Friday 13 December 2019

Happy reading in December and January!!

Asian Books Blog will close for Christmas and Chinese New Year.  It will reopen on Monday Feb 3, 2020.  In the meantime, happy reading!! See you again once all the festivities have stopped.

500 words from Noelle Q De Jesus

Noelle Q De Jesus is a Filipino American short story writer who explores issues of identity, belonging, and attachment. Her stories are intimately shaped around individuals, yet simultaneously address broader questions relevant to worldwide communities. Today we hear from her about her latest collection, Cursed and Other Stories.

The truth is, initially, Cursed and Other Stories became a book because I had too many short stories for one volume. Its genesis took place in late 2014, when I looked up from my messy life of being wife, mother and freelance writer, and realised I was not another writer that had written nothing. I was a woman of 48 who had written over 30 stories, a number of them published, and I could put together a book if I wanted to. That process meant, sorting stories and grouping them. My second realisation was I had actually written enough to make one and a half books. I did not even know it.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Tsundoku #10

It's the holidays - it's official - Hannukah, Christmas, the Russian Christmas, New Year (hell, the lunar new year is in January so why not start now and just carry on through to February!) The holidays means some time to buy books, read books, give books. And, by the way, what with all the holidays this is a double issue to last you through to February when hopefully the money god will have been kind, your tsundoku pile significantly reduced, and we start book shopping all over again...
So, as ever, let’s start with some new fiction...

Friday 6 December 2019

The Colonel by M. Dowlatabadi

People sometimes comment that this blog discusses a “niche topic”—Asian literature. If Asian literature is considered niche, then Western Asian literature measures off the charts in niche-ness. There are various reasons why Western Asian literary works are under-read. These range from the scarcity of translations to China’s prominent geopolitical position in Asia to the presence of regional conflicts. The best way to combat this problem of lack of recognition and appreciation for Western Asian works is, of course, to read more of them! With this in mind, Piers Butel shares his thoughts on The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi:

Today I’d like to direct your attention to the other side of Asia. Far from the East Asia of my last piece, to Iran. Iran has a deep and rich literary culture that has thrived despite years of colonial interference and oppression by both autocratic shahs and religious fundamentalists. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is an author who represents well the changes and tensions that have rippled across Iranian culture over the last century. His novels are set in an Iran that doesn’t know where to look, set amongst average people trying to make the best of a world that no longer makes sense. People who want to get back to normal where normal seems the least possible thing.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Murder on the Move – Learning to Love Audio

Midnight in Peking and City of Devils author Paul French has just launched his latest project – Murders of Old China. But you won’t find it in the bookstore. It’s a 12-part Audible Original covering a dozen historic murder cases in China in the early twentieth century available on Audible from December 4 2019. Researched, written and narrated by the author it’s exclusively available as an audio project straight to your headphones. And it required a different of thinking about writing and readers….

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Prizes and parties...

Some end-of-year thoughts from Nicky Harman

In my more pessimistic moments, I feel Chinese novels translated into English are a hard sell and I’m not sure when or if they will ever become part of the literary ‘mainstream’ in the West. My friend the poet and novelist Han Dong concurs: he reckons that Chinese fiction in foreign languages will never sell like western fiction translated into Chinese. You may or may not agree with his reasoning: Chinese readers are exposed from childhood to life in the west, through classic and new translations, books, films and TV series. But that familiarity doesn’t work the other way around. So Chinese literature doesn’t capture readers’ imagination.

I thought about this argument and wondered: so then do we only read fiction that describes worlds we are familiar with? Well no… not exactly. Just look at the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize, Jokha Alharti. Her novel, ‘Celestial Bodies’, is about Omani tribal society, hardly a place most of us have lived in or are familiar with. But it is a beautiful, captivating read.

Monday 2 December 2019

Indie Spotlight: The Scent of Frangipani - Dollarbird's first book launched

Last month on Indie Spotlight, Phil Tatham, publisher at Monsoon Books, told us about their exciting new hybrid imprint, Dollarbird. This month, Anjana Rai Chaudhuri, author of Dollarbird's debut novel, tells us about the inspirations behind her book, The Scent of Frangipani and her road to publication...

Welcome to Indie Spotlight, Anjana. Tell us about your writing journey. Why did you become a writer?
I am a research scientist by profession with a PhD degree in Chemistry, and I have done technical writing from the age of 25, research publications, book chapters and research funding proposals. Having had an interest in English Literature from young, I graduated with a BA degree in English Literature at the age of 54. Then I started to write creative fiction.

Friday 29 November 2019

Lion City Lit by Ken Hickson: People of the Book

Words matter. Whether it’s a climate change meeting, an international energy exhibition or the Singapore Writers’ Festival (SWF). The Lions City always has lots of people visiting and living here who are doing just that. Spreading the word.

