The Song Poet – Kao Kalia Yang



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



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


Read Diverse Books Year-Round

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




(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”.

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

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




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.


(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).


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).





“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.




tlc logo

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.


“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.”


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.



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.

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


“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


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 in August: Bangkok 8 by John Burdett


Like the city it’s set in, Bangkok 8 is a colourful, vibrant, loud and intense book.

In this first book of the series, John Burdett explores crime, Buddhism, Thai attitudes towards sex, sex-change operations, prostitution, bribery, the lives of the “half-caste” in Thailand, the attitude of the farangs or westerners in Thailand…. and more.

And like another set-in-Southeast-Asia murder series I enjoy, Bangkok 8 is imbued by the presence of the other world. He is a firm believer in karmic reincarnation, and is able to glimpse a person’s previous lives.

“With us the lifting of the egoic veil at the moment of death reveals the workings of karma in all its pitiless majesty: see that clubfoot in your next life, that’s from when you fouled your best friend on the football pitch; see those buckteeth the size of gravestones, that’s your cynical sense of humor; see that early death from leukemia, that’s your greed.”


Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is assigned to a murder case of a US Marine killed by snakes. And it is personal because the same snakes took the life of Sonchai’s partner and best friend Pichai.

Sonchai is a ‘half-caste’ – the son of a Thai prostitute and an American soldier. And one of the few honest cops in Bangkok (he and Pichai became monks after killing a drug dealer when they were young). So he makes for an unusual character.

Throw in some shady businessmen, a gun-loving female FBI agent, an entrepreneurial former-prostitute mother about to run her own brothel, plenty of dirty cops, and a plot that just gets a little more convoluted with each twist and turn, and you get this eclectic first book in a crime series set in Bangkok.

“…we don’t seem to have the same hang-ups as many Western women. The West tries to turn the act of sex into a religious experience, when to us it is no more than scratching an itch. I’m afraid we’re not as romantic as we seem. And perhaps we are a little strange. In other countries such as Japan and South Korea, prostitution declined dramatically as the economy improved. When our economy improves, the number of prostitutes tends to go up rather than down.”


I guess I was a little disappointed when I realised that this book brought in Bangkok’s sex industry. Is that really what pops into mind when westerners think of Bangkok? I quite like visiting Bangkok – as I do the other parts of Thailand like Chiang Mai, Phuket and Koh Samui – it has great food, nice people and plenty of shopping. It’s a nice getaway just a few hours’ flight from Singapore. Sure, you wander into the wrong parts and there will be drunk farangs, local men pushing flyers of nude girls in your face, but there is still so much that isn’t about girlie bars and prostitution.

Perhaps I have been comparing it too much to Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri Paiboun series set in neighbouring Laos, its main character being the country’s chief coroner, tasked to investigate murders. A far more interesting, unique perspective to a crime series. But is that really fair? After all, what does the average reader know about Laos? I sure didn’t know much. Whereas Bangkok already has that reputation, so a crime novel set there has to lead to the inevitable?

I don’t know… perhaps I am putting too much thought into this….

I like that it is set in Thailand. There aren’t all that many books set in Southeast Asia (my list here) so it is always refreshing to read one. So here I am hoping that the next book in the series, Bangkok Tattoo, will move away from that (although as Sonchai’s mother is a former prostitute, and by the end of the book he and his mother now co-own a brothel, I hardly think this will be the case!).

And of course a book about Thailand should not go without a mention of its amazing cuisine, so I will leave you with some food for thought:

“We are sitting at a food stall after finishing a meal of tom-yum soup, fried fish, spicy cashew nut salad, three kinds of chicken and thin rice noodles on a street in Pratunam. Our table is loaded with six different dipping sauces, beer bottles, chopped ginger, fried peanuts, mouse-shit peppers and bits of lime. We are about twelve inches from the traffic jam but the stall is famous for the quality of its roast duck curry. It is so famous the police colonel in charge of the district doesn’t dare to bust or squeeze it even though its tables and chairs take up most of the sidewalk and force pedestrians to risk their lives among the traffic. Thai cuisine is the most complex, subtle, variable and generally the best in the world. It knocks the socks off fussy French and flaky Chinese, although one must give credit where it is due: during Nong’s one and only Japan trade (in Yokohama, a Yakuzi mobster with impeccable manners whose chronic migraine could only be relieved by more or less continuous sex): on my first bite of Kobe beef I forgave Pearl Harbor on your behalf, farang.

Protected by a firewall of chili, our cooking has been immune to the corruption suffered by other great cuisines due to Western influence and the best food can still be found in humble homes and, more especially, on the street. Every Thai is a natural gourmet and cops don’t bust the best food stalls if they know what’s good for them.”


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

John Burdett is a former lawyer who lived and worked in Hong Kong for twelve years. For a time, he was employed by the Hong Kong Government. He later worked in private practice. Eventually, Burdett decided to abandon law and pursue a career as a novelist. Burdett now splits his time between France and Bangkok and continues to research his novels in various locations in Thailand.

