Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

An unflinching story about a young girl kidnapped from China and smuggled to America in the late 1800s. Her journey takes her to a brothel in San Francisco to a mining town in Idaho, where she poses as Jacob.

“Daiyu to Feng to Peony to Jacob Li. When will I be me again? And if I become me again, will I know who she is?”

Not an easy read, as I kept wondering if life would get easier for Daiyu/Jacob. But this is the 1880s and the Chinese Exclusion Act is in play. While I had heard about the Act, I wasn’t aware of the many acts of anti-Chinese violence throughout the country at that time.

Four Treasures of the Sky was thoroughly researched and beautifully written. But I found it difficult to read the parts where the tragic heroine from Dream of the Red Chambers Lin Daiyu manifests herself. Not quite a ghost but perhaps an alter ego of the main character? It’s a way for teenaged Daiyu to emotionally extract herself from the trauma she faces. And she has a lot of traumatic experiences.

Beautiful but brutal.

Asian diaspora

While AAPI month is more of an American event, I wanted to highlight some Asian diaspora from Singapore. I’m from Singapore although I’ve lived in the US for over ten years now. But like many other Chinese Singaporeans, my great-grandparents came from China. And I still have distant relatives who live in China, although I’ve never met them and likely never will. 

In case you’re not familiar, about 75% of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese. About 15% are Malays, 7.5% Indians, and 1.5% Others (these are the official term used). 

Are Singaporeans diaspora? Yes, although Singapore is part of Asia, our ancestors migrated from China to Singapore, and there they stayed and started families. 

What am I? I’m Singaporean, I’m Chinese, I’m Southeast Asian. But living in the US has made me realize that the term “Chinese” is more closely related to China than what it means in Singapore. So at times when I have to fill in a form and tick off my ethnicity, my pen hovers over “Chinese”. Am I Chinese here? Because there’s also other boxes like Taiwanese, Indonesian, Malaysian etc. Maybe I should just be Singaporean. My kids, after all, have declared themselves “Ameriporean”.

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

Good things come in small packages. Like dim sum. Siu Mai and Har Gow are perfect one or two bite dumplings, any bigger and they just seem a bit too much. 

And in Ghost Forest, the scenes and vignettes, are sometimes just one or two pages. Sometimes not even reaching one page. But they convey so much. 

This is the story of a family that moves from Hong Kong to Canada before the 1997 Handover. The dad remains in Hong Kong to work. He’s known as an “astronaut father”, visiting his family for Lunar New Year. 

A Chinese painting by my grandfather

The story opens with 21 days after the father’s death, and the daughter watches a bird perched on her balcony. She says, “Hi Dad”. That made me think of that huge moth that stayed in our house for a few days after my grandfather’s funeral. Some Chinese people believe that moths are the spirits of your dead loved ones visiting you. And maybe that’s just superstition or us clinging to any little symbol that brings us meaning, but somehow that brought some comfort. 

At 272 pages, this is a short and simply written book, but it’s best if you take your time with it. I tend to be a fast reader, so when reading a book like this, I’m forced to slow down, to take a pause between these segments and reflect on them. 

Ghost Forest is a quiet and soft read but it managed to wring out all these emotions from me via its spare prose and blank space. 

Almond by Sohn Won-pyung

I woke up super early Thursday morning to catch the BTS Seoul concert livestream at 2am PST and it was so worth it. I couldn’t really sleep after it ended at 445am. Yes, I really am a big fan of the group! Because it’s the second book I read that is linked to BTS’ series In The Soop and it’s the second one that I’ve been disappointed by (the first was Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I really did not like that book.). But BTS, especially Namjoon aka RM, have previously mentioned several other books that are good reads, like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, and Kitchen

“This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster. One of the monsters is me.”

Ah, I probably had too high expectations of this one as it sounded a bit quirky, since it’s about a boy who doesn’t feel emotions. He has a disorder called alexithymia because of underdeveloped amygdalae, two almond-shaped neurons in the brain. 

Also, his mother runs a secondhand bookstore and uh yeah, that’s definitely a draw for many readers. I love a book that’s set in bookstores or libraries! 

But while I enjoyed the first part of the book, the ending seemed too…easy. Also, the main character just never quite drew me into his story. 

Overall, it was an interesting read but I just wanted more. More depth into the friendship between the boy who can’t feel and the boy who feels too much.

The Red Threads of Fortune by Neon Yang

(Pictured: The Red Threads of Fortune with two Singapore/Malaysian-style dishes. The bottom is a plate of char kway teow or fried rice noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, and squid. The top is also rice noodles, but this one has a gravy poured over it, this is known as horfun or, since we picked it up from a Malaysian restaurant, wat tan hor.)

I had completely forgotten that Neon Yang is from Singapore until I saw the curse word on the page. It’s a rather vulgar word and it stunned me for a second to see it. I’m not used to seeing Singlish (Singaporean English) in fantasy stories!

The Red Threads of Fortune is set after the events in The Black Tides of Heaven, and it’s told from Mokoya’s point of view. We find her chasing a giant Naga in the desert, where she meets Rider, who’s chosen to remain genderless. That’s unusual for this society, where children aren’t assigned a gender when they’re born, but get to choose it for themselves when they know. I’m hoping this is explored more in the rest of the series?

This novella is quite different from The Black Tides of Heaven, reflecting the differences in personality between the twins Mokoya and Akeha. I found that I enjoyed this one more, perhaps because I was already familiar with the world building and the characters, whom we first meet as children in Black Tides. It took me a few tries to get into Black Tides when I read it last year, but it eventually won me over.

