The island city-state of Singapore harbors unique customs and traditions largely unknown to the West. A booming economy and embrace of conformity overshadow its gambling dens, red-light districts, and a collective passion for ghostly and gory tales.
Now, in Singapore Noir, some of its best contemporary authors delve into its seedy side, including three winners of the Singapore Literature Prize: Simon Tay (writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho), Colin Cheong, and Suchen Christine Lim, whose contribution was named a finalist for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best P.I. Short Story. Eleven more tales showcase the talents of Colin Goh, Philip Jeyaretnam, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Monica Bhide, S.J. Rozan, Lawrence Osborne, Ovidia Yu, Damon Chua, Johann S. Lee, Dave Chua, and Nury Vittachi.
“Singapore, with its great wealth and great poverty existing amid ethnic, linguistic, and cultural tensions, offers fertile ground for bleak fiction . . . Tan has assembled a strong lineup of Singapore natives and knowledgeable visitors for this volume exploring the dark side of a fascinating country.” —Publishers Weekly
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BY COLIN GOH
That's how Singaporeans say both "on a previous occasion" and "in the old days." As in, "Last time I saw her, she was wearing an emerald- green Moschino dress that accentuated her clavicle," as well as, "Last time, Singapore lawyers also used to wear wigs."
There's a photo of me wearing a wig on my desk at the firm. It's made of white horsehair, fringed with several rows of frizzy curls (the wig, not the photo). I'm also wearing a black robe with wide, open sleeves and a sort of flap over the left shoulder, the garb of an English barrister.
It's made by Ede & Ravenscroft, I said, handing her her tea. They're the queen's robe makers.
"You graduated in England?" She blew lightly on the tea before taking a sip. I'd left the door of my office open and could feel the eyes of the rest of the firm searing into the back of my neck.
No, I laughed. I had the picture taken during a holiday in England just before my final year at the National University of Singapore's law school. I'd been visiting friends who were graduating as barristers and thought it fun to get myself snapped in their ridiculous getup as well.
She raised an eyebrow.
It's ridiculous, I said, shaking my head. We stopped being a colony over forty years ago, but Singaporeans who study law in Britain are still in thrall to the "tradition." (In hindsight, I am annoyed that I felt compelled to illustrate this observation by making quotation marks with my fingers.) I guess it's an understandable impulse, I continued, like visiting Disneyland and buying a souvenir T-shirt. But they soon learn we have to be who we are.
As she lowered her cup, my eyes followed the lipstick she'd left on the rim. The Singapore legal profession did away with wigs ages ago, I added. They're simply too hot for our tropical climate. In Singapore, pragmatism invariably trumps sentiment.
"But you still wear suits," she replied, picking up the photo frame and turning it over slowly. She ran a long, tapered finger over some lettering on the frame's back. "Made in China," she smiled, placing the photo back on my desk.
I remember my scalp tingling. It's funny the details that stick in your head.
* * *
"Last time, this all used to be the sea," our driver said, motioning with his hand as we headed down Marina Boulevard toward the Sands.
She didn't say a word, but her gaze was clearly fixed on the casino's dolmen-like silhouette.
I adjusted my tie and said, People say it looks like ... and here I fumbled. I didn't know what Stonehenge was in Mandarin, so I just said it in English.
"What's that?" she asked, without looking away from the window.
A very ancient monument in England, I said. A group of stones that archaeologists think was a burial ground of some sort.
"You know too much about England." She leaned back in her seat and reached over to pat my jaw. "You should get to know China more. You're Chinese, after all."
I'd like that, I said softly. Through the rearview mirror, I saw the driver waggle his eyebrows at me.
* * *
The last time I saw the Comrade was in the casino's main theater, on the night of her final performance. I was in the back row, tapping away absently at my iPad as she went through her routine of mic checks and lighting cues. A Facebook message came in with a photo of some of my fellow junior associates raising their middle fingers at me. Bastard gets to bill for spending time with her, ran a comment. What does that make him?
I smiled and looked up to see her waving at me. I waved back, and then realized she was actually waving to someone else behind me. Feebly lowering my hand, I turned around to see the Comrade lolloping down the stairs in a way that might have been comical except for the ashen look on his face.
