The Song Poet – Kao Kalia Yang

 

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I have so much love for this book that I don’t know how to write about it. Will you just bypass it because, it’s a book that you haven’t heard of? Or maybe you don’t read memoirs? Or non-fiction? Why am I being so negative? Maybe instead you are excited because it is a book you’ve not heard much of! Maybe it’s interesting because it is memoir! Non-fiction! Hurrah!

Amazingly, I won The Song Poet from a Library Thing giveaway. (I seriously have the worst of luck when it comes to book giveaways). And what is perhaps more amazing is that I picked up the book and read it, within a few weeks of receiving it. I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to physical books. I buy them and then, save them for the end of the world or something.

Anyway, the book must have called out to me. It was meant to be. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. A book that sings and cries, a book that laughs and shudders. A book I brought along on a Bart ride to the city to pick up my passport from the Singapore consulate. It sat with me on the crowded train, it rocketed up many storeys up to the consulate building, then it basked in the sunlight at Ferry Building where I sipped a tiny and expensive mocha and watched the traffic on the Bay Bridge.

This may sound silly but I first learnt of the Hmong on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s Anatomy may be overdramatic and too many ridiculous things happen to one doctor at one hospital (she puts her hand in a body with a bomb, she steps in front of a gunman etc). But it was also one of the very very few popular primetime TV series to have a lead Asian character, and it wasn’t about Christina Yang being Korean. Or Asian. She was just a doctor. A friend. A crazy, intense, very intelligent person. But still. She was a person. But this episode has nothing to do with Yang. An episode in Season Two featured a patient, a young woman, who needed surgery but because she is Hmong, her father refuses. They decide to call in a shaman before surgery. I hadn’t the faintest idea if this was a good portrayal of the Hmong culture or not (the blog Petite Hmong Mommy found it kinda ridiculous) but it made me wonder about the Hmong culture. I later learnt more by reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, published in 1997, a work of non-fiction about a young Hmong girl living in Merced, California, who suffers from epilepsy. It is a moving, tragic book, in case you haven’t yet read it. But it is not by a Hmong so it’s still from the point of view of an outsider looking in.

The Song Poet seemed to me like your typical refugee in America kind of memoir at first. But the prologue opens with ‘Album Notes’, in which Yang writes about calling her father, Bee, a poet.

“I grew up hearing my father digging into words for images that will stretch the limits of life for my siblings and me. In my father’s mouth, bitter, rigid words become sweet and elastic like taffy candy. His poetry shields us from the poverty of our lives.”

His song poetry is hard to explain, and Yang describes it as such:

“The only way I know how to describe it as a form in English is to say: my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.”

It sounds fascinating.

The Song Poet is a story of struggle, of hardship, of determination, and quite simply of back-breaking, hardworking parents trying to make enough money to put a roof over their family’s heads, to put food in their kids’ mouths. This is a story that moves from Laos, to Thailand, to Minneapolis. And it is so very very difficult, to read of all the pain that other people put this family through, because they are different, because they are Hmong. They were driven from the Laos because of war and communism. In Thailand they lived in refugee camps, where the author was born. Then wanting to be more than just refugees, the family traveled to America. But in America, their lives are still difficult – Bee takes on backbreaking, dangerous work at a factory in order to make ends meet. His wife works the morning shift, he works the night shift. Just so that there is a parent around for their children.

Yang’s voice is just beautiful. My favourite part of the book is ‘Side A, Track 4: Love Song’, where she writes from her father’s perspective of his love for his wife Chue Moua, and all the many things that they have gone through, many miscarriages, across countries. I read and reread that chapter, trying to find something to quote here, but it is a chapter to be read as a whole. A few sentences, a paragraph, wouldn’t do justice to this emotional chapter.

Instead, I will leave you here with a quote from another part of the book. Equally unforgettable.

 

“In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.”