It’s been said in a few reviews that these two novellas can be read in any order, but I think reading Black Tides first then Red Threads was better for me as it’s more chronological this way.

And oh, just behold those magnificent covers. I can’t wait to read the rest of the books in the series,

Love in the Big City by Park Sang Young

A great book to finish reading on Valentine’s Day while sitting in the car and waiting for the kids’ tennis class to be done on this cold and cloudy day. What a contrast to yesterday’s heat!

LOVE IN THE BIG CITY is a funny and thoughtful story about Young, a gay Korean student who lives in Seoul. We follow him through his relationships with his best friend Jaehee, a girl he meets in college, as well as a series of men, his first love. 

I admittedly had a bit of trouble getting through this book. The narrative flits back and forth between present and past. If you’re looking for a plot-driven book, this isn’t exactly it. It’s maybe more like an exploration of a queer man’s life in Seoul. Nightlife. College. His mother’s illness. His relationships. All its vibrant highs and heartbreaking lows. 

Quite an unforgettable read. 

Himawari House – Harmony Becker

HIMAWARI HOUSE by HARMONY BECKER, pictured with some Singapore treats – love letters and pineapple tarts. 

A delightful graphic novel about three international students who move to Japan. The main character is Nao, who’s in Japan to connect with her birth country. She moves into a house and becomes good friends with two girls – Hyejung from Korea and Tina from Singapore. They all attend the same Japanese language school. 

Himawari House is a story about growing up, about being out there on your own and far away from home. 

I was definitely not expecting a Singapore accent in this book but the writer really hit it spot on. 

The use of different languages in the book was a great highlight. Not just Japanese language but also Korean. And I guess Singlish (Singapore-style English) can also be counted as a language? (“Like English but deluxe flavor”). 

I loved this book. I loved how the different languages were used – casually, yet effectively showing us how it is to struggle in this multilingual world. It feels weird to write this but I guess it shows that Asian people are different, are distinct. The Korean girl is unique, the Singaporean girl is unique, the American girl who is half-Japanese is unique. We are Asian, and to many people we may look similar (black hair, black eyes) but we are so different from each other. 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an ordinary woman who only ever wears a purple-colored skirt. She doesn’t do anything particularly unusual or unique. She looks for work. She eats a cream bun while sitting on a park bench. She seems to barely make ends meet. 

Our narrator isn’t the Woman in the Purple Skirt. It’s the woman in the yellow cardigan, who watches the woman in the purple skirt, and know her life thoroughly. She seems to want to be friends with the woman in the purple skirt. 

“When the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan goes out walking in the shopping district, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention. But when the Woman in the Purple Skirt goes out, it’s impossible not to pay attention. Nobody could ignore her.”

But it’s not just watching, the reader realizes. The narrator helps the woman in the purple skirt by putting out the job listing magazines at the convenience store, she drops off shampoo at her apartment to make sure her hair gets washed. She eventually finds the Woman a job at the same hotel, cleaning rooms. 

This is part of her attempt to befriend the Woman, by making them colleagues at the same job. But still she watches from afar. 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt becomes popular with the other employees. But the narrator remains invisible, not just to the woman but it seems to almost everyone else working there. 

Some might say this book is disturbing. But I just felt this sadness for the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. A nameless, faceless woman who nobody knows, not even the reader. The loneliness of living in a city leads her to longing for a friend, into voyeurism and idolization of an everyday person.

The Disaster Tourist – Yun Ko-eun

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Simple dinner tonight of a salmon, mushroom, spinach miso soup over rice. Also, some kimchi on the side because I love kimchi! 

It’s probably just me growing old but I often crave simple meals like this soup and rice these days. Although in THE DISASTER TOURIST, they mentioned samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) a couple of times and that made my mouth water…😅 

This book isn’t about food of course. It’s about a woman who works in a disaster tourism agency. She surveys disaster areas, turns them into travel destinations. She’s told to go to an area where the tour isn’t doing so well, a remote island with a sinkhole that’s not living up to people’s expectations of a disaster area. 

And turns out that’s because it’s not exactly a disaster area anymore. 

“According to the rules, it’s only possible for you to quit in the middle of a business trip if you die.”

A quick read, although not exactly the thriller the blurb makes it out to be. 

This book takes off in unexpected ways. It touches on capitalism, the dark side of tourism. Towards the end, it veered off toward the surreal. 

Strangely entertaining and thoughtful. 

Reading: Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin

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I’m very slowly making my way through LAST WORDS FROM MONTMARTRE by QIU MIAOJIN, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich. 

This book begins by telling the reader to “begin anywhere”. It’s a collection of letters. Some to Xu. Some to Yong. Some that read more like a journal entry. But the narrator is unnamed. 

The reason I’m taking this book slowly is it’s full of all this raw emotion that’s pouring out. It’s intense in its musings and meanderings over love and loss. 

Perhaps the hardest part about reading this is knowing that Qiu committed suicide not long after finishing this book (before it was published). She was only 26. And knowing that, I can’t help but read this novel wondering if it’s fiction or based on Qiu’s life. 

“True love makes it through any ordeal. I yearn to be in a relationship that can shake off the frosty wind and the couple still stands hand in hand. I yearn for a love that, because of devoted vigilance, can withstand time’s ceaseless erosion and come out alive.”

Qiu is known as the pioneer of Taiwanese queer literature. She also wrote NOTES OF A CROCODILE.