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Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.

Questions about Singapore

singapore flag

Here are the top 5 questions I get about Singapore in no particular order

 

1-What language do they speak?

Short answer–English

Longer answer–There are four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, but English is the language of government and it the primary language taught in the schools.

Singapore was a British colony for hundreds of years. It only became an independent country after World War II. The elites classes all spoke English, and the first Prime Minister and Father of the Country, Lee Kuan Yew was educated at the London School of Economics and studied law at the University of Cambridge. He didn’t speak Mandarin until his adulthood. His son, the current Prime Minister, went to University of Cambridge and Harvard.

That said, Singaporeans speak English with a distinct accent. There is also a local patois called Singlish.

singlish

The only Singlish I use is can/cannot because it is efficient. As for the rest, white people sound like asses when we try to use it and inevitably fuck it up. That said, my older daughter, who has lived here her whole life and goes to local schools, is fully fluent in Singlish. However, she code-switches–with her friends and at school she sounds like a true-blue Singaporean, but at home her accent lightens dramatically and she sounds American. This is totally unconscious on her part, and fascinating to watch in action.

gum

2-Is chewing gum really banned?

Short answer—yes

Longer answer–it’s banned for sale, but you can bring it in for personal use, you can get the stop-smoking gum by prescription, and my dentist office will sell you some kind of gum. We generally bring back gum when we go on vacation to the US.

So here’s the true story of why gum is banned in Singapore.

The trains here have sensors that tell them if anything is blocking the doors. They won’t close the doors/run the trains until whatever is blocking them is moved. The government is really into the trains running on time. People kept sticking gum on the doors and it messed with the sensors so the trains weren’t running on time so the government banned gum.

 

DSC_1808

 

3-Do they cane people?

Yes, they do. The picture above is from my daughter’s school handbook. You’ll notice that Caning is the 8th level of punishment. However, caning is reserved for boys/men only.

Caning children as a disciplinary technique is very common, and very controversial. Within my local friends, there’s a mixture of caners and not. Some of my friends were caned and think it was fine, others think it was awful. It seems pretty analagous to the spanking debate in the US. It’s frightening how normal it seems after being immersed in the culture for six years. I’m told at the secondary school level, the caning is carried out during an assembly in front of the entire school.

Caning is also used as a government punishment. That cane, though,can strip away skin and cause bleeding. This is no joke.

 

singapore

4–Where in China is Singapore?

It’s not. Singapore is a country at the extreme southern tip of Continental Asia. While many Singaporeans have Chinese heritage, it is not, nor has it ever been part of China.

 

5—Now it’s your turn. What questions do you want to ask me about Singapore?

Just a Kiss

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A few days ago, I posted the following on my Delilah Night Facebook page

If you follow me, you know I live in Singapore. Singapore is a very complex country often reduced to caning or banning chewing gum in the media.

We are also a country with anti-sodomy laws on the books (377a), where progresses in the quest for equality for the LGBTQA community is stymied at every turn by “traditional /Asian values”(while being advised by American advocacy group Focus on the Family and American based /American style Christian Fundamentalist Churches). Singapore is a country where coming out often means being estranged from your family, and thus many choose to stay closeted.

Singapore had one park –one —where you can “protest.” Assuming your event gets the proper permits. In 2008, an event called Pink Dot was launched with around 2,000 citizens and permanent residents forming a pink dot to physically demonstrate that there are people in Singapore who support the right to love. In 2015, over 29,000 individuals participated. 2015 also marked the beginning of the counter movement “Wear White” to support “traditional Asian values”–jointly organized between a cleric and the fundamentalist Christian preacher who eventually took all the media attention. This year they didn’t release numbers, but there was a lot of backlash against foreign companies co-sponsored the event, such as Goldman Sachs and Google, despite those companies having local headquarters. I’m told there was a lot of minor hassling —this square meter isn’t technically part of the park so you can’t stand here, etc. So despite this one event, a stationary event in a small park, there are many who use the rhetoric of “forcing values down our throats.”

Enter a production of Les Misérables, on tour from Australia.

I happened to see the “kiss” that caused this kerfuffle, which playwright Alfian Sa’at breaks down FAR better than I do. I can tell you that the audience physically flinched and audible gasped. It was if the weight of their horrified shock pushed everyone in the theater back against their seat.

What do people do? Call the police. Call the Media Development Association, the board that allows or bans movies (or “edits” them). Post on hate groups like “WeAreAgainstPinkDot.”

What is the outcome? The MDA claims the kiss was not in their script and was not approved, and therefore must be removed.

I found a great deal objectionable about the production as a superfan of Les Mis. The staging choices, the over-reliance on projected video backgrounds, the lack of the rotating stage, and some truly miscast actors. It was a mediocre performance.

The kiss was not the objectionable part, and I say that as someone who was accompanied by her seven year old.

