“Singapore used to be British. It had been full of English words when he stopped over in 1969. Raffles Hotel, Stamford and Mountbatten Roads, Clark Quay, Elizabeth Walk, Newton Circus, Somerset and Orchard, City Hall and the Cricket Club. The Chinese were everywhere, but they had English names also. Wilson, Janet, Harry, Robert, Thomas, Susan, Irene, James, even odd English names like Anson and Clifton, Deidre and Verena. Anglo-Chinese was the norm. British subjects, Chinese ancestry, for over a hundred years.”
Stepping into Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s world in Joss and Gold was a little like going home – the ‘lahs‘ at the end of dialogue, the use of the word ‘aircon’, the food described, the British cultural/historical background, it made me think of home (i.e. Singapore), and it’s been more than a year now since I’ve been back there. And lately I’ve been having pangs for Singapore food, simple things like fish noodle soup and chicken rice (which I ended up making for dinner last night – by opening a bottle of paste and adding it into my jasmine rice and serving it with stirfried bok choy and shitake mushrooms, and grilled chicken).
Back to Joss and Gold, the story opens in late 1960s Malaysia, a time filled with ethnic tensions, where Li An is an English tutor at the university and is married to Henry Yeh, a safe bet, a scientist from a wealthy family. Li An meets American Chester Brookfield, who is on a Peace Corps assignment, teaching woodwork at a local high school and rooming with two Malay friends. He opens her eyes and makes her question her place in society, her marriage, even the western poetry she teaches in class: “This is all British culture, get it? British. We had a revolution and threw them out with the tea bags, so I know what I’m talking about. You’ve got your own culture. That’s what you should be teaching.” And one night, under a curfew due to racial violence, her sheltered life changes completely.
The narrative then skips ahead to Chester, who’s living in New York in 1980. He’s married to Meryl, who wants him to go for a vasectomy, and as he mulls that over, he thinks back to the secret he’s been keeping for over a decade, that his night with Li An had led to a child whom he’s never acknowledged or laid eyes on. The third part of the book has him back in Southeast Asia, this time to Singapore where his old friends now live, where he finds that Li An has changed – no longer is her life about literature, about poetry, but facts and figures as the editor-in-chief of a top business journal.
As Li An, Chester and the various other characters come to terms with their relationships, their past and their present, society is changing around them, instead of racial tensions, it’s all about business. However, as the story progressed from tense Malaysia to suburban New York to all-business Singapore, my interest in the characters began to wane. I didn’t like how Li An seemed to have lost herself, and become this cold-hearted woman. And she was the only character I liked in the first place – Henry seems to be made of cardboard, Chester… well… I never quite latched onto him somehow, although I grew fond of Grandma Yeh (Henry’s mother) as she stuck by Li An and her daughter. Joss and Gold was, for me, a satisfactory read, the setting sticking with me more than the storyline.