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The Ideal Woman: Daughter, Wife and Mother

Old Chinese posters for The Central Agency, Ltd. Fabrics company at Glasglow, Scotland from 1930

I once bought a dress from a well-known British designer that was a cross between two cultures. The dress was made to look like a cheongsum or traditional Chinese dress, like the one you see in the poster, but it had a thick sash attached at the waist fashioned after an obi from the traditional Japanese dress. I wore it to a wedding in Italy and I was the only Asian woman and guest there. The dress attracted some attention because it was unusual and because I was unusual. I had bought it because it attracted my attention as it was unusual and I like being unusual. I still have that dress. I can’t wear it anymore as my waistline has expanded over the years since that wedding. This beautiful dress hangs wrapped up in plastic, a cross-cultural artefact, in my wardrobe. It has travelled around the world with me in our various moves. I’ve kept it because it’s unusual and still holds my attention, reminding me of what it’s like to live between two cultures.

Living cross-culturally is something I’m very familiar with. My entire life is a cross-cultural experience. You’ve heard me say many times that I’m Peranakan-Chinese — a bi-cultural mix of Chinese and Malay, more Chinese than Malay, or someone from the Chinese diaspora with Malay blood. You’ve also heard me tell you many times that I am bringing up a cross-cultural family — my daughters who are culturally hyphenated embrace their diversity fully. And so you must also know that I straddle two cultures and worlds and I’m comfortable in both, but can fall between the cracks sometimes. 

Yesterday, I had my teeth cleaned and polished at a new dental practice. My new dentist is Iranian, but he is also a Briton. He told me that his daughter identifies 80% Iranian, 15% Briton, and 5% Swedish (only because she was born in Sweden). Mr Mohamad had lived in Sweden for 15 years and London for the past 25. 

“It’s complicated,” Mr. Mohamad said.

“Yes, super,” I replied because I know about complicated living. 

He started with the teeth exploration. 

“I’m almost more British than Iranian now, but in my heart, I’m always Iranian,” he continued, “you know, cross-cultural living. 

I managed a hmm.

“Oh, you’ve got a crack here,” he went on, indicating the tooth by tapping it with his dental explorer. 

I nodded in reply this time as he continued to explore my teeth and gums. I know what it’s like to live cros-culturally. And the crack in my lower left first pre-molar has been there for some time. I know about cracks only too well. 

I wanted to tell him about a new film I’d just watched. A heart-warming film that crosses cultures. But being the dentist, he talked as I, the patient, listened with mouth a little agape. And Denmark, where the film’s story was set, is not Sweden, although the Danes and Swedes may share some cultural things in common. I decided to let my thoughts about said film go without voicing them. 

Kinamand and the Ideal Chinese Woman

Kinamand, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by Henrik Ruben Genz (2005) is said to be “a soft-spoken lyrical and beautiful film about love which comes out of nowhere and transcends cultures.”

It’s a cross-cultural love story between a Chinese woman named Ling and a Danish man named Keld. Ling’s brother, Feng, who owns a “Grill” or Chinese takeaway, arranges for Keld to marry Ling so that she can stay in Denmark forever. We hear Feng tell Keld that in China it is hard for a woman to be alone. Keld agrees to the marriage of convenience because he needs the money to pay his wife whom he had recently divorced upon her request. This is a bitter-sweet story with too many stereotypes and tropes that got me thinking about the perception of Chinese people in Europe (and generally in the west), the portrayal of Chinese women in films and literature (in the west and east), and about the language of love (how universal it is). Layered into the story is also one about immigration, identity and belonging.  

Ling is played by Chinese-American actress Vivian Wu, Keld by Danish actor Bjarne Henriksen, with Feng played by Lin Kun Wu, who is also a Danish actor. 

I came upon Kinamand on Netflix serendipitously while researching docu-dramas. Since then, I’ve been trying to find out more about the film but with little luck. But I did find other information linked to the film. For example, Aakeson is a well-known Danish screenwriter and believe it or not, also a children’s book author, published by Pushkin Press in the UK, and has written over 80 books for children and young adults. His tone, according to Pushkin, is “quirky, honest, humorous”. Funny that I couldn’t find any images of the book covers, namely picture book covers, for any of Kim Fupz Aakeson’s picture books on Pushkin’s website. Perhaps, Pushkin has just simply listed him and his forthcoming books or books in translation acquired by the house. Maybe his are not picturebooks. But joy at Amazon, where I found Aakeson’s Vitello series, illustrations and all. Cute! Vitello means veal in Italian, by the way. But Aakeson’s Vitello is a little boy, judging from the cover art. 

The woman in the poster, clad in a cheongsam or qipao, reminded me of Ling in Kinamand: sensuous, coquettish, and stereotypically “oriental” — Ling is only ever seen in a cheongsam throughout the film. (The film seems to be set in the 1970s.) This woman in the poster holds our gaze smiling provocatively back at us, like Ling in several scenes in the movie, though she only had eyes for Keld. 