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The playwright I referred to is Singaporean Alfian Sa’at.

Here is the text of his FB post

In a Straits Times report, it was mentioned that MDA removed a a ‘same-sex kissing scene’ from the musical Les Miserables because of complaints from ‘members of the public’.

The report stated that “Facebook user Alvin Ng posted in a Facebook group that he wrote to MDA to complain about the scene”. It failed to mention that the group was ‘We Are Against Pink Dot in Singapore’. The poster, Alvin Ng, has removed his posts from the group. But why be scared of media attention if you believe in standing up for whatever you think you stand for?

Anyway, the operative term is ‘same-sex kissing’, not ‘gay kissing’. I know some LGBT people were upset when the news first broke, wondering whether it’s another instance of the MDA erasing any representation of queer people from the media—and thus rendering them invisible. But let’s put the kissing scene into context. Deep breath…

Hi Alvin Ng! (And friends.) You watched ‘Les Miserables’ the musical. Good on you! A musical, as you’d already realised, is not a 30-track CD that’s performed live by people in nice costumes moving around on stage. Usually a musical has a story, and a story has characters. And one of the characters in ‘Les Miserables’ is Monsieur Thénardier. In the musical, he is a comic secondary antagonist…

You know, what, never mind. Thénardier is a Very Bad Man. Of course the musical is a lot more complex than that, and part of what makes Victor Hugo’s novel a great work of literature is that there is moral ambiguity: Jean Valjean the convict and Fantine the prostitute are Good People, while Javert the policeman is a Bad Man. But that’s confusing! So back to Thénardier: he swindles customers at his inn, beats his servant Cosette and has Very Bad Manners.

At the end of the musical, Thénardier crashes the wedding of Cosette and Marius. He sings the song ‘Beggars at the Feast’, where he shows himself to be an unrepentant boor. He starts insulting the weddings guests:

Ain’t it a laugh?
Ain’t it a treat?
Hob-nobbin’ here
Among the elite?
Here comes a prince
There goes a Jew.
This one’s a queer
But what can you do?

And then he gives the guy who he claims is ‘queer’ a peck on the lips. Now Alvin, let’s just think about this kiss for a while. Not all lip-kissing is romantic, or erotic. In some cultures same-sex people even peck lips as a form of greeting. Drunken straight fratboys may do it as a stunt, often followed by sexuality-affirming gross-outs. Bullies do it too, because they think the ones they kiss will feel humiliated.

And Thénardier, being a Very Bad Man, is such a bully. The kiss he planted on the guest is not a mutual kiss. And a non-mutual kiss is assault. Come on, Alvin, the character is married to Madame Thénardier and they have a daughter! Were you even paying attention? But because you’ve been so inflamed by the daily moral panics at the WAAPD page, you have to take a same-sex kiss from a musical completely out of context and flag it as some kind of insidious homosexual propaganda.

You might think that canceling the kiss represents some kind of victory over LGBT’s and liberals, but honestly Alvin, it is nothing more than a triumph of ignorance and hysteria over common sense and sober reflection. And with the MDA being dragged in, wearing a T-shirt saying ‘I’m With Stupid’, it is also a triumph of bureaucracy over literature.

There is a line to be drawn between wanting to tell the world that Singaporeans are conservative and wanting to brag about what backwater philistines we are. Unfortunately you’ve crossed that line to the latter. Thénardier, recognising a kindred spirit, would have been so proud of you that he would have given you a kiss.

orlando
Until this weekend, I thought that the Les Mis kiss was going to the most controversial kiss I’d be talking about.
Today we are coping with the worst mass shooting in American history, a shooting the murderer blamed on seeing gay men kissing.
My heart is shattered that this keeps happening over and over and over and over.
I’m going to hand it over to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sonnet that discusses Orlando as part of his Tony acceptance speech.

Wicked Wednesday–Advert “Don’t Get Rubbed the Wrong Way”

Very little bothers me when it comes to using sex to sell things. Yes, I often find it annoying and pandering to the male gaze, but I have bigger battles to fight. Objectification is a microagression that is worth calling out, but it doesn’t make me so mad I can’t see straight.  However, several years ago there was an advertisement here in Singapore that got me very angry.

Singapore Ad

I was minding my own business, walking through a mall, when I saw the poster above taking up an entire wall. I stopped. I gaped. I tooka picture of the poster and sent it to the Facebook chat my two closest friends in Singapore and I have going 24/7 with the following comment:

What the actual fuck?

I wasn’t the only person who noticed and got mad. The ad went viral, showing up in US and European media. Slutwalk Singapore complained to the relevant government agency and got the following answer in return

Many thanks for taking time to read our NCPC adverts developed for our festive season crime prevention campaign.

In response to SlutWalker Singapore x Kuala Lumpur’s comment on the outrage of modesty (OM) poster, we would like to share that the messages were crafted to address the public in general. Through this advertising campaign, we hope to
remind people to take extra precaution so that they do not become victims of crime during this festive season. This same approach is taken for our other messages – burglary, pickpocketing & housebreaking.