Let me introduce you to few “People of the Book”. Or books more correctly. And thanks to famous Australian author of historical novels, Geraldine Brooks, for the loan of the title of one of her wonderful books:

Monday 25 November 2019

Tunku Halim Talks Horror with Elaine Chiew

Tunku Halim, dubbed as the Malaysian Stephen King, surely needs no introduction.

Scream to the Shadows is a retrospective of 20 years of his short tales of horror, also billed as 'world gothic'.

But a short bio for those of you not as familiar:


Tunku Halim was born in Malaysia in 1964. He is dubbed the Stephen King of Malaysia. By delving into Malay myth, legends and folklore, his writing is regarded as ‘World Gothic’. 

His novel, Dark Demon Rising, was nominated for the 1999 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award whilst his second novel, Vermillion Eye, is used as a study text in The National University of Singapore’s Language and Literature course. His short story has also won first prize inn a 1998 Fellowship of Australian Writers competition. In Malaysia, he has had three consecutive wins in the Star Readers’ Choice Awards between 2015 and 2017. 

His other books include the short-story collections The Rape of Martha Teoh & Other Chilling Stories (1997), BloodHaze: 15 Chilling Tales (1999) and The Woman Who Grew Horns and Other Works (2001); and the novella Juriah’s Song (2008). His non-fiction books include A Children’s History of Malaysia (2003) and a biography of his late father Tunku Abdullah – A Passion for Life (1998).  

Thursday 14 November 2019

All She Was Worth - A Noir Mystery set in Japan's Bubble Economy

All She Was Worth is a 1992 noir mystery written by Miyuki Miyabe, one of Japan's most famous genre writers, including crime fiction. Taking place in the early 1990s, the novel captures the zeitgeist of the Bubble Economy of the 80s/early 90s, which would soon pop and led to the infamous "Lost Decade."

Monday 4 November 2019

In search of three Asian Divas, guest post by David Chaffetz

David Chaffetz, author of A Journey through Afghanistan, is an independent researcher of Asian arts and literature. He has read Persian and Turkish at Harvard, and Arabic at Columbia, and has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. His new book, Three Asian Divas, has just been published.

The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon.  Chinese opera, especially in the Ming period, had famous singers who were also courtesans, similar to the early Venetian and Roman entertainers. Similar institutions existed in India, the tawaifs, and in Iran. Traditional Asian divas are however less well known and understood among English-language readers than the divas of Mozart and Puccini. Whether from Shiraz at the court of the Injuids, from Delhi during the twilight of the Moghuls, or from Yangzhou under the last Ming emperors, Asian divas were identifiably modern women. Though practicing classical and tradition-bound arts, they were economically independent, and were free to give or withhold love. Indeed, in many ways, they paved the way for the emergence of the modern woman in Asian societies.

Three Asian Divas brings to life an Iranian, an Indian and a Chinese diva, and in so doing highlights the diva’s social role and the significance of her contributions to art.

David here explains how he came to write Three Asian Divas.

Festival Prologue: Marlon James on Language, Whose Story Is It, and Who Gets to Tell It?

The honour of giving the Festival Prologue at SWF 2019 this year went to Marlon James and as literary prestige goes, Marlon James gets top billing, as winner of the 2015 Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, a sprawling novel with 76 characters, most of which are written in first person point of view. His fourth novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin Random House UK, 2019), comes equipped with self-drawn maps, and a similar long cast of characters, which was somewhat hyped in pre-publicity as the African Game of Thrones. What have come to characterise his novels are: cacophonous voices, the interweave of fantasy, African history, myths and folklore, a bold collapsing of genres (a flat-out thumbing of the nose at literary snobbery even), a healthy disregard for traditional plot-structures and an intrepid blend of Jamaican patois, language and syntax that is not standard English. Subversion ought to be Marlon James' middle name. 

That his prologue speech at SWF would be trenchant and witty comes as no surprise: starting off with the point 'whose stories get told', he said, "Colonialism. Nothing good came out of it," and the English language, well, that rose out of bad German. While not belabouring the point about how English as a language has been harnessed as, one could argue, a primary tool of British colonialism and even a weapon of combat (to use literary theorist Rey Chow's term), its dominance and how it is to be used in literary narrativising is surely an enclave-like protection of power, and this is what James sets out to knock down in his novels. On his second question: who gets to tell the stories, he spoke about trying to write his second novel, The Book of Night Women, in Standard English and it came across as stilted and false. Searching for language has involved acknowledging and then ridding himself of the shame that had been inculcated in the colonised mind about patois, dialects and local slang.  An apt resonance with the theme of the festival indeed. In the Q&A, I would have liked to have heard more about this process — the trials and errors, the mental back and forth —  in rediscovering, reclaiming and redeploying patois and dialects in fashioning his own literary voice, but I suppose there was so much ground to cover.  

Tsundoku #9

OK – I’m going to put it out there – Christmas is coming. That means two things – 1) getting through all the books you got last Christmas and 2) choosing books as presents (don’t worry – December will be a special gift giving tsundoku). But November offers some good fare. As ever let’s start with some new fiction...