 

You can read an excerpt of The Song Poet over at Literary Hub

 

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

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Read Diverse Books Year-Round

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#Diversiverse and #RIPX : Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

 

 

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(translated by Anne Tucker)

Dewi Ayu was buried in a far corner of the cemetery among the graves of other ill-fated people, because that was what Kyai Jahro and the gravedigger had agreed upon. Buried there was an evil thief from the colonial era, and a crazy killer, and a number of communists, and now a prostitute. It was believed that those unfortunate souls would be disturbed by ongoing tests and trials in the grave, and so it was wise to distance them from the graves of pious people who wanted to rest in peace, be invaded by worms and rot in peace, and make love to heavenly nymphs without any commotion.

What is this book that I’ve just read? It is hard to really put a finger on what genre it would fall into.

Is it a ghost story?
Is it historical fiction?
Is it a romance?
Is it a sweeping family saga that spans several generations and many decades?
Is it a story about Indonesia, its history and its people and culture?

It is all that and more.

It is ambitious. It is immense. It is startling and odd and also fresh and exciting.

It is the story of Dewi Ayu, born into a Dutch family, captured by the Japanese when they occupied Indonesia, forced into prostitution. And it is also the story of her four daughters and their own families.

Lots of people get married in the months of the rainy season. Crowds of villagers attend ceremony after ceremony for weeks on end and the golden janur kuning poles marking the houses holding wedding parties stick out of fences at almost every single intersection, arching over the street to dangle their festive decorations. Meanwhile, those men who aren’t married yet go off to the whorehouse, lovers meet more often to get it on in secret, long-married couples seem to relive their honeymoons in the months of the rainy season, and God creates many tiny little embryos

It is also the story of Indonesia – from its occupation by the Japanese during the Second World War, to its struggles with the Dutch (it was part of the Dutch East Indies) and then with the communists and the anti-communist purge in 1965.

So it is political, it is violent – in terms of physical violence and sexual violence. Yet Eka Kurniawan somehow manages to bring some humour, albeit an odd sense of it, into his tale.

They often teased people forced to walk past the cemetery, making spooky noises or appearing as headless sweet potato sellers. Everyone avoided the place at night but Kamino and Farida were quite used to the ghosts, and simply chased them away like other people shoo out a chicken that has wandered into the kitchen. Every once in a while the couple even teased the ghosts right back.

I rushed through a good part of this book, which I had borrowed as an e-book from the library. That wasn’t the way Beauty is a Wound should be read though. I had started it but then the whole woman climbing out of a grave thing wasn’t really jiving with me at the time – I had just emerged from reading a book that had creeped me out, and I wasn’t ready for more ghostly matters!. So I mentally filed it away to read later. Of course, it was only way later that I remembered it, with just a few days left before it would expire. With some other eager readers on hold for the e-book, there wasn’t a chance to renew it, and so the intense reading began.

But with its large ensemble cast and its meander through history, this is an intense read.

For instance, when Kurniawan introduces a new character, he tosses us deep into this character’s history, yes, breaking the original narrative and chronological order of the story, pulling the reader back in time, tracing this new character’s relationship with the previously mentioned characters and sometimes introducing other characters, a seemingly different story arc. Then he brings it all back together again to continue the main story. It is originally a bit disconcerting but the lives of these different characters, their own stories is so fascinating that I just read and read wherever Kurniawan takes me.

There is so much that seems to be taken from legend and folklore here. I am not familiar with Indonesian culture (although I am from Southeast Asia), so I don’t know if all these myths and stories Kurniawan tells are influenced by something that is old and legendary, but it often feels like it. I’m probably missing out a bit by not knowing all this background, but like any good book, it makes me want to find out more, to read more about Indonesia and learn. (And also wonder why the Singapore education system never made us learn more about our neighbours).

The supernatural is a big part of Indonesian culture. Prominent Indonesians are known to consult dukun or shamans. It is even said that former presidents Suharto and Sukarno employed dukun, who are seen as gatekeepers to the supernatural world, and can heal ailments, and some more famous ones even claim to help politicians get elected.

As they descended from the station platform, they jerked back at the soupy air, thick with a rancid stench and full of shadows that flickered with a reddish glow.
“It’s like entering a haunted house,” the wife commented, shaking her head. “No,” said her husband, “it’s like there was a massacre in this city.”

