Singapore Tooth and Claw

Review of Meddling and Murder by Ovidia Yu (USA: Killer Reads/Harper Collins, 2017)

by Stewart Dorward

 

 

Meddling and Murder is the fourth of the Aunty Lee murder mysteries by Ovidia Yu, the award-winning Singaporean playwright and novelist. Her detective Mrs. Rose Lee, aka Aunty Lee, or Rosie, is the proud owner and hands-on cook at Aunty Lee’s Delicious Delights, a bistro café in an up-market residential part of Singapore. She is a rich middle-aged Straits Chinese widow who dealt with her husband’s death by burying her grief under the cares of running her own café and catering firm.

In this fourth installment, we meet many of the characters from the earlier books. Still together with the central figure of Rosie are her long-serving Filipina maid, Nina Balignasay, and business partner, Cherril Peters. The latter is the Chinese wife of an Anglo-Indian politician. There is also the Malay policeman, Salim Aisyah, who wants Nina to marry him. The major races in Singapore are thus represented in this cast of characters. In this assembly, Rosie is the benign face of Chinese privilege and her acquaintance, Beth Kwuan, the opposite. Beth thinks it acceptable to confiscate Nina’s phone, lock her in her room overnight without access to a toilet and feed her only on white bread and instant noodles. Nina is lent by Rosie to Beth, who is suddenly missing her maid in the middle of a house renovation. This disappearance provides the trigger for subsequent events.

Meddling and Murder is, however, different from its predecessors in at least two major ways. The first is the lack of white characters. In the earlier books, the privileged Caucasian expatriate was a key to the events as either a murder victim or killer. With their removal, Yu gives this outsider role solely to the mainland Chinese (PRC) characters. This move has the effect of strongly othering them as they are sharply contrasted to the local-born Singaporeans of all races. PRC Chinese are seen by locals as unreliable, dishonest, and culturally distinct from the English-educated local population. The second difference is the disappearance of the quirky humour that made the series a fun read. A lot of this humour comes from the interactions between Rosie and her maid Nina as the odd couple chunter through life. The fourth installment of the series separates them and so most of the comedy is lost. Without these two distractions, the Caucasian outsider and the local humor, the reader’s attention is focused on some of the less pleasant dynamics of Singaporean life.

The opening pages show us a classic scene from a gangster movie. A dead body is lowered into the foundation of a construction site to be buried under cement. It is being disposed of like other construction debris. So, Singapore’s next office tower or luxury condominium will be built on the corpse of a Filipina maid. And other migrant workers, who labor in the construction industry, will pour in the concrete. The sensationalism of the scene is made to serve a powerful political critique.

This is Singapore red in tooth and claw, built on unremitting economic competition. Playing the detective, in her search for the missing maid, Rosie meets with the woman’s boyfriend. She tries to console the distraught young man by saying, “Don’t worry. Where there’s life there’s hope,” stressing ‘life’. Seetoh the boyfriend responds with Singaporean pragmatism, “More like where there’s money, there’s hope. I got no money, so no hope.” Selina Lee, Rosie’s step-daughter-in-law, understands this perfectly. She is planning on opening a preschool called KidStarters. Students will get a head start in prepping for and passing exams, an early training for the vicious Singaporean system.

Johnny Ho knows how tough the game is. The only child of a single parent in mainland China, he dragged himself up from “very very poor to very poor” by the time he met and charmed the Kwuan sisters. Spinster Beth had organized a tour in mainland China to take Patty’s mind off the death of her husband, Johnny is employed as their guide but is described in terms more suited to a gigolo: TV idol looks, muscular and flirtatious, and wearing a noticeable amount of make-up. He is strongly contrasted to the self-indulgent Singaporean young men exemplified by Patty’s estranged son, Fabian or Flabby Fabby. These young Singaporeans are nicknamed “strawberries,” sweet and lovely to look at but easily bruised. Patty’s quick marriage to Johnny Ho, her leng zai, or pretty boy, so soon after her bereavement titillates the other ladies of their social circle and even has Rosie chuckling in gleeful approval.

His prettiness causes people to underestimate him. Johnny Ho is a predator and his marriage to Patty gets him to Singapore and into money. When Patty dies, Johnny quickly disinherits Fabian to go into business with the remaining sister, Beth. He has a standard operating procedure to gain the cooperation of many of the women around him. He seduces them into having compromising photos taken that can be used for blackmail in whatever scheme comes up. He blackmailed Beth’s maid, before she went missing, into using her contacts to provide a supply of willing illegal immigrants. The only woman shown resisting him is Nina. She thinks he is trying to rape her and screams until Beth Kwuan appears and stops him.

