Exploring identity in a multi-ethnic community through fiction can be a sensitive subject. The importance people place on identity is often a prickly topic these days—especially in multi-religious, multiracial communities like that of Singapore’s five and a half million citizens. In November 2017, the Singaporean Institute of Policy Studies presented evidence that for the first time more Singaporeans identify with the city-state than with their own ethnic lineage. The remaining half of survey respondents, however, still felt a “simultaneous” identity of both Singaporean and racial heritage.
The South China Sea, notes Bernard Cole, a former US Navy captain who also taught maritime strategy at the National War College, covers four million square kilometers, has significant energy resources, and contains trade arteries through which one-third of the world’s commerce transits. Its geographic location astride the Southeast Asian littoral makes it the maritime gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire sea and conflicting claims by other countries in the region make the South China Sea a geopolitical flashpoint and potential scene of military conflict among regional and global powers.
Canada’s answer to—whom? Jason Bourne?—is a lesbian forensic accountant of Chinese extraction by the name of Ava Lee. But in The Imam of Tawi-Tawi, her tenth outing, Ava isn’t this time tracking down missing millions but has instead been sucked into the global “War on Terror”.
For a number of logistic, commercial and territorial reasons, books rarely circulate much outside the market they were published in. Asian-published books can as a result often, regardless of merit, end up largely unknown outside a relatively small domestic market, something that goes in spades when the book was originally published in a language other than English.
Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest has a long journey. Originally published in Chinese, Unrest won the 2004 Singapore Literature Prize. It took the better part of a decade for the English translation to become available in an edition from Math Paper Press in 2012. This (according to a note on the legal page, evidently somewhat revised) edition is from Balestier Press and is, for the first time, generally available internationally.
“Over the past two years Chinese communists have devoted increasing attention to extending their influence in the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia,” reads an United States government report from 1957. To counter that influence, Eugene Ford writes in Cold War Monks, the US developed a strategy of “considerable guile, sophistication, and determination”, a funneling of significant funds through a front organization to help the Buddhist faith retain its hold on local populations and its leadership aligned with Western interests.
Think hard; use your imagination. Try to remember the time when the world was not an oyster, with its pearl geolocalized on Google Maps, rated on TripAdvisor, its best sights already pre-dissected on The Lonely Planet and travel blogs. There was an era during which the world had not shrunk yet to a global playground easily explored with a smartphone and a wifi connection in hand or indeed, before planes, videos and even ballpoint pens. It was the epoch of explorers and discoveries, of years spent away from a home that less and less could be called as such. And this is the time during which Alfred Raquez wrote his travel journal, In The Land Of Pagodas, A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.
Nicholas Gordon interviews Michael Vatikiotis, author of Blood and Silk.