There were so many enticing moments in the film that drew me in: It is a lyrical story, full of ellipses and intimate moments where the Danish is subtitled but the Chinese not. For non-Chinese speaking audiences, it is like being in Keld’s shoes where Ling’s words form a soundscape of white noise, and non-Chinese speaking audiences are left to infer and interpret the story. Feng makes mistakes in Danish, indicating his foreignness — Dane but not quite. But he keeps at it — trying to belong. He says sex instead of six, which sound similar in Danish, as far as my non-Danish ears can tell. The context for this is that Keld orders his Chinese dinners by numbers — a cringingly farang thing to do. But I was drawn by Keld’s attempt to embrace this newfound culinary adventure. 

Yet, there were many cringing moments in the film that repelled me: Feng, the real Chinaman (Kinamand means Chinaman in Danish), is cryptic, telling half-truths, and so, not fully honest — the stereotypical depiction of a Chinaman. He is the owner of a Chinese takeaway across from the council estate (or Denmark’s equivalent of one) where Keld has a flat — another stereotypical depiction of a Chinaman. Keld’s repetitive use of the word “business” when speaking to Ling when he has no language to explain certain actions he’s obliged to take or who certain people are that he speaks only in Danish to — yet one more stereotypical depiction because Chinese people only understand business relations, no? Feng’s extended family live with him and he is trying to get his sister conveniently married in Denmark by cheating the immigration system, because Ling can’t go back to China, and we find out later it is because she needs medical attention and Denmark’s health care is far superior than China’s— yet another stereotypical depiction, this time of east vs west: inferior vs superior. Keld obtains the moniker, Kinamand, because he agrees to marry Ling, playing on this racist pun: Danish man and China man, exacerbating the difference. Then, there is Ling, obliged to perform her wifely duties sans sex because “pro forma”, the Danish word used to reference the couple’s marriage of convenience. Ling moves into Keld’s empty flat, cooks for him and brings him a packed lunch at work one day. (All this is presumably self-imposed because what else can a woman and new wife do?) She leaves the tiffin quietly on a chair so as not to disturb Keld, who was listening to a taped Chinese lesson. A Chinese woman is taught from young never to disturb the man at work. Ling does everything a wife should except give in to Keld physically. She’s been told by her brother (we are left to infer this) that she must not have sex with Keld and Keld has been instructed by Feng that there is to be no “hanky panky” because “pro forma”. There is the push and pull of forbidden love and desire playing out throughout the movie. 

Having said this, there were heart-warming moments in the film that forced me to question my reading of the story: Keld falls in love with Ling, who is a woman brimming with intelligence. He tries to learn Chinese and teaches her Danish, which she mimics the sounds of — she is trying too. The moments of silence are intensified by the tension between the couple, who understands that this is only “pro forma”. And Feng can only tell half-truths because the situation requires that he does. He is conflicted too, having to negotiate the path between filial duty and friendship, and saving face for himself, his sister and his family. And, I would say, for that matter, Keld too has to do the same. He has a family too, an ex-wife he is fond of and a son whom he loves, and he seems duty-bound to protect them as well. 

Meanwhile, Keld falls more and more in love with Ling, lured by her mysteriousness (due to the lack of verbal communication), and Ling falls deeper and deeper in love with Keld (out of spousal duty, I reckon, as she was socialised to doing). Theirs is an arranged marriage, which in Chinese tradition is very common, something that Ling would be used to. 

Watching the movie, I was reminded not to clench my jaw as I always do when I am tensed. 

Images of Women in Traditional Chinese Paintings

This is the title of an essay by Mary H. Fong that explores the perception and depiction of  women in Chinese history and historical paintings. “In traditional China, artistic creativity was gender-specific, exclusively masculine, and the female image that emerged is not what it purports to represent but rather a signification of male power.” [Fong, pp 22] And all this had to do with…Confucius. The principle of yin and yang, its relationship tied to Heaven are the “three bonds” that ensured a woman’s (yin) relationship with a man (yang) is a celestial decree, something foreordained by Heaven, and hence a relationship that cannot be changed. This was, according to Fong, a thought incorporated into the Confucius analects by a Confucian scholar named Dong Zhongshu (c. 179 to 104 B.C). This belief became the root for the Confucius patriarchy system that emerged profusely during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D). Since Dong Zhongshu had this “brilliant” thought, women in China and those of the diaspora have had to live by this tenet: “Obey your father before marriage, your husband after marriage, and your son after the death of the husband.” For the English, this would be considered Victorian. 

So, we watch as Ling obeys her brother by marrying Keld. Then, we see her obeying Keld, her husband. Keld has a son, but Ling does not find out about Michael, or she would be obliged to obey him too. 

