and Autumn Moon.

  6. Neither had been born in autumn.

  7. Autumn Moon dies of stomach cancer, barely in her 50s. While she is actively dying, all the way in Vancouver where she migrated to after marriage, someone asks if you would like to speak to her. Wave the telephone away. Say: “What is there to say?” She was the one who chose to leave Singapore. Who flew away from you first. Her three sons are Taiwanese-Canadian outsiders—no harvest for you or Wife Number 2.

  8. There will be no obituary listing all your descendants in the newspaper. The fashion for such things has faded. Nor will there be Taoist priests chanting prayers, reciting the names of your children and their spouses in order of birth in sing-song Cantonese. Some of the spouses’ names, the non-Cantonese ones, will sound downright strange and jarring. They won’t roll off the tongue. Aunt Beautiful Sunset of the Sng Family will be translated into something that sounds like Sour Come Below. It is the fate of girls to have names that will be translated into their husbands’ dialect tongues. Why bother with how they sound to begin with?

  9. For a long time, the granddaughter-misnamed-second-syllable-of-fragrance plots to change by deed poll her Chinese name when she comes of age. She will reinvent herself as Reflection Nimble. It is the name of a heroine from a Louis Cha novel. She imagines herself a Mongolian princess, twirling her braids. She fantasises about rolling with the punches, treading thin air.

  10. After the menfolk come back from the Registry of Births, with the baby girl’s birth certificate newly laminated in their hands, Wife Number 1 will say: “Aiyah! How could you name her that? So inauspicious!” The name, she will exclaim, sounds like part of the proverb 劳燕分飞。Meaning that a pair of lovers goes their separate ways, like tired swallows winging in opposite directions. “This girl will have problems in relationships! She won’t be able to get married!” So it is decided that the baby girl will be called Swallow’s Delight, instead. That the character for “happiness” or “like” will replace the one for “fragrance”.

  11. It does not occur to you to consult Wife Number 1 before naming the child. Her opinion does not count. But the silly daughters-in-law, jockeying for position, listen to it.

  12. When the girl starts primary school, her Chinese teacher frowns at her birth certificate, then at the name her mother has written in careful ballpoint penmanship on the covers of her exercise books. Why is her name different from that on the official records? The teacher says this will not do. So the girl reverts, after seven years of being called one thing, to another thing. There is no escaping her ill fate, it seems.

  13. But you don’t care. All that drama is women’s narratives. Females and their complicated machinations. Wife Number 1 and her superstitions. Wife Number 1, whom you don’t listen to anyway.

  14. When this granddaughter is 17, call her into your study during a Chinese New Year gathering. Seat her down before your heavy teak table, like one of your employees under-performing at work. Tell her to break up with her boyfriend, the Peranakan boy with a dirt bike and barely two ‘O’-level credits to rub together. Tell her that it might not matter now, but his lack of educational qualifications will lead to an intellectual chasm between them down the line. Say: “Don’t marry him. He’s too dumb for you. Trust me, I know. Look at your grandmother. I find it impossible to communicate with her because she never went to school.” The granddaughter will say nothing. But all respect for you will flee from her eyes. It will not occur to you that it was a tactical mistake to mention her grandmother, Wife Number 1. To use her lack of formal schooling to justify your chronic philandering.

  15. Wife Number 1’s name was Marvellous Perfume.

  16. When this granddaughter gets married, arrive late to her wedding reception like an acquaintance. Give her an angpow—a red packet wrapped around two wrinkled ten dollar bills. You have made millions, with the help of your sons; have built a public-listed company. Tell her father that you don’t see the need to pay the market rate for wedding banquets, seeing as the wedding is held in the family home and is only a buffet lunch.

  17. Just like you told her father a long time ago not to let her go abroad for college. They go and never come back, you said. Not expecting your son to take your words so literally to heart. But, of course, he did. That’s what sons do. Back then, the granddaughter had come home with the application form for a Public Service Commission scholarship on a floppy disk. Your son said he would not support her if she went overseas. She did not.

  18. People your generation changed names all the time. It was par for the course. You and your brothers were named after animals by your illiterate peasant parents. Dog. Pig. Ox. It wasn’t after the five of you, boys, crossed the Nanyang—the south sea—from Guangzhou to Shilepo, now Singapore, that you went to a Chinese school and were renamed by a kind teacher. Cultured Scholar was the name he chose for you. What no one told you, but you worked out for yourself: A leopard could change its spots, but it’s still a dog-eat-dog world out there.