Sunday 3 November 2019

Indie Spotlight: Dollarbird - Monsoon ventures into hybrid publishing

Apologies for the late posting of the October Indie Spotlight. This month we're taking a look at an exciting new development from leading independent publisher of books on Asia- Monsoon Books who have recently launched a new imprint, venturing into a new business model - hybrid publishing. Over to publisher, Phil Tatham for the detail...

Monsoon Books launched its second imprint, Dollarbird, in late 2019 with half a dozen exciting new titles in the pipeline or already in stores. The first title to be released, The Scent of Frangipani by first-time Singaporean author Anjana Rai Chaudhuri, will be officially launched at Singapore Writers Festival 2019 at an event moderated by award-winning author Suchen Christine Lim.

Although Dollarbird continues Monsoon Books’ specialism in concentrating on books set in Southeast Asia, what differentiates it is the business model. Dollarbird is a hybrid imprint, a business model fast gaining ground amongst independent trade publishers in the UK and US. The hybrid model pays authors royalties of 50% of the publisher’s net receipts in return for an upfront payment to help subsidize the publisher’s production costs.

The benefit for Monsoon Books is that the financial risk of producing the book is mitigated, meaning we can afford to widen the net and publish quality manuscripts by new authors or in new genres that we would otherwise have rejected for financial reasons. Like most other indie trade publishers, Monsoon Books is constrained by financial resources and, with some exceptions, tries to publish what it hopes will become profitable for publisher and author. Monsoon typically publishes 12 to 15 new books a year and, increasingly, we are only accepting works in existing series or standalone books by existing authors. It is hoped that Dollarbird will enable us publish more books by new authors and in new genres.

Thursday 31 October 2019

4 Edogawa Ranpo Horror Stories

Edogawa Ranpo is synonymous with Japanese horror and mystery fiction. Using a pen name based off of Edgar Allen Poe, (try saying it three times fast), Taro Hirai wrote many short stories and novels as Ranpo (sometimes Romanized as Rampo).

Monday 28 October 2019

Sun Jung, author of Bukit Brown, chats with Elaine Chiew

Sun Jung received her Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne and was a research fellow at both Victoria University and the National University of Singapore. Prior to her academic career, she worked as a writer for media production companies and cultural magazines in Los Angeles and Seoul. During this time, she also collaborated with Korean film producers on script development. Ever since her first visit in 2012 to Bukit Brown, one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China, she has been fascinated by the stories of those who were buried there. After leaving her academic career behind, she devoted herself to writing this novel inspired by some of these tales. Previous published works were her book of essays, The Letter, I Sent You (1991) and her academic book Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption(2011).

Book Synopsis:

Bukit Brown follows the gripping journey of Ji-won, lonely and lost in modern day cosmopolitan Singapore, who time travels to nineteenth century British Malaya and finds her true self through experiencing the deplorable lives of migrant workers, the veiled enmity between Chinese secret societies and a lavish Peranakan lifestyle.

The novel begins with Hong-jo receiving an email from her old friend Ji-won, who ardently requests her to come to Singapore. However, upon arriving in Singapore, Hong-jo learns that Ji-won has taken her own life, three days prior. In addition, Julian, a friend of Ji-won, informs Hong-jo that she had time-travelled through a grave in Bukit Brown, the very same grave where Ji-won eventually hanged herself. Hong-jo and Julian learn that Ji-won had time travelled four times – Penang in 1862 and 1865, Singapore in 894 and 1959 – and they gradually uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. 

Friday 25 October 2019

Margaret Kartomi talks about Performing the Arts of Indonesia

Margaret Kartomi is Professor of Music at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University, in Melbourne. She is author of numerous publications on the music cultures of Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia.

She edited Performing the Arts of Indonesia: Malay Identity and Politics in the Music, Dance and Theatre of the Riau Islands, a new book exploring the artistic culture of Indonesia’s recently autonomous Riau Islands Province, Kepulauan Riau, colloquially referred to by its acronym, Kepri.  

Located in the centre of the Malay-speaking world of Southeast Asia, Kepri shares a border with Singapore and Malaysia and spans the Strait of Melaka and the South China Sea. Its 2,408 or so islands are sprinkled across its waters "like a shake of pepper" (Segantang Lada). Since the mid-19th century Kepri has widely been regarded as both the birthplace of modern Malay and its literature, and also as a centre of Islamic knowledge. Like Aceh, it acquired a reputation as "the verandah of Mecca", thanks to the large numbers of pilgrims who departed from its shores over the centuries. 

Margaret here explains how the book's contributors offer fresh new perspectives on Kepri's arts and artists.

Call for short stories on everyday life during Khmer Rouge era

The Khmer Writers Association is collaborating with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) to organise a short story competition on the topic of life under the Khmer Rouge, with the winner receiving the Sleuk Rith Literature Award.