Much more literature followed after Dong’s treatise regarding how women are to behave (Biogaphies of Exemplary Women or Lienü Zhuan) and how filial sons have to be (Biographies of Filial sons or Xiaozi Zhuan). These two instruction booklets were put together by a man named Liu Xiang (77-76 B.C.) and they became the main resource and source for the pictorial depiction of the female form in Chinese figure painting. The docile, obedient and gentle female form or the “Exemplary Woman” reached its zenith during the Han Dynasty, thus giving way to “women as types, not specific individuals” [Fong, pp 23] These types were mainly the daugther, the wife/mother and then the widow.

Court lady (detail), attributed to Zhou Fang (active late 8th–early 9th century), Ladies Wearing Flowers in Their Hair, handscroll, ink and color on silk, 46 x 180 cm (Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang province, China)

Moving forward into the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), the “Exemplary Woman” gave way to the Chinese Beauty (shinü). The Tang Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of artistic and literary expression in Chinese history. Court paintings of palace beauties elegantly weaving or sewing, playing the lute, brewing tea were numerously produced. In many of these paintings, we see how the female form is “richly endowed with blossoming loveliness and feminine charm” yet the faces of these “Chinese Beauties” must be balanced with “a look of severe correctness” that should reflect “an antique purity of the soul”. [Fong, pp 23] This was due to the thoughts and words of Guo Ruoxu, a Chinese painting historian from the 11th century, who Fong quoted in her essay. And as they say, the rest is history. Since Chinese antiquity, the Chinese woman is one who will edify the viewer (the male gaze) and “make visible the qualities of the ideal woman” — she must be submissive, demure, quiet, avert her gaze, alluring, agreeable and accepting of her (lower) position.  [Fong, ibid] Add to this, poems penned by court poets during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) gave way to “moth eyebrows”, “bright eyes” that “illumine her clear bone”, “cinnabar lips” that “screen white teeth” and a delicate face “like sceptre jade”. [Fong, ibid] And, in some court painting, I’ve noticed that these women are always depicted alone, moon gazing or looking wistfully into the distance. The deserted woman is another trope that all Chinese painters use to depict the idealised woman. She is looking into a mirror or into the distance, this gazing is a metaphor for the grief that she feels or her longing for her absent lover. 

A Song Dynasty Beauty. She is looking into a mirror, contemplating.

Ling in Kinamand typifies the idealised Chinese woman. She sleeps alone in Keld’s flat because no “hanky panky” due to “pro forma”. She moves gently about the space, is caught by Keld practising taichi, focused, dignified, and mysterious. In the flat, Keld sees Ling in shadows and through a half-closed door, amplifying her allure and mystery. She becomes that object of desire in Keld’s empty life. 

Ling is quiet in her motions and good-natured in her ways. She is juxtaposed against Rie (played by Charlotte Fich), Keld’s ex-wife, who is demanding, assertive and forceful. As soon as she discovers Keld’s marriage to Ling, not knowing that it is a bogus one, Rie returns to claim Keld back after rejecting him and forcing him into divorcing her. She threatens to inform the police, when she discovers that it is a “pro forma” union, if Keld does not hand over the money he’d agreed to give her for the divorce. Ling on the other hand, is seen to work her magic gently, though not unassertively, without being ‘loud’ about it. In one particular scene, we see Ling saddened by Keld accepting a money envelope (the agreed bride price/”business”), for his willingness to marry her — the deserted woman trope. In another, we see Rie handing the envelope back to Keld — the White-superior woman vs the Asian-inferior woman trope. Here’s another trope: Two women, both after the same man, who is actually quite boring and passive, which was why Rie left him in the first place. And included in the film is the ‘sick woman’ trope. And, underlying all this is the ‘white saviour’ trope. 

Much has been said and continues to be said about stereotypes and tropes in regard to the portrayal of Chinese or East Asian women in art, film and literature. Fong’s insightful analysis of Chinese period paintings or traditional Chinese paintings gave me much food for thought about how the Chinese themselves had depicted their own women in paintings and literature, and how a certain school of philosophy — Confucianism — had codified women’s behaviour and societal expectations of a woman. As someone who identifies Chinese, female and of the diaspora, I would be criticised profusely for what I am about to say: So, can we blame other people, namely white people, for ‘othering’ Chinese women? Or should we look at the root of the problem — Chinese patriarchy and patriarchy in general that has since time immemorial sought to dehumanise women yet ironically idealising her as a type and trope?

I’m not saying just because the Chinese themselves have a stereotyped ideal of the woman that it’s alright for another culture to adopt the same stereotyped ideal of her. As writers and artists, it is important that we understand why these stereotypes exist and continue to exist. The patriarchy is the patriarchy. And if we can, in our own might as women writers, help direct the gaze away from the idealised female, we can stop idealising ourselves and enabling others, who are non-Chinese, to ‘other’ and idealise the Chinese female. 

