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.

a14

(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).

ghostbride

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).

 

stadhuys

(via)

 

“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

 

Advertisements

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.

Joss and Gold

“Singapore used to be British. It had been full of English words when he stopped over in 1969. Raffles Hotel, Stamford and Mountbatten Roads, Clark Quay, Elizabeth Walk, Newton Circus, Somerset and Orchard, City Hall and the Cricket Club. The Chinese were everywhere, but they had English names also. Wilson, Janet, Harry, Robert, Thomas, Susan, Irene, James, even odd English names like Anson and Clifton, Deidre and Verena. Anglo-Chinese was the norm. British subjects, Chinese ancestry, for over a hundred years.”

Stepping into Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s world in Joss and Gold was a little like going home – the ‘lahs‘ at the end of dialogue, the use of the word ‘aircon’, the food described, the British cultural/historical background, it made me think of home (i.e. Singapore), and it’s  been more than a year now since I’ve been back there. And lately I’ve been having pangs for Singapore food, simple things like fish noodle soup and chicken rice (which I ended up making for dinner last night – by opening a bottle of paste and adding it into my jasmine rice and serving it with stirfried bok choy and shitake mushrooms, and grilled chicken).

Back to Joss and Gold, the story opens in late 1960s Malaysia, a time filled with ethnic tensions, where Li An is an English tutor at the university and is married to Henry Yeh, a safe bet, a scientist from a wealthy family. Li An meets American Chester Brookfield, who is on a Peace Corps assignment, teaching woodwork at a local high school and rooming with two Malay friends. He opens her eyes and makes her question her place in society, her marriage, even the western poetry she teaches in class: “This is all British culture, get it? British. We had a revolution and threw them out with the tea bags, so I know what I’m talking about. You’ve got your own culture. That’s what you should be teaching.” And one night, under a curfew due to racial violence, her sheltered life changes completely.

The narrative then skips ahead to Chester, who’s living in New York in 1980. He’s married to Meryl, who wants him to go for a vasectomy, and as he mulls that over, he thinks back to the secret he’s been keeping for over a decade, that his night with Li An had led to a child whom he’s never acknowledged or laid eyes on. The third part of the book has him back in Southeast Asia, this time to Singapore where his old friends now live, where he finds that Li An has changed – no longer is her life about literature, about poetry, but facts and figures as the editor-in-chief of a top business journal.

As Li An, Chester and the various other characters come to terms with their relationships, their past and their present, society is changing around them, instead of racial tensions, it’s all about business. However, as the story progressed from tense Malaysia to suburban New York to all-business Singapore, my interest in the characters began to wane. I didn’t like how Li An seemed to have lost herself, and become this cold-hearted woman. And she was the only character I liked in the first place – Henry seems to be made of cardboard, Chester… well… I never quite latched onto him somehow, although I grew fond of Grandma Yeh (Henry’s mother) as she stuck by Li An and her daughter. Joss and Gold was, for me, a satisfactory read, the setting sticking with me more than the storyline.

I read Joss and Gold as part of the Global Reading Challenge 2011 (Asia).