I shot up and began shimmying toward the aisle, but was stopped by a grim-looking Mr. Chong, who'd appeared at the head of the row of seats. "Better stay here," he said. He was my boss, so I did.
Meanwhile, the Comrade had already stormed onto the stage, where he'd begun barking at her in his impenetrable Beifang accent. Clearly bewildered, she reached out to touch him, but he brushed her hand away and began stabbing an accusatory finger at her. From my vantage point, I couldn't make out their exchange, but she was now pleading with him. And when she tried to pull him closer, he struck her across the face.
I immediately bolted from Mr. Chong's side. By the time I reached the stage, two of her security detail had pinned the Comrade to the floor. He didn't put up a struggle; he seemed to know he had crossed a line. Her entourage was now swarming around her, but she waved them away with one hand, the other cradling her cheek. She wasn't crying. In fact, it was the Comrade who was whimpering, fat tears streaming down his Botoxed face.
Shall I call the police? I held up my phone as I drew closer to her.
She whipped her head around, a brief yet intense flicker in her eyes that jolted me. Then she fell into my arms with a shudder. "No," she whispered. As I held her close, I could see, past her perfect shoulder, Mr. Chong leaning over the orchestra pit, rubbing his jaw.
* * *
The first time I was in Beijing, I realized I wasn't truly Chinese after all.
Ethnically, perhaps. My family could trace its lineage to the Daoguang Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and I spoke Mandarin fluently enough that I'd anchored my secondary school's Chinese debating team, a detail Mr. Chong felt necessary to invoke while explaining why he was dispatching me to the PRC to handle some matters for the Comrade.
Culturally, though, I had more in common with the American attorneys seated across from me at the conference table. Over dinner, we merrily shot the breeze over Seinfeld, Star Wars, and the byzantine narratives of the X-Men while the Comrade and his comrades downed their Château Lafite-Rothschild with Sprite.
But when she walked into the private dining room, I felt a ripple inside me, as if my ancestors had cast a plumb line into the well of my soul.
I'd heard the rumors about her and the Comrade, mostly from my secretary, who follows these things. But I never got the fuss, since I didn't know who she was. I loathe Mandopop, which I find either derivative or treacly or both, and a starlet canoodling with a businessman with party connections just wasn't news.
But seeing the Comrade drape his nicotine-stained fingers over her knee, a spider crouched atop a magnolia blossom, I was surprised to feel something akin to anger. I was just as surprised to find myself afterward at a music store in the Gulou district buying her entire back catalog.
Initially, I'd chalked it up to being starstruck, but the crush's load never ebbed. For some unfathomable reason, she attended almost every meeting I had with the Comrade. In fact, she asked almost all the questions while he mostly nodded as he puffed on one Double Happiness cigarette after another.
You should perform in Singapore, I said to her the first time we were alone together. Providentially, the Comrade had dashed out of the room, clutching his guts and cursing last night's lamb hotpot. She smiled and said she'd been planning a few dates, probably at one of the casinos. I told her that I'd like to take her to some of Singapore's best eating spots, but was afraid she'd be mobbed.
"Are Singaporeans like that?" She looked at me quizzically. "I thought you were all very restrained and law-abiding."
It depends on the subject, I replied. We've famously come to blows over Hello Kitty giveaways at McDonald's. And you sing much better than Hello Kitty, I grinned, since you have a mouth.
She laughed at this and said, "You must protect me, then." I willed myself not to blush.
* * *
Your first time in Singapore and even more people turned up to greet you than for Prince William and Kate Middleton, I felt proud to tell her.
"You mean you'd expect more Singaporeans would turn up for their former colonial masters?" She interlaced her fingers and stretched out her arms.
The bellboy patted her luggage and bowed. He didn't even look at me as he accepted my tip. His gaze was fixed firmly on her as she leaned against the glass window of her hotel suite, the evening sun glinting off her jewelry, transforming her into a literal star.