At the top of Yu’s social pyramid are the society ladies, or tai tai, who do not need to work and so fill their days with friends, spa visits and shopping. If they want to be faux-busy they can have a room redecorated. Once their project is complete, they can show it off and have Aunty Lee’s Delicious Delights cater ‘home-cooked’ food for their little gathering. In reality, the top of the hierarchy is occupied by people like Mycroft Peters, the husband of Rosie’s business partner, but we do not see that world in Yu’s books. The Aunty Lee stories stay firmly rooted in the upmarket housing estate of Bukit Tinggi.

This time Yu gives us a range of tai tai. The classic version is Helen Chan. Manicured, jeweled, coiffured and handbagged to perfection, she is out for revenge for the break-in at her home. In contrast, there is Beth Kwuan, the bitter spinster mulling over the injustices that life in general and her family in particular have visited upon her. Aunty Lee is the kinder, softer version. She may be a snob about her food supplies but she treats people equally. In the book under review, we first find Rosie in a drainage ditch scrambling to get some wild herbs for her kitchen. She is dressed badly in an old t-shirt and baggy pants. Some new neighbours call the police but she is not detained nor questioned, as her social status protects her from police action. The officer even helps her get out of the ditch with her herbs intact. 

These three tai tai sharply contrast with each other. However, if we look at the power they have over Nina, we get a glimpse of Chinese privilege. At Rosie’s house and shop, Nina has her own nice room; she has also received training in skills, such as driving a car and using a computer. Yet the benign Rosie lends Nina to Beth Kwuan. Beth can just as easily treat Nina in the opposite way and she does, locking her up every night in a room and taking away her phone. At Rosie’s place, Nina eats the same food as and with her employer. However, Beth gives her a piece of white bread and instant noodles. Later, Helen refuses to leave Beth’s house until Nina comes with her back to Rosie’s. Having returned safely, Rosie fires Nina for her own good. – the plot here is confusing. In all of this, Nina is moved around according to how these women see fit. Nina, whose degree in nursing is not recognized in Singapore, is reduced to working as a domestic helper and treated as a pawn of these ladies. As the novel puts it, “Fond as she was of her boss, Nina suspected that Aunty Lee was barely aware how differently the island’s rules and regulations looked to those below and from the outside.”

The portrayal of the Chinese, whether from Singapore or China, is consistently negative. The rich but nervous Rosie continually embarrasses herself by being unable to say the name of a mixed-race bank employee. Rosie is reduced to calling the woman Willy-mini-Wong. Though Rosie likes Wilhemina, and makes mental note to bring her some food, her generosity does not erase the embarrassment of her mistake. Rosie describes her two new PRC restaurant staff as slow, nervous, and unreliable. Johnny Ho initially gets sympathy due to his charm and background. That quickly evaporates when we see his maltreatment of women and his incessant racial bigotry. On first coming to Rosie’s bistro, he insults Cherril’s marriage. Having originally assumed that she was married to a white man, he mocks her marriage to what he sees as a racially inferior Indian. Every time he encounters someone who is not purely Chinese, he spontaneously insults them. Ironically, and satisfyingly, this bigotry leads to his downfall: the Malay policeman and the mixed-race investment banker have power that he cannot see due to his racist blinkers.

Nevertheless, it is a mainland Chinese couple who save Rosie and Nina from the murderer’s revenge. Mr. and Mrs. Guang are the retired couple who reported Rosie to the police for “hiding” in the ditch outside their house. After this introduction, they become regular customers of Aunty Lee’s Delicious Delights. The Guangs prove to be observant Mandarin speakers who fully understand Johnny Ho. One evening, they suspect Beth’s intentions and wait to ensure Rosie’s safety. Mrs. Guang’s martial arts training saves the day. If this couple had been more fully developed, they would have provided a counterbalance to the constant ‘bad Chinese’ stereotype.

Overall, this murder mystery is less Miss Marple and more social commentary. The tone is darker as Rosie becomes a vulnerable old woman. She does get into Johnny’s sports car but keeps a pepper spray in her hand all the time. Nina is not there as her extra pairs of eyes and ears. The real Bukit Tingii is an upmarket resort town in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia. It is famous for its fake French and Japanese quarters and gourmet restaurants. Yu’s imaginary high-class estate has the well-known Aunty Lee’s Delicious Delights to do its catering. It must also have the highest death rate in Singapore, five deaths and one near-death in this novel. Add to that number the deaths in the other books of the series, and this estate is starting to look very bad for your health.

 

Stewart Dorward is a British-born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.