To preserve the historical record of Cambodians during the Pol Pot regime and promote Khmer literature, the story must be about the everyday lives of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge.

“Contestants wishing to enter should write an original composition about the daily lives of Cambodians in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea. However, the story should not focus on genocide,” the Khmer Writers Association said this week.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

My Travels in Ding Yi. Nicky Harman looks at the latest translated novel from Shi Tiesheng

One of the most interesting novels to come out in translation this year is My Travels in Ding Yi (ACA Publishing, 2019) by Shi Tiesheng (1951-2010). 

Shi's writing ranges widely, from disability, to reflections on philosophy and religion, to magical surrealism, to an entertaining vignette on football and a meditation on his local park and his mother. However, he first became famous for writing his personal experiences of being disabled. One of his most famous short stories is The Temple of Earth and I  (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping), in which he talks movingly about the frustrations he faced, and how he and his mother struggled to cope. Back in the 1980s, discrimination against the disabled was embedded into the language and society alike. Sarah Dauncey in her paper, Writing Disability into Modern Chinese Fiction, Chinese Literature Today, 6:1 (2017) says that '...canfei 残废 (invalids) was still the accepted equivalent to the English terms disability and disabled with all its retained connotations of uselessness and rubbish as reflected in particular by the fei 废 character.'

Monday 21 October 2019

Language as an Identifying Force: Pooja Nansi on the SWF 2019

We are so excited about the opening of the Singapore Writers Festival! In less than two weeks, writers from all walks of life will grace stages at the Singapore Arts House and other venues to deliver lectures, workshops, readings, and even to perform rap!

Singapore Writers Festival has established itself as a dynamic and current autumnal literary event. Last year more than 25,000 literature enthusiasts attended the program based around the possibilities represented by 界 jiè, meaning world or universe.

This year’s theme is A Language of Our Own, and the Festival invites us to contemplate the multi-dimensional impact of language on both ourselves and on others. SWF runs from November 1st to November 10th, and you can see a programme here.

The woman who worked hard to bring this year’s festival to life is director Pooja Nansi. A poet and performer, she received a 2016 Young Artist Award, and is also Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador. We caught up with Pooja to learn a little more about the processes behind Singapore Writers Festival and her hopes for what it will achieve.

Thursday 17 October 2019

Shanghai After Pearl Harbour

Indie spotlight focusses on self-published authors and self-publishing. Alexa Kang is a Boston-based, Chinese-American author. She publishes her World War II historical fiction trilogy, Shanghai Story, through her own house, Lakewood Press. Alexa has previously shared her experiences writing the first two of these books with Asian Books Blog readers. Today is the publication day of the third and final book in the series, Shanghai Yesterday.

Shanghai Yesterday follows Clark Yuan, the Western-educated son of a prominent Chinese family in Shanghai and former a KMT operative, as he joins the Chinese secret police’s underground resistance movement. The story also continues with Eden Levine, a Jewish refugee from Munich, as she and the Western press in Shanghai work to expose the atrocities committed by Germany and Japan to the world.

Alexa will here discuss a little bit about her trilogy, followed by a more detailed examination of the Jewish and immigrant experience in occupied Shanghai after 1941.

So, over to Alexa...

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Lion City Lit by Ken Hickson

This month, our regular column Lion City Lit unearths a new word – an acronym really - to collectively bring together what’s going on in Singapore. Literally. Ken Hickson reports…

You’ve heard of Ab-Fab, we’ve got AB-CAB!

Beyond Authors and Books as objects of pleasure and learning, we’ve uncovered haunts for writers – Cafes – so when you put all that into a literary melting-pot with Awards and Bookstores,  AB-CAB emerges!

Come along for a ride in the Lion City:

A is for Authors, first and foremost: Who’s in the news?

How about home-grown Simon Vincent? A multi-media journalist who’s come up with a first  - the extremely creative non-fiction work, The Naysayers Book Club, walking off with the Book of the Year at the Singapore Book Publishers Association annual industry awards. (This could of course come under B for Books and A for Awards too, but we’ll try not to repeat ourselves.)

We first met Simon when he played the role of moderator with four young women authors at an Epigram event a couple of months’ back. We’ve read the book and found it totally engaging.  Real insight into people who matter in Singapore. What’s next Simon?

Friday 11 October 2019

Breaking News: Chapter 5 of Teika’s Tale of Genji found!

Tale of Genji, known in Japanese as Genji montagari is commonly acknowledged to be the world’s earliest novel. This 54-chapter masterpiece was written in Heian Japan around the year 1010. Its author is a woman, Murasaki Shikibu.

No one knows what happened to the original manuscript of The Tale of Genji. This loss has led many scholars across time to try and reconstruct the original version. One such scholar was Fujiwara no Teika, who lived from approximately 1160 to 1240. (The Fujiwara clan was a powerful family group with strong political and artistic influence in the Heian period.) Teika published a work that was comprised of the first 5 chapters of Tale of Genji, written by comparing multiple surviving copies in order to attain the highest possible level of accuracy. This work, called the Aobyoshibon, which translates as blue cover book, is the earliest known partial copy of The Tale of Genji.

