By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Akashic Books, 2014
For many people, when they think of Singapore, a few words and phrases may come to mind: caning, chewing gum, no littering, fines, and new-money wealth.
But as clean as people think the streets may be, there is more to the city of Singapore than strict rules. And just like in any other city around the world, Singapore has a dark side.
In “Singapore Noir,” just as the name implies, 14 authors show us the not-so-sparkling-clean side of the city. This collection of short stories takes us around the city, visiting its various neighborhoods and showing us that even if a city presumably has no crime, it doesn’t mean it’s true.
From resentful husbands and under-appreciated wives, to supposedly innocent teenagers and dutiful monks, these 14 stories show us how almost nothing and no one are really as they seem. In each story, we meet characters of all ages and backgrounds whose various situations and circumstances cause them to act out of character — whether it’s out of desperation, boredom, or something in between. And while these are short stories, the authors give the readers enough of a taste of these men, women, and children for us to understand what has led them to do what they do — not an easy task when you’re limited to only a dozen or two dozen pages.
Having not known much about Singapore prior to reading this, I found myself just as interested in seeing the city though the authors’ and their characters’ eyes as I was the stories themselves. Each story takes place in a different neighborhood in the city and as you read them one after the other, you really begin to get a better feel of what type of city Singapore is. From the red-light districts to the coastal fishing district, readers will find Singapore to be a city of many faces with a little something for everyone.
The Coroner’s Lunch
By Colin Cotterill
Soho Press, Inc., 2004
The year is 1978 and at the ripe-old age of 72, Dr. Siri Paiboun wants nothing more than to retire after a long career in medicine and almost 50 years as a member of the Lao Communist Party.
Unfortunately, the Lao government has other plans for him and the good doctor finds himself appointed as the country’s official (and only) coroner.
For several months, Siri and his support staff — an ambitious nurse named Dtui and a man with a mild case of Down Syndrome named Mr. Geung — go about their jobs from day to day, with very little excitement.
But then one day, the body of the wife of a prominent politician arrives at his morgue and the circumstances around her death, as well as her husband’s actions following her death, lead Siri to believe the woman was murdered.
Now Siri and his team must investigate to find out what really happened to the woman, but it won’t be easy as they have many things stacked against them: government secrets, spying neighbors, victim hauntings, insufficient funding, and more.
“Coroner’s Lunch” is Cotterill’s introduction to his Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series and he does a great job with setting the tone. He balances the darkness of the deaths and murders in the story with humor and wit — mostly in the form of Siri himself.
The septuagenarian is less than enthused about his appointed position and as someone who is almost as old as the century, does not have time to deal with much nonsense. Siri’s straight-forward and blunt personality, especially when juxtaposed with the rigid rules and policies of the new socialist Laos, will have readers chuckling in amusement as the doctor often finds himself butting heads with government officials who may be his superiors in job status, but are still young enough to be his grandchildren.
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press, 2015
The year is 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War is approaching. Within the ranks of the South Vietnamese’s secret police is a young captain — one of the general’s right-hand men. This captain has been under the general’s command for several years but what the general and the other members of the secret police don’t know is that this captain is actually a sleeper agent — a spy for the Viet Cong.
After the war ends, they all find themselves in Los Angeles, having boarded one of the last flights out of Saigon. Although they are now in a new country and the war has seemingly come to an end, with South Vietnamese on the losing side, our captain continues with his duties as a spy for the Communists. He observes and reports back to his “aunt,” letting those back home know what the general and his compatriots are up to in their new home.
But soon, pulling double duty has the captain committing acts that will affect those closest to him and come back to haunt him.
“Sympathizer” is the story of a man caught between two worlds — in more ways than one. In addition to acting as a double agent between the South and North Vietnamese forces, the captain — who remains nameless — is the son of a Vietnamese mother and French father. He claims his biracial background and having grown up being called a bastard, is what makes him so suitable for his double role. But just as his mixed background tugs at him in two different directions, so does his role as a mole for the North Vietnamese.
“Sympathizer” gives readers a glimpse into the Vietnam War through the eyes of a cynical man with a dark sense of humor. We see how the aftermath of the war affected the Vietnamese who came to the United States and how they had to adjust to their new home. (end)
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.