Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Indie Spotlight: A Tale of Two Series - How Author Jeannie Lin Took Took Her Asian Steampunk Series from Traditional Publishing to Independent Publishing Success

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing. 

The publishing world is rapidly changing with technology. More and more, authors are finding new ways to offer their stories to readers. The limitations of traditional publishing have pushed many authors to leave behind the old model and try out all the new opportunities to expand their readership and get their books into the hands of the readers.

Our column today features Jeannie Lin, a USA Today Bestselling author of Chinese historical romance and historical fantasy. She is the author of the Gunpowder Chronicles, a Chinese historical steampunk series set in the Qing Dynasty that was originally published by Penguin. Here, Jeannie tells us the fascinating tale of how she took back the rights of the Gunpowder Chronicles, which was languishing under Penguin, and re-released it independently to make it a success.

Also, the final book of the Gunpowder Chronicles series, The Rebellion Engines, was just released on June 28. Be sure to check out this exciting series with a very different historical spin.

Now, over to Jeannie . . .  

Monday, 21 June 2021

The Burden of the Language: A third-language poet speaks


Editor's note: Our poetry column returns this month with a guest post by Yulia Endang, an Indonesian poet who works in Singapore. The following is adapted from Yulia's remarks at the Singapore Literature Symposium on 9th May (organised by the NTU School of Humanities' Singapore Studies Cluster), where she spoke on a panel on translation and multilingual writing alongside Tan Dan Feng and Annaliza Bakri

More information about the Symposium, and selected proceedings, can be found here


I was born and grew up in a small village in West Java, Indonesia. Our mother tongue is Sundanese. During my childhood, we only used Bahasa Indonesia (our national language) at school. For us villagers, it felt quite odd to speak Bahasa in our daily life though it was alright when we were in the class. We started to learn English at Junior High School, without even any basic English in Elementary School. 

I had the impression that English was strange language because the way words were written was often not the same as the way they were spoken. I never thought that I would one day be working abroad in a country where English is being spoken. All I knew was that English was one of the new subjects I had to learn, so I could pass the exam. I hated English, I always did badly for it. It never crossed my mind that one day I would be able to write in English and even win a trophy for it in a foreign land.

When I decided to work in Singapore in 2006, one of the things that worried me was language. At that time, the Singapore government still required an English Test for all migrant workers to obtain a Work Permit. I passed the exam on my first try, but the first few years here weren’t easy. 

I still remember vividly that at the employment agency, one expatriate family refused to even look at the Indonesian workers' biodata, nor did they want to give it a try by interviewing us. They just insisted that they wanted a domestic helper with good English. Our grasp of English was often being compared to that of people from our neighbouring country.

It was like living a new life in a new place for me when I came to Singapore, communicating and adapting with people with different cultures, food, and beliefs etc. I learned how to learn things, in order to survive living and working here. 


Unfolding days like a map 
In an unknown country
I could see more colors to be picked 
To paint my canvas of dreams 
Yet, I feel hopeless
Shedding my tears in a place 
So called ’bedroom’

Miles away,
How could I give up?
How could I return empty-handed?
Even though day has become longer 
Burden on my shoulder is getting heavier
But, I shouldn't give up 
Like I have no choice but to keep on going 
Mastering the map and find my road 

I know, dreams seem fading sometimes
Endless obstacles waving from every corner 
Again, I'm being a stranger 
A stranger to unexpected reality 
Spend my night battling the language 
While is a must to conquer recipes 
In the midst of understanding my fellow's story 

I trapped again and again 
In the endless road in a foreign country 

Adapting to a new place with a different language is a struggle for us as migrant workers. I tried to observe and find a way to learn the language here. Something which helped me so much to cope with my English problem was ‘writing’. I met some Indonesian friends at the Sekolah Indonesia Singapura (the Indonesian School in Singapore) when I was studying there back in 2014, joined their writing group on Facebook, and started to learn how to write poems in Bahasa Indonesia. 

Later on, writing gave me the opportunity to meet new friends from different countries, and left me with no choice but to study English more diligently. In 2017, a friend of mine invited me to take part in the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, and that’s how it all began.