I wouldn’t say this book is for everyone. It is not a quick breezy read. Its layers and depths and even humour take some time to wander through. It is wordy, it meanders. But it offers insight into a country that not many books are set in, it also gives the reader plenty of food for thought. If you’re looking for something a little different, and are willing to devote some time to reading it, consider Beauty is a Wound.

Interestingly, Beauty is a Wound or Cantik itu Luka was originally published in 2002. Lelaki Harimau or Man Tiger (recently published by Verso Books) was originally published in 2004.

 

Here are others’ thoughts on the book:

The Complete Review

ANZ LitLovers

The Saturday Paper

Salty Popcorn

One NYT review: “If Pippi Longstocking were an Indonesian prostitute instead of a Swedish tomboy, she would be something like Dewi Ayu”.
(really??)

Also, an interesting interview with Kurniawan in the Sydney Morning Herald

Have you read this book or Eka Kurniawan’s other works?

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I read this book for Diversiverse and RIP X 

TLC Book Tours: Ghost bride by Yangsze Choo

In the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around August, Chinese Singaporeans (and Chinese in other parts of the world) observe what we call the Hungry Ghost Festival.

It is believed that the gates of Hell open and the ghosts are allowed to wander the earth. To appease these hungry ghosts, offerings are made to them – food, joss sticks, candles, paper money and other items made out of paper like houses and cars. In Singapore, big dinners are held, and guests bid at auctions for auspicious items (one man even paid S$258,888 (about US$207,000) for a gaudy urn that cost S$100!). And entertainment is provided for both human and ghostly guests, traditionally in the form of wayang (Chinese street opera) but these days, getai (literally ‘song stage’) is the popular mode of entertainment, where Mandarin and dialect songs are sung by colorfully dressed singers. But one thing remains the same, the first row of seats remain empty, for the spectral guests.

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(Photo via Singapore Tourism Board)

When I was a kid in Singapore, not far from our house, a wayang/getai stage and dinner tables would be set up in a small parking lot of a row of shophouses. And we would hear the loud music late at night from our house, and smell the offerings being burnt. One had to watch where we were walking, to make sure we didn’t tread on ashes or offerings as it would bring bad luck. My parents weren’t the superstitious/religious sort but my grandparents were, and they had altars and joss sticks at their house. I remember helping to fold joss paper money and burn them, although I cannot remember if this was for Hungry Ghost month or for funeral rites. Perhaps both. (In Singapore columbariums, large troughs are provided for the burning of joss paper).

And it is during Hungry Ghost month that the more superstitious avoid doing certain things like swimming, going out late at night, getting married (see more here).

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But nothing has been said about reading books that talk of this ghostly world, like Yangsze Choo’s amazing Ghost Bride.

The story is set in late 19th-century Malacca, a sleepy seaside town in southwest Malaysia. Li Lan is about to receive an unusual proposal, to be the bride of a young man recently deceased, the only son of the wealthy and powerful Lim family. It is a very rare practice, and is meant to appease a restless spirit. Of course there is far more to this as we later learn as we delve into the spirit world with Li Lan.

Li Lan’s own family was once wealthy but now its fortunes are in decline, and her opium addict father’s debts are owed to the head of the Lim family. She soon finds her dreams haunted by Lim Tian Ching, the deceased she is meant to marry. She enters a ghostly world in her dreams, where everything is “intensely and unappetizing lay pigmented”, where food is displayed like funeral offerings. But her thoughts are with his cousin, the scholarly and gentle Tian Bai, now the heir to the Lim fortune.

As a Chinese Singaporean, I was drawn to Choo’s story and her skilful rendering of 19th century Malaya. Many of our superstitions and beliefs are similar to those of the Chinese Malaysians, and they continue today, such as the Courts of Hell, the various levels and chambers in which souls are taken to atone for their sins. A visit to Haw Par Villa when I was a kid, brought those chambers – torture methods and all – terrifyingly to life through statues and dioramas. It is not for the faint of heart. Or children really! (More photos of this bizarre theme park built by the Aw Brothers in 1937 – warning, although these are just statues, some images are very violent. And bloody. Some are just plain weird.)

