Seafood high tea at The Westin Singapore

My mum was the one who suggested this high tea at the lobby lounge of the Westin hotel in Singapore’s financial district. I hadn’t even known that the Westin had a new hotel and that it was located in the CBD! There was quite a bit of construction around the hotel and to be honest walking around the financial district is always confusing for me – the tall buildings all kind of look the same and the GPS doesn’t work accurately because of said tall buildings.

But I finally found it.

The lobby lounge is on the 32nd floor and has a view of the port and part of Sentosa.

This is the first course. Each person gets a plate of assorted seafood bites including mussels, prawns, seared tuna and more. I quite liked the lobster and mushroom torchon, the addition of the chili on the seared tuna, and that poached prawn open-faced sandwich. The mussels, with the fruity dressing, was a bit sweet for me.

The top tier held crab sandwiches on pumpernickel bread – we got two each.

A closer look at the plate.

I loved how the soy sauce was in a pipette

Second course was lobster thermidor and an oyster each. The oysters came with three dressings – champagne, lychee bourbon and lime, shallot vinaigrette. To be honest, I prefer eating my oysters as is, with just a squeeze of lemon, but I tasted each dressing and though that the lychee one was quite fun.

And finally dessert.

There was pistachio and cherry cheesecake (I’m not a fan of cheesecake and this one didn’t change my mind about that).

There was a yummy mango and lime tart

From a different angle. The whipped cream was meant to be eaten with the chocolate chip cookies and I must say that those cookies were divine!

The little cups hold tiramisu which were really delicious and full of coffee flavour.

I’m not usually a fan of chocolate-dipped strawberries (or white chocolate) but I must say that these strawberries dipped in white chocolate and lemon were quite refreshing because of that very zesty lemon dip!

For all three of us, we barely touched the Truffle Cupcake. It was a very strange taste. Every part of the cupcake, from white chocolate shard, to the frosting, to the cupcake batter itself was infused with truffle. I believe this is the first time I’ve had a truffle-flavored dessert. I’ve had truffles on pasta, truffle fries etc, but definitely nothing sweet. And truffle is such an overpowering taste that even the fork I used had a faint truffle-y taste afterwards. Maybe if they had just put truffle in the frosting, it would have been better? I don’t know. I’m not quite sure I would eat a truffle dessert ever again.

Truffle cupcakes aside, this was a lovely high tea at The Westin Singapore. Attentive and pleasant service, a very nice and quiet lobby lounge (sometimes lobby lounges can be very noisy but this whole hotel was quite pleasant and calm), some very delicious savoury moments and nice sweet flavours, this seafood high tea gets the thumbs up from me.


A Phuket getaway

Ah can life get any better than this?

We arrived in Phuket in the middle of a storm (the kind that even the taxi driver had to slow down so he could see the road better) so we weren’t able to fully appreciate the beauty of SALA Phuket hotel until the next morning.

Pouring rain as we sipped our welcome drink and checked in

Lemongrass welcome drink

An outdoor bathroom, the rain shower is behind me

I love how the front desk staff walked us into the villa, showed us around, and sat down with us to present us with samples of soaps, body lotions and even pillows to choose from. And I must say I had an easy decision as I loved all their lemongrass-scented lotions and soaps which were the standard. They also had some cinnamon, herbal scents that were nice too.

We lounged around in the room until dinner time and walked out in the rain (with the hotel-provided umbrellas) to the open-air restaurant. The winds were so strong I thought my umbrella would blow away several times. August is the start of rainy season in Phuket and it’s the low season.

The hotel restaurant is surprisingly good. Its menu boasts a mixture of international dishes but we went for local food with a papaya salad, a pork, basil and green bean dish, and a beef curry. Note to self, when in Thailand, “medium spicy” equals “really quite spicy” for me.

It was also Martini Monday with Martinis at just 180THB or US$5.40 (usual price 290THB or US$8.70)

Our first proper day in Phuket and we finally had sunshine!

It was nice to wander around the hotel sans umbrellas and get to see the place. It’s very beautiful with lots of trees everywhere. And so quiet.

I like how they’ve got a library full of books. Most of them aren’t in English!

We also got to enjoy our first breakfast at the hotel, which was included with our room rate. I love that they have a buffet as well as an a la carte selection. I enjoyed the yoghurts and fruits and pastries while waiting for my eggs shashuka to arrive. The husband’s choice was the waffles.

