A Different Sky by Meira Chand


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Women of Color

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

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

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

The Coroner’s Lunch (Dr Siri Paiboun #1)

Dr Siri Paiboun is head, actually the only, coroner of Laos. He’s been on the job for ten months, largely self-taught, unwillingly so. He had been looking forward to retirement and a pension but was pressed into service for his country , “he hadn’t expected, at seventy-two, to be learning a new career”. His predecessor having allegedly fled Laos on an inner tube. His job is complicated further by the fact that the workplace isn’t exactly state-of-the-art: “The morgue at the end of 1976 was hardly better equipped than the meatworks behind the morning market.” For instance, lacking an electric saw, a hacksaw is used to penetrate the skull. There’s no laboratory so Dr Siri ropes in a teacher with access to basic chemicals for basic tests.

He lunches often with his best friend Civilai, “a bony little man who wouldn’t have looked out of place pedaling a samlor bicycle taxi” but was actually one of the high-ups in the politburo. As they munch on their sandwiches by the river, Dr Siri and Civilai often discuss their work, although often in ways which shouldn’t be overheard. When Dr Siri laughs at the number of receptions Civilai has to attend, Civilai snorts: “That’s why it’s called the Communist ‘Party’ and not the Communist ‘sit down and get some work done’.”

Dr Siri’s detective mode kicks in with the arrival of the corpse of Senior Comrade Kham’s wife, the hasty removal of her body for cremation, and an all-too-easy explanation of her death, and the attitude of her husband. Plus there’s the missing autopsy report. Things just get stranger when a body of a dead Vietnamese arrives with signs of torture. And it turns out, there is more than one such body.

This book is set in 1976 Laos, not long after the Communist Pathet Lao have taken control of the country. It’s a tough time for the country, for its people. Dr Siri is one interesting character. A paid-up member of the Communist Party yet a “heathen of a communist”, smart, snarky and visited by spirits of the ‘customers’ he’s worked on. The occultic nature of his life is explained when he visits a Hmong village and learns that he is the reincarnation of shaman Yeh Ming. This is where things get perhaps a little too confusing and was probably the weakest moment of the book for me.

JoV of Bibliojunkie first pointed me to this book (here’s her review), and for that I’m grateful, as I’m always on the lookout for more books set in Southeast Asia. It was a different, at times funny read set in a country that I know little of and which I’d like to read more about. Plus its British author Colin Cotterill has led quite a life so far – he’s worked as a Physical Education instructor in Israel, a primary school teacher in Australia, a counselor for educationally handicapped adults in the US, and a university lecturer in Japan. He has spent several years in Laos and set up a child protection NGO in Phuket, and lives in a fishing community on the Gulf of Siam.

Colin Cotterill’s works

Dr. Siri Paiboun series

  • Disco For the Departed (August 2006)
  • Anarchy and Old Dogs (August 2007)
  • Curse of the Pogo Stick (August 2008)
  • The Merry Misogynist (August 2009)
  • Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (August 2010)
  • Slash and Burn (October 2011)

Dr. Jimm Juree series

  • Killed at the Whim of a Hat (July 2011)
  • Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach (June 2012)

The Garden of Evening Mists

“On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.

He did not apologize for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning, when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.”

Judge Teoh Yun Ling has retired from the Kuala Lumpur Supreme Court and is returning to Cameron Highlands for some unfinished business. Yun Ling is haunted by her past, the only survivor of a unknown Japanese internment camp in the jungle, her older sister Yun Hong among the dead. And troubled by her future, faced with the terrifying prognosis of aphasia which will take her memory and her language. So she begins to tell her story.

After the war was over, Yun Ling had hoped to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who loved such gardens, and travelled to Cameron Highlands to learn from Aritomo, the creator of the garden of evening mists and formerly the Japanese emperor’s gardener. He eventually accepts her as his apprentice and together they work on his garden and become more than friends.

“The high wall protecting the garden was patched in moss and old water stains. Ferns grew from the cracks. Set into the wall was a door. Nailed by the doorpost was a wooden plaque, a pair of Japanese ideograms burned into it. Below there words was the garden’s name in English: Evening Mists. I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.”