I attended a couple of creative writing workshops at Sing Lit Station, conducted by Jon Gresham.  Google and YouTube helped me a lot too. I watched videos on YouTube and imitated them to help improve my listening and speaking skills. I also signed up for classes with Uplifters where lessons are in English, to help myself improve. 

I started to learn how to write in English not because I had confidence that I had enough vocabulary in my head, but instead as a method for me to get better at English itself. Writing is a force for me to keep on learning this new-tongue, until now. These struggles along the way gave me the idea to write this poem, which I recited at the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition 2019 and was awarded the second place: 


All the letters, the words, the sentences 
Jostling in distress 
Fear written all over her face
Demanding by the test 
She felt tension in her chest 
About dreams that she chases 

With all hopes swirling in her 
She sat in a corner 
Feeling heavy burden on her shoulder 
Tried to figure-out the future 
That seems to be a little bit cruel

Her past has brought her here in an unknown country 
Thought she could dodge from calamity and insanity 
Little did she know that she will be welcomed by catastrophe 
While she has no idea what’s gonna be

All the letters, the words, the sentences 
Did you know the difficulty 
To embrace new vocabulary 
In our memory which is troubled by unclarity 
And yes, I found smile on some faces in different places 
Broadly welcoming new guests 
Left me with questions in my head 
as I didn’t hear any syllable being stressed 

But why, why you’re late to compare 
And end up with being unfair 
And you keep on delay until all the letters,
 the words and sentences perish 
Then the rule you demolish 
But you forgot to unleash 
The burden of the language

I feel more comfortable and confident these days with using English, though there is still more to learn. It was a little bit of a struggle when I first worked for an expatriate family as they knew nothing about Singlish, but they have been my biggest support. I was able to talk things out with them, and we often share about our lives in the kitchen when I’m cooking, or about my Sunday activities. I think being able to build a healthy relationship has been one of the rewards of my learning journey. In the past, I would hardly share or discuss anything with my previous employers. 

I heard a saying: “teaching is one of the best ways to study”. So, I have been teaching English to a small number of migrant friends. It is just a small little thing that I share with them, as I am also still learning the language. Sadly this pandemic has hit us hard, but we try to keep on learning over Zoom, with a small number of students. 

I hope this will motivate them to keep going and improve themselves, especially now when study can be done online, and on their own pace.  I’m happy if there’s something I can do for them as I know how hard life here is. After all -- I've learned a lot from them too. 

Note: In Singapore, the term 'expatriate' is often taken to refer to higher-income migrants, while 'migrant workers' refers to migrants in low-wage occupations. 

Yulia Endang is from Ciamis, West Java-Indonesia and  has been working in Singapore for almost 15 years. In addition to writing she enjoys photography which she posted on her social media platforms. Yulia was awarded second place in Singapore’s 2019 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. As an introvert, writing has been giving her another open door to communicate and express her feeling, opinions and responds. Currently she is one of team leaders at Uplifters (a nonprofit which provides free online money management course for domestic workers around the world) and she also shares English with a small group of migrant workers on the weekend.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Making the effortful seem effortless: Nicky Harman interviews this year’s winner of the Bai Meigui Translation Prize 2021, Francesca Jordan

It has always struck me that the sign of a good translation is that it should read as if doing it was easy. Of course, I know that is an illusion. All the same, I was impressed not only by Francesca's beautiful prose but also by her description of the sheer hard graft and hard thinking that went into it.

A bit of background: the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, an inspirational resource for working and would-be translators alike, has run the Bai Meigui Translation Prize annually since 2015, offering texts which range from fiction for adults and young readers, picture books, and poetry and non-fiction. This year’s winner was Francesca Jordan, and the piece, by Yang Shuangzi, is from a novella, The Season When Flowers Bloom, about a girl growing up in Japanese Taiwan.

NH: Can you tell me a bit about how you got into translation from Chinese?

FJ: I studied Chinese at SOAS and moved to Beijing about a year after graduation. While at uni I had developed an interest in Chinese contemporary art, which was just starting to really catch the world’s attention at that time. Once in Beijing it wasn't long before I found a job at Chinese-art.com, a website that aimed to be a window into the Chinese art world for English speakers. So I honed my translation skills on a lot of art criticism, curators’ essays, and artists writing about their own work. Plenty of art-specific vocab to get familiar with of course, but the socially engaged nature of contemporary art meant that these texts were a great way to delve into all kinds of topics – the changing city, the loss of history and tradition to modernity, the new possibilities brought by technology, the disorienting shift in visual culture from political propaganda to consumer advertising, cultural trends and taboos and so on. Contemporary artists don’t shy away from exploring the difficulties of changing roles and relationships, whether we’re talking about painting and photography, state and individual, or rural and urban China.

