500 Words From is a series of guest posts from authors. Here, Dawn Farnham talks about The Straits Quartet, her acclaimed series of novels set in nineteenth-century Singapore and Batavia (Jakarta). The four titles together follow the eventful love affair between Charlotte, sister of Singapore’s Head of Police, and Zhen, once the lowliest of Chinese coolies, and a triad member. In each book, Dawn skilfully weaves romance, scandal, and sex into a satisfying novel, without sacrificing historical accuracy; she includes all sorts of arresting period detail such as what to do in a tiger attack, and how, in the 1830s, passionate girls avoided pregnancy.
Dawn was born in England, but grew up in Perth, Australia, and her links to Asia are strong. She has lived in China, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. She now splits her time between Perth, and her second home, Singapore. It was in Singapore that she began to write, fascinated by the rich history of the tiny City-State, where a variety of cultures mingle, and where, in the nineteenth century the Peranakans, descendants of male Chinese immigrants and their Malay brides, formed a large and influential population.
So, 500 words from Dawn Farnham:
"What inspired you to write this book?" Ask any author that question and the responses will be as varied as the books themselves. For myself, it was a photograph. I had recently become a docent, guiding the old Peranakan Museum in Singapore and learning the surprising details of Peranakan homes, food, marriage and lifestyle. A door opened onto an entirely unheard-of universe and I was taken by this hybrid Malay / Chinese culture.
The photograph was half life-sized. It showed a wedding. The bride was dressed in the old costume of China and the groom like a Mandarin with his gown and button hat. A simple wedding photograph, you might think, albeit exotic, but it spoke to me. For the girl was Peranakan and ought to be in a sarong and jacket, and he was most likely a coolie, newly arrived from China’s shores.
She was a daughter, a more precious commodity in Singapore than in China, for through her were cemented important trading connections to other Peranakan families all over Southeast Asia. But in a smallish community there were never enough men to marry each daughter to a Peranakan male. So she was the means, too, to bring into the family new blood, Chinese speakers, young men who understood China and its ways better than the Peranakans themselves. And a vast supply was arriving with every boat from China. It sufficed only to pick the best of the bunch, ones who could read and write and had canny heads on their shoulders.
The huge difference from China was that this young man would move into the home of the bride not vice versa. It was up to him to adjust to this new world: different language, different food, different customs.
So there it was, the story of a young man, Zhen, handsome and ambitious, out to make his fortune and to land a rich bride. But that was not story enough of course. It had to be harder. He had to be in love not with the rich bride but with the most forbidden fruit of the colony of Singapore, a white woman, Charlotte, sister of the police chief; he had to face the seemingly impossible task of coming together with her.
That was the little seed, and all writers know that the seed is everything. From that seed, I discovered the life and loves of Singapore’s first architect George Coleman and his mixed-race Javanese / Dutch / Armenian mistress, Takouhi. I read about the house he built for her and their child, and I was hooked.
I hadn’t intended to write a quartet. Somehow that grew along the way when halfway through the first book, The Red Thread, I realised I had more to say and that the natural ending of that book led to another – The Shallow Seas. Once I realised I was going to write two, the next step, surprisingly, was not three but four, hence The Hills of Singapore and The English Concubine.
Hitchcock famously said “a movie is life with all the boring bits taken out”. Something like a quartet of books has to be similar. I’m asking the reader to invest time in my characters and my duty is to make them and the events of their lives as lively and dramatic and romantic and passionate as I can. Have I succeeded? Only readers can say.
The Straits Quartet is published by Monsoon Books: http://www.monsoonbooks.com.sg/
Visit Dawn’s website: http://www.dawnfarnham.com/