A Arthur Yap

2 Mothers in an HDB Playground by Arthur Yap

2 Mothers in an HDB Playground is about the conversation held between two mothers at a park, as the title suggests. The names that are used in the poem give away its Singapore routes. Names like Beng and Kim Cheong.

2 Mothers in an HDB Playground by Arthur Yap


Form and Tone

2 Mothers in an HDB Playground is in one stanza and presents itself with no rhyming pattern, meaning that the poem is written in free-verse. This is an appropriate as that represents the “rambling nature of parents when they meet in the eponymous playground. The poem’s tone is lighthearted and playful, almost comic at times.


Analysis of 2 Mothers in an HDB Playground

Lines 1-2

From the off of the poem, 2 Mothers in an HDB Playground, which can be read in full here, the narrator creates an element of tension by creating doubt as to the validity of their own words. They describe the child, Beng, as being so smart but then give the reason for this as the fact that they watch TV. It is generally accepted that watching a lot of TV does not make you smart. In fact, some people describe a television as the “idiot box”


Lines 3-4

Here the narrator turns their attention to the other character’s child describing him as being “quite smart” this could be construed as being a little condescending and paints a picture of this character as being somebody who is full of self-importance.


Lines 5-8

Once again the “gossipy” nature of the narrator comes to the fore. This time as she complains about the playground in which they have met. She complains about the traffic surrounding it. The idea of exams is once again bought to the fore. What is this saying? Is it a commentary on the importance of exams on a child’s cerebral development? Judging by the poet’s own extensive education this may well be the case.


Line 9

kim cheong eats so little.

For this singe line, the narrative voice appears to shift to the other woman who features in 2 Mothers in an HDB Playground. She is not allowed to say much about her son before being cut off.


Lines 10-12

It would appear the narrator is playing games of one-upsmanship with the other mother. She acts like she has all the answers. She seems to think her child smarter and also better at eating! This is a concept that it seems crazy to be competitive over but yet the mother seems to be that way anyway.


Lines 13-15

This is interesting as in this section of the stanza the narrator appears to mitigate what she has said. No longer is she just highlighting her son’s prowess. Now she is instead focusing on a negative. However, whilst it would appear she is being critical of her son, is she in fact just celebrating his cunning?


Lines 16-17

i scold like mad but what for?

if I don’t see it, how can I scold?

She then talks of how his actions go unpunished and tries to justify that decision.


Lines 18-20

Once again we see the superiority complex come to the fore. We also see the TV mentioned again. Could it be that the narrator’s view is warped because so much of what she believes is inspired by TV. Is this a case of dramatic irony as we, the reader can see that she is really just “waffling on” and actually talking nonsense. Perhaps this is an allusion to the effectiveness of TV as an educational tool in general?


Lines 21-24

Here it seems like once again the narrator is quick to talk about how good her situation is by dismissing the importance of money. She states that if their child wastes their vitamins they just as well take their money and throw it into the jamban, which is a type of carnivorous plant, similar to a Venus Fly Trap.


Lines 25-27

In this section of 2 Mothers in an HDB Playground the narrative voice switches for the second time to the other narrator. She gets to give her opinion on her husband’s wasting of money. Suggesting that he wants to get rid of the mosaic floor and replace it with terrazzo, which is almost identical to a mosaic floor in many ways! The insinuation being that he’s happy to spend money on pointless endeavors. Once again the second mother is not afforded much time to speak as she is interrupted.

An alternative interprettion is that this section:

Kim Cheong’s mother and Ah Beng’s mother are trying to compete with each other. KIm Cheong’s mom tells Ah Beng’s mother that “money’s no problem”. When she tells Ah Beng’s mother that Kim Cheong’s “father spends so much / rakes out the mosiac floor & wants to make terrazzo or what”, her intention is to show Ah Beng’s mother that “money’s no problem” and Ah Beng’s mother gets it and this that is why she gets the floor of the conversation back and immediately tells Kim Cheong’s mother that “we also got new furniture, bought from diethelm.”


Lines 28-31

Once again the main narrative voice, the first mother, is bragging. This time showing off about her expensive furniture.


Line 32

that you can’t say, my toa-soh

It is interesting that her daughter is named this. This could be a play on words, Toa-Soh are some of the phrases associated with trigonometry. Despite having a sneaky son, seemingly raised by the television, there is a suggestion that there is an intelligent member of the family. Although the phrase roughly translates to “the eldest brother’s wife”.


Lines 33-35

Once again things revolve around money. Another opportunity for the mother to brag of her wealth.


Lines 36-37

The mother interrupts herself to call her son who is “playing the fool” this is typical of Arthur yaps poetry as he uses the clever play on words. Do we really think the child is “playing” the fool, or is he actually foolish? This is shrouded in ambiguity.


Line 38

your tuition teacher is coming,

This seems to be the first others final display of wealth having a private tutor for her son.