For a translator then, it’s a pretty interesting field to specialise in, the main challenges being writers who are overly dry and academic, and those who write ‘art bollocks’. The latter put you in the same quandary as those poor interpreters and translators who had to tackle Donald Trump’s speeches, that quandary being: do I, or do I not, translate twaddle as twaddle? Will the audience realise the original is gibberish, or will they assume it’s a poor translation? Fortunately there were relatively few purveyors of art bollocks (back then at least) in the Chinese art scene, compared to their western counterparts.

NH: Before you translated the competition piece, did you know anything about Japanese Taiwan? Did anything surprise you?

FJ: I had only a basic knowledge of Taiwan’s period under Japanese rule before starting this translation so it was a great opportunity to learn some more of that history – I possibly spent as much time reading the interesting articles that turned up during research as I did translating. I was aware of the cultural and linguistic Japanization of Taiwan imposed under colonial rule, and the Japanese names in the extract were the first clue that the story was set during that period; then of course later in the extract dates are given and Hatsuko’s parents’ emigration from Japan to ‘this island’ (as Taiwan is generally referred to in the novella, while Japan is ‘the mainland’) is explained. The novella is peppered with Japanese loanwords, some quite specific to this cultural and historical context, effectively conveying the effect of Japanization on Taiwan’s language. With standard Chinese-English dictionaries drawing a blank on these unfamiliar terms, I often turned to a Japanese dictionary instead. So I felt it was important for the translation to reflect as much as possible the Japanese language environment the characters inhabited, in the personal names and styles of address and especially place names (Tanabe Bookstore, Nishiki-chō etc.) as these are all real places that existed in 1930s Taichung.

I guess the novella is basically a coming-of-age story, full of hope and loss and disillusionment as those often are. Hatsuko longs for a life less ordinary, regarding university, work, independence and travel as vastly more attractive than marriage. Her sense of social inferiority (though she is attending an elite high school, her family are not well off) prevents her from believing that such things are achievable for herself, so she displaces that longing onto her wealthier and more glamorous classmates, pinning her hopes on them escaping the traditional restrictions placed on women’s lives by family and society. Discovering that the two classmates she admires most (one of whom, Yang Hsueh-ni, is ambitious and confident with strong feminist ideas) have an intimate but secret friendship, Hatsuko begins to obsessively snoop on their meetings in the library – and self-disgust at her furtive behaviour compounding her feelings of inferiority. Too shy to ever talk to her classmates in person, Hatsuko feels a deep sense of loss after graduation, one that makes her physically ill, knowing she may never see the two ‘brilliant friends’ again or know how their lives turn out. When she suddenly discovers that even Yang Hsueh-ni, the most ambitious girl in their school, is prevented from following her aspirations by family circumstances, Hatsuko’s sense of loss turns to painful despair.

Introverted Hatsuko has no special friend to confide in – the extract describes her longing for the unaffordable magazine ‘Girl’s Companion’, but we can infer, from the way she buries herself in the novels of Yoshiya Nobuko, that what Hatsuko really longs for is the kind of intimate, affectionate friendship she witnesses her classmates sharing. Yoshiya Nobuko was one of the earliest writers of yuri (baihe in Mandarin) – ‘lily’ or ‘girls’ love’ – fiction, the genre that Yang Shuang-zi also considers herself to be working in. This novella though, is more of a tribute to Yang Ch’ien-ho, made clear by the author borrowing the title (and premise) of Yang’s 1942 novel The Season When Flowers Bloom. Yang Ch’ien-ho, like the character Yang Hsueh-Ni, was a native Taiwanese born under Japanese rule, and a fascinating figure who broke through social barriers of both sex and (colonial) class, becoming Taiwan’s first female journalist at the age of 19, and even demanding to be paid the same as her Japanese colleagues

NH: Your translation reads effortlessly. Was it effortless? What were the challenges in translating it?

