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.

Hello and goodbye

It’s never easy living far from friends and family. Three weeks back home in Singapore wasn’t enough (yeah I am a paranoid blogger, preferring not to reveal the fact that I wasn’t home until I, er, actually got home). I didn’t get to meet all my friends, and didn’t get to spend enough time with those I did manage to meet. And because we stayed with my in-laws, I didn’t get to see my parents and sister enough either! But wee reader got to meet his great grandparents and many other relatives and friends who have been so eager to meet him.

And I got to take some time out for myself, do some window shopping (and some actual shopping from my sister’s clothes line Uraraa), wander the ever-changing Singapore, and feast on good food!

So there were many cheerful hellos and some rather teary goodbyes. And here I am back again in my chilly foggy quiet suburb in Northern California, a world away from the hot humid loud busy city-state of Singapore.

Ok here come the food pictures!