This book, like Tan’s previous book The Gift of Rain, offers up a wonderful sense of place – from the communist terrors during the Malayan Emergency (a guerrilla war fought between the Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960) to the everyday occurrences like having breakfast in kopitiams (coffeehouses):

“The kopitiam was of the type found in every town and village, a place where old men in singlets and flappy cotton shorts spent their mornings chatting and drinking coffee from saucers. Felicitations in red Chinese calligraphy streaked down a large and unframed mirror on one wall. The marble tabletops were yellowing, stained with tidal layers of old coffee spills.”

There are some familiar themes that run through Tan’s books. An elite Japanese connection, in this case the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener and in The Gift of Rain (TGOR), a diplomat. A Japanese martial art – in TGOR it was aikido and in TGOEM it is archery or kyudo, which Aritomo teaches Yun Ling. The war stories – in TGOEM post-WWII Malaysia and the war against communism, in TGOR pre-WWII and the Japanese occupation of Malaya. And of course, the life, the culture, the people of Cameron Highlands, of Malaya feature in both books, in The Gift of Rain, it is Penang, in The Garden of Evening Mists, Cameron Highlands. However while The Gift of Rain had some moments that were just too dramatic and ventured into ideas of rebirth and fate that were just a bit too much for me, The Garden of Evening Mists seemed more grounded. Perhaps due to the narrator Teoh Yun Ling, a determined, assertive, scarred, wary woman:

“My name is Teoh Yun Ling. I was born in 1923 in Penang, an island on the northwest coast of Malaya. Being Straits Chinese, my parents spoke mainly English, and they had asked a family friend who was a poet to choose a name for me. Teoh is my surname, my family name. As in life, the family must come first. That was what I had always been taught. I had never changed the order of my name, not even when I studied in England, and I had never taken on an English name just to make it easier for anyone.”

This book brought my secondary school history texts to life. And this is something I’ve never been able to say before. So it was kind of fun for me to read about the Emergency and familiar names from the British in command like High Commissioners Gerald Templer and Henry Gurney (who was assassinated by the communists). Of course I am the kind of person who actually gets excited about things like history!

Of course if don’t feel that way, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t the book for you. It’s got great characters, gorgeous writing and a rarely written about, picturesque setting with a Japanese garden.

In the shadow of the banyan

“There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree…”

“You are about to read an extraordinary story” the blurb exalts.

Usually if this were the first thing I hear about a book, I would dismiss it – extraordinary? We’ll see about that!

But the setting intrigued, especially since I’ve been on a Southeast Asia reading track for a while now.

So I waded in, cautious. However, I soon fell in the story of seven-year-old Raami and her family. For it is some story. From the first chapters of their privileged royal lives, looked after by servants, feasting on everyday banquets of food in their mansion.

“Before us was an array of food – lotus seed porridge sweetened with palm sugar, sticky rice with roasted sesame and shredded coconut, beef noodle soup topped with coriander leaves and anise stars, mushroom omelets, and slices of baguette – a dish to suit everyone’s morning taste. At the center of the table sat a silver platter of mangoes and papayas, which Old Boy had picked from the trees behind our house, and rambutans and mangosteens, which Om Bao had brought from her early morning trip to the market. Breakfast was always an extravagant affair when Grandmother Queen decided to join us. She was a high princess, as everyone constantly reminded me so that I would remember how to behave around my own grandmother.”

To the sudden forced removal from their homes, not just the royals but every one in Phnom Phenh. The Organisation (the Khmer Rouge) telling them it will just be a few days, that the Americans will bomb the city.

“The streets were packed. People, cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, cycles, oxcarts, pushcarts, wheelbarrows, and things that didn’t – shouldn’t belong on the streets of a city: ducks, chickens, pigs, bulls, cows, mats, and mattresses. I couldn’t have imagined a water buffalo caked with mud, or an elephant carrying the mahout and his family. But there they were, part of the throngs that pushed and pulsated in every direction.”

Then in the outskirts, the countryside, they learn that this is to be their new home. Food is to be rationed, everyone including children like Raami are put to work. Intellectuals like Raimi’s father are called up and taken away, never to be seen again.

The horrors just keep coming.

And yet you cannot stop reading.

Perhaps you too are hoping for that rainbow in the sky for Raami. For her to be a child again, happy and innocent and free.

The saddest part of all is that while this story is fiction, it was based on the author Vaddey Ratner’s own past.