The film, with all its tropes and stereotypes, surprised me in the end. I didn’t dislike Keld. In fact, he was very endearing in his duncey and typical what-don’t-you-get-man male way — duh, man! Ling had her flaws too, which made her human and less idealistic — she has a temper! Rie, isn’t all that much of a cold fish, after all — she has a heart! Feng, unfortunately, I liked the least because he was not rounded enough a character for me. I think Aakeson had purposefully written Feng to be a clown-like, jester character that adds some comic relief to the tension in the movie. This, I would say, reflects more on Aakeson’s character than Feng’s. 

What surprised me most about the movie was the insight I gained about my own perception of the Chinese woman — me. I compared myself to Ling while watching the movie. I felt embarrassed that I do not tick the ideal Chinese female boxes. And what’s worst is that I can’t fully explain why. Maybe it has to do with always being told that I am not a good girl, too intelligent for my own good, and too loud in my gestures, and I want badly not to be associated with being a bad girl. 

Then, my mind went back to my mother’s advice from a long time ago when she told me that I should keep my opinions to myself — I’ve never been able to not speak up about injustice and the patriarchy, and the way so many Chinese men treat the female body. Truth be said, I am not ashamed for being vociferous about this. Male infidelity and misogyny is still very rife in so many parts of the Asian world. As for Chinese traditions, I wish that they weren’t all to do with putting women in their places and keeping them there. The biggest tradition of all is marriage and children — it is still a woman’s duty in China and most of East, South and Southeast Asia to keep house and give birth, and I simply detest all this and frankly, am quite ashamed of them. Am I ashamed of being Chinese or Asian or Peranakan? Deep down, never, but sometimes, I do wonder how I am perceived by others who don’t know me. I am definitely not the ideal even if I still do compare myself to the ideal. But I tell my daughters to NEVER compare themselves using a male yardstick. 

Things to Note:

  • I am not a Chinese painting expert by any means. For better understanding of Chinese paintings and the depiction of women in Chinese art, see James Cahill who had studied women in Ming and  Qing Dynasty paintings. 
  • For more of Chinese art, see Alexander Soper. 
  • The concept of beauty changes or what consitutes beauty change with time. But the pursuit of female beauty and the idealisation of the female form continues to persist. 

Fong, Mary H. “Images of Women in Traditional Chinese Painting.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 17, no. , 1996, pp 22-27 [accessed 29 July 2921, JSTOR]

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Synergy of Humanity and the Multiplicity of Conflict

I am mesmerised by this image of a red cliff face and a row of women, backs bent, ferrying baskets trudging up a fenced mountain path. I see steam billowing from below joining the plumes of clouds at the mountain top. The women are all dressed alike—forming a line of uniformed white and brown dots—and there seems to be a leader, a lone woman sans basket at the top; she stands apart from the line. The incription describing the photo says, “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in Yunnan.”

Once upon a time, I used to live on a tropical island. I grew up thinking that its people have always lived harmoniously. I am too young to know about the racial tension and riots that took place there in the mid-1960s. When I was growing up, nobody talked about these riots. When I was growing up, my friends were Malays, Indians, Eurasians. When I was growing up, we recited a pledge that goes like this: 

“We, the citizens of Singapore,

pledge ourselves as one united people,

regardless of race, language or religion,

to build a democratic society

based on justice and equality

so as to achieve happiness, prosperity

and progress for our nation.”

I was proud to recite this, proud that a little island-nation made up of a hotchpotch of diverse people are living together harmoniously. I was proud to be who I am, I’m still proud, and so were my multi-ethnic friends, who are still proud of their identities too. I was, above all, proud that my little nation home was peaceful. 

But a recent spate of events that occurred on this little island in the tropics have led to much conflict in this multi-ethnic nation-state. These events put this pledge, the National Pledge, into question. These events filled me with consternation and rage, forcing me to re-examine (once more) my sentiments towards my identity and its links to Singapore.

The events led to me feeling conflicted about my position as a former citizen: Chinese-Singaporean, privileged, educated and upper middle-class. I was conflicted because I heard a Chinese man on video telling an Indian-Filipino man that he is ‘disturbing’ the race because he is “preying on a Chinese girl”, the Chinese girl being the Indian man’s date. The video spanned over 5 minutes of air time and was watched over 3,000 times since it was uploaded on Sunday (June 6). Such in-your-face racism is the first I’ve witnessed coming out of Singapore, I’ll be honest. If you’ll bear with me: the last time I lived again in Singapore was between 2013 to 2020. And as a privileged, somewhat wealthy and educated woman, who speaks English well, I was not subject to such vitriol. It’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in Singapore. Racism always has. Casual racism has always existed; it  is very prevalent there. Motherhood statements like ‘Malays are lazy’, ‘Indians are smelly’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ are very much part of the national narrative. I have heard all these growing up in Singapore. My husband is ‘Ang Moh’, a European or ‘red hair’, even though he is from one of the Med countries. And you know what? ‘Chinese are greedy’, ‘Chinese always talk about money’ are real statements too. Then, there are other casual statements such as ‘Mix-raced girls are pretty’, ‘Eurasian kids are good looking’, and by Eurasian, the average Singaporean almost always means half-Asian, half-European because the racial category of ‘Eurasian’ means something else—Anglo-Indian. These statements were usually kept within individual communities because there was an unspoken agreement amongst its multi-ethnic citizenry that if these statements were vocalised, they would foment the already existing racial divide in the country and highlight the racial hierarchy within the society. 