We finally got to use the pool too.

We wandered out to the beach to catch the sunset.

And on Tuesday night there’s a singer-guitarist who has a fun repertoire including Coldplay, Oasis, Ed Sheeren

We kicked our dinner off with 1-for-1 Tiki drinks. He got a Mai Thai and I got an Oriental Mule. I love lemongrass drinks and this was splendid and refreshing.

I ordered the duck leg and it was crispy on the outside and so tender inside. It was served with kale.

We finally had room for dessert and went with the lava cake served with vanilla ice cream and a raspberry compote.

On Wednesday we went out to Phuket Town. Salad resort is a little bit secluded with just a few other resorts along Mai Khao beach on the north-west side of Phuket, about 20 minutes from the airport. The more popular area, Patong Beach is about an hour away. And our trip to Phuket Town also took about an hour as traffic was heavy at times. Phuket Town looks quite a bit like some parts of Singapore with its old shophouses. And one guy I spoke to whose home has become a shop/museum said his ancestors came to Phuket from Malacca, which sort of explains why there was so much Peranakan/Nonya heritage around. The hotel shuttle also took us to the main shopping mall where we bought some things for the kids, lots of dried mango and the best coconut ice cream ever. It sat on a bed of sticky rice and was topped with fresh young coconut and peanuts. It was unctuous and creamy yet not too sweet. It was an absolute delight to eat and I wish I could have had another!

It’s a good thing that the hotel restaurant has such a wide variety and high standards as we ate all our dinners there. On our last night we went for Thai choices. Fish cake, tempura soft shell crab with green mango salad, and a massamun curry. The portions are always sizeable so sharing two starters and a main was plenty for us.

I finally remembered to take some photos of the buffet breakfast. There was also some homemade yoghurt pots with fruit at the bottom, lots of cake and pastries and fruits. I loved the lady finger bananas that I ate every morning – they’re about the size of my index finger! And I enjoyed the congee with its toppings of pickled radish, coriander and ginger as well as the usual Thai condiments of chili slices in vinegar, fish sauce and chili powder.

It was such an unforgettable stay in Phuket both in terms of the accommodation as well as the food at Sala Phuket. It was a peaceful quiet place with such wonderful and friendly staff. I highly recommend Sala if you’re ever planning to visit Phuket. And it looks like they’ve got several other hotels throughout Thailand too.

Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

Weekend Cooking: What I ate at Singapore Day

The day we had been waiting for finally arrived! It was the first ever Singapore Day to be held on the west coast!

Singapore Day has been held once a year in a different city since 2007. It’s been held in the US twice but always in New York City (it’s also been in Australia, China, London). So we’ve never had the chance to go to one. It’s organized by the Overseas Singaporean Unit of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Singapore consulate does organize a yearly event but nothing on this scale. And scale it was. They flew in not just entertainers, hosts, singers, musical acts but also hawkers who are known for their Singapore food. Oh boy what a treat!!! And even the Deputy Prime Minister and some other ministers joined in the fun.

It was held at Pier 70 in San Francisco, and it was such an odd place for an event celebrating Singapore, a country known for its strict rules,  well-manicured landscapes and clean streets. This place was an old warehouse with a big outdoor area where the hawkers were set up.

And wow the variety they provided! Laksa, nasi lemak, chicken rice, carrot cake, Hokkien mee, satay, roti prata, BBQ sambal stingray, desserts like pulot hitam and cheng tng and even Singapore-style coffee!

My kids loved the satay and the chicken rice. What we call “carrot cake” is actual a steamed white radish ‘cake’ then chopped up and fried with eggs and preserved radish. This is the ‘white’ version. The ‘black’ version has sweet black soy sauce added so it is sweet and salty.

The two desserts – pulot hitam or black glutinous rice cooked down and served with coconut milk on the left; cheng tng or a ‘cooling soup’ on the right with dried longan, gingko and barley inside.

Singapore-style coffee. There are lots of ways to order coffee in Singapore, here’s an infographic! Essentially if you order ‘Kopi’ you get condensed milk in it. ‘kopi o’ is black coffee and ‘kopi si’ is with evaporated milk instead of condensed. If you want tea, you order ‘teh’ with the same ending sounds as below.



The uncle making the roti prata looked like he was having fun. When it was almost my turn he said, “where’s the cameras? You ready?” Then started flipping his prata!