We hope that we have addressed your concerns.

We wish to take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year.

Regards,
NCPC Administrative

source

(emphasis mine)

The reductive message that getting groped is somehow the victim’s fault for wearing the wrong thing in public is unacceptable. Nor is using  “humor” to make light of what it’s like to be groped. Being groped can be anything from an unwanted pat on the ass or touch on your breast to full-fledged sexual assault. It’s not something to make light of, or blame the victim for.

There are many things I like about Singapore. But the entrenched sexism and victim blaming isn’t one of them

On the microaggression level, when I was giving Ms 7 her practice spelling test for this week, these were the following example sentences given for the words prince and princess. I’m from Massachusetts, which is one of the more progressive states in the US–as a former teacher I can tell you these example sentences would not be considered acceptable.

Prince—The prince saved the princess from the fire-breathing dragon. (I changed princess to prisoner.)

Princess–The princess screamed helpless form the tower. (I drew a line through it and changed it to “The princess saved herself.”)

But in Singapore, we have so many big issues that the microagressions are the least of our problems.

In Singapore, it’s not rape if it’s forced oral, anal, if anything other than a penis enters a vagina, or if the person doing the raping is your husband. Men/boys can’t be raped under the law.

This week a fourteen year old boy was accused of raping a girl. The police questioned him at length (at which point I learned that in Singapore a minor may be interrogated without a parent/guardian/representation) until he finally said he did it. That night he told his mother he only confessed because the police made him feel as though he had no other choice. Then he committed suicide by jumping out of his window on the fourteenth story of the building. The coverage and comments either paint him as an the victim of a slutty girl or an evil rapist or her as a slut as either a virgin or a slut who “wanted it”. There is no understanding that there could be two victims in this case.

Singapore is a conservative patriarchy. As a liberal feminist and the mother of two girls, I often find myself at odds with the establishment here. I’m fortunate that many of my friends are activists, so I see the grassroots resistance that is growing with each year. As a Permanent Resident (the equivalent of a green card holder in the US) I have the right to join with my friends at events like Slutwalk Singapore, Pink Dot, and the like. I am trying to be a good ally to Singaporeans resisting the dominant culture. But there are days and moments like this that I wonder if I’m making the right choice in raising them here as opposed to Boston. (Disclaimer, the US is hardly awesome on women’s issues, but by comparison…)

When I see an advertisement that uses sex to sell a car or beer or an ISP, I could care less.

But advertisements like this one? Ads that warn me not to get groped, or raped? These are worth getting furious over. These actively reinforce rape culture. Those make me outraged.

wicked wednesday

Haw Par Villa

Singapore, where I live, is quite conservative when it comes to sex.

There’s censorship of television, movies and plays.  Visual pornography is illegal (writing erotica is not, thankfully).  Male/Male sex is still illegal, although it is not often prosecuted (with the PM recently saying they won’t repeal the law because “that’s the way it’s always been”).  While we have sex shops, the boxes are censored–there are pieces of black electrical tape over any breasts, genitalia or butts displayed.  Three years ago there was an article in Time Out Singapore called Sex Positions of the Chinese Zodiac, and the stick figures had censor bars over the female “breasts” and the point of sexual contact (genitalia on genitalia)–not holding onto that issue is a deep regret of mine.  I share this for context…

Given that, I was thrown when I visited a local site called Haw Par Villa (formerly Tiger Balm Gardens) that was built in the 1930’s as an “amusement park” with over 1,000 statues depicting legends from Chinese Mythology, and saw (among other things) the following…

IMG_7863These are apparently spider women trying to seduce a Buddhist Monk in the story “Journey to the West“.

IMG_7885These are bare breasted mermaids.

According to what I could find online, the Chinese legends about mermaids are

China

A 15th-century compilation of quotations from Chinese literature tells of a mermaid who “wept tears which became pearls”.[32] An early 19th-century book entitled Jottings on the South of China contains two stories about mermaids. In the first, a man captures a mermaid on the shore of Namtao island. She looks human in every respect, except that her body is covered with fine hair of many colours. She is unable to speak, but the man takes her home and marries her. Upon his death, the mermaid returns to the sea where she had been found. In the second story, a man sees a woman lying on the beach while his ship was anchored offshore. Upon closer inspection, the woman appears to have webbed feet and hands. She is carried to the water and expresses her gratitude toward the sailors before swimming away.[33]

I’m guessing the artist just liked the sexy Western mermaid archetype?

Sexual imagery rarely surprises me, but I *did* find these shocking…because they’re fairly jarring within the context of the Singapore I know.

I highly recommend googling for images and blog posts about Haw Par Villa (I keep wanting to use the acronym HPV, but no) as it’s quite the kitschy delight.