Lines 39-41

Although, quite brilliantly the second narrator gets the last laugh as she calls her son over and announces that he has to go home to get washed as they are going for a ride in their dads new car! In this we see an example of the singapore/english slang that Yap is famed for, Singlish as it is known. Chya-yong means “eat wind” and is slang for going for a drive


About Arthur Yap

Arthur Yap was a Singapore poet. He came from a large family. He studied at Singapore university and secured a scholarship to study at Leeds University where he eventually became a lecturer. Yap is famous for his linguistic prowess. He often using subtle plays on words in his poems and using whimsy and humour to delight his fans.

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Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Poem Analysis team member ever since Novemer 2015, providing critical analysis of poems from the past and present. Nowadays, he helps Will manage the team and the website.
  • When was this poem analysis posted?

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Aug 16, 2016

  • Bernard Chan says:

    Pardon the two typo errors in my comments – “believe” and “interpreted”. Didn’t check before hitting the “submit button”. Thanks!

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      No worries. You should see my spelling!

  • Bernard Chan says:

    I hope you won’t delete the few comments I’ve submitted.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      absolutely not! It’s rare a comment gets deleted on here and a constructive one would never be binned! Although it may take me a while to go through them. Thank you for adding your opinions. Honestly, I had no context for the poem whatsoever, nor could I find any so when I was analysing it I effectively went in blind so having some expert feedback is really informative!

  • Bernard Chan says:

    I disagree with your analysis of lines 25-27. I belive Kim Cheong’s mother and Ah Beng’s mother are trying to compete with each other. KIm Cheong’s mom tells Ah Beng’s mother that “money’s no problem”. When she tells Ah Beng’s mother that Kim Cheong’s “father spends so much / rakes out the mosiac floor & wants to make terrazzo or what”, her intention is to show Ah Beng’s mother that “money’s no problem” and Ah Beng’s mother gets it and this that is why she gets the floor of the conversation back and immediately tells Kim Cheong’s mother that “we also got new furniture, bought from diethelm.”
    (This is known as conversation implicature in pragmatics or conversation discourse analysis.)

    The conversation between the two mothers reminds me of the song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun”.
    “Anything you can do, I can do better than You can do,
    I can do, we can do, I can do, much much better than You.
    Anything you can do, I can do better.
    I can do anything better than you.
    No you can’t.
    Yes I can.
    No you can’t.
    Yes I can.
    No you can’t.
    Yes I can, yes I can.
    Anything You can be I can be greater.
    Sooner or later, I’m greater than you.
    No, you’re not.
    Yes I am.
    No you’re not.
    Yes I am.
    No you’re not.
    Yes I am, yes I am.”

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thanks this is great stuff. I hope you don’t mind I have actually added it to the analysis verbatim as an alternate interpretation?

  • Bernard Chan says:

    Lines 36-37
    If you play the fool or act the fool, you behave in a playful, childish, and foolish way, usually in order to make other people laugh.

    In Singapore, when we tell someone to “stop playing the fool”, we mean to tell the person to stop horsing around or to chide him for fooling around / horsing around.

    The mother tells the child to “stop playing the fool”. I think here, the mother is telling the child to stop horsing around or stop playing as he has to get ready for his tuition, because his “tuition teacher is coming”. I do not agree with your analysis that the child is “actually foolish” beause it is apparent in the poem that this mother thinks very highly of her child – “ah beng is so smart / already he can watch tv and know the whole story”.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      yeah. I think you are on the money with that interpretation.

  • Bernard Chan says:

    A point of interest to consider is the title itself. It should have been “an HDB” instead of “a HDB”. This is a common mistake made by Singaporeans. I believe the late Arthur Yap deliberately used “a” instead of “an” to lend authenticity to how the average Singaporeans speak / use English / Singlish. Code-switching is also evident in the poem. This mirrors how Singaporeans often code-switch as Singapore is a multi-racial society.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s really interesting! Such a subtle thing but makes a difference to the meaning.

  • Bernard Chan says:

    Your analysis of Line 32 is incorrect as you’ve misintrepreted “toa-soh”, which means “the eldest brother’s wife” in Hokkien.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Interesting. I have adjusted the article to include this translation.

  • Bernard Chan says:

    “Jamban” means toilet in Malay. “Throwing their money into the jamban” means “throwing money down the drain”, i.e. wasting money. “toa-soh” means elder sister-in-law, i.e. “an elder brother’s wife”. It is Hokkien, a Chinese dialect. “Your tuition teacher is coming” – Students in Singapore attend lots of tuition classes because parents do not want their children to lose out to their peers. It is the “kiasu” mentality.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      It would seem that idiom is pretty global!

  • And btw Jamban means toilet in Malaysia. But it was really helpful thx very much.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thanks – that’s really interesting. I actually really struggled with this poem so it’s nice to get positive feedback!

  • Dear LJ
    I would like to enquire about LINE 32.
    “toa-soh” is “big sister-in-law” (as in Big / Elder Brother’s Wife” in Hokkien/Teochew (dialects).
    Are you sure it is referring to a daughter’s name?

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