Category Archives: Singaporean American

The Black Isle by Sandi Tan

She begins her life as Ling, the first-born twin of a well-to-do Shanghai family. Half the family is cleaved from the other, seeking new fortune on the British outpost called the Black Isle. During the sea voyage that takes Ling, her twin Li, and their father away from everything familiar, a life-altering encounter with the ghostly world earns Ling her next name – the rather fitting ‘Pandora.’

Island life proves harsh, and their father is never able to raise the splintered family out of poverty, but independent Ling baptizes herself as Cassandra, becoming engaged to Daniel, the heir of a wealthy, powerful Isle family. When Japanese forces plunder Black Isle during World War II, Cassandra is sexually enslaved by a cruel officer who renames her Momoko; her post-war decades are spent entangled with Daniel’s childhood friend (and rival), answering to “Lady Midnight.” Finally, when she’s almost 90, the past comes knocking, which is where the sprawling novel begins: “Anyone who has lived as long as I have, and who has done the things I have, knows there will come a reckoning.”

Singapore-born Sandi Tan debuts a hugely ambitious saga of betrayal, regret, revenge, and re-invention, presented as a narrative within a narrative: a mysterious professor tracks down the reclusive Ling, which prompts Ling to record her life story as a desperate preventative to being completely erased from history. Over almost 500 pages, Black Isle packs in nine decades of dysfunctional families, rapidly changing history and geographies, interspersed with one creepy ghost encounter after another. Tan’s pacing proves disappointingly uneven, shifting from too-long exposition (the boat journey, the violent occupation, Cassandra’s abuse in her evil captor’s clutches), to decades flying by in just a few paragraphs. While Tan’s writing is convincingly accomplished, over-the-top-moments are more than a few – one twin slashing her flesh for the other to gorge on the fresh blood, the voodoo-hoodoo graveyard encounters not unlike mud wrestling; meanwhile, her crowded cast features too many one-note characters (jealous Violet, pampered Daniel, wannabe Kenneth) who mar the novel’s initial promise.

Tan, who holds a Columbia University MFA in filmmaking and is married to a former film critic, definitely shows her cinematic influence on the page. Perhaps Tan’s intention with Black Isle is to first test readers before turning them into viewers. Given her celluloid accomplishments thus far, that creative metamorphosis just might prove likely. I’ll be watching … literally.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Singaporean American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

A toothsome distraction from the recent Tiger Mother hunt, journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan offers A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, which takes readers from Carnegie Hall into fragrant kitchens, trading threatened stuffed animals for pineapple tarts, Prokofiev for pandan.

Tan’s strong-willed tiger streak had kept her “deftly” out of the kitchen, growing up privileged in Singapore, but fueled her academic excellence, her solo immigration to the United States at 18, and her eventual glamorous New York City career as a fashion writer.

Despite comical culinary inexperience marked by “rather unfortunate episodes,” Tan was convinced that with “a Singaporean grandmother who was both a force of nature and a legendary cook … I believed it was in my blood to excel in the kitchen – or at least kill myself trying.”

A serendipitously timed layoff from her Wall Street Journal job – mixed with concern over her parents’ family-splintering later-in-life divorce – sends Tan to Singapore on and off for a year, where her relatives generously welcome her, not only to satisfy her culinary quest but also to feed her heart and soul with lost and forgotten family stories. As Tan masters her favorite childhood dishes, she also realizes “that the point hadn’t truly ever been the food.”

Between braised ducks and moon cakes, Tan learns of gambling ancestors, opium addiction, abusive first wives, and foundling uncles. Her Tiger is fiercest when recording such familial histories, albeit occasionally weakened with quips about ruined manicures and designer shoes. Her debut fare proves a light appetizer, but with promise of a substantial meal yet to come.

Review: San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 2011

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Singaporean American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

The Hyphenated American: Four Plays by Chay Yew

Hyphenated AmericanMemorable volume of collected plays by one of the most hard-working, prolific, talented, tenacious – not to mention incredibly charming – playwrights of our generation: Red, Scissors, A Beautiful Country, and Wonderland.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, November 29, 2002

Tidbit: Chay Yew directed his moving play, Question 27, Question 28, for the Smithsonian’s Day of Remembrance on February 19, 2006. Standing ovation included! WOW!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, Pan-Asian Pacific American, Singaporean American

The Scent of the Gods by Fiona Cheong

Scent of the GodsEleven-year-old Esha comes of age in Singapore of the late 1960s, a time of growing political strife between the predominantly Chinese government and the local Singaporeans and their supporters. Esha’s protected life as the granddaughter of a wealthy Chinese family changes quickly as the realities of the outside world stubbornly encroach.

Review: “Asian American Titles,” What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature, Gale Research, 1997

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 1991

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Singaporean American, Southeast Asian American