FJ: The translation of character’s names provided some of the trickiest challenges. First there were some simpler decisions to be made such as whether to write Japanese names family name first, or in the Anglicised format with family name last. Reading on in the text, the character Sakiko mentions that because her full name is Matsugasaki Sakiko she was nicknamed ‘Saki-Saki’, the sense of which would be lost if her name was given family name last. So, preserving the Japanese/Chinese order was the obvious choice and luckily would have been my preference anyway. Further on in the text again, the author herself indicates (by including romanized Japanese in the text) that the Chinese form of address tóngxué (classmate or fellow student) is being used as a stand-in for the Japanese honorific suffix –san, so that’s another decision effectively made for the translator. As for the Chinese personal names and other proper nouns, these I gave in Wade-Giles rather than pinyin romanization because pinyin, not developed until the 1950s, would have felt anachronistic, not to mention geographically inappropriate as pinyin still isn’t used much in Taiwan.  

The trickier parts had to do with the meanings of names. In two instances the most accurate translations would read awkwardly or seem nonsensical to English reader. Firstly the sentence “Her given name, Hsueh-Ni, meaning ‘snowy earth’, was an allusion to a classical Chinese poem – a very elegant and poetic name.” The more literal translation of Hsueh-Ni is ‘slush’ or ‘snowy mud’, neither of which sounds remotely elegant or poetic, particularly with the connotations of that English idiom about somebody’s ‘name being mud’. The poem referred to, one that describes the ephemerality and arbitrariness of both human lives and the traces they leave, is Su Dongpo aka Su Shi’s He Ziyou mianchi huaijiu so for inspiration I turned to this excellent article that compiles a host of English translations.  . Eventually I settled on ‘snowy earth’ as being close enough to the text but conjuring a more pristine image, one of new-fallen snow lying lightly on the dark earth (before they combine into muddy slush). 

Secondly there was a sentence that could have been translated as ‘their only son was named Ryuichi after his father’, but as we know the father’s name is Takao this sounds wrong in English, as we expect people ‘named after’ someone to have basically the same name. The problem here is that Japanese kanji can have different pronunciations in different combinations. In the Japanese/Chinese text it is clear that the names Takao 隆夫 and Ryuichi 隆一 share a particular kanji, so I ended up translating in a way that just described that: ‘The name of their only son, Ryuichi, shared a kanji meaning ‘prosperity’ with his father’s.’ For that paragraph it felt necessary to give the four children’s names in romanized Japanese (as would be conventional in English) and also translate the name meanings, which would be opaque to English readers otherwise. Knowing the meanings of the names gives the reader important information about the Yamaguchi family’s culture and values; in this case that they tend to choose the most obvious and unimaginative names for their offspring (certainly in Hatsuko’s view!). This was probably the paragraph I fiddled around with longest as it was quite challenging to slot in the extra info (I slipped a little ‘1920’ in there too, so that readers didn’t have to take a break to google which year ‘ninth year of the Taishō Emperor’ corresponds to) without weighing down the text too much or making it read choppily.

Of course the translation wasn’t effortless – if only! – but it’s gratifying to be told that all the struggling and polishing and ‘hmm, maybe if I do it this way…? Nah, it was better the way it was’ is invisible in the finished product. Every literary piece poses unique challenges: as well as aiming for accuracy, there are voices that the translator must do her best to recreate and sustain – the voice of the author, and the voices the author creates for her characters. There was only a tiny bit of dialogue (or interior monologue) in the extract, still I made a point of reminding myself that teenagers in 1930s Taiwan wouldn’t talk like 2020s British teenagers, or 1980s American teenagers etc. Overall, I tried to be as historically accurate as I felt the author would want me to be – and I know from reading around that Yang Shuang-zi and her sister spent a lot of time researching 1930s Taichung in preparation for writing this novella – and to capture the youthful melancholy of the piece, the fight between romance and realism that pervades it.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa

The Girl Who Played Go is a historical novel by Chinese author Shan Sa, originally published in French, translated into English. With that many international filters, it is surprising how well it evokes the Chinese mindset, but also, the Japanese side as well.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

A World To Win: Tim Harper's new history of global revolution

Editor's note: Our poetry column takes a break this month! Still an history undergraduate at heart, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to review this new border-crossing book on the anti-imperialist heroes of Underground Asia (just published by Harvard University Press and Penguin UK). 