Why the conflict and the rage? I am shocked that this man can so blatantly disturb a young man and his date in public by calling the young man, Mr Dave Parkash, aged 23, a ‘racist’ because he and his half-Chinese/half-Thai girlfriend are from ‘different races’. 

It is absolutely gobsmacking that this Chinese expounder of such Nazi race relations theories could be a lecturer at one of Singapore’s higher education institutions. And that he could have been passing down his limited and yes, supremacist ideas of race to his students. And doing so for many years, before he exposed himself publicly by calling himself a racist too and saying these “quite unacceptable” and “very worrying” things. [quoting Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.]

I am mad because this man is not all that much older than me. And that his generation of ethnic Chinese, someone of the diaspora, where China hasn’t been the ‘Motherland’ for centuries, could behave this way. I am outraged because as a Peranakan-Chinese, I was always made to identify Chinese, and in a convoluted but unassociated way, made to choose Chinese (like this racist man) over being anything else, and especially over simply being Singaporean. 

And, what I’m most angry about is that most Chinese Singaporeans would cry out ‘racism’ ASAP when they leave Singapore and are suddenly not the dominant race anymore, but would hesitate to recognise that they can be racist too…in their own country.

Race, as we know, is a social construct, next to gender. The taxonomy of race is a colonial construct. And, unfortunately, post-colonial nations bear this legacy, which has served its independent governments equally well—maintain the status quo, uphold the dominant race. The Chinese race is dominant in Singapore. The indigenous Malay race is dominant in Malaysia and Indonesia. And racial tensions have co-existed next to racial harmony in these nations and the region since time immemorial. 

In the UK, where I live and have lived since 1992, anyone other than White is ‘Other’. White supremacists are real here and more vocal because they often spout Nazi-like theories and expound racist comments on social media. One just has to google a man named Laurence Fox for some vitriolic entertainment. But entertainment NOT. Fox’s white supremacist ideology and comments are far from entertaining. They are hurtful, damaging, and absolutely abhorrent. 

Here in the UK, I am not privileged. And I am proud not to be. Since the Pandemic, hatred for and towards East Asians and Southeast Asians has increased. I have lived with this everyday since returning to England in 2020. But I don’t live in fear. I live to challenge this. 

My children are Eurasians: half-Asian/half-European. They identify strongly with their dual heritage. They are examples of the rapidly increasing diversity in this world. And their children will be more multi hyphenated than them. The UK 2001/2011 census shows that “the number of dual heritage children up to four years old rose from 116,000 in 2001, to 220,000 in 2011.” [Source] And these statistics are old. In London, over 45% of the demographics is mixed-race.

My husband is European. Today, he would be very unwelcome in Singapore, judging from what some White expat friends living there are saying regarding the treatment of expats (somehow mainly targeted at the white expat community). Apparently, expats are stealing jobs and getting preferential treatment, and they’re racist too. Likewise, he is also very much unwelcome in the UK because…Brexit. And seen through the same lens by Brexit-voting English — here to steal their jobs.

The topic of racism is an uncomfortable subject to raise and discuss. But we need to sit with that discomfort and talk about it to our children. Being an ostrich about it doesn’t help to change the status quo. Singaporeans need to tell their children that casual and blanket statements like ‘Indians are smelly’ or ‘Malays are lazy’, even ‘Chinese are greedy’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ must be questioned and critically discussed. Schools have to take up the challenge to do this too because what good is there if students only pass exams and pass them well, but live in denial that they could be racist because their elders – grandparents, parents, and teachers – continue to be casually racist without being confronted and challenged. 

Here’s a true story:

My husband was having lunch one day. He was just biting into his roti paratha dunked in mutton curry when a Singaporean-Chinese male colleague said, “You like Indian food?” [surprised that a Med European could]. After my husband had answered in the affirmative, the Chinese man continued, “I’ll let you finish first and then tell you why I don’t eat Indian food.” [like he was being considerate]. All eager to share why he doesn’t eat Indian food, the man watched as the hubs gulped down his last bite of roti and then proceeded immediately to tell him a story about how ‘dirty’ Indians are, how ‘they are not clean and wipe their hands on their sarongs’ and ‘how they use the same hands to [fill in the blanks here] and then serve food.’ According to the male Chinese colleague, when he was a young lad, his uncle had told him this and showed him the dirty hand prints made of curry, pointing out to him that this is why ‘Indian people are dirty’. 