I have to admit that sometimes it felt a bit uncomfortable reading a young child’s thoughts, which seemed far more mature than her few years, as she tries to convey her father’s emotions and thoughts:

“I realized with a start how the sparseness of one existence mirrored another, how an old man’s poverty gave a glimpse of the hardship he must have endured when he was ably, must have suffered his whole life, and that small, forgotten patch of ground, with its dilapidated hut and drenched belongings, held in its reflection the deprivation of Papa’s childhood friend. “

The story and the tone does get better as we move along, and she seems more like a child when in the countryside, when with her mother and younger sister are ‘fostered’ out to a farmer and his wife. But things just get worse, and the tone changes again:

“I became deaf. I became mute. I thought only of the work in front of me. Standing in the paddy, I planted the rice shoots. When eating, I could only think of eating. In sleep, I thought of nothing else. Hunger made my body frail. Many times I was punished for being too lazy. Without rice, I lived on leaves and small animals found in the mud. The tiniest I would swallow at once. Sometimes I would be punished, though I could never know when. It was futile to worry, to think of tomorrow. The life I’d once known was gone, and with it, the people. There was nothing to say, no one left for me to speak of, so I chose not to speak.

Still, I saw. Still, I heard. In silence, I understood, and I remembered.”

A beautiful, painful book.

The Gift of Rain

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into this world to say, to those for whom her prophecies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.

I know her words had truth in them, for it always seemed to be raining in my youth. There were days of cloudless skies and unforgiving heat, but the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low-floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting. Sometimes it rained so often I wondered why the clouds around me never faded, were never washed away, leaving the world in mouldy hues.”

And so we find ourselves in the rainy life of Philip Hutton in present-day (or so) Penang.

He meets Michiko Murakami, a Japanese woman in her seventies:

“I took the gloved hand she offered. With its scarce flesh and thin prominent bones it felt like a bird, a sparrow with its wings wrapped around itself.”

These two people have one person in common – Endo-san.

Philip tells Michiko his story of Endo-san.

This begins in 1939, when 16-year-old Philip meets the Japanese diplomat who rents a nearby island from the Huttons. Philip, as the half-English, half-Chinese youngest son feels like he doesn’t belong in either the British or the Chinese communities of Penang (then a British colony).

He is intrigued by this man whose “features were too sharp for a Chinese, and his accent was unknown”, and who begins to teach him aikijutsu, Japanese language and culture. Philip in return shows him around Penang. Their lives are bound together, their past, present and future.

Unfortunately, when Japan invades Malaya, Philip finally understands that his sensei has made use of his knowledge of Penang to aid the assault on the island. Believing that it is the only way to keep his family safe, Philip works with the Japanese, which makes everyone, even his own family, scorn him.

The Gift of Rain can be described as a war novel, historical fiction, but it is also a story about duty and discipline and love.

It is an ambitious first novel, with interesting supernatural connections and a background molded from fact and history. Some of the descriptions are perhaps a little too dramatic (it would however make for quite a spectacular movie). In the end though, The Gift of Rain was an engrossing, sad read about this young man who is torn between several worlds, who learns so much about himself and the life he has to lead. And more importantly, it is a book set in a part of a world familiar to me, but that unfortunately hasn’t been all that much written about.

It’s taken me quite a few years to actually get my hands on this book. I was first truly aware of The Gift of Rain in 2008 (it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2007, but I don’t think I gave it much thought then), when my family and I travelled to Penang for my cousin’s wedding (her husband’s family is from Penang – and boy did they know where all the good food was!). We decided to tour the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion  (there are some great photos on this blog), a gorgeous late 19th century two-storey courtyard house painted a startling blue. At the end of the rather interesting architectural and historical tour, one of the participants asked the guide if this were indeed the book mentioned in The Gift of Rain. I can’t quite remember what his reply was but it was in the positive, for Tan does mention the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in his book (unfortunately I had to return the book before I remembered to take note of when that is).  It isn’t the coastal mansion that the Huttons live in, but is mentioned as La Maison Bleu.

Anyway, I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of weeks now, so the news that Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists was recently shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was that kick that I needed. Apparently his latest book is set in Cameron Highlands, which my mum tells me we visited when I was really young, so I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it (I’m hold number 5 at my library).

The Singapore School of Villainy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which made me laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

However, finish it I did.

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

Two Malaysian novels

So I finally read the first book in the Inspector Singh series. And it is interestingly a little different from the second (or the first book I read, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul.