Apart from the spooky afterlife, Choo’s novel just meant a lot to me. There aren’t many books that are situated in Southeast Asia, despite its 11 very diverse and interesting nations, including the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia. (Here’s my list of books set in Southeast Asia/written by Southeast Asians). Malaysia, which neighbours Singapore, has more than a few similarities,  and so to read of foods, traditions, customs, slang that I could relate to, that just made me feel so very warm inside. And a little homesick.

“They had all my favourite kinds of kuih – the soft steamed nyonya cakes made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with palm sugar or shredded coconut. There were delicate rolled biscuits called love letters and pineapple tarts pressed out of rich pastry. Bowls of toasted watermelon seeds were passed around, along with fanned slices of mango and papaya.”

For instance, Li Lan’s Amah, a very traditional, superstitious woman who has looked after for Li Lan since she was a baby. I was tickled by her solutions of boiled soups and tonics, of her fondness for consulting mediums and so on, which are not out of place even in today’s modern Singapore. My mother-in-law, for instance, still boils up ginseng tonics to boost energy, and when I was pregnant would make sure I drank chicken essence every day (thankfully that was the only thing, as there were plenty of other soups and tonics one ‘ought’ to consume during pregnancy, and even more after, during the ‘confinement period’ of the first three months).

 

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“Malacca was a port, one of the oldest trading settlements in the East. In the past few hundred years, it had passed through Portuguese, Dutch_ and finally British rule. A long, low cluster of red-tiled houses, it straggled along the bay, flanked by grooves of coconut trees and backed inland by the dense jungle that covered Malaya like s rolling green ocean. The town of Malacca was very still, dreaming under the tropical sun of its past glories, when it was the pearl of port cities along the Straits. With the advent of steamships, however, it has fallen into graceful decline.”

I adored Choo’s depictions of Malacca, a sleepy coastal town I’ve been to just once in my life during a school trip when I was 12, despite the fact that it’s only about 2.5 hours from Singapore. I remember the red-bricked Stadthuys, built in 1650 as the office of the Dutch governor, visiting a Peranakan museum and eating Peranakan food. Of course it was a lot more about having fun with our classmates as it was our last year of primary school and we would likely end up in different secondary schools.

“Malaya was full of ghosts and superstitions of the many races that people it. There were stories of spirits, such as the tiny leaf-sized pelesit that was kept by a sorcerer in a bottle and fed on blood through a hole in the foot. Or the pontianak, which were the ghosts o women who died in childbirth. These were particularly gruesome as they flew through the night, trailing placentas behind their disembodied heads.”

Longing and wistful, haunting and melancholy, Ghost Bride has a little something for everyone – a romance, a mystery, a coming-of-age story. An apt read for the Hungry Ghost Festival but also for every other month in which the spirits do not roam the earth.

Yangsze ChooYangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. She lives in California with her husband and their two children, and loves to eat and read (often at the same time).
Connect with her on her website or on Facebook.

 

 

 

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I received this book from its publisher and TLC Book Tours

Check out the other stops on the tour:

Tuesday, August 5th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Wednesday, August 6th: Jorie Loves a Story

Thursday, August 7th: Book Dilettante

Friday, August 8th: Bibliosue

Monday, August 11th: Broken Teepee

Tuesday, August 12th: Fuelled by Fiction

Monday, August 18th: Literary Feline

Tuesday, August 19th: Book Without Any Pictures

Wednesday, August 20th: Olduvai Reads

Thursday, August 21st: Snowdrop Dreams of Books

Friday, August 22nd: nightlyreading

Saturday, August 30th: guiltless reading

 

Read in August 2013

I was meant to concentrate on Southeast Asian titles in August but ending up reading all sorts of other fiction, from children’s books to historical fiction to crime/mystery novels. A good time was had as I wandered through Paris, Cambridge, Portland, Macedonia, Cornwall. And of course, plenty of Southeast Asia too – Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos!

