The Earnest Mask

the earnest maskAuthor: Xi Ni Er

Genre: Asian Literature, Singaporean Literature

Publication: English Translation; November 2012 by Epigram Books

“So many changes. In only a few years.”

“Nothing really changes. What’s different is how you feel inside.”


In this Singapore Literature Prize-winning collection of stories, an aging Japanese ex-soldier, ignorant about the horrors of the Japanese Occupation, returns to Singapore for a nostalgic visit; a young boy’s sole contact with his father consists of a weekly meeting at McDonald’s; and a hopeful employee tries to win over his tumour-stricken boss with traditional Chinese medicine. Set against the backdrop of Singapore’s rapid development from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the poignant and witty stories in The Earnest Mask peel back the veneer of official history, revealing flashes of the personal stories buried beneath.


The Earnest Mask showed me the transformation of Singapore from the 1980’s to how it looks like in the early 2000’s through a series of short short stories. It was the first time I’ve ever read a book written by a Singaporean and set in Singapore. And I can say that this book was the best first time I could ever wish. No wonder the author, Xi Ni Er, was awarded with Singapore’s Cultural Medallion while this book won the Singapore’s Literature Prize in 2008.

The stories are short, three to five pages at most, yet the message that the author wanted to impart can be felt through those few pages. Straightforward yet poignant, imaginative, heart-felt and oftentimes satirical, the stories showed a side of Singapore behind its rich and glamorous appearance.

Xi Ni Er imparts his opinion about the Sino-Japanese war, the indifference of the younger Singaporeans to their country’s culture and tradition, their forgotten history, and the consequences of Singapore’s growth as a first world country. In his short stories the author pointed out how establishments with historical values, as well as their natural resources were compromised and destroyed to build the high rise buildings and modern infrastructures that you can see in Singapore today. How their own language is starting to die and replaced by foreign languages. And how, sadly, the present generation doesn’t feel anything at all about these changes.

I can feel the author’s sincere love for Singapore’s past, culture and tradition and how he must feel sad and disappointed that everything is changing so fast. And that their rich history is now becoming a forgotten memory. As for me, The Earnest Mask gave me a glimpse of Singapore through the eyes of its citizen who knows its heart and soul and not blinded by the glimmer of its outside appearance.


4 stars


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