Until a few days ago, we only had the first four chapters of Teika’s version, and the Aobyoshibon was incomplete. However, newspapers in Japan have reported that the 5th chapter has been found and authenticated! It was found in a storeroom chest in the home of 72-year-old Tokyo resident Motofuyu Okochi. Chapter 5 of the work, the Wakamurasaki chapter, contains a crucial moment in the novel when the protagonist, Genji, first encounters his future wife Murasaki. (You may have noticed that the author and the heroine have the same name. We actually do not know the real name of lady Murasaki Shikibu, and it is thought that she chose this sobriquet based on the character of her creation. Murasaki in Japanese means violet.)

Scholars who have examined the newly-found chapter say that it does not differ substantially from later copies, however there are some grammatical inconsistencies. Nevertheless, the discovery of this document marks the addition of a globally significant literary artefact to the existing corpus of Heian period texts. At the time of writing, it is unclear what will happen to the manuscript, whether it will remain under private guardianship or be transferred to a public space.

If you are interested in The Tale of Genji scholarship, this post looks at gender representation in chapters 9 and 24 of the novel.

Friday 4 October 2019

East Asian Winners of the Nobel Prize

The excitement is building as the Nobel Prize announcement day draws near.  2019 is a unique year for the Nobel Committee, as they will be giving out this year’s and last year’s prizes. People in the literary world are buzzing about who the literature laureates will be, although the literature prize is usually one whose winner is hard to predict. If one of the two authors is Asian, they will be the 9th Asian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the 6th East Asian winner.

Awards are about recognition of achievement, recognition that shouldn’t be limited only to the window of time surrounding the ceremony. With this in mind, let’s look back at the 5 East Asian Nobel literature laureates and their works.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Tsundoku #8

We are into Autumn and you seriously need to deal with your towering tsundoku pile (even the New Yorker says so!). Get that pile down so that you can go out to a bookshop and rebuild it again. And so issue #8 of Tsundoku – a column by me, Paul French,  starting with some new fiction...

Sunday 29 September 2019

Indie Spotlight - Myanmar - A Daughter's Promise - Ann Bennett

In my first blog post as Indie Spotlight contributor, I wrote about The Foundling’s Daughter, set partly in India in the days of the British Raj. This was my first foray into self-publishing. Since publishing the book through my own Andaman Press in December 2018, I’ve learned marketing through trial and error and the book has been more successful than I could have hoped – staying in the top 10 of Historical Asian fiction category on, and the top 20 in the same chart on Sales have tailed off lately, but have led to a two-book publishing deal with mainstream digital publisher  Bookouture. The book will be published (freshly edited and under a new title – yet to be revealed) for pre-order in December 2019, publication date February 2020.

Friday 27 September 2019

Guest post: Michael Wert

Michael Wert is Associate Professor of East Asian History at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Specializing in early modern and modern Japan, he is the author of Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan.

Michael has just brought out Samurai, a lively and approachable introduction to the warrior class and its influence on Japan which traces the history of the samurai until their disappearance, and explores their roles in watershed events such as Japan’s invasions of Korea at the close of the sixteenth century. Samurai gives readers access to the real samurai as they lived, fought, and served. It also critiques the role of the samurai in media and pop culture, dispelling many myths along the way.

So, over to Michael...

Wednesday 25 September 2019

The History of a Place in a Single Object, with Multiple Variations

Nicky Harman looks at translating tools, and it's more fascinating than you'd think.

It’s not often that I, as a translator, get to do research on the place where a particular author’s novels are set. In fact my recent visit, with Dylan King, to Shaanxi province to Jia Pingwa to look at where his novels Shaanxi Opera (AmazonCrossing, forthcoming) and Broken Wings (ACA, 2019) were set, was a first. We arrived with a list of questions of the ‘What does that tool do?’ and ‘What kind of a gate entrance is that?’ variety. We were primarily motivated by wanting to get the words right in translation. But it led Dylan and me into discussing the wonderful BBC/British Museum radio series, the History of the World in a Hundred Objects, and what follows is (with apologies to Neal MacGregor) a small meditation on what a particular tool can tell us about a place and how people live there.

The tool: a stone object in two parts that grinds up grain and spices, and produces soybean milk from the raw beans. There are two variations:  nian3pan2, also known as碌碡liu4zhou, consisting of a base stone and a cylindrical roller; and 石磨shi2mo4 or mo4pan2, made up of磨扇mo4shan1two circular stones, one atop the other, the bedstone (下扇) which stays stilland the upper stone (上扇) which moves around. In both versions, the top part is pushed around by a human or a beast. At least that’s what used to happen.

