Singapore is perhaps one of the best places to eat and where food is the main focus of residents’ concerns and conversations. The novelist Ovidia Yu has written great crime stories in which the kitchen played a leading role and Aunty Lee, the cook of a small restaurant, found solutions to criminal investigations.
After four novels around Aunty Lee, Ovidia Yu brings us into the colonial atmosphere of 1930s Singapore with two very pleasant books, “The Frangipani tree mystery“(1) in 2017 and more recently ” The Betel nut tree mystery “(2) which highlight the detective skills of a very young Straits Chinese, Chen Su Lin and her “sifu” (mentor) British Chief Inspector Le Froy .
The civilization of the Straits is the result of interbreeding between Chinese immigrants and Malay traditions both in Malaysia and in Singapore. This Peranakan culture is illustrated by a beautiful museum in Singapore and residences in Malaysia, Malacca and Penang .
But Ovidia is not a Peranakan, her father is Hokkien, born in China and was Head of a Division in the Ministry of Health, her mother, from a Shanghai family, was a math teacher. Born in 1961, Ovidia gave up medical studies to the despair of her parents to follow a course of English literature. She wrote around thirty plays, some of which have been very successful, sometimes on vigorously feminist themes; she is openly gay, which is not really welcomed by the authorities in Singapore.
But she does not want to be gay or feminist but simply a writer even if the term “cozy crime” for her books is felt adequate; her novels are not thrillers full of sex and violence but police investigations where the characters and the environment are never forgotten in favour of the twists and turns of the plot.
1- Fiction and historical reality :
Several characters are inspired by the history of Singapore. Chief Inspector Le Froy refers to Inspector General René Onraet , to whom one of the books is dedicated ; he was from 1935 to 1939, Chief of Police and like Le Froy , spoke Malay and Hokkien and was accepted by the important Chinese families and sometimes even by the triads.
Some borrowings from history ; Sir Henry Palin is not a historical figure but in the book, the Governor ad interim during a long absence of Sir Shenton Thomas, who was the last governor from 1934 to 1942.
Somewhat forgotten events are used in the novel. The Froy (like Onraet ), finds that many Japanese businessmen engage in espionage activities ; the same goes for Japanese prostitutes who represent a significant share of the 3,000 registered girls ; a street of brothels is even called Japan Street …
The colonial government is turning a blind eye, considering that Japan is a monarchy respectful of the balance of social classes, which is not the case of the Chinese communist troops who are fighting the Japanese invaders. Singapore’s Chinese are requested not to transfer funds to China to support communist resistance. This Japanese spying, tolerated by the British, partly explains the ease with which 30 000 Japanese forced 100 000 allied military to surrender in Singapore in February 1942.
Similarly, the role of opium is rarely mentioned. The colonial government had a monopoly on the import and marketing of this product, whose revenues financed one-third of Singapore’s budget. It took years after independence to stop this traffic, which is currently punishable with the death penalty.
The two books refer also to the impact of international events including the role of Hitler, considered favourably by some colonial circles and even perhaps by Edward VIII, king 326 days and who abdicated to marry the American Wallis Simpson twice divorced.
2- Su Lin runs the show:
The appreciation of the Straits Chinese is balanced. The book does not deny the strength of family traditions that could hamper the development of Su Lin despite the education that her grandmother accepted to give her in a British college. She limps after a polio during her childhood and it is probably a sign of bad luck.
Superstitions govern the life of the family but the male authority of her uncle, who wants to marry her, must step back to that of her grandmother who, in fact, rules the clan and covers the illegal activities of import and loans just as relations with the triads.
Su Lin speaks perfect English, can handle typing and accounting. Her English teachers see her as a future teacher but she wants to become a journalist, an investigation journalist, which will push her to work with Le Froy, who has obtained the approval of her grandmother and who will become her mentor, her ” sifu “. He keeps an eye on her just like her family who will take her out of dangerous situations ; indeed, she manages to be accepted in the service of groups of suspects (British or American) to try to find out the murderers.
The colonization officials are not very brilliant, they want to avoid scandal at all cost and try to have murders settled as accidents. Vis-à-vis the locals, the British should not be suspected even if this does not prevent the interim governor Palin to try to seduce Su Lin !
Young Englishmen are most often party-goers without much character. The only one Su Lin likes is the son of Sir Palin, very close to his abnormal sister DeeDee and who was blackmailed because he is gay. Women like Lady Mary Palin or Nicole, the American, are portrayed with ferocity. Only positive British characters are the Scottish mother of Parshanti , the Anglo-Asian friend of Su Lin, and the wife of Governor McPherson who has her children respect the local population .
The main theme of the two novels is how the British treat Chinese, Malay, Indians. Arrogance and contempt are constant. Only Le Froy who managed to have himself accepted is truly an exception.
The book does not hide the tensions that may exist between communities, even if one avoids criticizing Malays and Indians. But the remarks on the Eurasians give an idea of the climate (The Frangipani p.29 ) : “There were around seven thousands “official” Eurasians in Singapore … the Eurasian Association acknowledged only those whose fathers were of European origin and had European surnames”.
3- Two novels read with pleasure:
A young Chinese woman investigating a white and colonial environment, supervised by a not very orthodox police inspector and a large Peranakan family, this is an unusual approach !
Several characters from « Frangipani “are found in ” Betel Nut “. Note that the flower of the Frangipani tree ” is the essence of graveyards … it is considered bad luck and some people … avoid it’s flowers because it is said their lovely fragrance come from unhappy female spirits” (p.32). As for the betel palm tree, it produces the areca nut which is used to chew as betel by millions of people in Asia. It is this chew and its red colour that plays a role in the novel.
The narrator is usually Su Lin but sometimes the action takes place in a different approach. The descriptions are precise, the dialogues are of high standard and much more elaborate than in the Aunty Lee series. The author’s sense of humour should also be commended.
The tempo is rather fast and false tracks, dramatic turn of events, are not lacking. We are not bored but the police intrigue does not supress the sometimes very detailed analysis of characters, especially women. The conclusion must surprise, it is the rule of the game. That of ” Frangipani “ is perhaps a little weak because the author wants to prove the strength of the colonial system trying to cover the murder.
We are looking forward to the third novel of this “colonial” series.
PS (28/9/2018): Many documents concerning this period can be found in the National Museum of Singapore. Documents concerning Rene Onraet are interesting, the same goes for a special exhibition concerning the education of women.
(1) Ovidia Yu, ” The Frangipani tree mystery”. Constable 2017, 310 pages.
(2) Ovidia Yu, “The Betel nut tree mystery”. Constable 2018, 305 pages.