THE ORCHID FOLIOS
By Mok Zining
Ethos Books/ Paperback/ 144 pages/ $20.33/ Available here “To repot an orchid, first loosen the roots’ hold on the soil.” In her debut, Singaporean writer Mok Zining untangles the orchid from the symbolism it is so heavily entwined with.
“Initially, I was drawn to orchid diplomacy and the way it was used in national narratives,” says Mok, 25, referring to Singapore’s tradition of naming new orchid hybrids after foreign dignitaries.
“But later, it was just the strangeness of orchids themselves, how wonderfully adaptable and diverse they are. Some of them look like animals; some of them look like bugs. I like orchids that look like birds.” Like the flowers that are its subject, The Orchid Folios is a hybrid – part poetry collection, part documentary novella. It is narrated in part by a fictional florist mourning her late mother, who taught her everything she knew about orchids.
Interwoven with the narrative are snippets of verse, essay questions on colonialism and even advertisements for orchid-inspired products, all of which question the ways in which Singapore’s national narrative was trimmed and arranged into what it is today.
“A word is a cutting,” Mok writes, “a sentence a bouquet.” Cuttings, strewn in water, absorb new meanings through fresh context.
Mok, a dancer, is pursuing a master of fine arts at the University of Minnesota but had to return to Singapore in mid-March due to the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States. She has worked on the collection on and off since 2016. Though deceptively slender, it is heavily researched. She travelled to London to visit Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society.
She also looked at orchid cuttings more than a century old in the notebook of Botanic Gardens director Henry Ridley, who first registered the hybrid Vanda Miss Joaquim, Singapore’s national flower, in 1893.
The hybrid was thought for years to have been discovered by Singapore botanist Agnes Joaquim. It was only in this century that she was finally recognised as having not stumbled upon but created the Vanda Miss Joaquim, making her the first woman in the world to hybridise an orchid.
Mok has no floristry experience herself, although after her book was published, a reader who is a gardener gifted her a phalaenopsis hybrid.
She is working on another book about sand and how it is used in reclamation and construction. “I am drawn to objects that already have a lot of symbolism,” she says, “but what I’m really looking for is the stuff that’s left out, that I can work with without repeating a certain dominant narrative.”
With The Orchid Folios, she began by deconstructing the orchid as a symbol, but felt this to be unproductive towards the end. “I was stuck in this framework of orchids as a natural thing, orchids as a commercialised thing, orchids as a national symbol. I had to radically change that.
“Instead of deconstruction, the focus is more on growth and possibility. The florist goes from arrangements to actually growing an orchid.”