A Personal History of Thirst
The Last Six Million Seconds
Bangkok 8: A Novel
Bangkok Tattoo
Bangkok Haunts
The Godfather of Kathmandu
Vulture Peak

Five star billionaire by Tash Aw


This was what life was like in China, he thought: Stand still for a moment and the river of life rushes past you.

It is a book set in Shanghai, but it is teeming with the essence of Malaysia.

I don’t want to pretend that I know Malaysia. It is Singapore’s closest neighbour but I’ve only been to a few of its cities – Johor Bahru (just across the border from Singapore), its capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the Portuguese-influenced Malacca, the island of Penang (the last trip was for my cousin’s wedding – her husband’s family is from Penang), another island of Langkawi known for its beaches, Cherating (this was for a press junket at the Club Med there – yup life as a journalist could be quite the slog!). And then there is East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) which I have never stepped into before.


I know little of its rural life, its villages, yet there was something kind of comforting about reading from this familiar-ish perspective.

We first meet Phoebe, an ambitious small-town girl trying to make her way in Shanghai, first working in a factory, then as a spa receptionist:

She was not from any part of China but from a country thousands of miles to the south, and in that country she had grown up in a small town in the far northeast. It is a region that is poor and remote, so she is used to people thinking of her as inferior, even in her own country. In her small town, the way of life had not changed very much for fifty years and would probably never change. Visitors from the capital city used to call it charming, but they didn’t have to live there. It was not a place for dreams and ambition, and so Phoebe did not dream.

She gets advice from the self-help books she buys from street stalls, interpreting them in her own ways, and from observing the local women, for instance, on how to dress: “Wear the biggest sunglasses you can find; carry the smallest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with a magnificent confidence”. And chats online in order to meet men.

There is Justin Lim Chee Kiong, the oldest son of an old money Malaysian family, sent to China to establish the family business on the Mainland with a big real estate project.

He had known little about Shanghai and assumed that it would consist solely of shopping malls and plastic reproductions of its history, its traditional life preserved in aspic, as it was in Singapore, where he went to school, or else inherently Third World, like in Malaysia, where he grew up. It might be like Hong Kong, where he had begun his career and cemented his reputation as an unspectacular yet canny businessman who would hold the reins steady as head of the family’s property interests. Whatever the case, he had assumed he would find it familiar—he had spent his life in overcrowded, overbuilt Asian cities, and they were all the same to him.

Gary is an unusual character. A celebrity, a singing sensation who shot into stardom after winning a talent competition in Malaysia just before the age of 17, but whose shining star has dimmed after a drunken altercation in a pub:

Because when he stopped for that moment to consider his life, he realized that there was nothing in it that was within his control. Every minute of his day was organized by his management company, even the number of hours he should sleep. It had been like this for so long that it made him wonder if he had ever known a different way of living.

Yinghui is a female entrepreneur who runs a chain of high class lingerie stores, and is quite formidable: “a bold businesswoman, certainly, but also a superefficient, humorless automaton who would coldly plunge a knife into you, except she wouldn’t bother to do it in your back, she’d stick it in your chest”, nicknamed “Ultrawoman, Dragon Queen, Terminatress, Rambo” by her subordinates. Her family was once a wealthy powerful one in Malaysia but is now down on its luck.

Walter is the five-star billionaire himself, whose self-help manual for wannabe billionaires is interspersed among the rest of the stories and it is from that manual that we get to know his background.

Tash Aw’s characters’ lives are intertwined. For instance, Yinghui used to date Justin’s brother once upon a time in Malaysia. Phoebe is a big fan of Gary and eventually meets him in an online chatroom although she doesn’t know his real identity. Phoebe ‘dates’ Walter, who, unknown to her, is the writer of the very self-help manuals she has been reading. Yinghui is about to embark on a big deal with the shady Walter. And so on.

Everyone is connected in some way, even if it is for just a fleeting moment.

Phoebe’s character is the one that really stood out. Her determination to make it big, whether in her career or in her love life, is admirable although her decisions often are not (she uses someone else’s identity card to land her spa receptionist job, for instance). But she is a bright spark and indefatigable, sometimes ruthlessly so.

“In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson. Look and learn.”

Tash Aw’s tale of life in Shanghai is sharp, contemporary, and elegantly brought together. It is a harsh chilly world that his characters inhabit. But despite the icy impenetrable society that they live in, these five are so very human, blemishes and all.

I previously read Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory but wasn’t too impressed with it. But he has wowed me with Five Star Billionaire, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what he will be writing next.

I first heard of this book from JoV of Bibliojunkie who is herself from Malaysia and writes a far better review.

tashawTash Aw was born in Taipei in 1979 to Malaysian parents. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur and moved to England at the age of 18 to attend University.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels: The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize; Map of the Invisible World (2009); and Five Star Billionaire (2013), longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

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‘)