Oh Singapore

So here’s the main reason I haven’t been blogging. I was away. As in physically away from the computer.

Ok that’s not really the truth.

The Macbook Air got dragged along in our carry-ons to Singapore. With five of us flying there (two kids, the husband, my mum who had been visiting us, and I), we had plenty of things to carry on board the plane and as we are a very gadget-y family, plenty of electronics: iPad, iPhones, Macbook Air, husband’s work computer, his Nexus, my Kindle. But with a toddler and an infant, there’s so much else that fills the bags, allergy-free snacks (Singapore Airlines while accommodating nut allergies with nut-free kids meals, does serve nuts on board, so in order not to risk it, we had to pack snacks galore, from crackers to cookies to applesauce), baby formula, changes of clothes for everyone, toys, diapers and all kinds of other amenities for two young travelers. It was a long long flight after all (14+ hours from SF to Hong Kong, a quick transit – same plane but having to reboard and go through customs etc again, then nearly 4 hours to Singapore)!

Luckily it being a 1am flight (the choice was taking off at 1am or arriving in Singapore at 1am!), things went pretty well. Wee Reader was up way past bedtime, all excited about the flight, but conked off for quite a few hours not long after taking off. Wee-er Reader didn’t do too badly either, dozing off in the rather roomy bassinet, squawking now and then when he wanted to be held, but he’s not the screaming type, thank goodness.

Well we made it to hot muggy Singapore. The doors of the airport glided open and bam, we stepped into the sauna that is Singapore.

Heat and humidity aside, it was good to be back. To see my parents and sister, to meet up with friends and relatives I hadn’t seen in two years. To see the numerous changes in this constantly changing, constantly moving city-state. To marvel at the traffic, the malls that seem to have popped up everywhere (unfortunately with mostly the same stores), the construction sites and heavy machinery that my boy couldn’t help but stare and point out: “cement mixer! excavator!”.

We were all well fed, from my mum’s homemade quiche and kong bah, my uncle’s cold crab, my mother-in-law’s kueh pie tee, to Hainanese chicken rice, roti prata, horfun, orhnee. And plenty of flat whites for me.

Of course there were foods I missed out on – Tong Heng egg tarts, muahchee, kueh tutu, where were you?

We hit the touristy spots: the zoo, the Bird Park, Sentosa and its gorgeous brand spanking new aquarium, the Botanics.

But it was the simplest things that Wee Reader marveled at: double decker buses, the MRT trains, playing with the dog, and thunderstorms (we live in California, it seldom rains and never do we hear thunder).

So as you can imagine, the computer was seldom turned on, but the Kindle was put to very good use (thank you Alameda County library system for having Kindle e-books!). And hopefully I will have a post about what I read soon.

Oh and I bought books! Singapore is expensive compared to the US, not just cars, houses, food, clothing, but books are too. Still I made sure to visit bookstores and get my hands on some local works for myself and the kids. And plenty of kids books in Chinese too. It was a sizable haul! Friends and family added to the kids’ book collection!

All holidays must come to an end and it has been a struggle getting into a routine, especially with a baby still on Singapore time and waking several times at night! Wee Reader took a couple of days to adjust and is still a bit unhappy about sleeping by himself again (bedtime is a bit of a struggle). And we are all trying to get used to the dry and cold (yes, the Bay Area doesn’t really get THAT cold but it’s a huge change from temps in the higher 30s C!). Creams are smothered, baths taken to keep the eczema at bay.

And things are still waiting to be put away.

It has been that kind of week.

So while I tidy up my life and ignore this blog again, here are pictures!


Wee Reader digs for gold at East Coast Park



A very boozy sundae at Udders (Orange Chocolate Bitters is the flavour for me! Dark chocolate spiked with triple sec!). A lovely flat white at Melbourne-originated Brunetti. And a chocolate souffle from Bakerzin.


We had all kinds of sushi, sashimi, seafood! Perfect for the hot climate.