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Of course there was entertainment and they were very fun, although naturally the jokes were very Singapore-centric. It was just a fun weekend hanging out with other Singaporeans in the Bay Area (and beyond – some even flew in from Canada, Seattle, Texas etc). And it made everyone think of home. Which is obviously the point that the Overseas Singaporean Unit is trying to put across. So mission accomplished!


Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

What I read in Singapore (1): Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

I always have such plans to do all kinds of reading when I’m holidaying in Singapore. But the truth is, with two kids, with family and friends to see, with things to do, places to go, foods to eat, it isn’t an ideal reading holiday.

So every time I go, I load up my Overdrive app from the library on my Nexus 7 tablet, and also download a few Overdrive-Kindle books, and this time also, some Scribd books. All with good intentions to do lots of reading. I did manage to read a few books this time. Here is one of them.


Silver Sparrow – Tayari Jones

I loved this book. I loved loved loved this book. Tayari Jones is such a good writer. Why don’t we talk about her and her work more? Perhaps it’s because she’s just finished writing her new book, which I recently saw on her Instagram

Silver Sparrow opens with, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”

And that kind of explains it all. It is a story about two teenaged girls caught up in a lie of their father’s making. Dana is the secret daughter. The one whose story we first learn of, the one we sympathize with because we are reading it from her point of view. The one who only gets her father once a week. The one who has to be kept a secret and keep secrets.

Chaurisse is the ‘real’ daughter, the one who is publicly acknowledged. She lives in a different part of the same city as Dana. And she and her mother do not know about her father’s other family. We hear from her in the second half of the book.

Eventually the two girls meet and even become friends, but how can this be, with one knowing what the other does not?

While the book focuses on Dana and Chaurisse, the strength of Silver Sparrow lies also in the way Jones’ other characters are so fully developed. The two wives, the bigamist himself and even his best friend Raleigh. All of whom contribute to this unusual family. Even James’ mother, whom we only meet for a while, is fully fleshed out, that even now, it’s so easy to imagine her as a character.

Raleigh was, to me, an especially intriguing character. He’s an outsider but also part of the family, almost a second father to the girls. At the same time I am never entirely sure what he gets out of this, why he aids and abets in this deception.

Silver Sparrow is such a beauty of a book. It is elegant in the way the narrative is divided into the two girls’ point of views, not in a flitting back-and-forth way as many books are written, but how we hear the story from Dana’s viewpoint, then in the second half, the plotline continues but from Chaurisse’s side. It is mesmerizing in the lies, the half-lies, half-truths that envelop them all. And with its two young women at its centre, it is bold and full of life and youth and heart.


You can read an excerpt of the book and listen to Jones’ interview with NPR’s All Things Considered here



I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge and


 Read Diverse Books Year-Round


Home again home again jiggety-jig



It is one thing to pack and get ready for a three-week holiday in Singapore, and another thing completely to unpack and be done with a three-week holiday.

We flew off on Sunday morning 925 am Singapore time, arrived in Seoul after a 5.5 hour flight for what seemed like a ridiculously long line waiting for airport staff to check bags of transiting passengers (and for some reason, they were suspicious of two toy trains my husband was carrying for the boys), then finally after 9 hours, arrived early in SFO only to have to wait on the plane for 20 minutes before the gate was available. Then the usual long waits for immigration and bags. And then it was home, thanks to a neighbour who picked us up for the hour-long drive home.

Home to a cold, quiet house.

“I forgot what our house looked like,” said the four-year-old.

They were relatively refreshed, after having slept for a few hours on the last leg of the flight.

I couldn’t. I’m never any good on planes, never was. And this time had to take Panadol to quell an impending headache and decline the dinner meal after the food smells completely overwhelmed me.

The kids remarkably lasted until bedtime, although bedtime was an early one last night. However, just an hour or so later, the two-year-old was sobbing. He would proceed to wake up crying every hour, having to patted to sleep. At one point he asked me, “are we going to mama’s house tomorrow? I want mama to come pick me up, ah kong to pick up gege”. Mama is what they call their paternal grandmother, ah kong is paternal grandfather.

It must be so hard for him to understand, that they are half a world and many time zones away, and no longer in the same room, same house, same country as they are. It made me tear up as I tried to calm him down, promising to Skype them and let him see them.

I was intending for this post to be a It’s Monday post, but as I was reflecting on the past day, in my somewhat tired state, I just thought it would be about all this.