The hubs was not only upset, he was aghast that this Chinese man is a colleague, someone who works in and for a multi-national corporation that is all about diversity and inclusion, and yes, a degree holder. 

And most of all, what disturbed the hubs was that this Chinese colleague felt he could disclose such blatantly racist remarks to him because being of the privileged race, he saw himself as “equal” to a White man and therefore conversely, the White man would agree with his sentiments and, you’ve got it—pat his back in approval. 

This, my friend, is racism at its most real and most high. Racism at its most dangerous–internalised and verbalised.

So, when Singaporeans say that racism doesn’t exist or that they are a multi-ethnic and a harmonious society and SO racism cannot exist, please think again. 

But most of all, let’s consider this: ”Love is love. Love has no race, love has no religion. You and I should be able to love whoever we wanna love. Let’s not become like this man in the video.” – Mr Dave Parkash.

And mull over this: “To this man who may end up watching this, I hope you learn to stop being a racist and let us all live in harmony.” – Mr Dave Parkash

Mr Parkash’s words echo photographer Eng Chung Tong’s: “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos.” 

If there is anything important to learn from this spate of events, it is that the nation must come together to talk about this and to never let this happen again. Otherwise, chaos would follow suit. Lest the island-nation forgets, the 1964 and 1969 race riots weren’t all that far away behind us. 

‘Synergy of Humanity’ by Eng Chung Tong, Malaysia, Shortlist, Open, Culture (Open competition), 2019 Sony World Photography Awards, “A humanity view of one of the minorities tribes in Yunnan going about their daily working life. Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in yunnan.”

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The Storyteller’s Tool Kit

Where do I get my ideas from? 

Here, There and Everywhere. 

Random image of tentacles taken at Pompeii

Welcome story geniuses. I thought I’d write a post about the storyteller’s tool kit. Like most toolkits, you’ll see that my toolbox is filled with the usual tools. You know, the common ones like inspiration, structure, research, tech. I add a couple of personal ones in there too like music, movies, and people. 

#Tool 1 Inspiration

As you know, all stories come from an idea. Yes, just the one. This one idea can fragment into many. Think of a lightbulb with dozens of light rays spreading out across a dark room. Imagine a mosiac art work, the whole made up of  splintered ceramic or stone pieces, and if you isolate one section, there is another story there. What about a kaleidoscope and as you turn the dial, the fratal changes into another pattern. 

But as a writer, you mustn’t forget your central idea for that story you’re writing at the moment. 

So, I am working on a YA novel, my first. I was inspired by a central idea of the master and servant relationship. I wanted to explore this through the lens of an indentured servant. 

#Tool 2 Research

It all started with my curiosity about how societies treated their help. From that broad question, I narrowed it down to a culture and heritage I know well: I wanted to explore an oppressive system that originated in China, where poor girls were sold to wealthy families as servants. 

Indentured servitude is not uncommon as there are many forms of slavery as well as different notions of perceived freedom. Indentured servants have existed in Southeast Asia for the longest time in various forms and guises. In particular, I wanted to find out more about mui tsai or young girls working in the homes of wealthy Straits Chinese or Peranakan-Chinese. Then, this got me thinking about migrant workers and their plight, which led me down the rabbit hole of finding out as much as I could about the migrant worker situation around the world. 

My mind was going full speed everywhere but to nowhere. So, I reigned myself in. What is my central idea?—the master and servant relationship. What was my focus?—indentured servitude. 

#Tool 3 Setting 

Since all stories have to take place somewhere—real or imagined—I picked British Malaya because I know this landmass far better than Hong Kong or China. I am a Peranakan-Chinese because my ancestors braved monsoon winds and sailed across the South China Sea to Malaya, so what better place to start from than examining the cultural history and lives of the Straits Chinese, my ancestors? 

But Malaya was connected to the Empire, with its headquarters located on an island situated between the the  North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. 

My mind was going places again. But hang on, I need to focus. So I returned again to Malaya, in particular Singapore, country of my birth. 

#Tool 4 Structure

All stories have a structure. This Aristotelian idea is an ideal and as storytellers we must let structure guide us. There’s a beginning, middle and an end to every story—always. 

My novel starts media res—in the middle. Funny how the middle became my beginning, hey? I only came to this decision after redrafting the initial structure and I can tell you, it wasn’t funny because I had to rewrite almost 10,000 words of the original manuscript. This consisted of my making a developmental change and then rewriting the parts to fit in with the change. Mind you, developmental editing is what editors do for authors all the time. So I switched a couple of parts around, rewrote some bits, and the story took another shape of its own. 