The number of indoor playgrounds (top left) in Singapore is mind-boggling. Just two years ago, I don’t think I remember hearing about any! And they aren’t exactly cheap, especially on weekends when the rate can be $20 for 2 hours (this small one at Changi City Point was I think $16 for unlimited play on a weekday). But with Singapore’s heat and humidity, and constant rain, sometimes indoor playgrounds are your best bet for entertaining a young one.

Top right: The fish tanks at Ah Yat Seafood at Turf City. Pick your seafood, watch them catch it, pay for it, and head back to your table for some tasty fresh treats. The prawns were simply cooked but their freshness just shone. Brilliant!


The hipster enclave at Tiong Bahru. Old-school buildings, new-school shops (with prices that fit today’s pricey economic climate).


Books Actually in Tiong Bahru. Pretty pretty books for hipster shelves. But they do have also publish local works via Math Paper Press. Of course the books they publish are good lookers too.


The SEA aquarium in Resorts World Sentosa was just gorgeous. While I will always be fond of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for being one of the first aquariums to blow my mind, this brand-new aquarium in Singapore is just beyond compare. From the way they flow the pedestrian traffic through the building, to their perfectly clear glass, to the many lovely displays both of the sea-creature kind and the historical sea routes kind, it was an exceptional visit.

The lories were part of our trip to the Jurong Bird Park.



Ah the wonders of Singapore food. Top left: kueh pie tee (a crunchy little shell filled with a mixture of cooked daikon and carrots, topped with chili sauce and sweet sauce, prawn and coriander. A mix of spicy, sweet, savoury and herby). Top right: Starfruit! I miss tropical fruits like mangosteen, starfruits etc. Bottom left: Orh Nee. A sweet sticky paste made of yam, coconut milk. This one has pumpkin and gingko nuts. Bottom right: Ang ku kueh. The sticky exterior is made of rice flour. And the filling inside can be peanut or mung bean or red bean.

Since this is a rather food-related post, I guess it works for a Weekend Cooking post too.


Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

TLC Book Tours: Aunty Lee’s Delights: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu


Salim took a tentative bite of the fried batter puff. If it was good enough for Commissioner Raja, it was good enough for him. Then he forgot all about the commissioner as the hot savoury mix of chili, onion, sardine, and – was it lime? – burst out of its crisp casing in his mouth. This was possibly the most sensational epok-epok he had tasted since his late grandmother’s death. Unlike the usual Chinese version, the pastry was thick and rich, and the savoury mix of seasoned fish, potato, and hard-boiled egg inside almost made him swoon. He looked across at Aunty Lee with something like devotion in his eyes.

Aunty Lee’s Delights in Binjai Park is known for its sweet and savoury kueh and fried tidbits. And her bottles of “Aunty Lee’s Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar and Krunchy Kropok”. But on this night it is the venue for a wine dinner, hosted by her stepson Mark, who fancies himself a bit of a wine connoisseur, pairing wines with local foods, more specifically Peranakan food.

Let’s meet the dinner guests, shall we?

The Cunninghams, Frank and Lucy, an old Australian couple, who “looked like retirees who were travelling to see the world and had chosen SIngapore as their first stop because of its clean, safe, English-speaking reputation”. But Aunty Lee’s nose sniffs out a secret that they are reluctant to share.

Harry Sullivan, a repeat diner, also an Australian, who loves being a white man in Singapore (he claims to be a hit with local women, for instance). He’s quite full of himself.

Mark Lee and his wife Selina (or Silly-nah as Aunty Lee likes to call her), the organisers of the event. Rather at odds with each other. Mark, the son of an old money family, had “grown up with that comfortable nonchalance toward money that a financially privileged childhood confers”. Selina, though, was an aspiring Tai-tai, or a wealthy woman who doesn’t have to work, and is thus resentful that her late father-in-law left all the money to his second wife, Aunty Lee. She’s bossy, he’s henpecked.

Rosie Lee, owner and chef at Aunty Lee’s Delights. Like her outfit of turquoise kebaya top, matching flared pants and sneakers with bright yellow laces, she is a mix of traditional and modern, experimenting and reverse engineering dishes of all sorts. She has two passions: food and news. She is best at being kaypoh (busybody). [I should add that “Aunty” or “Auntie” is often used in Singapore as a polite way of calling an older female, who might not necessarily be related to you. For instance, if I were to meet a friend and her mother, I would call her “Auntie”. Likewise for the term “Uncle”.]