All the unpacking, putting away clean clothes, washing dirty ones. All the toiletries, all the miscellaneous things that one finds wondering, now why did I bring that for?

All the unpacking of biscuits and goodies from Singapore. Some bubble-wrapped in the hope of avoiding crumbs.

There were presents for under the Christmas tree, there were books and toys for the boys.

And there were three weeks gone, away from our house in California, now not really feeling so much like home in its chilly hushed state.

It was a night of getting used to the cold, a night of getting used to wearing socks and sweaters around the house, a night of getting used to the quiet, the very quiet of the suburbs we live in. The train sounds its horn in the distance, some cars rev by, an ambulance or fire truck rushes off, siren blaring. But it is still very quiet. In Singapore, there is always noise, a motorcycle, buses, airplanes, a neighbour’s child crying, someone’s TV on too loud, a dog barking, the aircon whooshing out cold air in a desperate effort to cool the house down. And those noisy mynahs that chatter way too early in the morning, right outside the window.

We always think about going back.

 One day. 

(edited to add: I hope to get back to writing some bookish bits again, once things settle down) 


Of childhood libraries and Imaginary Friends

So among the joys of parenthood is rediscovering childrens’ books (other joys include being up before six but that’s a different story).

While Wee Reader hangs out at the tables (in our library there are plenty of wooden puzzles and bead mazes to play with – and in any other library, other kids to observe and books to browse), I browse the shelves and shelves of board books and picture books. And there are plenty to delight the adult reader!

When we were back in Singapore, I made sure to introduce Wee Reader to my childhood library, the Queenstown library, the inside of which has been renovated but it’s still the same two-story building, built in 1970, the first full-time Branch library (once a solemn blue, now a very happening orange!) along Margaret Drive. This is quite a feat in forever-changing, always-a-construction-site Singapore.

The rest of the neighbourhood is a different story altogether, with the polyclinic now a dormitory for construction workers, the old cinema and bowling alley all long gone. And sadly, so is the hawker center that used to hold food stalls that sold some yummy duck rice, chicken rice and fishball noodles!

But the library still stolidly stands on (at least for now). And for that I am grateful. For it is a part of Singapore that I am truly fond of.

It’s been many years since I’ve patronized the children’s section of the Queenstown library. Long gone are the days when I would have to open all the books to the front pages for the librarian to stamp a date. These days, the borrowing machines are so smoothly high-tech that the books don’t even need to be opened or barcode-scanned at all, thanks to RFID. And I was delighted to learn that the borrowing limit has been upped from FOUR (yes, that meant that I always carried around other people’s library cards, so that I could borrow 12 instead of FOUR) to SIXTEEN.




But back to the picture books. I wish I were a child today, there are so very many board books and picture books to suit every interest and theme. My little fellow zooms in for the vehicle/construction books – trains, planes, trucks, cement mixers, bulldozers? That’s his ideal book!

(In case you have a like-minded toddler, Wee Reader and I would highly recommend Demolition by Sally Sutton, Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, and B is for Bulldozer by June Sobel, among others. Perhaps that would make a good future post!)


So it was with some delight that I read Imaginary Friends: 26 Fables for the Kid in Us, written by my friend Melanie Lee and illustrated by Sheryl Khor. While not a picture book, its short tales and cheerful artwork make for a fun visual read.

This e-book takes us from shiny Apples to Zealous Zithers, with even a Tenacious Teabag in between.

I enjoyed the Singaporean flavour of it, with Dan the Durian Man looking for love among the fruits.

And sniggered as I recalled being a primary school student who enjoyed poking pens into erasers, leaving them looking “diseased with small black dots all over”, just like in E is for Elly Eraser, who finds that life in the Pencilbox isn’t looking so great anymore, thanks to Loratio Liquid Paper.

But perhaps the most apt tale for me these days is S is for Sheila the Sleepy Salmon, where after the school is attacked, Sheila finds herself teaching the young ones to rest in order to live another day.

The moral of the story: “In the hustle and bustle of life, we could all do with more sleep.”

With two kids under the age of three in the house, I could not agree more.

Imaginary Friends is an e-book available on Kobo

MELANIE LEE is a writer and editor in Singapore. Her work has been published in Travel + Leisure (Southeast Asia), Yahoo! Singapore and TODAY newspaper, amongst others. She has also co-authored a spiritual book, Quiet Journeys: Finding Stillness in Chaos, and edited heritage and architecture coffee-table books. For more information, please visit her website at

SHERYL KHOR is a writer and self-taught illustrator in Singapore. Trained in Creative Arts, with experience in theatre, web and fashion design, she now hones her skills with crafting sessions at home with her two young children. She also designs for, an online fashion store. 