Think of structure as a squiggly line that moves up to a point of climax and drops again and ends at the point of resolution which leads us to what is known as the denouement. That’s French for the final outcome and it’s a literary term used by industry wigs to show off their prowess. Literary theory and criticism aside, we need to remember that all journeys must come to an end and it’s no different for stories. But where is the end? Most would consider the end as the part whre the hero of the journey finds what they were looking for or found the answer to their quest/search. Now, solving the problem (resolution) in the story is not the same as the outcome, denouement, of the story. The denouement can end in a catastrophe (think Wuthering Heights) or it can end happily ever after (think Cinderalla). 

To get structure in order, I needed to think of a sequence of events that will move my story forward. I had to know that this happaned first, then this happened next, then that happened after, so on and so forth, until I come to the end of my tale. 

The best way to see your sequence of events is to write them out. Illustrators do a storyboard. There’s nothing stopping those who can’t draw from doing the same. You can use stick figures, if you want. 

But all story structures or shapes are based on the central idea: the Main Character’s journey in the book. 

#Tool 5 Tech and the Muse

Technology is a great tool for any writer. I use a MacBook and organise my writing into files. Some people swear by Scrivener. I haven’t dabbled there yet because it requires that I learn how to use the tool. But I’ve been told that once you’ve learnt to, it’s no sweat. 

But the best tool of all is YOU. As a writer you’ve just got to turn up. Here is a previous post on what my day looks like. As I write for a living and not always fun stuff, I am forced to turn up. My favourite author said this, ‘turn up, turn up, turn up and the muse will turn up too.” She is none other than Isabel Allende. 

For extra help on inspiration, structure, setting and research, I turn to Netflix fo plot, characterisation and the 3-Act Structure. I just watched Pieces of A Woman. It’s not for everyone, I will say. But it was superb acting and I was thoroughly convinced that the main character was really giving birth. I wanted to see how the script writer had used the 3-Act Structure to plot her story. And, I tell you what, it’s there—the beginning, middle, end, with everything in a writer’s took kit thrown in—inciting incident, sub-plots, small crises, big crises, the crisis—resolution, and outcome. 

Music makes its way into my daily routine too when I’m feeling the blues and get stuck on a plot point. My latest is listening to covers by Carly Rose (Sonenclar)

And last but not least: People. My favourite people is my family. So I turn to them for sustenance. 

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What the World Needs Now is…

Today, I recieved a text from my GP informing me to make an appointment for my vaccination. Just this morning, a concerned friend living in Portsmouth had texted to ask when I was getting mine. Another friend who lives in Paris texted to say that she and her husband have had theirs. And my elderly neighbours emailed to say that they’ve been vaccinated and can’t wait to be free. 

Frankly, I have been rather non-chalant about the vaccinations, wasn’t in a hurry to get one because my turn will come with it comes. I am not at risk, don’t work in essential services, and am a WFH writer and editor. All safety boxes checked with a thick green tick. So why did I feel elated that I will be getting my first shot on Thurday morning? I am suddenly seeing a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel. 

This is my fourth lockdown. I think. The family and I were locked down in Singapore from April 7th to May 4th. While we were still being locked down, the lockdown, named circuit breaker, was further extended until June 1st by the Singapore government. So we had some freedom before the girls and I left for London in July. We met up with some friends, said goodbye to family, and flew out of Changi early July, jubilant that a new chapter of our lives would begin again. This is one of the many perks of being a family constantly expatriating. Or is it? 

Moving countries during a pandemic is harrowing. Stuff you can tell your grandkids about later because pandemics are life changing and hit you when you least expect them. After a claustrophobic 14-hour flight in a not that empty cabin, we arrived to a London that had no checks despite the Home Office asking all passengers to fill in a COVID location form. We breezed through customs. 

The city in July of 2020 was beginning to open up. Singapore, too, had by then come out of their circuit breakers and phasing out of their lockdown one strong step by one strong step at a time.  The air was crisp with hope in London as the UK prepared for the summer. The mood was buoyant like it is now. We were buoyant too because optimism is infectious. But we still wore our masks outside the house and in the shops just because old habits die hard; mask-wearing was still not mandatory in the shops then. I received some accusatory glances and many Londoners generously made room for me on the pavement and supermarket aisles. One lady told me to step away from her and I didn’t think anything of it other than that it was her freedom to demand for social distancing. The supermarket was a rather small one and I am a good citizen, so I stepped aside and let her get on with it. We were allowed to go out for essentials while we quarantined. The girls and I took our 14-day quarantine seriously because it is serious stuff. We were staying at an Airbnb then and I left the apartment every other day to do our grocery shopping at the Marks & Spencers across the street. Once, I got tutted at for moving a man’s trolley out of the way to get a punnet of tomatoes. I had asked him to excuse me but he was hard of hearing so I gestured an excuse me and moved his trolley to make room for other people and myself. It was only tomatoes, no big deal, I know. So, I said thank you from behind my mask to a pair of raised eyebrows. 

