Review written by: Kristie Hendricks
Edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Contributors: Monica Bhide, Colin Cheong, Damon Chua, Dave Chua, Colin Goh, Philip
Jeyaretnam, Johann S. Lee, Suchen Christine Lim, Lawrence Osborne, S.J. Rozan, Cheryl Lu-
Lien Tan, Donald Tee Quee Ho aka Simon Tay, Nury Vittachi, Ovidia Yu
Release Date: June 3, 2014
This collection of Noir fiction set in Singapore is part of The Akashic Noir Series. In her introduction the editor, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, promises to show Westerners a Singapore we have never seen. She delivers original short stories of contributors, including one of her own works, with varying levels of connection to Singapore. Her compilation results in a well rounded series of stories describing Singapore from multiple perspectives of Singapore’s mixed demographic. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan serves a platter of rich corruption alongside the main course working class of Singapore. We follow them as they clean every inch of Singapore’s house exposing us to the dirty laundry within the closets of its manicured structure. The air conditioning can blow full blast if you can afford it, but the heat lingers just outside.
Throughout the reading, the stories paint the small new country as one ridden with regulations that don’t stop the powerful and desperate from encountering the dark side of the human condition. Lu-Lien Tan weaves stories focusing on desperate, powerful, greedy, sex-crazed, and insane characters struggling against a dark force and losing. The collection leaves feelings of despair and hopelessness; which is the standard outcome of a Noir story. The short story medium works well for Noir as it emphasizes the fast pace characteristic of the genre.
After fourteen dark stories inspired by life in Singapore, major themes of life there surface. Repeated, but not redundantly, throughout the stories are themes of money lust, sex without love, black magic, and heavily weighted filial or employee deference.
–The blending of languages: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s “Reel” is the best representation of Singlish in the collection. Her protagonist Ah Meng and his mother are in the fishing business in Changi. Her knowledge of Singlish slang is used for dialogue and is easily understood, reminding you of the setting constantly. Throughout the collection, Singlish is referred to, sometimes with hatred by racist characters. Singlish is “in vocabulary, in grammar, and in syntax, a knotted comination” of Singapore’s four official languages.
–Repercussions of legal prostitution on the family structure: In “Tattoo” the words of Lawrence Osborne in the thoughts of his protagonist, Ryu, “he wondered if every man had this moment of grim initiation into the world that lay beyond and around marriage. Certainly, nobody ever talked about it until they were older and it no longer mattered as much” comments on infidelity as he enters “the world of secrets”. Ryu accepts his choices spawned from animal urges as the norm. As a faithful husband he did not fit into his peer group. The story illustrates the typical Japanese business man transplant in Singapore as a frequent visitor of the red light district. “Tattoo” is one of the many stories in this collection dealing with sex for money, but one of the only that shows the brothel.
–Gun Control : A brief search into gun laws in Singapore will show that the country allows citizens guns, but it is not a basic right as in the U.S. If you are trying to obtain a gun license, you must provide a reason for needing it. “Smile, Singapore” by Colin Cheong gives a great look inside the borders to see how the gun restrictive legislation affects people. Mr. Tan, a cab driver, finds a gun in his cab after a man takes a ride from him. He decides to keep it. At first Mr. Tan keeps it as a token of protection and nearly worships it as an item more precious in value than anything else he owns. Ultimately, uses it to enforce justice where he sees none from authorities. This story shows the rarity of gun ownership. The protagonist is of the working class, owning very few possessions: basically a change of clothing. Mr. Tan’s fellow cab driver, Ah Huat, carried a miniature Chinese style coffin which held a bone of a dead child as protection; if he needed protecting he would call on his child’s spirit, which he believed was bound to him and the bone. The loan shark’s goons who come to collect from his landlady only have knives. They are terrified of the gun and immediately back down; one even begs Mr. Tan not to shoot him. We see in this story that the organized crime members who intimidate others for loan repayment cannot afford guns for themselves. In the interrogation room we hear from Mr. Tan, “Singapore is safe, if you are white and rich”. We see how rare a thing gun ownership is in Ang Mo Kio and perhaps in all of Singapore for the working poor.
–Homosexuality: Three of the stories in the collection contain male homosexual relationships or desires, and one touches on a female homosexual relationship. Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, though some sources say the law is not usually enforced. In “Current Escape” the only solace Merla finds from her abusive employer is his sexuality; rape is “one kind of wickedness that will not befall her”.
Singapore Noir is for the Noir fiction lover, one who, in mind or in practice would travel to a destination and seek the local experience to compare to the surface experience; one who would enjoy listening to the life story of a shadowy character in a dim lit bar, but from the safety of a favorite reading chair. Not one major character remains innocent. Every one is touched with some darkness, by deed, defense, or desire. The peripheral read reveals the functioning surface of Singapore, markets with loving and appreciative street vendors where women strangers are referred to as “aunties”, a class of immigrants hopeful for opportunity in serving the ultra-rich, a tropical paradise often cleansed by heavy rain, but be no fool, the rain adds a weight in this collection, the servants are mistreated, and the markets sell poison alongside food.