  19. A girl then. What would she understand of that? What would she know about shape-shifting?

  20. Years later, you will visit your Second Son and come face to face with a two-year-old boy. Who is this, you will ask. My grandson, your son replies. Your great-grandson. It is the granddaughter who has Swallowed her grandmother’s Fragrance who has given birth to this child. You do not ask the boy’s name. Will not ever know that she has named him with care, without ceding this privilege to anyone else. She will have given him the Chinese character for prominent, outstanding and/or heroic: 杰. When he is 17, she will tell him that his name contains the elements of wood and water, because she wanted him to persevere. Because 留得青山在 不怕没柴烧。

  21. A girl, then, is that. A girl with a lousy, carelessly-given name is always plotting a comeback. She is never one to say die. She will look at all the half-hearted, too-specific, inappropriate “good things” that people who claimed to love her, who shared blood relations with her, would try to foist upon her. She will dig deep into herself to produce the green mountains, strip bare the old hurts inside her, chop her insecurities down and split them for kindling. She will log entire forests of her history and render them into word for pages. And when the paper burns, it turns black and produces a particular smell. The word “swallow” 燕 in her name is also a homonym for hate 厌。There is a dog hidden in the word for hate. Can you see it? No, of course you won’t.

  22. What this granddaughter remembers of the night she visited your wake. The sad face of your other daughter, from the fifth or was it the sixth or seventh mistress. The solemnity and uncertainty with which that other daughter served her relatives drinks. Cold packets of chrysanthemum tea taken from the fridge, placed cautiously on round tables. The granddaughter will fiddle with the peanuts and sweets scattered on thin paper plates that serve as centrepieces in the funeral parlour. The décor will include chandeliers and tasteful wood-panelled walls. The luxury package. She will pay her cursory respects at the altar, bowing thrice while holding joss sticks, then walk to the open coffin and stare at your embalmed, make-up-caked face. She will feel nothing.

  23. She will make lighthearted conversation with her cousins, ignoring the disapproving looks from your other daughter’s friends, as they quietly try to console this young woman—late-issue from your loins. She will ignore the genuine grief over your passing that belongs to this daughter, who filled up the paperwork to claim your body from the hospital and made all the arrangements at Singapore Casket. This daughter will stay, keeping vigil over you every waking moment for three days, before the cremation. She will lay your urn to rest in the niche reserved and paid for by Wife Number 1 many decades ago, so that you would belong to her and only her in death. This daughter. Not heart of your heart, but also somewhat the apple of your cataract-clouded eyes.

  24. And this granddaughter will go downstairs afterwards, after gossiping at your wake, heaving a sigh of relief that obligations have been discharged towards Twenty-Dollar Man. For just as you have botched her name, she has also robbed you of yours in her mind.

  25. This granddaughter, cheerfully ordering then chewing on minced pork noodles in a coffeeshop in Lavender Street, will wonder what is the name of that daughter. Then, idly, she will push this from her mind.

  26. Names. We are all striving for meaning. To pack two or three words with symbolism. Afraid, otherwise, that we will lose definition. Blur at the edges. Be subsumed by life. By the march of humanity’s progress.

  27. A name, you think, is a casual, flitting thing. You don’t let it control you. You say this, rocking back in your chair. You didn’t think it would be this granddaughter you would haunt. Truth be told, vitriolic or not, she is the only one who remembers you. Who still thinks of you with the fondness of a curse. You sit next to her at four in the morning, as she types. You are tethered to this earth, in this tattered form, by this woman you hardly know. You whisper in her ear all the alternative names that you’ve had time now that you’re dead to think through. Names carrying within them power, affection and compassion. You whisper in her ear. Then you shout.

  28. 梦: :


a character you drag as a name,

twin trees obscuring evening’s tide:

            scabbed vision.


— Jenny Xie, “The Rupture Tense”


29.  So let’s try this with the name you have given the girl:


燕: :


a copse of trees, the noble roof barn

      two wings, unbalanced, unco-ordinated

   four tail feathers, forked tongue

        although some days she is nothing

       but a mouth on fire




Feb 5, 2024



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