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.
EC: Welcome to AsianBooksBlog, Sun. What was the inspiration for Bukit Brown?
SJ: Thanks for inviting me for the interview, Elaine.
I first visited Bukit Brown in 2012, a year after I had moved to Singapore from Melbourne; my first of many visits. I can’t remember who the tour guide was, but it was an eye-opening experience! He told us stories about the inhabitants of some of those graves: one man migrated from China as a penniless stevedore and became a wealthy businessman and there were many more fascinating stories of success. Their graves were huge, embellished with beautiful Peranakan tiles and guardian statues.
At the same time, there was a section called the ‘paupers’ section’ which was allocated for poorer people, who came penniless, and probably died penniless; those who couldn’t afford the luxury features and a spot in the sun. Most of them looked like they had been abandoned for a long time; weather-and-age-beaten tombstones devoured by wild nature. It seemed to me that those broken tombstones signified their deplorable lives as poor migrants in this new land. I began wondering and imagining how their lives would have been hundreds of years ago.
Another aspect I found fascinating was the class system existing even at the graveside, which means we suffer from it (or are at least labelled by it) even after we die! We often say how aeroplane seat allocation is a specific embodiment of the strict class system; think of the film ‘Snowpiercer’ which is a great example. Then you see this deeply class-bound cemetery! I became immersed in that thought.
EC: Why time-travel as a novelistic device, as opposed to say, a straightforward historical narrative?
SJ: It sounds a bit like a fantasy film or a shamanistic vision, but as soon as I saw those graves, I immediately began imagining a thirty-something-year-old migrant woman, weary and lonely in modern-day Singapore, who walked into a split open grave. There was some inexplicable urge to write a story about her journey. Then I remembered the story of Antonio Corea from 16th century Joseon; he was captured during the Japanese invasions and sold to a wealthy Italian merchant as a slave. He travelled all the way to Italy, the first Korean in the Italian peninsula, and he died in a foreign land, so far away from his home. I thought it would be intriguing if Ji-won, the main character, could meet a person like Antonio Corea.
At first, I didn't know or plan that Ji-won would take multiple trips to different eras and even to different regions; during writing, it felt more like she showed me the way and took me on her trips; I just followed her. In retrospect, the time travel framework worked very well to portray various socio-historico-cultural issues in different regions as well as to maximise the mystique and epic nature of the tale.
I hope that the readers also can follow and enjoy Ji-won's mystical trips to these unknown cultures and fascinating events.
EC: The Chinese secret society strife amongst the Ghee Hin and Hai San and Kien Tek make for a fascinating window into 19th century Malaya, especially the Larut Wars. How difficult was this to research?
SJ: When I began developing the story, I was still affiliated with NUS, so I could access the main library where one can find plenty of resources on Chinese migrants in Malaya, and some mentioned the secret societies and Larut wars. I thought the stories behind the Larut wars were captivating and could be the central conflict of the plot.
Then I visited Penang in 2012, the first of five research trips. I love Penang so much, it’s a culturally very affluent city (although it's a pity that they built a gigantic grey Komtar at the centre which has depreciated the city's charm); at one point we were seriously considering a move to Penang to live there. Penang Assam laksa is absolutely my favourite non-Korean-dish. On one visit, I had three bowls in a day, all from different stalls! I would've probably had a couple more if my partner hadn't stopped me. My love for Penang Assam laksa has been represented in the homonymous chapter of the book.
During one trip, it was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion that particularly gripped my interest. It was once owned by Chung Keng Quee—the leader of the Hai San, who was one of the richest men in Penang at the time and was also the Kapitan China of Perak. You can even see his life-size statue there, he wasn’t a big man, but he was such a colourful character, and I began implanting him in my story.
A couple of years later, I visited Taiping, and at the town’s public library I found more books about the Larut mining industry in the 19th century. Now Taiping is such a small quiet town, that it was hard to imagine that there had been 20,000 Chinese mining workers there, not to mention the secret society soldiers and those vicious wars. The most significant benefit of these field trips is that you could bring your characters into these places. For instance, when I climbed up the Larut Hill (which was actually a lot smaller than I had pictured) my characters, Ji-won and Si-min were climbing with me, pulling a cart carrying Mad dog’s bloody and torn corpse. We were looking for a suitable spot to bury him.
EC: I was intrigued by how well you knew the Chinese sexagenary cycle, based on the lunar calendar. A snapshot enclosed here, for our readers. This was a key plot point, because this cosmogonic alignment allowed for the phenomenon of time-travel to happen. How did your interest in the Chinese lunar calendar develop?
SJ: In general, Koreans are very familiar with the Chinese sexagenary cycle, although not many of them understand its profound principles. As part of the 'East Asia Cultural Sphere' or 'Sinosphere', Chinese language and culture have seeped in to many aspects of Korean society. Most notable is the way Koreans call years using the Chinese sexagenary cycle; this year, 2019 is gi-hae (jǐ-hài in Chinese, the year of the golden pig). When I was brainstorming and structuring the plot, it was 2014, the year of the horse, my mom's year. She often says that those born in the year of the horse tend to live a tough life; this is because horses are tough and hardworking. So I thought of using that as a metaphor for my male lead, Si-min's dire life (though in the end, in the novel it was set as the year he died, not his birth year).
