Saturday 10 July 2021

The Arches of Gerrard Street by Grace Chia

Singaporean Grace Chia is the author of three poetry collections, including Cordelia and Mother of All Questions, a novel, The Wanderlusters, and a short story collection, Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food. Her work has been widely anthologised internationally, from Singapore, Australia, and Hong Kong to the US. It has been translated into French, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Serbo-Croat. The Arches of Gerrard Street is her second novel.

Spanning the UK, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, The Arches of Gerrard Street is a coming-of-age love story with a touch of whodunnit.The shooting of Molly’s childhood friend in London’s Chinatown has led her from Batu Pahat in Malaysia to the British capital to find answers. Who murdered him? And why? She soon becomes embroiled in a web of deceit spun in an immigrant enclave shrouded in secrecy as her past catches up on her. The Arches of Gerrard Street is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl from a small town thrust into a big city finding her way back to herself.

So, over to Grace…

For six years in the 2000s, I’d been living in London, first as a backpacking itinerant then a working holidaymaker, a postgraduate student and finally as a news correspondent on a work permit visa. During this time, I fell in love, learnt to pay my own rent, navigate around a foreign country and city and became the person I am more or less now – independent, street-smart, resourceful and adaptable. I’d also learnt how to cook many of the Chinese dishes I’d grown up eating and missed, using indigenous ingredients that sometimes can only be found in Chinatown. 

Every two or three times a week, I would visit Chinatown in London, where the looming Chinese arches at Gerrard Street were not only familiar but a comforting sight. It signalled to me that I was entering a safe space as an ethnic Chinese, even though my olive, tanned complexion and my Southeast Asian facial profile marked me as not Han enough. I was clearly a diasporic Chinese, attracted to a space that allowed me to be anonymous, invisible, which was a good thing. It gave me a sense of relief that I didn’t have to live up to expectations of a racial stereotype once I was inside this enclave, particularly since many of the rental places I lived in were predominantly white and suburban neighbourhoods.

This was the backdrop of how the idea of The Arches of Gerrard Street came about. A space as a character. A symbol of the marginalised, the outsiders, the others. A state of stability for those in flux with their dislocated, foreign identities. And, of course, a system that was as supportive as it was self-contained; and as sinister as it was insular. Impenetrable, for better or worse. 

The novel also revolves around two main incidents based on real-life. In news reports, I’d read about an incident in Chinatown in 2003 in which a Chinese moneylender, believed to be an illegal immigrant, was fatally shot. The British police suspected the case had links to snakehead gangs, but there were no follow-up reports, and the man’s murder simply remained unsolved, becoming a forgotten statistic. Another was the 2004 cockling tragedy at Morecambe Bay where 23 illegal immigrants, all Chinese, were drowned by an incoming tide while picking cockles off the Lancashire coast. This practice of employing illegal labourers to do the most backbreaking work was the result of an ecosystem that implicated both the locals and the foreigners, especially the powerful snakehead gangs.

Both events touched a raw nerve inside me. I couldn’t stop obsessing about how these men and women, who looked like my aunts and uncles back home, had lost their lives through such randomness. Back then, there was a constant narrative in the British media about foreigners, particularly those from Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East for flocking to the UK for being ‘economic migrants’, regardless of their individual stories and circumstance. I began to think about this aspect of prejudice, a form of classism that was more sophisticated than racism, and wanted to tell a story about immigrants coming to London for often convoluted reasons.

That was how I started writing The Arches of Gerrard Street. I’d decided to tie the various strands above to a protagonist with a motive and a journey, which was how Molly’s narrative came about. Many of my maternal relatives are from Malaysia, even though I’m born and bred in Singapore, and I decided to situate Molly as a small-town girl from Batu Pahat—rather than Singapore or Kuala Lumpur—a sleepy town I’d visited twice, once to visit a friend from junior college and another time with my mother to research for the book. 

Perhaps I was in my twenties then and in love when I started writing the book, for inadvertently, a romantic element leaked into the manuscript, which gave Molly an emotional arc as she physically and mentally journeyed away from her childhood self to a more mature self. This coming-of-age narrative became the backbone to the novel in which the reader gets to experience through her eyes the frustrations, failures and faith of the characters she encounters in the course of her journey. 

For this novel, two themes permeate the various characters and scenes: hope and luck. The former is about how hope prevails despite adversities while the latter is a charm that turns up to change one’s fortunes in the most unexpected ways. 

It’s been 17 years since I started work on The Arches of Gerrard Street and the issues that I depict in the book, such as racial profiling at airports, police disinterest over immigrants’ issues and human trafficking, persist today. Chinatown in London continues to be a community for the outliers and the Orient. I hope that readers who chance upon this book of mine will fall in love as did I, with both the characters and the setting—an iconic metaphor that is more than just a landmark but a pulse that connects the hands of London to its heart, barely visible but always felt. 

Details: The Arches of Gerrard Street is published by Penguin in paperback priced in local currencies.