Onam Village


We celebrated Onam*, Kerala’s rice harvest festival, on Sunday at Singapore Malayalee Association‘s annual Onam Village at Naval Base Secondary School. The function featured sports activities for children and families and a cultural program, which featured everything from women dancing a Thiruvathirakali, a traditional folk dance, to young children romping to the latest Malayalam film tunes.

The highlight of the Onam Village in Yishun is the Onam sadya, or banquet of vegetarian dishes, served on a banana leaf. As in years past, the meal featured aviyal (steamed vegetables in a coconut and yogurt sauce); erissery (pumpkin in a roasted coconut sauce); kalan (plantains and yams cooked in yogurt); and three varieties of payasam (pudding made by boiling rice, green gram, or vermicelli with milk and sugar and flavored with cardamom, raisins, and nuts). It is a slow and sumptuous meal, meant to be savoured with friends.

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* Thiru Onam, the most important day of the four-day festival, is actually on Wednesday, September 14.

Singapore Writers Festival 2016


The Singapore Writers Festival is back in town in November, and I’m participating for the first time since 2011! As I said then, there are gems to be found at the festival, but the website is *really* hard to navigate. I’m waiting for the PDF program to be released so that I can decide which events to attend.

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I’ll be:

All my events are free or nominal in cost ($10 for the workshop), so come by and say hello!

Summer Reading

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I recently returned from two glorious months in the U.S., where I spent time with family and friends (and welcomed a new nephew), saw Hamilton on Broadway, and generally enjoyed the long days and short nights. I also read a lot, including five #sglit novels! Here are my feelings:

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution by Shamini Flint

I’ve read most of Flint’s Inspector Singh novels and, although I was underwhelmed by her earlier efforts, her later works have hit the mark with regards to genre conventions of pacing and plotting and character. A Frightfully English Execution is Flint’s first novel in this series that is set outside Asia; in previous escapades, the bumbling inspector finds himself in predicaments in Malaysia, Cambodia, China, and elsewhere. In this novel, she successfully explores themes she has in previous installments in the series—political and legal issues in the context of immigration, colonization, and war in Asia—but in A Frightfully English Execution, she also elucidates the sense of dislocation that colonized people of the Commonwealth experience on returning to the nation of their colonial masters! Singh here not only has to solve a crime, but also has to differentiate between expectations and reality of being Brown in London.

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge, the third culinary cozy in this series by Yu, is much tighter in plot and character than her previous two attempts. You may remember that I thought the first book was rather plodding. However, like her previous novels (all published by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins), Chilled Revenge is also overwhelmed, in a bad way, by expository information. For example:

At first glance Aunty Lee was a typical Singapore Per­anakan tai-tai. She was fair skinned and plump cheeked enough to please the most demanding in-laws, and short enough not to embarrass the most average-sized man, and the traditional kerongsang (brooch) she wore sported intan, or rose-cut diamonds, set in handcrafted twenty-karat gold, enough to impress the most snobbish customers. And as her late husband had always said, she was kaypoh, kiasu, and em zai siKaypoh or busybody enough to stick her nose shame­lessly into everyone’s business, kiasu or tenacious enough to follow through, and em zai si or “not scared to die” as she charged recklessly in search of answers—something which had led to her solving several murders.

Overall: a fun read, because I love mystery novels, but written for readers looking for exotica (recipes! reading group guide!) in mind.

Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Sugarbread was a real treat (pun intended) and I don’t say that only because I blurbed the book. To wit:

Balli Kaur Jaswal has written a profoundly moving story that is both a sensitive family portrait and a wild page-turner. With arrestingl vivid prose and carefully wrought characters, Kaur Jaswal draws readers into the world of ten-year-old Pin as she negotiates her Sikh faith and grapples with startling secrets. This is wonderfully crafted novel about food, faith, and family.

Sugarbread is less ambitious and polished than Inheritance, her first published novel, but no less satisfying. Jaswal has said that Sugarbread is “a young adult novel [that] I wrote in college… which is also centred around a Punjabi family in Singapore, but narrated from the point of view of a young girl named Pin who is trying to find out a secret about her mother,” and it feels like her first attempt at the novel form (but not in a bad way!).

Jaswal is a writer to watch. She is going to do great things. (And I will say that I knew her when!)

Sarong Party Girls: A Novel by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

I really wanted to like this book. It promised to be “Emma set in modern Asia” and set out to examine the sexual and racial politics of Singapore and the “forces of [Singapore] history—colonial or otherwise—that have shaped this desire and belief in the value of Caucasian-ness.” But it didn’t deliver. The secondary characters are stock and interchangeable, the plot is thin and uneven, the sex-scenes are coy. The novel centers around White-ness and Chinese-ness, much like Kevin Kwan’s popular novels do. Singaporean friends have said to me that the Singlish used in the book is “off,” “forced,” or “wrong,” and I trust them on that! As a non-Singlish speaker, I could follow along quite easily, and I did appreciate that Tan didn’t resort to footnotes or a glossary (as Kwan does), but rather trusted her readers. They also said the book didn’t feel current—that Tan was describing an “old” Singapore. “When four of ten Singapore marriages are transnational, what relevance does the SPG trope have?” a friend said over lunch one day. “If it ever did!” she added.