Nina Balignasay is Aunty Lee’s domestic helper and sous chef in an unofficial capacity (as a maid, she isn’t supposed to be working outside of the home). She’s Aunty Lee’s eyes and ears and extra pair of hands.

Cherril Lim-Peters, a former flight attendant now the wife of a high-flying wealthy lawyer, is probably the only one there really interested in wining and dining. She is there without her husband Mycroft this time, and is quite delighted. Her sister-in-law Marianne was also expected but didn’t turn up either.

Laura Kwee who is supposed to help organize the dinner is conspicuously absent.

And Aunty Lee has the feeling that this has something to do with the dead body washed up on a beach.

As we – and police Senior Staff Sergeant Salim – soon find out, Aunty Lee’s nosy nose and connections everywhere (some are really Nina’s domestic helper connections) means that she is often the first to piece together the clues, all while cooking up a storm.

Aunty Lee is quite the character. She reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but with a greater focus on food. Of course she has her handy sidekick Nina to help with the snooping and cooking.

And oh, the food! Bubor cha cha (a hot coconut-y dessert soup with sweet potatoes, yam and more). Nasi Lemak (coconut rice served with fried fish, sambal chili). Epok-epok (spicy sardine puffs). All the good stuff that made me salivate a little, and think of home, while reading this book. So despite its not very exciting mystery, Aunty Lee’s Delights was quite a, er, delightful little read for me, full of the tastes and flavours of Singapore.

tlc logo

I received this book for review from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins

Check out the other tour stops:

Tuesday, September 17th: Olduvai Reads

Wednesday, September 18th: Lavish Bookshelf

Thursday, September 19th: Wordsmithonia

Monday, September 23rd: Helen’s Book Blog

Tuesday, September 24th: guiltless reading

Wednesday, September 25th: Bibliophilia, Please!

Thursday, September 26th: Ageless Pages Reviews

Tuesday, October 1st: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Wednesday, October 2nd: Kahakai Kitchen

Monday, October 7th: A Chick Who Reads

Ovidia YuOvidia Yu is one of Singapore’s best-known and most acclaimed writers. She has had more than thirty plays produced and is also the author of a number of mysteries that have been published in Singapore and India.

Connect with Ovidia on Facebook and Twitter.

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

I’ve spent most of my life in Singapore, that tiny city-state near the equator. But it was only since moving away from it, a year in the UK, six years now in California, that I have begun to concern myself with reading more books by Southeast Asians, or set in Southeast Asia.


Imaginary Friends – Melanie Lee
A different sky – Meira Chand
Soy Sauce for Beginners – Kirstin Chen
Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
A spy in the house (The Agency #1) 
The Body at the Tower (The Agency #2) – YS Lee
The Traitor in the Tunnel (The Agency #3) – YS Lee
Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials – Ovidia Yu


Ghost bride – Yangsze Choo
Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw
The harmony silk factory – Tash Aw
The gift of rain – Tan Twan Eng
Sorcerer to the crown – Zen Cho
The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng


Bangkok 8 – John Burdett (Thailand)
The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi (American, set in futuristic Thailand)

The Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam (Vietnam)
Vietnamerica: a family’s journey – GB Tran


The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (Myanmar)


The girl from the coast – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
Beauty is a wound – Eka Kurniawan

The shadow of the banyan tree – Vaddey Ratner (Cambodia)


The Dr Siri series (The Coroner’s Lunch, Thirty-three teeth) – Colin Cotterill



Southeast Asia

The Inspector Singh series (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder; A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul; The Singapore School of Villainy) – Shamini Flint (Southeast Asia)




Crazy rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (Singapore)
If I could tell you – Lee Jing-Jing (Singapore)
Tanamera – Noel Barber (British, set in colonial Singapore)
The Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell (British, set in colonial Singapore)
Breaking the tongue : a novel – Vyvyane Loh (Malaysian-American, set in Singapore)
The Scent of the Gods – Fiona Cheong (Singapore)
Foreign bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan (Singapore)
The Scholar and the Dragon – Stella Kon (Singapore)