Summer is always glorious in a country with more than four wet and damp seasons. Bodies were out in the parks tanning and picnicking, children were running free with the wind in their hair and the sun behind them, and people were generally having a great time despite a pandemic looming over them. I knew that if the English and Brits didn’t start to listen or if the gov didn’t do something quickly, the virus would spread like wild fire. And this freedom would slowly ebb away like the outgoing tide. But what does one listen to when the messages that the gov was sending were mixed and oh so confusing.

Summer raged on and school started in September as per the old normal. Europe was too far away to be affected by a Chinese virus, but the international schools were careful and followed the rules as people were still travelling back to London from everywhere. Then the curve got steeper and by the end of September going into October, Boris Johnson announced the necessity for a circuit breaker. I wonder where they got that idea from. But flight corridors were still allowed and many went on holidays over the Christmas break. Then the numbers went up more and that circuit breaker got extended again after Christmas because a variant from South Africa or was it Brazil had found their way into England. It is only just last week that schools have opened up again. We are in March 2021. It has been a year since the whole world was brought to its knees. 

I am not begging for a vaccine. But I am eager for one because it protects me and my family. Right now, my concerns are only extended to the people I love. And I hope that this is mirrored by the many people who are anti-vaccers, who are suspicious of what medicine can do and have done and continue to do, and those who don’t trust the government. Do it for the people you love. And, if we want borders to open up and for us to travel freely like in the old-normal, then we must do what we need to do in this new-normal. Don’t get me wrong, I am on the side of subversive always. But this time, I am being good. 

Okay, all said and done, human beings are the only beings that can help humanity. And remember, God helps those who help themselves. This is one rule in Christianity that I abide by by every stretch of my imagination. Give me that shot! 

*The author has since received her first shot.

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A Day In the Life of a Writer

Well, it’s been a full day’s work again today. Like for most people with regular jobs. Writing is a lonely day job, but it nonetheless takes up a whole day, if you’re a professional writer like me. Writing is my regular job. 

What Does A Typical Day Look Like for Me?

6 am – I am up.

6:30 am – I read and answer my emails with a cup of coffee. 

7:30 am – I start work. My current WIP is a YA novel that I’m in the middle of writing. I decided to change the POV this morning. So, I had to rewrite over 10,000 words of the current MS, changing from 3rd to 1st. 

10:00 am – I jump on a zoom call with my business partner, Debasmita Dasgupta. We discuss a new project—writing a graphic novel together. 

11:00 am – comfort break. I make my second cup of coffee. Have a light snack.

11:15 am – I work on a current project: researching and writing blog posts for an in-house e-zine.

13:15 – lunch break. Today, I reheated some hot and sour soup from the day before. Sometimes, I get an Uber Eats or Deliveroo. 

13:45 – I do some research on another project about therapeutic jurisprudence in family law. This is a ghost-writing project for a legal practice outside the UK.

15:45 – I check into moodle at the Roehampton University and listen to my lectures on the MA Children’s Literature. This week we are learning about Historical Fiction in Children’s Literature. This is my favourite genre. 

17:30 – comfort break

17:45 – reply to emails that have come in during the time I haven’t been checking emails. Make a note of who to reply to ASAP and who to KIV for tomorrow.

18:45 – stop work to cook dinner. Tonight we are having pasta ragù from Nonna Tonda, a pasta and sauce delivery company. My life is made easier because all I do is boil the fresh pasta and reheat the sauce. 

20:00 – if I have the energy, I write for another 1 to 1.5 hours. This is always my own work.

22:00 – reading time – YAY!! I am reading YA novel: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. I am pulled into her fantasy world. 

23:00 or earlier if I start to nod – sleep. 

As my day is filled with words and sentences, I go to sleep dreaming of the different stories and books that occupy my psyche. It’s a great feeling, I’ll be honest. As I am working on world building and characterisation right now, I wake to a character voice in my head. I let that character speak to me in the liminal space between slumber and wakefulness. This morning, it was the Lee household cook, one of the characters in my YA. Her voice is distinct, I feel her presence, I take refuge in her wisdom but I am suspicious of her. She speaks to me in the “I” and nudges me to change my viewpoint of her story from the 3rd. 

Because I work on several projects concurrently, I have to really prioritise where I want to dedicate my writing energy. I keep a notebook of with a to-do list of all my projects and tick them off as I go through the items daily. Today, I worked mostly on the blogging and YA WIP. 

As it’s all in a day’s work, I always reward myself with a glass of something luscious like a good Prosecco on Fridays. Maybe one day, I can have champagne instead. But hey-ho, it’s one day in the life of a professional writer. 

TGIF!!