Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Introduction to Singapore Noir
To celebrate the release of Singapore Noir, the latest in Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to bring you this decidedly dark sample from the anthology: editor Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s introduction to “The Sultry City-State.”
Say Singapore to anyone and you’ll likely hear one of a few words: Caning. Fines. Chewing gum.
For much of the West, the narrative of Singapore—a modern Southeast Asian city-state perched on an island on the tip of the Malay Peninsula—has been marked largely by its government’s strict laws and unwavering enforcement of them.
In 1994, American teenager Michael Fay was famously sentenced to six strokes of the cane after a series of car vandalisms in Singapore. Just the year before in a cover story for Wired magazine, William Gibson criticized the country, calling it constrained and humorless, saying “conformity here is the prime directive.”
“Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia,” Gibson wrote, “an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.”
As much as I understand these outside viewpoints, I have always lamented that the quirky and dark complexities of my native country’s culture rarely seem to make it past its borders. The Singapore in which I was born and spent most of my first eighteen years was safe, yes—so safe that I could wander its city streets without fear at two in the morning as a teenage girl. And its general cleanliness is unrivaled—even now, I feel sometimes that one could, in fact, eat off the streets.
Beneath that sparkling veneer, however, is a country teeming with shadows. For starters, it has not just one but several red-light districts. There’s the large designated area, Geylang, which is filled with dozens of narrow lanes and alleys where one can find prewar houses festooned with red lights and prostitutes pacing along blocks, clustered almost as you would find them in a department store—older Indian girls on this end, mainland Chinese sirens a few alleys over, and so forth.
And beyond Geylang, there are neighborhoods where one knows to go for Thai, Vietnamese, Filipina, and other girls. (Paul Theroux, in fact, set his 1973 novel Saint Jack amid the bordellos and triads of Singapore—a tale turned into a 1979 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, which was banned in Singapore for its unsavory content.)
Gambling and its many fallouts have always been an issue in this country, one that was pockmarked with illegal gambling dens long before Las Vegas Sands poured about $6.5 billion into building a casino in the heart of Singapore in 2011.
And then there are the ghosts. Singaporeans love nothing better than to tell a good gory tale. And there are many. When I was a child, each time we passed a particular church along Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping street, someone would always whisper: “Curry.” In 1987, police arrested a woman and her three brothers, charging them with killing her husband, chopping him up, and turning his remains into curry, skull and all, in the church caretaker’s kitchen. While the charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence, the story remains widely enjoyed. (Though no one I know has dared to have Sunday supper at that church since.)
It could be said that of course noir is alive in a country built on the shoulders of entrepreneurs and rebels. My father likes to note that many of the ethnic Chinese in Singapore are descendents of fortune-seekers from the coast of Southeastern China, an area known, according to him, for “smugglers, pirates, and really good businessmen.”
Singapore began humbly, as a knot of tropical Malay fishing villages located near the equator. Its name comes from Sang Nila Utama, a Sumatran prince who called it Singapura—lion city in Sanskrit—after spotting a frightening beast on its shores while hunting which his men told him was a lion. He officially founded Singapore in 1324, believing the lion sighting to be a good omen.
But it was only in 1819 that the island truly started growing—British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles sailed to its shores and established a military post and trading port there. Traders from India, China, and all over Southeast Asia began arriving, then settling. The country gained its independence in 1965 with Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, serving as its prime minister until 1990.
Singapore in recent years has been in the spotlight once again—this time for its “tiger” economy, one that has made this 250-square-mile country one of the wealthiest in the world. (According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal story, the country had 188,000 millionaire households in 2011—which translates into one in six homes having disposable private wealth of at least one million dollars.) It has become one of the major safe havens for the rich to park their wealth; Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin made international headlines in 2012 when he renounced his US citizenship and became Singaporean. The country now boasts a bar that sells a $26,000 cocktail.
Despite recent changes, Singapore is still an Asian polyglot—its five million population is about 75 percent Chinese in ethnicity, 13 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, among others, which is what accounts for its distinct patois, Singlish. You’ll see some of it in the stories before you—this local pidgin is a combination of English, Malay, and a hodge-podge of Chinese dialects. Conversations may sound bizarre sometimes because although the words are in English, the sentence structure used may be Malay or Mandarin. The word lah is tacked onto most sentences for inflection—something like okay or man in American slang.
And its stories remain. The rich stories that attracted literary lions W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling to hold court at the Raffles Hotel (where the Singapore Sling was created) are still sprinkled throughout its neighborhoods. And in the following pages, you’ll get the chance to discover some of them.
British novelist Lawrence Osborne takes us along on a romantic, sinister romp in Geylang, while mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan explores the darkness that lurks in the cookie-cutter blandness of suburban expat Singapore. Hong Kong–based Nury Vittachi, creator of the Feng Shui Detective series, gives us a breathless fast-paced chase along glitzy Orchard Road, and American food writer Monica Bhide, in her fiction debut, weaves a heart-tugging tale of a boy and his mother.
You’ll find stories from some of the best contemporary writers in Singapore—three of them winners of the Singapore Literature Prize, essentially the country’s Pulitzer: Simon Tay, writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho, tells the story of a hardboiled detective who inadvertently wends his way into the underbelly of organized crime, Colin Cheong shows us a surprising side to the country’s ubiquitous cheerful “taxi uncle,” while Suchen Christine Lim spins a wistful tale of a Chinese temple medium whose past resurges to haunt her.
Colin Goh, a beloved Singaporean satirist, filmmaker, and cartoonist, delves into the seedy side of Raffles Place, the country’s deep-pocketed financial district, while award-winning playwright Damon Chua gives us a tour of life after dark near the Malaysian border. Maids—who regularly make the news in Singapore due to reports of abominable maid abuse—are the protagonists in stories by Dave Chua and Johann S. Lee, one of Singapore’s first openly gay writers.
Black magic is threaded through the yarn by Ovidia Yu, one of Singapore’s leading and most prolific playwrights. And, of course, the enigmatic female figure, so alluring and so irresistible, is the key in Philip Jeyaretnam’s elegant story. As for mine, I chose a setting close to my heart—the kelongs, or old fisheries on stilts, that once dotted the waters of Singapore but are gradually disappearing.
I have a deep sense of romance about these kelongs, along with the many other settings, characters, nuances, and quirks that you’ll see in these stories. They’re intense, inky, nebulous. There is evil, sadness, a foreboding. And liars, cheaters, the valiant abound.
This is a Singapore rarely explored in Western literature—until now. No Disneyland here; but there is a death penalty.
CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN is the New York–based author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family. A native of Singapore, she is working on her second book, a novel. A former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, her work has also appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications. She has been an artist in residence at Yaddo and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. She is a contributor to The Marijuana Chronicles and the editor of Singapore Noir.
Posted: Jun 25, 2014
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Akashic Insider, S.J. Rozan, Singapore Noir, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Colin Goh, Damon Chua, Nury Vittachi, Monica Bhide, Colin Cheong, Suchen Christine Lim, Simon Tay, Donald Tee Quee Ho, Dave Chua, Johann S. Lee, Philip Jeyaretnam, Lawrence Osborne
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