(Photo by Theophilus Kwek)
Gazing from the dust-jacket of Underground Asia historian Tim Harper’s new and magisterial account of anticolonial radicalism in the first quarter of the 20th Century – is an enigmatic young man, wrapped up against the European cold, whose strong, even handsome features have not yet gained the global recognition of his later years. Barely twenty years old, and known variously as ‘Seaman Ba’, ‘Ly Thuy’, ‘Nguyen Ai Quoc’ or his birth name ‘Nguyen Tat Thanh’, Harper places him early on in the narrative “perhaps on the pont Alexandre III in Paris […] cigarette at the corner of his mouth, an umbrella on his arm, quite the dandy”. Over the next six hundred pages or so, Harper draws back the clock-and-dagger curtain of imperial intrigue to reveal how Thanh (and others like him) came to join a gathering chorus of revolution, emerging on the world stage as ‘Ho Chi Minh’. But crucially, it is here that we encounter him, with the weight of national liberation still in the distant future, free for the moment to traverse the boundaries of la belle époque; a student abroad on the banks of the Seine. 

Underground Asia examines a period “when local nationalisms were still nascent, and when the political future of the colonial world seemed uniquely open”. Out of the ferment of commerce and conquest arose individuals who, coming of age in “a world connected and transformed”, minted new allegiances around a dream of a more equal and borderless world. They made their home in what Harper calls the “village abroad”, an international network of cosmopolitan solidarities in universities, port cities, and metropolitan nodes where Thanh and his circle crossed paths with such like-minded figures as Tan Malaka, M.N. Roy, and the young Deng Xiaoping. Though the life-histories of these men form the book’s core, Harper is quick to acknowledge the “ubiquity and tenacity” of the era’s women revolutionaries, who despite their “relative invisibility” in surviving colonial records, are at critical moments the true movers and shakers of his narrative. He also pays compelling tribute to the invisible hands of global revolution, such as the dock workers and cabin boys who helped ‘Seaman Ba’ leave home in 1911 and facilitated ‘Ly Thuy’s’ return via Hong Kong almost two decades later. 

We now know, of course, that though these revolutionaries would each shape the post-colonial world in indelible ways, the moment of cosmopolitan dreaming was eventually lost – to the violence of imperial policing, to the anxious diktat of an ascendant Comintern, and to a new generation of rebels who held, by conviction or compromise, to the “dismal nationalisms” of later mass movements. By the end of the period the revolution had faded to a “waiting game”, and it is testament to Harper’s humane and meticulous treatment of this cast of fallible characters that we experience so keenly the pangs of their disenchantment. Most tragic among the disappointments is Tan Malaka’s final imprisonment and summary execution at the hands of an Indonesian republic he had prophesised years earlier; other strands of the tale, like Zhou Enlai’s and Deng Xiaoping’s, lay a trail for the world-historical events to come. Meanwhile, Harper excels in capturing the fusion of geography, ideology and youthful élan that led the revolutionaries to formulate the enduring ideals of their time (and ours); or how indeed, in his memorable words, “the universal revealed itself to [them] in a continuum of port cities”. 

Harper’s sympathetic and highly sophisticated storytelling allows us to trace the contingent turns of this intellectual history through what can appear, otherwise, as an overwhelming – and motley – mass of historical detail. If the number of letters read by the French postal censor in a given fortnight in 1920, for instance, might seem too fine-grained a footnote for the grand narrative of global revolution, we ought to remember that every wrinkle of colonial policy factored into the daily calculations of a community in exile whose many aliases and alibis are only just coming to light. On occasion, however, and particularly in the first half of the book, Harper’s efforts to join the dots of this “connected wave of revolution” risk pre-empting the story somewhat. In his telling, a global web of radical connections, at least in the sense of a self-consciously cosmopolitan network that, even if not formally coordinated, shared similar values and a common vocabulary, only became more apparent as the revolutionaries converged in Europe and Russia after World War I. Prior to this, the sporadic flashpoints of rebellion (among others: bomb attacks in India, shootings in Hong Kong) certainly augured a gathering wave of discontent, but given how admittedly “fragile” the connections were, it is debatable if they arose collectively “out of the resources of the country of the lost” as Harper suggests. 