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan


It’s the wedding of the year and the who’s who of Singapore and the region have been invited, including Nicholas Young and his girlfriend Rachel Chu.

Rachel Chu? Of the Taipei Plastics Chus?

Nope. Just Rachel Chu. NYU economics professor.

Being brought up in California by her hardworking realtor mother means that she is just one of the hoi polloi, not the sort of girl that Nicholas Young of the “perfectly tousled black hair, chiseled Cantonese pop-idol features, and impossibly thick eyelashes” and, more importantly, heir apparent to both the Young and Shang fortunes, should be with, at least that’s what everyone in Singapore thinks. Everyone that is, who knows who Nicholas Young is. Because the Young family is so upper crust that one has to be upper crust to even know who they are: “a secretive, rarefied circle of families virtually unknown to outsiders who possessed immeasurably vast fortunes”. Even Rachel’s wealthy Singaporean friend Peik Lin who lives in a $30 million dollar house with a monstrous four-tiered marble fountain in the driveway hasn’t the slightest clue who they are.

So essentially this is a book about a young Asian-American being invited to meet her boyfriend’s ridiculously rich Chinese Singaporean family in Singapore. He assures her that “everyone will adore you” but of course they don’t. His suspicious mother even makes a trip to Shenzhen, China, to track down Rachel’s family background. Needless to say, it does not bode well for our innocent Rachel.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, Eddie felt extremely deprived compared to most of his friends. He didn’t have a house on the Peak. He didn’t have his own plane. He didn’t have a full-time crew for his yacht, which was much too small to host more than ten guests for brunch comfortably. He didn’t have any Rothkos or Pollocks or the other dead American artists one was required to hang on the wall in order to be considered truly rich these days. And unlike Leo, Eddie’s parents were the old-fashioned type—insisting from the moment Eddie graduated that he learn to live off his earnings.

This is a world filled with beautiful people, designer clothes, private jets, vacation homes, exclusive resorts, servants, chauffeurs and millions and millions (and billions) of dollars. It is very much as its title points out, about the crazy rich of Asia (mostly Singapore and Hong Kong). Singapore has the most millionaires per capita (probably due to our crazy property prices), and apparently has more billionaires than Tokyo,

“There are the Chinese from Mainland China, who made their fortunes in the past decade like all the Russians, but then there are the Overseas Chinese. These are the ones who left China long before the Communists came in, in many cases hundreds of years ago, and spread throughout the rest of Asia, quietly amassing great fortunes over time. If you look at all the countries in Southeast Asia— especially Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia— you’ll see that virtually all the commerce is controlled by the Overseas Chinese. ”

It is a life most of us can only dream about and through this book, experience it for a while, if you are so inclined. Such as a $40 million wedding:

Thirty-foot-tall topiaries in gigantic pots and colossal spirals of pink roses encircled the field, where dozens of whimsical gazebos festooned in striped pastel taffeta had been built. In the center, an immense teapot spouted a waterfall of bubbly champagne into a cup the size of a small swimming pool, and a full string ensemble performed on what appeared to be a giant revolving Wedgwood plate. The scale of everything made the guests feel as if they had been transported to a tea party for giants.

This by the way was just the reception. The church ceremony and the dinner being two completely different affairs.

Kwan says in a Vanity Fair interview that he had to tone down many parts of the book: “They say truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but there’s such a thing as believability when you’re writing a novel. I did a lot more simplifying and cutting out of the decadence and the excess than I did of adding it on, if you can believe that.”

And be warned, there’s a lot of brand-dropping – VBH, Pierre Hardy, Alexia Mabille, Lanvin, Marie-Chantal. It might make you reach for that copy of Vogue the next time you’re at the bookstore.

As a Singaporean born and bred (although having for the past 4.5 years lived in California), I enjoyed this rare opportunity to read something set in Singapore by someone who is familiar with it – well sort of, Kwan lived there until he was 12 and now lives in Manhattan – although it is a lifestyle I am a stranger to. Well, it was fun to read of mentions of various schools preferred by the rich (Nicholas attended Anglo-Chinese School, as did his creator Kwan: ““Nicholas Young … sounds like an ACS boy,” P.T. chimed in. “All those ACS boys have Christian names.”), various disguised names of places (Kingsford Hotel = Goodwood Park Hotel?), and of course descriptions of our cuisine.

