This year Singapore celebrates its bicentennial, or rather, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the colonial city. Because of this milestone, there has been considerable soul-searching about the role of history in creating a people and WW2 naturally comes to mind. The war was not only one of the most traumatic episodes in the city’s history, but it was also one that catalyzed the unraveling of empire resulting in both independence and the trajectory it took.
In literature, historical fiction has a role in bringing the past into the present. Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel, How We Disappeared, stands out not just because it has just came out, but also—in opposition to some of the classics about this period, eg, James Clavell’s King Rat and JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip—as having been written by a native Singaporean rather than a white foreigner.
Lee tells the story through the perspectives of an older woman named Wang Di and the school-age boy Kevin Lim. Their exact relationship unfolds as the book progresses.
The only daughter of a working-class Chinese family, Wang Di was taken by the Japanese army while still in her mid-teens and imprisoned for three years as a sex slave, or “comfort woman”, until the end of WW2. With no contact with the outside world, she doesn’t know if she will ever become free again. And even if she does, she is certain the shame will make her a pariah of her community. She’s not incorrect in this assessment.
Wang Di’s story alternates between her teenage years and her seventies; the other storyline is that of Kevin Lim, a lonesome, present-day twelve-year-old boys. Just before his grandmother, Ah Ma, passes away, he learns from her the beginning of a family secret. Kevin tries to uncover the real connection between his father and grandmother, which like Wang Di’s story also extends back to the War.
The book’s most striking aspect is its depiction of comfort women. South Korea and Japan have been at odds over reparations and apologies on this matter for decades. But it has only been since the 1990s that it’s become a mainstream topic in the west.
How We Disappeared, however, is set in Singapore, a fair ways from North Asia—Korea, Manchuria—the more common setting for novels like Mary Bracht’s novel White Chrysanthemum about comfort women. Indeed, WW2 novels set in Singapore (and Hong Kong) tend to center around male, Caucasian prisoners of war, rather than local women who were also brutally enslaved during the war, albeit in a completely different way. Lee’s characters are based on family members and while she was born decades after the conclusion of the war, these stories still plague her family.
How We Disappeared gives voice to native Singaporeans who haven’t featured in WW2 novels as often as they might.