From the pages of a 1930s murder-mystery to the streets of modern-day Singapore, racism and British bigotry has permeated society – and literature – for decades, writes the bestselling Singaporean author Ovidia Yu.
By Ovidia Yu
I’ve loved traditional murder-mysteries for as long as I can remember. In Colonial Singapore, Golden Age greats like Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers were celebrated, and I still have early copies that belonged to my mother and grandmother.
These traditional mysteries generally take place within a safe, established social structure (usually in a fantasy England) which is disrupted by a murder. Once the sleuth sorts out clues and exposes the killer, the original social structure is regained.
But despite their enduring popularity, in print and on the Big Screen, many traditional murder-mysteries have a darker, more sinister side. Their pages are filled –some say stained –with characters and storylines enduring or perpetuating racist, sexist and homophobic behaviour. Take Christie, the world’s bestselling novelist of all time and the ‘Queen of Crime’, for instance. Her works make frequent derogatory, xenophobic references toward non-whites and homosexuals, while the original title of her 1939 novel, And Then There Were None (look it up), is deeply, quite shockingly offensive.
It wasn’t just Christie, either. I picked up Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not The Bones, (winner of the inaugural Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1952) because it was described as one of the first ‘anti-Colonial’ mystery novels. Maybe it was, but I found its casual description and dismissal of natives painful.
Should we accept this because they were women of their time, writing for their time? Or should we turn away from their books like we’re supposed to turn away from Michael Jackson’s music?
In the truest spirit of traditional murder-mysteries, I think we should read on…but with our eyes open.
Traditional murder-mysteries often highlight social injustices that trigger unthinkable events. And even when women had far less power in society, they could be independent and solve crimes on the page without being judged because lives were at stake. When dealing with a murder—the greatest crime of all—who can object to people of different races or orientations working together to solve it?
Which may be why today, writers like Kellye Garrett (“I write books about black chicks who solve crimes”), Susan Spann, Ann Aptaker, Gigi Pandian, SJ Rozan and many others are writing contemporary mysteries featuring female, Asian, and LGBT protagonists. I love these books too, but they don’t address what I’m most interested in: post-colonial Singapore.
Singapore became a British Colony two hundred years ago this year. Back in the Colonial days, it was accepted that only Whites qualified for the best jobs, clubs and restaurants, and that a tiger that killed five local workers was only marked ‘dangerous’ when it had the temerity to kill a white man.
Today, Singapore is proudly post-colonial; a meritocratic democracy with zero tolerance for discrimination based on race, language or religion. That sounds good, but some of these supposedly respectable citizens have been convicted for abusing their foreign domestic helpers and caught on video yelling at migrant workers for taking a break in the shade. Filipino domestic helpers are banned from using condo swimming pools and eating in club restaurants (if you look up ‘Nicholas Bloodworth’ and ‘Singapore Cricket Club’ you’ll see what I mean). It’s as though nothing has really changed except for the colour of the bullies.
And it’s not only migrant workers who bear the brunt.
Christians are a minority in Singapore. According to recent figures, they make up just 11% of our population compared to far larger percentages of Buddhists (33.9%), Muslims (14.3%) and Taoists (11.3%). But despite their minority status, our post-colonial legacy means it is mainly English-educated Christians who hold power and make decisions on government policy. One example is the restriction on the playing of musical instruments during Thaipusam procession. After protests (not only from Hindus) the government has increasingly allowed religious music over the years, but the law remains. Just like Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code (another Colonial inheritance), criminalising sex between mutually consenting adult men.
It’s easy to close your eyes to such things if you’re not Hindu or homosexual, but social progress can only happen when enough people stand up against ‘status quo’ discrimination. I’m not against a strong, sound governing system, but it should be system that evolves with need, not designed to keep a superior race – or class – in power.
And this, though it may seem a jump, is the main reason why I write mysteries and Singapore-based history mysteries in particular. I’m trying to combine the effect of reading traditional mysteries and listening to stories from my grandmother and grand-aunt stories about the ‘old days’. At the very least you are entertained at by one old lady telling another she was a shameless flirt at sixteen (when she bought her first lipstick). At best, you grow from sharing their experience without going through the trauma. And step out of the book inspired by their courage, with new conviction of what’s possible and more awareness of the filters we create for ourselves.
Q&A Interview with Ovidia Yu
Singapore’s favourite author, Ovidia Yu, talks to us about what it’s like to live in the island city-state, and how this is reflected in her novels.
Q. How close is the Singapore in your novels to the Singapore of Crazy Rich Asians?
A. I love to think that Chen Tai, the wealthy grandmother in my Crown Colony series who runs black-market and loan shark operations, ends up founding one of the moneyed dynasties in Crazy Rich Asians!
Yes, Singapore is the most expensive city in the world for the fifth year running (joined this year by Paris and Hong Kong in a three-way tie), but not everyone here is ‘crazy rich’. If you don’t indulge in the highest-taxed luxury items, you can get by pretty well. Luxury goods, cars and alcohol are all very heavily taxed, and given our tiny size, landed property is exorbitant.
There are some who aren’t shy about flaunting their luxury brands but these are likely to be newcomers or new money. The truly wealthy are often the most careful with their money!
Like when the ‘driver’, who takes their children to school and after-school activities, is an ex-military commando and probably more a bodyguard, but can also help with their music and math homework.
But one thing that the Singaporeans in my books and those in Crazy Rich Asians have in common is a passion for food. Food is essential to life, after all. And as you might have seen in the movie, food talk is a favourite subject here.