All the descriptions of food made me miss Singapore, because we are a rather food-obsessed country. Sigh….

There was the famous char kuay teow, a fried omelet with oysters called orh luak, Malay rojak salad bursting with chunks of pineapple and cucumber, Hokkien-style noodles in a thick garlicky gravy, a fish cake smoked in coconut leaves called otah otah, and a hundred sticks of chicken and beef satay.

Kwan does not hold back in this tale of excess. Among the many gems (literal and otherwise) include a 118-carat diamond brooch the size of a golf ball; a woman flies her saris to New Delhi to get them cleaned; a mirror in a closet that takes photos and remembers everything one wears; a state-of-the-art Ayurvedic yoga studio with inlaid pebble walls and heated pine floors in a private jet; a yacht with a karaoke lounge, a chapel, a casino, a sushi bar complete with a full-time sushi chef from Hokkaido, two swimming pools, and an outdoor bowling alley on the uppermost deck that also converted into a runway for fashion shows. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Kwan sums up his book: “It’s voyeuristic, it’s dynasty, it’s Downton Abbey, and no one’s told it from this Asian perspective.” No wonder the film rights have been snapped up. It would make for a fun movie to watch, and while this book has its issues (too many footnotes; and for an economics prof Rachel is rather naive and unworldly and seems more like someone just out of school) it was an enjoyable beach-y, summery read.

I have to thank JoV of Bibliojunkie for first bringing this book to my attention!

Reading Southeast Asia

I’ve spent most of my life in Singapore, that tiny city-state near the equator. But it was only since moving away from it, a year in the UK, six years now in California, that I have begun to concern myself with reading more books by Southeast Asians, or set in Southeast Asia.


Imaginary Friends – Melanie Lee
A different sky – Meira Chand
Soy Sauce for Beginners – Kirstin Chen
Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
A spy in the house (The Agency #1) 
The Body at the Tower (The Agency #2) – YS Lee
The Traitor in the Tunnel (The Agency #3) – YS Lee
Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials – Ovidia Yu


Ghost bride – Yangsze Choo
Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw
The harmony silk factory – Tash Aw
The gift of rain – Tan Twan Eng
Sorcerer to the crown – Zen Cho
The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng


Bangkok 8 – John Burdett (Thailand)
The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi (American, set in futuristic Thailand)

The Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam (Vietnam)
Vietnamerica: a family’s journey – GB Tran


The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (Myanmar)


The girl from the coast – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
Beauty is a wound – Eka Kurniawan

The shadow of the banyan tree – Vaddey Ratner (Cambodia)


The Dr Siri series (The Coroner’s Lunch, Thirty-three teeth) – Colin Cotterill



Southeast Asia

The Inspector Singh series (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder; A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul; The Singapore School of Villainy) – Shamini Flint (Southeast Asia)




Crazy rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (Singapore)
If I could tell you – Lee Jing-Jing (Singapore)
Tanamera – Noel Barber (British, set in colonial Singapore)
The Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell (British, set in colonial Singapore)
Breaking the tongue : a novel – Vyvyane Loh (Malaysian-American, set in Singapore)
The Scent of the Gods – Fiona Cheong (Singapore)
Foreign bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan (Singapore)
The Scholar and the Dragon – Stella Kon (Singapore)


Five star billionaire – Tash Aw (Malaysian, set in Shanghai)
Certainty – Madeleine Thien (Canadian, set partly in Malaysia)
The rice mother – Rani Manicka (Malaysia)


The king’s last song, or, Kraing meas – Geoff Ryman (Canadian, set in Cambodia)
When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him (Cambodia – nonfiction)
First they killed my father : a daughter of Cambodia remembers – Loung Ung (Cambodia – nonfiction)


The year of living dangerously – C.J. Koch (Australian, set in Indonesia)
All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
The Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia – nonfiction)


The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
The lizard cage – Karen Connelly (Canadian, set in Burma)
Burmese lessons – Karen Connelly (Canadian, set in Burma – nonfiction)
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin (American, set in Burma)
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin (American, set in Burma)
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe (Burma – nonfiction)