Five star billionaire – Tash Aw (Malaysian, set in Shanghai)
Certainty – Madeleine Thien (Canadian, set partly in Malaysia)
The rice mother – Rani Manicka (Malaysia)


The king’s last song, or, Kraing meas – Geoff Ryman (Canadian, set in Cambodia)
When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him (Cambodia – nonfiction)
First they killed my father : a daughter of Cambodia remembers – Loung Ung (Cambodia – nonfiction)


The year of living dangerously – C.J. Koch (Australian, set in Indonesia)
All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
The Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia – nonfiction)


The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
The lizard cage – Karen Connelly (Canadian, set in Burma)
Burmese lessons – Karen Connelly (Canadian, set in Burma – nonfiction)
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin (American, set in Burma)
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin (American, set in Burma)
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe (Burma – nonfiction)


Ilustrado – Miguel Syjuco (The Philippines)
Leche – R. Zamora Linmark (The Philippines)
Ginseng and other tales from Manila – Marianne Villanueva
Mayor of the roses : stories – Marianne Villanueva (The Philippines)
The Tesserect – Alex Garland (British, set in the Philippines)
The solemn lantern maker : a novel – Merlinda Bobis (The Philippines)


Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski (American, set in Thailand – non-fiction)
Bangkok 8 – John Burdett (British, set in Thailand)
The Jimm Juree series (Killed At The Whim Of A Hat; Grandad, There’s A Head On The Beach; The Axe Factor; Hidden Genders) – Colin Cotterill (British, set in Thailand)


Le colonial : a novel – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam)
The tapestries : a novel – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam)
The lotus eaters – Tatjana Soli (Austrian, set in Vietnam)
Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam (Canadian, set in Vietnam)
The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam – non-fiction)
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham (Vietnam – non-fiction)

The reeducation of Cherry Truong – Aimee Phan (American, set in Vietnam etc)


There are also some great lists at Library Thing and at GoodReads (like this interesting list of speculative fiction, and a list of books for ‘backpacking through Southeast Asia‘)

A Different Sky by Meira Chand


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Women of Color

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

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

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

The Singapore School of Villainy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which made me laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

However, finish it I did.

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

A feast of a weekend

I’m not trying to avoid writing a review.
Oh who am I kidding, I so am.

So here’s my avoiding-a-review post.

Which is full of photos of food!

Our friends joined us at Tanto in Sunnyvale for an early dinner. We had some really great dishes like a Kurobuta pork pie, Uni Tamagotoji (sea urchin simmered with egg), beef tongue, grilled rice balls with mentaiko (spicy cod roe), clams in broth, sashimi salad… and more! So good.


And finished up with chocolate cake from what is probably my favorite bakery in my neighborhood.




A small cake but quite decadent!





On Sunday, the husband and I decided to finally try out the new-ish Singapore/Malaysia cafe called Kopitiam (which kind of means coffee house ). As it’s not really a full restaurant, there were only a few choices and the husband picked nasi lemak (coconut rice – usually cooked with pandan leaves, fried chicken, some token veg like cucumbers, ikan bilis and a spicy sambal which the owner made sure was replenished with an even larger portion)


I went for the laksa, a coconut-y gravy (made from all kinds of spices like lemongrass, candlenuts, belachan etc – if you’re interested, there are plenty of great examples online, such as this one) with rice noodles (although they used the wrong type of rice noodles), tofu, fish cake and bean sprouts. Oh and a hard-boiled egg. It was incredibly spicy and I quickly gulped down my iced teh tarik (milky tea).


Inspired by the rather Singaporean lunch, we made some fried carrot cake for dinner. I know that when you hear ‘carrot cake’ you’re probably thinking of that sweet dessert, but the Singapore version is actually a steamed radish cake (which I had bought from an Asian supermarket) that we then panfried with garlic, pickled turnip and beaten eggs.


The pickled turnip adds saltiness and a bit of a crunch to the dish. It was a simple but hearty taste of home to end the all-too-short weekend.




Hello and goodbye

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

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

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

Ok here come the food pictures!

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).