Tan, an experienced journalist, wanted to write reported book about “SPG culture,” assuming there is such a thing. I want to read that book, which I know would give the topic more justice than this well-meaning, but flawed, novel did.

First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum

I picked this book up on the recommendation of a friend who heralded it as the first English novel by a female Indian Muslim Singaporean writer. (Can anyone confirm this? While I do know quite about bit about contemporary Singapore literature, I do not know for sure if this is true!) First Fires is a slim confessional novel of sorts: each character speaks directly to the reader to reveals truths, which are sometimes at odds with the way the reader has been encouraged to think of that character. The prose is lush and evocative, displaying Begum’s poetic skill, but the plot hems and haws after the first few chapters. Still, this debut novel holds promise and I look forward to Begum’s next.

Sonny Liew: Comic Genius in Southeast Asia GLOBE

Sonny Liew

I’m over in the August 2016 print edition of Southeast Asia GLOBE, a publication that showcases the most interesting people, places and events that shape the region and covers a variety of topics on current affairs, business, society, development and culture, with my interview with Sonny Liew, artist and writer, and the winner of the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize in the English Fiction category for his best-selling work The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I loved his book and he’s a super-cool guy. My interview is accompanied by photographs by the amazing Tom White. Grab a copy from your closest newsstand and check it out!

National Reading Day


Saturday, July 30 is Singapore’s first National Reading Day, part of the National Reading Movement, a initiative launched to encourage Singaporeans to read. According to The Straits Times, “The push to get more people to read comes amid survey results that paint a sobering picture of the reading rate here. A survey by the National Arts Council conducted over a 12-month period from March 2014 found that only 44 per cent of respondents had read at least one ‘literary book’ a year. Another survey by [National Library Board] in July 2015 showed that only half of Singapore residents had used library services in the past year, with numbers dropping as they age.”

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In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of gimmicky books-related products float across my social media… to capitalize on the National Reading Movement, perhaps?

Founder Adam Tie recently reached out to me about his new venture, The Novel Encounteran online bookstore that sells books on merely a description, such as “Book 8: She Will Rise” or “Book 10: A Circus Act.” The product descriptions offer no cover art, no plot summary, and no reviews. “Just a significant sentence and the promise of a literary adventure,” Adam says. The Novel Encounter offers free delivery in Singapore for orders over SG$50. Use promo code SGFREESHIP.

LocalBooks.sg is new online bookstore featuring, well, “local books.” Its search function is rather baffling; are you looking for a book for “a mom who needs to upgrade” or “someone who needs a sign”? Still, it seems like a sweet site to find new #sglit, if you are so inclined. LocalBooks.sg offers free delivery in Singapore for orders over SG$80.

Singapore institution BooksActually just launched The BooksActually Box, a monthly subscription box. A “curator,” or bookstore worker whose recommendations and reading profile closely matches the customer, selects a book and “a little gift that will complement your reading experience.” Purchase 3-, 6-, or 12-month subscriptions, SG$129, SG$229, SG$369, respectively.

Similarly, Carpe Librum Singapore, bi-monthly subscription box that offers customers a paperback novel and “a number of other little bookish goodies” for SG$35 per month (inclusive of shipping/handling). July’s box included a signed copy of Gimme Lao! by Sebastian Sim, a notebook, an Ikat-inspired bookmark, Singlish stickers, “Complain King” pencils, and discount vouchers to BooksActually and Epigram Books.

Would you buy your books this way? (TBH, none of these products appeal to me personally—I am a library gal, have an eclectic taste in books, and I have too many books on my to-be-read list!) What other quirky consumer promotions have you seen?

Fictive Fingers

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When I last blogged about Fictive Fingers in 2013 (!), self-taught artists Aisah and Hani Dalduri had quit their day jobs and opened a printmaking studio in a heritage building in Chinatown. Fictive Fingers specialized in handprinted textiles and had developed a sweet line of products, ranging from apparel to stationery. “We sew and print and paint everything,” Aisah told me. “Just the two of us.”

Three years on, the sisters’ small business has grown. Their large, airy, bright design studio, now in eastern Singapore, continues to champion traditional hand-printmaking methods. Now, apart from producing their own range, they work with brands and organizations, such as The Body Shop, Esplanade, Foreign Policy Design, Mercedes-Benz, National Arts Council, National Library Board, National Heritage Board, Singapore Tourism Board, The Substation, and more. They also hold classes and talks for the public. Of note is their “Community Print Studio Program” which allows members of the public access to a designated workspace, a washing and drying area, materials from screen to inks to pre-made stencils, and DIY kits, as well as useful reference books. No prior experience is required and participants may bring along kids as young as three.

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Fictive Fingers sells out almost of their products almost immediately, and I always kick myself for not clicking “buy” fast enough. Not this time! I recently scored an “Oatmeal Raga Signature Pouch” (top). I desperately want one of their kimonos, but I’ll have to wait for the next product release!

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