So I finished up my month of reading Southeast Asia with 6 titles down. And two more still in progress!

Up next: RIP VIII titles!

Fiction (9)
Loki’s wolves – K.L. Armstrong, M.A. Marr
The bones of Paris (Harris Stuyvesant #2) – Laurie R King
Fire from heaven – Mary Renault
Harriet the spy – Louise Fitzhugh
Case histories – Kate Atkinson
The name of the wind (The Kingkiller chronicle #1) – Patrick Rothfuss
Human remains – Elizabeth Haynes
The rose garden – Susanna Kearsley
Wildwood – Colin Meloy

Southeast Asia in August (5)
Bangkok 8 (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #1) – John Burdett
Crazy rich asians – Kevin Kwan
Disco for the departed (Dr Siri Paiboun #3) – Colin Cotterill
The Headmaster’s wager – Vincent Lam
The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly

Non-fiction (1)
Raising a Reader: A Mother’s Tale of Desperation and Delight – Jennie Nash

Total: 15

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Some blog posts flow more easily than others. This one has been so difficult, full of starts and stops, delete delete delete.

I guess I’m just searching for that perfect way to tell you about this book. So that I can convince you to read it. I’m not doing a very good job now am I?

Maybe I should just let the book speak for itself.

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“The singer is lying on the floor, a gray blanket pulled up around his chest. With slightly narrowed eyes, he stares at the ceiling. A single lizard is up there, clinging to the plaster.”

And so we meet Teza. He is a political prisoner in the “teak coffin” or solitary of a prison outside Rangoon. There is an air vent, high up on one wall, too high for Teza to look out. The rest is brick wall and the door. He has been in prison for nearly seven years, and he has thirteen more to go.

“From solitary, the whole cage is a foreign country to him. He lives on the very edge of it, straining to hear voices.”

Teza is forbidden to write or receive letters. And his only regular contact is Sein Yun the palm-reader, a fellow prisoner who works in the prison serving food and emptying latrine pails to reduce his sentence. Teza has nothing to do but stare at the walls and wait for his meals. He watches the ants that meander around his cell, watches the copper-pot spider in its web near the vent, and talks to himself. And there is also his “cheroot ceremony”.

He hoards his cheroots, not to smoke them, but to unwrap them and read the fragments from the newspapers that they are made from. It is an image that stays with me long after I’ve finished the book. This desperation for words, for any hint of news from the outside world, even when these are words that don’t even make a sentence. He thinks of his mother who would read these news articles. For him these words, these fragments are so precious.

“The words are runes. Each piece of paper has a story, whether a sad romance from the literary section or a boring government announcement or a funeral notice. Whispering under his breath, Teza fills in the missing text.”

“In his mind, the cheroot-makers are beautiful, goodhearted, with pale swirls of thanakha paste smeared, powderlike, on their cheeks. If they knew they were making cheroots for him, they would find a way to put Dostoyevsky into the filter, The Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a great time by Pablo Neruda, and Gone with the Wind, a book he’s wanted to read ever since he saw a photograph if Vivien Leigh in an ancient Time magazine. They would fill their cheroots with popular Burmese novels and bowls of curry. They would send wreaths of the sweetest jasmine to him, sticks of incense and squares of gold foil for worship. They are fine young women. Teza ceases to be angry with the blank newsprint. He thinks of girls’ hands, working.”

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Teza is in prison because of his songs of freedom, songs of protest that have echoed throughout Burma, songs written by a 25-year-old university student who could not comprehend what twenty years in solitary meant.

Though it is illegal to publish Teza’s name, he remains the most celebrated singer in Burma. In secret. The Press Scrutiny Board censors even oblique references to music or art, or anything at all, if it believes the allusion is connected to Teza. Chit Naing suspects that this prohibition just makes the singer more famous. It’s the same with Daw Suu Kyi: there’s a nationwide ban on her name too, but rather than make people forget about her, the SLORC has turned her into a legend.”