It’s hard not to reflect on the revolutionary lives so vividly recorded in Underground Asia without imagining how they would map onto our own. A century on, rail and shipping routes no longer hold the same novelty as they did for Harper’s protagonists, but new conveniences – afforded by the global commons of the internet and, at least before COVID-19, the commodification of budget travel – have enabled a new kind of the “everyday internationalism” they once experienced. So, too, it might seem that our interconnections are once again putting global solidarities within reach: especially when today’s spectres of xenophobia, inequality and climate change denialism are no more territorially-bound than colonialism ever was. Harper’s analysis of the forces that thwarted the dreams of earlier cosmopolitans should give us pause, or at least help us identify and resist the dismal nationalisms of this era. In the same vein, Harper’s project of fleshing out these “lonely” figures on the margins of a changing continent should not grieve us for possibilities lost, but attune us to those still to be won. The important work of recovering these “small voices of history”, as fellow historian Khairudin Aljunied puts it, reconnects us with the “ideas and visions […] that were shunned and unaccepted in their day and age, but have become the framework for thought and action in our time”. 

Don’t (just) take my word for it! Underground Asia has also been reviewed in the New Yorker, The Wire, and Wall Street Journal


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is also an editor and researcher with interests in Southeast Asian history and migration/citizenship issues. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Asian Books Blog. 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Pot-sticker dumplings and scarlet gloop: Nicky Harman reviews Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, 2021, and looks back at Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, 1982


Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is a delightful story featuring the eponymous Danny, son of parents who run a Chinese takeaway, his friend Ravi, his doting granny (Nai Nai) and assorted oddball friends and neighbours. Danny loves drawing, hates maths, and is appalled when Nai Nai moves to Birmingham from China and he has to share his bedroom with her. He can't speak her dialect, she snores like a train, farts for England (or rather China) and worst of all, she turns up at his school to bring him Chinese lunch. Oh, and he has to look after her because his mum and dad are busy running their takeaway. When the local bowls club are less than welcoming, he leaves her at the bingo and goes off to play in the park. Then Danny discovers that Nai Nai, unlike her grandson, has maths skills in abundance. She not only becomes the local bingo champion, she takes her grandson in hand and helps him create a great school project based on Fibonacci
fractals in Romanesco cauliflowers. 

A novel about an immigrant family inevitably has a certain amount of cultural information to impart. Dragons, in their Chinese version, feature a lot. As Danny says, ‘I was really pleased with my newest creation that I called a DRUCKON. It was a mutant duck with a dragon’s head. It’s very Chinese, if you ask me. Dragons are the most beloved and lucky creatures in Chinese mythology, and ducks are yummy and succulent. The tricky part was the head. Chinese dragons don’t look like other dragons and they have no wings. Ravi is basically an expert on all things medieval and knights. He says that Chinese dragons are anomalies, which is a nice way of saying they’re ‘weird’. And they don’t go around trying to eat princesses or battle knights. I think that’s nice. A druckon is a Chinese win-win.’  

There is also an odious tiger mother, who drags her daughter Amelia to an unending series of after-school improving activities, as a result of which she is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin.  And there is The Chinese Way – Danny’s dad drills its tenets into his son – hard work, respect for his elders, and of course the importance of maths, the bane of Danny’s life. We even learn a bit of the language, when Danny and Nai Nai exchange a few words in Chinese. However, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths wears its culture lightly. The heart of the novel is the friendship and respect that grows between the boy and his granny, and the adventures they share. 

Chinese immigrant families in the UK are almost invisible in literature, but as I read Danny Chung, Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet immediately sprang to mind. (It happens to be one of my favourite novels.) In Sour Sweet, Chen, his wife Lily and her sister Mui arrive in London from Hong Kong in the 1960s and go into business. There are two main stories in the novel: we read how Lily and Mui come to terms with their new life – Lily remains resolutely traditional, while Mui embraces British life enthusiastically – while the other thread follows the in-fighting in a Triad gang, the Hung family, who eventually get Chen into their clutches.