Set in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is our introduction to Inspector Singh (although as I found, the books don’t really need to be read in order). And his case focuses on a Singaporean woman who is being charged for the murder of her husband, a timber tycoon, whom she was divorcing. Of course things are never all that straightforward as we discover that her late husband had converted to Islam (they are both Chinese) and now her custody of their three children is also at stake. Her gentle, tree-loving brother-in-law complicates matters even further when he decides to confess to the crime, which he says he did for the forests and the native people whose land has been stolen from them.

While the writing is nothing to shout about, A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder features an interesting case, a different setting (I’ve not read any crime novels set in Kuala Lumpur) with the always amusing Inspector Singh.

I enjoyed the Inspector Singh story more than the other Malaysian book I read this month, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw.

The central figure of this story is Johnny Lim who lives in rural Kinta Valley and runs a textile store and led the fight against the Japanese in the area during the Second World War.

The narrative is told from three perspectives. Unreliable narrators alert! The first is his son Jasper, who has researched the life of his no-good father, and he pretty much despises his cold father. This section chronicles Johnny’s life as he becomes the apprentice of a textile merchant and rises to lead the Communist movement in the area.

The second is Johnny’s wife Snow, told via diary entries focused around a sort of honeymoon boat trip that they embark on with a few friends – Wormwood, a guy named Honey who drinks a lot and the suave but slimy Kunichika – and almost lose their dear old lives.

The third part is told by Wormwood, Johnny’s best friend, and also recounts the days in which they spend drifting away together. Wormwood is an old man now, spending his time in a nursing home and dreaming up beautiful gardens and a beautiful woman (Snow).

The unfortunate thing about this book is that none of the narrators are all that likeable. And because the narratives by Snow and Wormwood are personal accounts, Johnny, who is supposed to be the central character, gets lost in their recollections.

This wasn’t the book for me.

Library Loot (16 August 2012)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I’m continuing my accumulation of Southeast Asian books for this month.
The Singapore School of Villainy: Inspector Singh Investigates – Shamini Flint
This is book three of the series. I’m currently on the first book and it’s quite fun.

Homicide detective Inspector Singh has returned home to Singapore to rest his weary feet after time spent globe-trotting and crime-solving in Malaysia and Bali. But it’s not long before he wishes he would be sent off to another foreign locale. With his wife nagging him and his boss lecturing him about his unconventional work habits, he’s thrilled when a new case comes across his desk.

A senior partner at an international law firm has been murdered, and it’s up to Singh to catch the killer and solve the case. There’s no shortage of suspects, from the victim’s fellow partners, many of whom are hiding secrets, as well as the dead man’s wife and ex-wife. Soon, Inspector Singh is poised to expose the treachery that lies beneath Singapore’s high society. Fast-paced, funny, and highly original, Shamini Flint’s The Singapore School of Villainy: Inspector Singh Investigates is a fabulous mystery featuring everybody’s favorite turbaned detective.

The Gift of Rain: A Novel – Tan Twan Eng

The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel casts a powerful spell and has garnered comparisons to celebrated wartime storytellers Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.

In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the half-Chinese, half-English youngest
child of the head of one of Penang’s great trading families-feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He at last discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. When the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei-to whom he owes absolute loyalty-is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and must now work in secret to save as many lives as possible, even as his own family is brought to its knees.

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement – Jane Ziegelman
I’ve been neglecting the Foodies Challenge, and this book so happened to be prominently featured on the shelves as the library is showcasing food-related books this month. I couldn’t help but grab it!

In 97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman explores the culinary life that was the heart and soul of New York’s Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century—a city within a city, where Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews attempted to forge a new life. Through the experiences of five families, all of them residents of 97 Orchard Street, Ziegelman takes readers on a vivid and unforgettable tour, from impossibly cramped tenement apartments, down dimly lit stairwells, beyond the front stoops where housewives congregated, and out into the hubbub of the dirty, teeming streets. Ziegelman shows how immigrant cooks brought their ingenuity to the daily task of feeding their families, preserving traditions from home but always ready to improvise. 97 Orchard lays bare the roots of our collective culinary heritage.

Burma Chronicles – Guy Delisle
I’ve been wanting to read Delisle’s graphic novels but my library system doesn’t have any of them, so this was an inter-library loan from the SF library. And it’s about Southeast Asia.