Friday 20 September 2019

Guest post: John D. Greenwood

John D. Greenwood is a Scot now transplanted to America. He began his career teaching philosophy, including a stint at the National University of Singapore, but he has since become an historian of psychology. He is currently in the midst of writing a projected six-part series, Singapore Saga, which will, when completed, offer a fictionalised overview of the first hundred years of modern Singapore's existence, from its founding by Raffles in 1819, to the aftermath of World War One, in 1919.

Volume 1, Forbidden Hill, published in 2017, covers 1819 to the mid 1830s. It features multiple plotlines rooted in historical events, and multiple characters - European, Chinese, Indian and Malay.

Volume 2, Chasing the Dragon, covers 1834-1854, and continues to portray the lives of the early pioneers of the expanding port city. It also extends to Borneo and China, encompassing the careers of James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, and of Hong Xiuquan, the failed scholar who dreams he is the second son of the Christian God and launches the Taiping Rebellion.

So, over to John, to talk about Chasing the Dragon

Sunday 15 September 2019

Ryuko by Eldo Yoshimizu: Femme Fatales, International Intrigue, Organized Crime, and Lots of Guns

As this is my first blog post as a regular contributor, I thought I’d change it up from my other articles – Researching Historical Japan & Researching Old Shanghai. I will continue to write about Asian history, but for now, I’d like to talk about a piece of contemporary Japanese fiction.

Friday 13 September 2019

Guest post: Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin writes on travel, culture and history with a particular focus on China. His first book, Anywhere Out of the World, was a literary biography of the travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin. His essays and articles have been published by the British Film Institute, the South China Morning Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Caixin, Studies in Travel Writing and the Asian Review of Books amongst others, and he now writes regularly on Chinese history and culture for a range of publications.

Jonathan's new book, Long Peace Street, intertwines travel and history to tell the story along the so-called Number One Street of China, Chang'an Jie, or the eponymous Long Peace Street, which bisects China's capital, Beijing, and which he walked from end to end.

Here, Jonathan introduces both his book and the street, and explains what inspired his walk.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Leland Cheuk talks to Elaine Chiew about No Good Very Bad Asian, doing stand-up, and why he started 7.13 Books

Courtesy Leland Cheuk

Reading a book that hits hard but also keeps you rolling around in laughter is, to quote Seneca, a res severa est verum gaudium, a "serious joy." I'm delighted to host Leland Cheuk in the Contemporary Voices column. He's funny in his interview, just as he is in his book, and (writing a funny book is no easy peasy lemon squeezy, lemme tell you)...damn, he's just naturally funny!

Welcome Leland Cheuk.

Bio: Leland Cheuk is the author of three books of fiction, including the novels THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG and most recently, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, forthcoming from C&R Press in November 2019. His work has appeared in SalonCatapultJoyland MagazineLiterary Hub, among other outlets. He has been awarded fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle, Djerassi, and elsewhere. He runs the indie press 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn.You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at   

Courtesy Leland Cheuk

Meet Sirius Lee, a fictive famous Chinese American comedian. He is a no good, very bad Asian. He is not good at math (or any other subject, really). He has no interest in finding a “good Chinese girlfriend.” And he refuses to put any effort into becoming the CEO/Lawyer/Doctor his parents so desperately want him to be. All he wants to do is make people laugh. 

A cross between Paul Beatty's The Sellout and Jade Chang's The Wangs Vs. The World, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN follows Sirius’s life from his poor, suffocating upbringing in the immigrant enclaves of Los Angeles to the loftiest heights of stardom as he struggles with substance abuse and the prejudice he faces despite his fame. Ultimately, when he becomes a father himself, he must come to terms with who he is, where he came from, and the legacy he'll leave behind.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Tsundoku #7 - September 2019

Hope your summer went well and you got your tsundoku pile down a little at least? Back to work now, and rebuilding that pile. And so issue #7 of Tsundoku – a column by me, Paul French. This is a kind of ‘back to school’ issue covering both some books that came out over the summer. So, let’s start with some new fiction...

Saturday 7 September 2019

Lion City Lit by Ken Hickson

As Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, our regular column Lion City Lit explores in-depth what’s going on in the City-State, lit-wise. Here’s what Ken Hickson has for us……

Love’s Labour’s Lost. Literally.

There are so many books to read, review and rifle through these days. And be impressed by  - quite frankly – with the amount and quality of Singapore published authors and the products of the Lion City’s thriving book business. From publisher, printer, distributor and retailer. Plus authors and illustrators of course!

Here’s my selection and a few short ‘review-like’ assessments of each one.  Literature, definitely. Variety, yes. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste, but all worth reading. Or at least flicking through. For many different reasons.  Read on…..

Friday 6 September 2019

Looking ahead: Singapore Writers Festival 2019

The 22nd annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) returns this November with the theme A Language of Our Own. This edition seeks to examine the role of languages in the formation of identities and communities at a time when the world is becoming increasingly globalised, yet fractured. The theme invites authors and audiences to reflect on how they talk about different types of language, including non-standard ones such as emojis and Singlish, the local blend of English with words taken from Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. Sessions will explore how, as systems of communication, languages have both the power to create a sense of belonging and also to cause displacement.