EC: You’ve worked on film development in Korean cinema, your bio says. That’s fascinating. Tell us more.
SJ: After my undergraduate studies in the US, I worked as a writer for media production companies and cultural magazines in Los Angeles and Seoul. These small media companies paid very badly, so I sought opportunities to work with a couple of film producers in developing film scripts, which had also been my life dream. Unfortunately, none of them were made into a movie. Fortunately, however, the failed film scriptwriting career encouraged me to move to Australia and study further. So I did my MA in Film Studies and PhD in Cultural Studies there. I then moved to Singapore for a research fellowship, where I discovered the incredible Bukit Brown! Seven years later, here I am, the author of ‘Bukit Brown’!
Prior to my first published novel, I had written a book of essays, ‘The Letter, I Sent You’ (1991) and an academic book ‘Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption’ (2011). The former is part of my diary of three years in high school; the latter is based on my PhD thesis.
EC: Do you find that developing film scripts influence your writing, and if so, how?
SJ: Yes, very much so. ‘Bukit Brown’, even during the very early brainstorming stage, was designed and written with a film or TV drama adaptation in mind. My experience in scenario development undoubtedly helped the writing style of the novel that is optimised for the reader to visualise the story readily. It would be marvellous to see Bukit Brown on Netflix, and have more people appreciate the regional culture and history. I had mentioned ‘Penguin Random House’ in my novel way before I sent them my manuscript, so it seems things happen as I say! Let’s see if my vision will be realised this time too!
EC: The book has quite a complex interweaving plot of different historical strands – from Chinese secret society wars to the influence of opium on Chinese migrant communities to palm oil development in the late 19th century; what was the process of writing the book like for you, and how long did it take?
SJ: Including the brainstorming stage, it took seven years as I began conceiving the core idea right after my first visit to Bukit Brown in March 2012. The book is out in bookshops TODAY! What a long, arduous journey! I wrote it in Korean first and was trying to find a Korean publisher: which wasn’t successful. The earlier version was admittedly messy and way TOO long. For instance, it included a lengthy description of the hardships of potters under the corrupted Joseon dynasty as well as China’s Taiping Rebellion. These—substantial socio-political satire sections—all had to go, and I focused predominantly on Ji-won’s journey and mystery-solving aspects. Yet it’s still long and slightly complex as it has a multi-layered spatiotemporal structure. One needs to pay a lot of attention to appreciate the plot entirely.
As a migrant myself, living in this current ever-fluctuating globalised era, I wished to shed new light on the forerunners in the region, such as the deplorable lives of the migrant workers as well as the splendour of Peranakan culture and its unique traditions. These culturally specific themes are well depicted in the novel through its varied and globally familiar genetic components that intersect with one another and meld together, ranging from heart-wrenching romance to compelling mystery to scathing social satire, all within its fundamental framework of time travel. I must also mention that ‘Bukit Brown’ conveys the strong voices of women and depicts their firm friendship and camaraderie.
EC: Who are your literary favourites to read?
SJ: I don't have an all-time favourite. If I have to pick one, it would be Korean author, Park Wan-seo. I relished her ambivalently cynical yet at the same time warm views towards the world. Having grown up reading her novels, I dreamed of being a writer.
But, usually, it changes from moment to moment, depending on the different stages and circumstances of my life. My most recent find was 'The Friend' by Sigrid Nunez. I enjoyed reading it so much. An essential part of it is about writers, and the other is the dog, both of which are very much the core of myself!
EC: What’s next in your literary plans for the future?
SJ: Speaking of the dog, my next book will be about a dog. We have a rescue dog called Gucci (and funnily enough, his brother's name is Prada! He's still at the Adoption and Rescue Centre. Anybody interested in adopting him should visit the website: asdsingapore.com)
As an offspring of a Tuas factory stray, the first five years of his life was at the shelter, ever since he was three months old. He had a hard time adjusting to the outside world like a seventy-three-year-old ex-con who was released after fifty years of confinement. Cantonment road was crazy busy for him; screaming kids from the neighbouring primary school seemed like unknown monsters; the worst of all was a strange box called a lift! Every ingenious method I employed to get rid of his fear failed. At first, I was very frustrated by his anti-social behaviour, and then I started seeing things from his point of view. Then I could see the similarities between him and me! Like we both have to learn new tricks in foreign environments. The next book is about my observations on those aspects. The bittersweetness of migrants’ lives will be portrayed, so your book, ‘the Heartsick Diaspora’ will be a must-read for me!
EC: Why thank you! An honour to have you on AsianBooksBlog.
NB: Bukit Brown is available in Southeast Asia bookstores at local prices.