As if solitary were not enough, Teza is tormented by junior jailer Handsome who tortures him, teases him, and seems to take the utmost pleasure in doing so.

Tess’s previous jailer Chit Naing had been friendlier, and even visits him. Teza’s other friend is Little Brother, a 12-year-old orphan who has grown up inside the prison walls. He works in the cage for food and cheroots, and catches rats to sell to the prisoners. While he isn’t a prisoner, he has never really experienced life outside the cage before and is honestly terrified of the big wide world and all its uncertainties awaiting him.

“The boy can’t forget and tries not to remember his own story. Not-forgetting not-remembering is the best way to live in the cage.”

The two of them are thrown together when the most contraband of items – a pen – goes missing.

 

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Although most of the story takes place within the walls of the cage, Connelly’s novel is so vivid and evocative, resonating with the sounds and smells of Burma, through Teza’s memories and the daily motions of this harsh prison life.

The Lizard Cage was such a moving, compelling read. It is serious and intense (sometimes too intense – I was clenching my fists when Teza was brutally beaten up) but it has such wonderful sweet moments. It is a reminder that our freedom (to walk around, to read, to eat whatever we’d like, to sing and listen to music, to believe…) is precious.

I read this book for my personal challenge: Reading Southeast Asia in August.

karen-connelly-pubphotos-005Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of best-selling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, the most recent being Burmese Lessons, a love story, a memoir about her experiences in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction, and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novelThe Lizard Cage. Published in 2005, The Lizard Cage was compared in the New York Times Book Review to the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandela, and hailed in the Globe and Mail as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.” Her latest book, Burmese Lessons, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and British Columbia National Award for Canadian Nonfiction in 2009.

Bibliography
The Small Words in My Body — 1990
Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal — 1992
This Brighter Prison: A Book of Journeys — 1993
One Room in a Castle — 1995
The Disorder of Love — 1997
The Border Surrounds Us — 2000
Grace and Poison [reprints The Small Words in My Body and The Disorder of Love with a new preface] — 2001
The Lizard Cage — 2005
Burmese Lessons — 2010

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

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“We are wa kiu.” They were overseas Chinese, those who had wandered far from home. “We are safer when we remain quiet.”

We first meet Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. It is 1930 and his father Chen Kai is about to leave for Indochina to try to make his fortune. Chen Kai passes down to his son the family good luck charm, a small lump of gold which his ancestor dug up many years ago.

Fast forward to 1966 and Chen Pie Sou is in Cholon, Vietnam, now known as Headmaster Percival Chen of the Percival Chen English Academy. He is admonishing his son Dai Jai for being seen with a local Annamese girl: “Son, you must not forget you are Chinese”. For Percival is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and reminded of his father Chen Kai’s second, disastrous marriage to an Annamese.

Some of his Chinese pride bleeds down to Dai Jai, who launches his own protest against the newly mandated Vietnamese lessons that the school conducts – he leads a walkout. Unfortunately this reaches the ears of the authorities and they take action. Chen has to make use of every contact and favour he has throughout the city (ok so most of them are the mysterious Mak’s, a teacher in his school, his right hand man, who seems to have answers to everything) – and almost every last piastre.

But Dai Jai’s troubles continue to dog him and Chen’s solution is to smuggle him to China, not realising that the Cultural Revolution is upon it – not the best place for the son of a wealthy merchant.

“On a nearby couch, a metisse girl in a light-blue dress was half-reclined, her legs crossed. Her hands were slender creatures nested in her lap, and her elegance made the furniture cheap and shabby. She had strong French bones and warm Vietnamese skin. Her poise made it clear that she was better than the dress.”

Chen, who has long had a weakness for mahjong and prostitutes (he is divorced from Dai Jai’s mother), still has loans to repay, and takes on a big-stakes game where he meets a beautiful metisse (mixed race) prostitute named Jacqueline and essentially ‘wins’ her. He later falls for her, despite his earlier admonitions to his son about preserving his Chinese heritage.