Everyday life here is not all that expensive if you know where to go. I can get my favourite breakfast prata for $1.50. If I really want to indulge, an egg and onion prata with fish curry costs me $3.20. ($1 Singapore=0.56 GBP). My haircuts cost me $12—a recent price increase from $10 that upset a lot of people.
Q. Modern Singapore has been called ‘Disneyland with a death penalty’. Do you think it’s a more or less open place to live in now than during the colonial era?
A. A big part of why I write fiction is so that I can figure out things like that. There are some things in Singapore that I don’t agree with—the death penalty is one. The ban on same-sex relations between consenting adult men (inherited from the British Empire) is another.
But today I feel I have the right, the responsibility and (though it’s heavy going) the channels to change things now. During the colonial era, locals had no say in how things were done here; everything was decided by the British East India Company. Early in the colonial era, Singapore was not seen as much more than a trading port under the governance of British India. In 1850 there were only twelve police officers in a city of nearly 60,000 people, so you might say there was more ‘freedom’ from administration then! But gangs and triads were ruling the city, largely ignored by oblivious officials.
It was René Onraet who, as the head of the Criminal Intelligence Department, cleared out the gangs. Chief Inspector Onraet spoke fluent Hokkien, Malay and Hindi and interacted with the locals, even going undercover as a Chinese drain inspector (“If you smell bad enough, nobody comes too close”).
He must have been a truly remarkable character. We still have an Onraet Road here today and I based my character, Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy from my Crown Colony series on him. The Frangipani Tree Mystery (the first book in the Crown Colony series) is dedicated to him.
Q. As a Singaporean writer writing in English, what negative, or positive, discrimination have you faced?
A. I’ve been lucky so far. Singaporeans have been wonderfully supportive. In fact, many have shared stories and experiences—their own as well as those passed down through their families.
I think we’ve reached a point where we’re thinking about who we are and want to record the experiences of those who went before. Yet many seem apprehensive about writing these down, worrying that ‘I don’t know the right way to do it’. I say to them—and to anyone reading this— that the only ‘wrong’ way to put down these stories and memories is to not do it.
Q. You make a point of featuring strong female protagonists in your books. How does this work in Singapore where men still earn nearly 20 percent more than women?
A. Economic inequality goes beyond gender. For instance, migrant workers who borrow heavily to pay for recruitment fees and don’t want to be repatriated without recovering their cost at least. Many of these don’t complain, fearing they may be sent home without pay.
We complain about how the British colonialists treated us like second-class citizens. Now we are doing the same to others. But this is precisely why I write strong female protagonists and true equality that’s based on need rather than entitlement, because I don’t just want to present things as they are, but as they could be.
Q. Singapore is unique in being a city and country at the same time. How would you sum your homeland to someone who has never visited?
A. It’s a very small red dot on the map, almost exactly on the equator, so it’s very hot most of the year. But we have a lot of trees, which helps. According to a MIT and World Economic Forum study of cities using Google Street View, Singapore has the highest tree density for an urban area, beating out Sydney, Australia, and Vancouver, Canada, which tied for second place. So yes—trees, which I’m very fond of, as you can tell from the titles of my books!
We’ve also been described as a very clean, very safe city by visitors. I suppose it’s something I’ve always taken for granted.
Q. If you could travel back in time to colonial Singapore, what would most want to do?
A. I’d want to interfere with everything!
Yes, I know all about not changing timelines (from Dr Who and Primeval) and the movement of a butterfly’s wing causing ripples that result in the detonation of the atomic bomb etc. but if I travelled back in time to what was, as I am now, I’d find it very hard to keep my mouth shut, so it would probably be better for me not to time travel. Besides, I would much rather read and write about living under British Colonial overlords without showers and flush toilets than actually be there doing it!
Q. Many post-colonial countries try to bury the past, but Singapore is celebrating it. Why do you think this is?
A. For one thing, we survived and we’re in a good place now. Like children who make good after surviving an exploitative childhood, we have to acknowledge that some of who we are today came out of what we went through then.
And Singaporeans are a pragmatic people. On an island is as small as ours, without any natural resources, you learn to adapt and make the most of what you have. We’ve done that when it comes to language as well as culture, especially when dealing with the West.
Q. Singapore is known for its strict censorship laws and is now introducing a law against fake news. How is that going to affect your writing?
A. Now you know why I write fiction! I used to be a hundred percent in favour of free speech and a free press, but now that I’ve seen how damaging vicious ‘free’ hate speech and unsubstantiated accusations can be, I understand the need for ‘zero tolerance of hate speech’.
In theory at least—depending on how it’s enforced, it may itself become an instrument of oppression.
Q. Your Crown Colony novels have been described as “cosy” but are set in an era of significant inequality and prejudice. How do you reconcile the two?
A. I would describe my history mysteries as ‘traditional’ rather than cosy. I don’t write a lot of sex scenes and gory violence (I think that’s where the ‘cosy’ label comes in) but that doesn’t mean life was pleasant for my characters, living in the shadow of two World Wars.
At the same time, life wasn’t all gloom and doom. Those who survive are often those who face the worst with humour and courage, and my characters are survivors.
Agatha Christie, Arthur Conon Doyle and Rex Stout were all writing traditional mysteries in eras of huge inequality and prejudice—what we would consider ‘injustice’ today was just how things were to them.
I don’t see a need to ‘reconcile’ anything. Much of the inequality and injustice and blind prejudice are fuel for the energy and motivations of my characters which drives the stories. But I’m very aware I can only write about inequality and prejudice I see. I’m probably blind to a great deal more. I can only hope my books will fill in the gap till someone else comes along to write what I can’t see. If I’m lucky I’ll be around to read them!