Ilustrado – Miguel Syjuco (The Philippines)
Leche – R. Zamora Linmark (The Philippines)
Ginseng and other tales from Manila – Marianne Villanueva
Mayor of the roses : stories – Marianne Villanueva (The Philippines)
The Tesserect – Alex Garland (British, set in the Philippines)
The solemn lantern maker : a novel – Merlinda Bobis (The Philippines)


Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski (American, set in Thailand – non-fiction)
Bangkok 8 – John Burdett (British, set in Thailand)
The Jimm Juree series (Killed At The Whim Of A Hat; Grandad, There’s A Head On The Beach; The Axe Factor; Hidden Genders) – Colin Cotterill (British, set in Thailand)


Le colonial : a novel – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam)
The tapestries : a novel – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam)
The lotus eaters – Tatjana Soli (Austrian, set in Vietnam)
Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam (Canadian, set in Vietnam)
The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam – non-fiction)
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham (Vietnam – non-fiction)

The reeducation of Cherry Truong – Aimee Phan (American, set in Vietnam etc)


There are also some great lists at Library Thing and at GoodReads (like this interesting list of speculative fiction, and a list of books for ‘backpacking through Southeast Asia‘)

A Different Sky by Meira Chand


“The races don’t mix here, you see. Chinese keep to themselves in Chinatown, as do the Malays in Geylang, the Indians in Serangoon Road, the Eurasians in their Eurasian pockets and we of course, being the ruling race, can’t afford to hobnob with any of them. Live apart, work apart, socialize apart. That old adage, familiarity breeds contempt, is more true than we know.”

Oh Singapore, land of my birth and residence for most of my 30-odd years of life. So I suppose I should know you well. But really, my Singapore is one from the 1980s onward, and having lived here in the US for a few years now, perhaps I don’t know Singapore as it is today anymore. It is after all a country that changes so much in such a short span of time. Buildings get pulled down and replaced, roads appear out of nowhere. Shops and restaurants pop up and fade away so quickly. I’m likely to get lost the next time I visit.

But one thing I do know, vaguely that is, is Singapore’s short history, as we were made to learn it in secondary school, although in a dull, bored-out-of-the-eyeballs kind of way. So it was with a little trepidation that I picked up A Different Sky from the library, for Indian-Swiss writer Meira Chand takes us through 1927 Singapore and the unrest stirred up by the communists, through to the horrors of WWII and the subsequent Japanese Occupation of Singapore, then to liberation and the promise of independence.

We first meet our three main characters on a trolley in Kreta Ayer, which has been stopped by communist demonstrating during the second anniversary of Sun Yat-Sen’s death. Young Howard is with his anxious mum Rose, little Mei Lan is on an outing with her amah Ah Siew, and Raj is heading back to the cloth shop in Serangoon Road where he works.

Their lives are so different, and Chand makes full use of her disparate characters to illustrate the broadness of Singapore society. Mei Lan, born into an elite Chinese family whose fortunes have now fallen. Howard, a Eurasian, furious at the way his people are treated by the colonial British. Indian-born Raj, an enterprising youth interested in working hard and making his fortune. Their lives intertwine in these tumultuous years of change, although early on, the different races tend to keep to their own kind.

Here I have to interrupt and add that Singapore was founded by the British in 1819 and became a major trade city, attracting many settlers from Malaya and the rest of Asia, especially China and India. During World War II, Singapore was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. After the war, Singapore reverted to British control, with increasing levels of self-government being granted. It eventually became an independent republic in 1965.

“Howard found he had returned to a place of shifting landscapes, regroupigs, realignments and new beginnings. Singapore was now a place of strikes, mass meetings and general unrest, stirred up by communist activists and socialist-minded nationalists. Assassinations were commonplace, as was the sight of rioting school children proficient in mayhem as much as in study.”

While a work of fiction, Chand draws on important historical figures of Singapore such as its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Japanese diplomat Mamoru Shinozaki (credited as the ‘Japanese Schindler’ for saving many Chinese and Eurasians during the Japanese occupation of Singapore), Singapore’s first Chief Minister David Marshall etc. Chand succeeds in bringing to life these crucial events in Singapore’s history. Perhaps if I had read this book in secondary school, I might have appreciated Singapore’s history more. Chand weaves in plenty of well-researched details about life in Singapore during those various times, perhaps the most interesting of which were the ethnic divides – Europeans vs everyone else:

“You can’t trust the Asiatics; most of the Malays are illiterate and, except for a minority of Straits Chinese who have been educated in English-medium schools, none of that lot can speak our language, and neither do the Indians, by and large. We depend upon the Eurasians to manage everything for us. They’re a dependable lot.”