Fifty years separate the stories and that makes for interesting comparisons. Of course, the novels are aimed at different readers: an adult readership and pre-teen young readers. But there are similarities. Both families run restaurants, both firmly believe in The Chinese Way, both have a newly-arrived and eccentric grandparent. (Grandpa in Sour Sweet prefers to sleep under the counter instead of the bedroom, and invites fellow-patients from the local clinic to tea, even though they cannot understand each other.) Both families are the odd-ones-out in their communities. Lily and Mui have no friends apart from their customers and a benevolent widow, Mrs Law, and remain culturally and socially isolated in their London suburb. They are further ‘othered’ in one rather odd way: Mo chooses to have his characters speak a sort of Canto-English. ‘Bad talk!’ Lily reprimands Chen. And ‘Husband, door is stuck!’ And she asks her son about his aunt’s new baby, ‘Did you like baby, Son?’ to which Man-Kee replies, ‘Didn’t like it.’ I do not think that this would be considered either acceptable or necessary today, although at least when the family have something important to say to each other, they revert to received English.

Multi-culturalism and racism are not explicitly addressed in either novel but, by way of a contrast to fifty years ago, Danny lives in a Britain that feels more accepting of its separate communities: his best friend is Ravi, an Indian boy, and we are given snapshots of Ravi’s family and his crowded home.

British appreciation of Chinese food has improved over half a century too. In Sour Sweet, ‘The food they sold… bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. Sweet and sour pork was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the customer the next day.’ In 2021, Danny soon finds that his bothersome Nai Nai is a wonderful cook, ‘
Nai Nai went into the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and came out ten minutes later with a plate full of guotie, or, as some people call them, potstickers. I loved them, but Ba never had time to make them for me any more. He was always too busy. I grabbed some chopsticks and started munching them down after dipping them in soy sauce with a bit of cut ginger in it. Nai Nai’s potstickers were SO good, just like Ba had always said.’

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the progress in British taste buds: in 1973, my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I organized a dinner for them, with family, (white British, one and all) in a Chinese restaurant in Earls Court, possibly the first in London to serve Peking Duck. My parents (farmers in Wiltshire) arrived in some trepidation, probably worried that dinner would be musket balls and scarlet gloop and that they would lose face with their brothers and sisters. They left delighted and well-fed. I was eternally grateful to my landlady, who had introduced me to the restaurant. She was Dymia Hsiung, widow of playwright Hsiung Shih-I and a writer herself, as well as an enthusiastic mah-jong player and a fabulous cook. Now there’s a cultural connection to conjure with.








Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, by Maisie Chan, delightfully illustrated by Anh Cao, age-graded 9-11 years, Piccadilly Press,10th June 2021.

 Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo, new edition, Paddleless Press, 1999.










Sunday, 16 May 2021

Lion City Lit: Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, so we occasionally highlight book-related events in the city. Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives is the 40th anniversary commemorative book published by Lions Home For The Elders, a leading Singapore charity.

The book tells the story – in words and images – of how the first home was established in 1980 on the void deck of a Housing Development Block (HDB) in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, thanks to the hard work and fundraising by Lions Club volunteers, and approved by the then Department of Social Welfare. 

Chairman of the Lions Home Henre Tan, says in his foreword: “In spite of all the constraints on us all during these difficult and demanding days, we did decide to keep to our plan to produce a worthy and insightful narrative of the Lions Home For The Elders, from its humble beginnings to become one of Singapore’s leading nursing homes caring for the elderly.” 

The 40th anniversary book was originally intended to be launched at the Lions International Convention, scheduled to be held in Singapore in June last year, when 20,000 of the charity's supporters were expected to attend. But like many events, the launch was cancelled and the book was recently launched at a hybrid event broadcast from Singapore, beamed live around the world, and attended in person by 50 people, following coronavirus safe distancing procedures.

Singapore-based author and publisher Ken Hickson, who was previously responsible for Asian Books Blog's Lion City Lit column, steered Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives from its beginning in mid-2019, to completion close to two years later. He says: "I want the book to not only provide a faithful record of a remarkable Singapore institution but also to meet clean and green standards." He achieved his second aim by sourcing suitable paper from sustainably managed forests in Asia and using a local printer, Times Printers.