Friday 26 July 2019

Summer reading

Asian Books Blog is taking a break until Friday September 6. In the meantime, what will you read if you're visiting Thailand, Taiwan or Vietnam? Cecile Collineau, an independent book consultant based in Singapore, recommends novels you could pack wherever you're going. 

Thursday 25 July 2019

Backlist books: The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-jung

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about The Nine Cloud Dream, also known as The Cloud Dream of the Nine, a celebrated novel written in seventeenth-century Korea but set in ninth-century China. Often compared with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the novel follows one man on a journey to discover the meaning of life according to a mixture of Confucian, Taoist and---most importantly---Buddhist ideals. His fate is entwined with the fates of eight gifted, beautiful and otherworldly women in a kind of alternate reality. The story is thus a kind of collective dream of nine individuals.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Nine Cloud Dream, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Wednesday 24 July 2019


 NICKY HARMAN interviews WILL FORRESTER, International and Translation Manager at English PEN, where he runs PEN TRANSLATES, the major UK-based, grant-giving programme funding literary translations.
picture credit - Stephanie Sy-Quia

You’ve had one round of PEN Translates, how did it feel? What were the most exciting books that came out of it for you?

Saturday 20 July 2019

Researching Old Shanghai by Matthew Legare

Matthew Legare is the author of the Reiko / Inspector Aizawa historical thrillers set in pre-World War II Japan, and published by Black Mist Books. His latest novel is set in 1930s Shanghai. In this companion piece to his previous post on researching historical Japan, Matthew writes about books he'd recommend to other authors researching Old Shanghai.

Sunday 7 July 2019

Tsundoku #6 - July/August 2019

Welcome to issue #6 of Tsundoku – a column by me, Paul French, aiming to make that pile of ‘must read’ books by your bed a little more teetering. This is the bumper summer issue covering both July and August (Asian Books Blog shuts down for the summer like a Parisian boulangerie, and heads for the beach). So, with the holidays a’coming - let’s start with some new fiction...

Friday 5 July 2019

500 words from Anna Wang

Anna Wang was born in China in 1966, and was living in Beijing in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests. She has published nine books in Chinese. She now lives in the USA, where she has just brought out her first book in English, Inconvenient Memories. This is a personal account of the Tiananmen Square protests and of China before and after those events.  But is it memoir, or autobiographical fiction?  Anna here addresses that question.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

O Thiam Chin Talks to Elaine Chiew about Vampires, Teenage Girls and His Sixth Book of Short Fiction, Signs of Life.

Photo courtesy of the Author and Alan Siew
O Thiam Chin is the author of five collections of short fiction: Free Falling Man, Never Been Better, Under the Sun, The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It, and Love, Or Something like Love. He was a recipient of the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2012, and has been shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. His debut novel, Now That It's Over, won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, as well as the Best Fiction title at the 2017 Singapore Books Awards. His second novel, Fox Fire Girl, was also shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016.

About Signs of Life (from the book jacket) (Math Paper Press, 2019):

A mysterious terrorising force hounding a group of schoolgirls at a campfire. A couple trying to conceive in a post-apocalyptic world. Two gay men, the last of their kind, getting acquainted in a laboratory for the purpose of scientific observation. A Christ-like figure raising the dead in the heartlands. Strange and suspenseful, these stories offer a whole other world of voices, plot and imagery that opens up new terrain in what is possible and imaginable. With wit, sensitivity and dexterity, O's characters slip from their ever-present reality into the surreal and unknown and find in the process their hungers, desires and pains coming fully awake, thrumming with exultant life.

Monday 1 July 2019

Indie Spotlight - White Monkey

This month on Indie Spotlight, Carlos Hughes tells us about how his work teaching English as a foreign language led him to write about his experiences. Over to Carlos...

There are very few things that I am any good at where I would put a label on myself but I think a label that I could put on myself that wouldn't break the Trade Descriptions Act would be one of a writer. Even as a kid who couldn't stand school and would eventually leave/be thrown out with no qualifications at 16 - I always loved creative writing classes during English lessons. The only problem was I tended to go a bit mad when it came to creative writing and would end up writing 15 or so pages of a story within an hour only for the teacher to go 'Hughes, what have I told you before about this? Two pages MAXIMUM!'

So it wasn't like anyone in school was that bothered about my abilities or hidden genius but it was somewhat therapeutic and enjoyable for me.

Thursday 27 June 2019

Backlist books: Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about Rashomon and Other Stories, a collection of English translations of six of the “finest and most representative” short stories by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who wrote over 100 short stories before he committed suicide in 1927 at the age of thirty-five.