Mainland Chinese aren't exactly Singaporeans' favorite immigrants at the moment, I explained as I shut the door. They feel the working class are taking away the low-end jobs while the upper class are driving up prices. (I recalled the scene earlier that day of the Comrade in the conference room at my firm, signing purchase after purchase of property and stock, pausing every so often to spew a gob of phlegm into the wastepaper basket, and wondered into which class I would place him.)
But you're different, I added quickly. You have real talent. Most Singaporeans would consider it an honor if you became a citizen.
"Most?" she laughed, looking right into me. As she moved away from the window, she reached back to unclasp her diamond necklace. "A gift from the Comrade," she said. As was almost everything else she was wearing.
He must be very grateful to have you, I said.
"More grateful that I've denied our relationship to the press, the Party, everyone." She sat down at the dresser and laid the necklace in a velvet-lined metal box. "But most especially his wife." She let out a small girlish giggle.
You could have anyone, I blurted. What do you see in him?
Instantly, I wished I could have withdrawn my question. I'm sorry, I stammered. I had no right to ask.
She removed her watch, the gems encrusting its face sparkling at me, and placed it in the box along with the other baubles. "He needs me," she said. "And I need him."
I nodded, kicking myself. How could I think our encounters over the past year — on trips to attend to her lover, at that — had somehow earned me any degree of intimacy? I wondered if she would tell the Comrade. I could lose my job.
You should rest before your interview tomorrow, I said, backing toward the door. I'll be here at eight to take you to the TV station.
"Before you go," she said, "please help me put this in the safe." She held out the box of jewelry.
I moved toward her to take it, and she grabbed my wrist.
"Are you disappointed?" she asked.
I have no right, I replied, blood roaring in my ears.
"That's the second time you've brought up 'rights.' Rights have nothing to do with anything. Is that the lawyer in you talking? Or the Singaporean?" She pulled me down and whispered in my ear, "Sometimes we do things out of need, and sometimes just because we want to."
As she placed her lips on mine, I realized I couldn't remember the last time I'd made love. There were adolescent fumblings, but love ... This. This might have been the first time.
* * *
The last time I'd seen a dead body was a drowning as well.
I was on holiday in Port Dickson with my family, and I'd scurried to the front of a crowd gathered at the beach, thinking they'd landed some fish, or maybe a turtle. Instead there was a drowned boy, his body sallow and stiff as a candle, save for his wrinkled hands and feet. It was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the Comrade's pallid, distended corpse on the mortuary gurney.
She identified him to the police investigator with a single, solemn nod. There were no tears.
Outside in the hall, Mr. Chong told us he was confident the coroner would rule the death an accident. In the harsh fluorescent light, she shook her head and said, "No, he died of a broken heart." I put an arm around her shoulder, and told her she was very kind.
In the morning, I would brief her public relations firm to tell the press that she was "shocked and dismayed by the tragedy," but would not be canceling the upcoming dates of her Southeast Asian tour. In fact, she would dedicate a song to her "childhood friend."
I would go on to share with them only the facts: the Comrade's body was found floating on a stretch of the Singapore River not far from the bars on Boat Quay, where he had been witnessed drinking heavily. He had been under a lot of stress since the Commercial Affairs Department had begun investigating him for possible money-laundering offenses, allegations which he had strenuously denied.
I would not share with them, or her, or Mr. Chong, just how the CAD had come to build their case.
* * *
The last time I saw her perform in China, it was a multimedia extravaganza involving giant props, a multitude of costume changes, and an army of backup singers, dancers, and engineers.
Her premiere in Singapore was a pared-down affair, just a chamber orchestra and her voice — a velvety, almost husky instrument that occasionally swelled into a melismatic yodel to devastating effect. On that first night, I felt as if my senses had been fully activated for the first time. I started becoming aware of the smallest details.
The dust motes dancing in the spotlight above her.
The way her upper lip arched when she reached for the high notes.
The box that the Comrade bore away from her dressing room after the concert, and how it looked exactly like the one in which she had stashed his gifts of jewelry.
The fact that I never saw her wear a gift from him more than once.
* * *
The first time I'd actually taken a proper look at the paperwork was in the wee hours of the morning after her opening night.