The Eurasians, in particular, have a tenuous place in Singapore society, a “people of shadows”. Rose’s family, for instance, is described as such:

“Her ancestors carried the names of disparate European cultures: Pereira, Martens, Rodrigues, de Souza, O’Patrick, Thomas, McIntyre, van der Ven. Washed upon the shores of Malaya these men married local women, and their children then intermarried again and again until a hybrid people was formed.”

Yet for all it’s lush sweaty historical details, it is hard to really sink into this book. Perhaps its (too) many characters, and the way they are put together to showcase different aspects of Singapore’s history and its diversity, put me off a little. It felt a bit too heavy-handed. Still it makes a great introduction to Singapore, its history and its people.

Global Women of Color

This is my sixteenth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).

meirachandMeira Chand is of Indian-Swiss parentage and was born and educated in London at Putney High School. She studied art at St. Martin’s School of Art and later specialised in textile design at Hammersmith Art School. In 1962 she left England to settle in Japan with her Indian husband. Although she spent several years in India in the early 1970s, she afterwards returned again to live in Japan. In 1997 she moved to Singapore, where she currently lives.  

Meira Chand’s multi-cultural heritage is reflected in her novels, which explore issues of identity and cultural dislocation.  Five of her novels, The Gossamer Fly, Last Quadrant,The Bonsai Tree, The Painted Cage and A Choice of Evils, are all set in Japan.  Contemporary India is the location of House of the Sun that, in 1990, was adapted for the stage in London where it had a successful run at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Also set in India, but in Calcutta during the early days of the Raj, A Far Horizon considers the notorious story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.  Her new novel, A Different Sky takes place against the backdrop of colonial pre-Independence Singapore. The book examines an era that includes the Second World War and the subsequent Japanese occupation of Singapore, and also the rise of post-war nationalism in Malaya.

The Singapore School of Villainy

This is the third book in the Inspector Singh series. And it is only now that the portly Sikh policeman makes an appearance on his own shores. The first book took us to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the second to Bali, Indonesia. And now, the third to Singapore.

And unfortunately this third book, The Singapore School of Villainy, did not work for me.

Inspector Singh’s case in Singapore is a murdered expatriate who is a partner in a law firm, and as usual possible suspects lurk everywhere – his widow (who used to be his maid), his ex-wife, the firm’s other partners…

The book is all over the place. Drugs, insider trading, prostitution…and of course, murder. Some characters are chameleon-like, changing to suit the plot possibilities. Inspector Singh’s ideas flit from one to the next…

And Inspector Singh seems to never have a nice thing to say about anyone, especially his poor wife.

Sadly the same goes for his supposed country of Singapore. There is the usual dismissive ‘Disneyland’ view of Singapore:

“the population hardly ever jaywalked, always waited for the little green man before crossing roads, and never littered”

Which made me laugh.

Because I’m an excellent jaywalker, thanks to my years of having to take buses around Singapore (and all the walking to various other places in the city). As for littering, I don’t do it. Because it’s stupid. But that doesn’t mean that others feel the same way. There is plenty of litter, it’s just that the clean-up crews are too efficient.

Ah well, that is Singapore’s reputation, and eh, I like efficiency and clean-ish pothole-free streets. And I do miss it, despite its idiosyncracies. So I really hate that dismissive way of describing it – and reinforcing all those stereotypes.

However for me, the worst, inexcusable part is when Singh uses the term “Chinaman” several times throughout the book to refer to some ethnic Chinese characters (Singapore’s population is about 75% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indians, 3% ‘others’), such as Corporal Fong and a coffee shop owner who does no more than serve Singh a cold beer.

I was offended by that term. I am Chinese but I consider myself a Singaporean first, and I’m sure many other Chinese-Singaporeans feel that way too. So to have an inoffensive person being called “Chinaman” by Inspector Singh, it just irritated the hell out of me. And every time I came across it, I had to put down the book and wonder, why was I still reading this?

I’m not sure why this struck so close to home. I’m sure I’ve read other books where people are put down for their race, gender, class. But perhaps because this book is located in Singapore, my country, my people, that I was just completely put off.

However, finish it I did.

But it was a struggle. And unfortunately I think this is the last I will see of Inspector Singh.