Two of the stories in the collection, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”, were combined in the award-winning 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon. The term ‘Rashomon effect’, named after the film, is used when eyewitnesses do not agree on the specifics of an event. It suggests that the truth is subjective or unknowable because people are unwilling or unable to describe it accurately.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read Rashomon and Other Stories, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Nicky Harman interviews Jeremy Tiang, Singaporean writer, translator and playwright

Photo credit: Edward Hill

Nicky: When you were growing up, what were the first Chinese-language stories you came across, and what drew you to them?

Jeremy: Growing up in a former British colony can be a destabilizing experience. Singapore's official languages are English, Chinese (meaning Mandarin), Malay and Tamil, and there were always several languages swirling around me ― some of which I felt I was being encouraged to know (the English in the Enid Blyton books my parents bought us, the Mandarin they sent me to a neighbour to learn) as well as others I had less access to (the Cantonese they sometimes used with each other, the Tamil my dad occasionally spoke on the phone).  I encountered Chinese stories in all kinds of ways, on TV and in my school textbooks, but often freighted with cultural baggage: there was a weight of obligation on us, as English-educated people, to hang on to our Chinese heritage. It wasn't until I got some distance from Singapore, by moving to the UK for university, that I was able to enjoy Chinese-language literature on its own terms. While I came to appreciate the grounding I had received in Singapore, particularly in secondary school, I don't think I read a Chinese novel for pleasure till I was in my twenties. Once I was able to do that, I quickly developed a taste for it. And being a writer of English and a lover of Chinese fiction, it was a logical progression to literary translation ― the best way I could think of to get right inside these books.

Friday 21 June 2019

Focus on NIAS Press: Yuan Shikai. By Patrick Fuliang Shan

The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), an integrated part of the University of Copenhagen, is an academically independent Nordic research and resource centre, focusing on modern Asia from a predominantly social sciences perspective.

NIAS Press is a globally focused publisher with the rigorous academic standards expected of a university press, but with the speed and decisiveness of a commercial publisher. Its lists cover all areas of Asian Studies, but it specialises in publishing innovative research on modern east and southeast Asian society.

This week, we're exploring NIAS Press in a series of three posts. In this third and final post, one of the Press' authors, Patrick Fuliang Shan, talks about his new book, on the first regular president of China, Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal.

Dr. Patrick Fuliang Shan is a professor in the department of history at Grand Valley State University in the United States, where he teaches Chinese history, east Asian history, and world history. His earlier book, Taming China’s Wilderness: Immigration, Settlement, and the Shaping of the Heilongjiang Frontier, 1900-1931 probes the history of China’s northeastern frontier during a crucial period of historical transformation. He has published widely in journals and anthologies. He is a past president of the Chinese Historians in the United States.

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal is the first book in more than half a century to study Yuan Shikai, his life, and his political career. It sheds new light on the controversial history of this talented administrator, valiant general, and committed moderniser - and a man who, ever since his death, has been denounced as a national thief who usurped the fruits of the 1911 Revolution which overthrew the last empire in China. The book rectifies the traditional negative view by utilizing numerous new primary sources and by citing abundant recent publications. It explains that Yuan built the first modern army and implemented a series of reforms to modernize China. More crucially, he played a key role in directing the 1911 Revolution into a less bloody national conflict. However, his fatal mistake was his imperial endeavor in establishing a new dynasty in 1916, which led to a nation-wide civil war and his own death. Overall, Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal offers a comprehensive analysis of Yuan’s life and his complex role in the shaping of modern Chinese history.

So, over to Dr. Patrick Fuliang Shan...

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Focus on NIAS Press: Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters. By Chris Shepherd

The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), an integrated part of the University of Copenhagen, is an academically independent Nordic research and resource centre, focusing on modern Asia from a predominantly social sciences perspective.

NIAS Press is a globally focused publisher with the rigorous academic standards expected of a university press, but with the speed and decisiveness of a commercial publisher. Its lists cover all areas of Asian Studies, but it specialises in publishing innovative research on modern east and southeast Asian society.

This week, we're exploring NIAS Press in a series of three posts. In this second post one of the Press' authors, Chris Shepherd, talks about his new book, Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Animism and Ethnography in East Timor, 1860–1975.

Chris is a semi-independent researcher affiliated with the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He researches development, colonialism, indigenous politics and the history of science, with a special interest  in East Timor.

Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Animism and Ethnography in East Timor, 1860–1975, offers a history of Western ethnography of animism in East Timor during the Portuguese period.  It offers an original synthesis of the country’s history, culture and anthropology. The book consists of ten chapters, each one a narrative of the work and experience of a particular ethnographer. Covering a selection of seminal 19th- and 20th-century ethnographies, Chris explores the relationship between spiritual beliefs, colonial administration, ethnographic interests and fieldwork experience. Bringing colonial and professional ethnography into one frame of reference, he shows that ethnographers not only bore witness to processes of transformative animism, they also exemplified them.

So, over to Chris…