As a lowly first-year associate, the main job Mr. Chong had given me was to ensure that the Comrade signed the correct documents in the correct places, the correct way, and by the correct time, and in a manner that caused him the least annoyance. It was more than a full-time occupation, but it involved relatively little legal analysis on my part, which was, frankly, fine by me. All along, I'd assumed the documents contained standard boilerplate culled from hoary precedents anyway. And they did.
But even after over a year of flying to and from Beijing, I didn't really know the extent or substance of the Comrade's business. There were various corporations with bizarre relationships, some of which had been in operation for years without any record of financial transactions. There were also multiple wire transfers between multiple accounts in multiple names in multiple countries, and subsidiaries purchasing everything from real estate to antiques to art to yachts to jewelry.
I'd just presumed it was all the usual rich-guy stuff. You know. Like keeping a mistress.
A mistress who could fly out of countries wearing expensive trinkets without attracting scrutiny from customs officials.
Trinkets that could then be resold or exchanged for amounts that might not reflect their true market value.
* * *
"Last time, money-laundering laws here covered just drugs," said Inspector Chia, almost apologetically. "Now we're more neow." I forced a smile at his use of the almost onomatopoeic Hokkien term for finicky.
The Comrade hadn't been seen for three days, since his outburst at the theater, and a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
I wasn't sure whether the authorities had been motivated by public relations considerations in calling her in for questioning only after her final performance in Singapore, but it was a lucky thing. Her voice was hoarse from continually breaking down in shocked response to revelation after revelation about the Comrade's true objectives.
Thinking back on it, it was probably her finest performance. The naïve waif, the convenient pawn of a savvy and callous mobster, the fairy gulled by a troll. A tale whose eternality could still resonate within the heart of the most hardened investigator.
Never mind a foolhardy young lawyer.
* * *
Tonight was the last time I would ever see her.
I thought that ratting out the Comrade would clear my path to her, but instead, my professional excuse for being with her had expired along with him. In fact, having to clear up the mess he'd left behind and the firm's possible abetment in his affairs necessitated my staying behind while she departed for the next stop on her tour. The CAD wouldn't let me leave with her even if I'd wanted to.
But I did.
But I also wanted to hear her say she'd like me to.
But she remained silent as we stood side by side, gazing at the computerized sculpture at Changi Airport.
I meant well, I said eventually.
"I know," she replied, her eyes hidden from me behind a large pair of sunglasses.
He was using you.
She said nothing, only turning to touch me on the cheek one final time.
And then she was gone, hustled off by her minders through to immigration and beyond.
Behind me, the sculpture's 1,216 silver raindrops flowed, languidly taking the shape of airplanes, kites, a flock of birds, a rondeau in mercury.
But all I could see were tears.
* * *
I wished I'd made the time last longer, especially since everything was now speeding by me in a blur.
But with the velocity came clarity.
Mr. Chong had entered my office brandishing a bottle. "It's been a rough few weeks," he said, closing the door, which should have struck me as odd, since we were the only two people working late.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Singapore Noir"
Copyright © 2014 Akashic Books.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Part I: Sirens
“Last Time” by Colin Goh (Raffles Place)
“Detective in a City with No Crime” by Simon Tay, writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho (Tanglin)
“Strangler Fig” by Philip Jeyaretnam (Bukit Panjang)
“Smile, Singapore” by Colin Cheong (Ang Mo Kio)
Part II: Love (or something like it)
“Reel” by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (Changi)
“Mother” by Monica Bhide (Kallang)
“Kena Sai” by S.J. Rozan (Bukit Timah)
“Tattoo” by Lawrence Osborne (Geylang)
Part III: Gods&Demons
“Mei Kwei, I Love You” by Suchen Christine Lim (Potong Pasir)
“Spells” by Ovidia Yu (Tiong Bahru)
“Saiful and the Pink Edward VII” by Damon Chua (Woodlands)
Part IV: The Haves&The Have-Nots
“Current Escape” by Johann S. Lee (Sentosa Cove)
“Bedok Reservoir” by Dave Chua (Bedok)
“Murder on Orchard Road” by Nury Vittachi (Orchard Road)