From the author of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China comes Burma Chronicles, an informative look at a country that uses concealment and isolation as social control. It is drawn with Guy Delisle’s minimal line, interspersed with wordless vignettes and moments of his distinctive slapstick humor.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Woohoo! Yet another installment of this creepy series. Not SEAsia-related obviously, but I’ve been on hold for months while the library was acquiring this book….

The sprawling tale of the Locke family and their mastery of the ‘whispering steel’ thunders to new heights as the true history of the family is revealed to Tyler and Kinsey. Zack Wells assumes a new form, Tyler and Kinsey travel through time, and surprises beyond imagination will be revealed before the sixth issue ends!

I’m excited to get reading! Erm that is, after I read all the other books that I’ve borrowed previously.
What did you get from the library this week?

Reading Southeast Asia (updated)


Ah the real fun of themed reading is coming up with the lists!

As I had mentioned, my goal for this month is to concentrate on reading books set in Southeast Asia, especially the countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately my list is limited to books available in my library.

Of course I realize that I won’t actually finish reading the books on the list, but a girl can dream. And try.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

In the shadow of the banyan – Vaddey Ratner
The king’s last song, or, Kraing meas – Geoff Ryman
When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him

All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Map of the invisible world : a novel – Tash Aw


The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill

Evening is the whole day – Preeta Samarasan
The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw
Rice Mother – Rani Manika
The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mist – Tan Twan Eng

The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
The lizard cage – Karen Connelly
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin.
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe
Burma chronicles – Guy Delisle

Ginseng and other tales from Manila – Marianne Villanueva
Mayor of the roses : stories – Marianne Villanueva
The Tessarect – Alex Garland
The solemn lantern maker : a novel – Merlinda Bobis

Tanamera – Noel Barber
The Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell
The thorn of Lion City : a memoir – Lucy Lum
Breaking the tongue : a novel – Vyvyane Loh
A different sky – Meira Chand
Shadow Theatre – Fiona Cheong
Foreign bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan
The bondmaid – Catherine Lim

Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski
Bangkok 8 – John Burdett

Le colonial : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The tapestries : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The lotus eaters – Tatjana Soli
A dragon’s tale – Long Lee
Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam

The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham

Southeast Asia in general (often multiple countries)
The reeducation of Cherry Truong – Aimee Phan
The Inspector Singh Investigates series: (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder; A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul; The Singapore School of Villainy; A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree) – Shamini Flint
The unyielding clamor of the night – Neil Bissoondath

Read in July/Will read in August

This was a good month of non-fiction reads! I know, I know, I am so behind on my reviews… it is just overwhelming…

Among my favourite reads this month – Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?, Word Freak, A Writer’s House in Wales.

As for August, I’m heading to Southeast Asia. Just not physically.

I’ve decided to do some armchair travelling in that region this August because it’s the month of National Days.

Growing up in Singapore, August 9 was always pretty exciting. A day off from school, a ‘parade’ to watch (although it usually took place within a stadium, so I’m not sure if the word ‘parade’ is apt anymore. And we’d pop out into the garden to catch a glimpse of the fighter jets streaking their way across the sky, and the helicopters flying the Singapore flag (Singapore is so tiny that it didn’t matter where you lived, you could probably see the flypast). Of course as I grew up, it was just about the day off. If you’re interested in finding out what the celebrations are like, here’s the official website. Essentially August 9 commemorates Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965.

But Singapore isn’t the only country celebrating its National/Independence Day in August. August 17 is Indonesia’s and August 31 is Malaysia’s. So it’s pretty fitting to be reading Southeast Asia in August!

Anyway here’s what I read in July

Fiction (11)
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1) – Gail Carriger
The snail-watcher and other stories – Patricia Highsmith
Seven Years – Peter Stamm
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
The Gun Slinger (Dark Tower #1) – Stephen King
The Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin
Buzz Aldrin, What happened to you in all the confusion? – Johan Harstad
Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century #1) – Cherie Priest
Walks with men – Ann Beattie
China Mountain Zhang – Maureen McHugh

Graphic novels (2)
Mister Wonderful: a love story – Daniel Clowes
Petrograd – Philip Gelatt

Non-fiction (6)
Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician – Shinmon Aoki
Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players – Stefan Fatsis
52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust – William Alexander
Mother reader: Essential writings on motherhood – Moyra Davey (Editor)
A Writer’s House in Wales – Jan Morris
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country – Louise Erdrich

Total: 19