He had turned the radio on for something reassuring, something solidly Chinese, but the Mandarin-speaking announcer reminded him that he ought to feel embarrassed about Jacqueline, that he should be ashamed to be in love with a foreigner. She was mixed, yes, and neither part was Chinese.

While Lam has crafted an intriguing story set in a fascinating time and place, his main character is difficult to like. He’s too much of a stereotypical Chinese businessman type whose only interest is money. It’s like he has blinders on, everything else is out of sight, out of mind. He doesn’t ever wonder why Mak seems to have his finger in everything and contacts everywhere, he resolutely remains indifferent to the politics of the Vietnam war raging around him. He is unsympathetic, and a little offputting, even when his son is feared drowned:

He said, “Did you thank the ancestors?” Cecilia looked at her husband as if he was speaking a foreign language. He turned to Cecilia, on the verge of shouting without knowing why. “Did he? I want to know – is he grateful to his ancestors for saving him?”

But what happens to Chen and his family does make for an interesting read, and a different viewpoint of Vietnam and what it means to be Vietnamese and Overseas Chinese.

It is something I sometimes think about myself. I am Chinese. I am Singaporean. I am Chinese-Singaporean or Singaporean Chinese. But what does it mean to be Chinese?

My family has always been more comfortable speaking English. Thanks to Singapore’s mandatory ‘Mother Tongue’ second-language lessons, I had to take Mandarin classes from Primary 1 (age 6/7) to AO levels (age 17/18). More than ten years! Yet I have never felt comfortable speaking Mandarin. Probably because my parents don’t really speak it either. They grew up speaking their own Chinese dialects of Hokkien (Fujian) or Teochew (Chaozhou) and English. My mum actually took Malay lessons instead of Mandarin.

I’ve never felt any ties to China although I still have distant relatives there. My late grandfather though was a member of the family’s clan association in Singapore (永春会馆) and the clan association for the Singapore descendants of the village that our ancestors were from (can’t remember the name). This is despite the fact that he was born in Singapore. Whereas for my dad, the only reason he visits China is to play golf!

So to read of Chen’s blind devotion to the country he calls ‘home’ intrigued me.  He hadn’t been back in years and had no intention to return, and seemed firmly ensconced in Vietnam, but regularly made donations to various causes in China and felt so strongly about his Chinese heritage. Was it a different generation? A different sense of belonging?

Lam too is Overseas Chinese, by way of Vietnam, and Chen is inspired by his own grandfather who was a headmaster and a gambler.

He said in an interview with Metro News:

“I was born in Canada so I grew up hearing family stories about a place that I’d never been to, which was Vietnam, specifically the Chinese community in Vietnam. So I think those stories had an especially vivid place in both my imagination and my concept of self because they were completely foreign to my experience of growing up in this country.”

“I was also very aware as I was growing up … that not only was I not growing up in that world but that world did not exist any longer.”

But luckily for us, he was able to recreate this world for his readers

 

As always, I look forward to reading passages that are food-related, and there were such gems:

Each bowl of noodles was crowned by a rose of raw flesh, the thin petals of beef pink and ruffled. Foong Jie put down dishes of bean sprouts, of mint, purple basil leaves on the stem, hot peppers, and halve limes with which to dress the bowls. She arranged an urn of fragrant broth, chilled glasses, the coffee pot that rattled with ice cubes, and a dish of cut papayas and mangos.

On these occasions, Percival made sure that the cooks prepared special Chinese dishes that Laing Jai liked – his favourite was or lua, oyster omelettes, and Percival was gratified that the boy relished such a characteristic Teochow dish. He also looked forward to hung gue dumplings filled with garlic chives, rice, minced pork, and dried shrimp, platters of Peking duck, crab balls, and tofu stuffed with shrimp. For a snack, a big bowl of mee pok noodles with minced pork and braised mushrooms.

Vincent Lam is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, and was born in Canada. Dr. Lam did his medical training in Toronto, and is an emergency physician in Toronto. He is a Lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

I received this book for review from Random House

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

crazyrichasians

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!