"Ja Jambo"

Sebastian Sim won Singapore’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2017 for The Riot Act, a novel set in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot in Singapore. He was also a finalist for the same prize in 2015, for his novel Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!. SP interviewed the novelist, who has written in both Chinese and English, on the art of fiction.

SP Blog. Could you tell us about your writing process? How do you begin a novel? Do you just start writing or do you outline the plot first or sketch the characters or begin with a scene or image? When you’re in the middle of a book, what keeps you going? Do you do many drafts or a few? How do you know when a manuscript is done?

Sebastian Sim. I started off writing wuxia novels, or martial arts fantasy/sword-fighting sagas that typically run for multiple volumes. Before I begin the novel proper, I schedule a two-week vacation and hide somewhere I will not be disturbed. Once in a temple in the mountains of Yunnan, China. Once in a hut along a strip of beach in Koh Samui, Thailand. And once in a cottage overlooking a mesmerising lake in Malawi. I require quiet, and for that I need the surroundings to be serene and beautiful. These spots are where my ideas develop, from random threads into structured storylines. By the time I am done, my notebook has scribblings covering 70 to 100 pages. I already know at which point in the story my protagonist will face a challenge or an obstacle, fall in or out of love, or suffer a betrayal by someone he trusts.

SS. Back in Singapore, I develop the skeletal storyline into a multi-volume saga over one to two years. I hold a day job. After dinner, I make it a point to go to bed as early as 9 pm, and set the alarm to wake myself up at 3 am. I will then write till 7am before I stop to get ready for work. I have found these hours to be my most productive.

SS. Because the primary storyline is already in place, I do not usually encounter writer’s block. My focus is on creating dramatic tension and crafting thrilling sword-fights. When I do stop, it is to do research for a scene I am writing. I set my wuxia stories in ancient Tang Dynasty in China, and I do research on the go. If I reach a segment of the story where I need to know the Tang Dynasty policy on currency controls, or their relations with specific minority tribes, or the type of vessels that ply the Chang Jiang River, I may take two or three days off writing to do the necessary research. Such researches are interesting in and of themselves, and provide a welcome break from the tedium of continuous writing. 

SS. One major advantage of having the entire storyline plotted out right at the beginning is that there is no fear of losing track when my writing gets interrupted. Whether I stop for a week or two to deal with a situation at my day job, or go for a short vacation, I can always pick up where I leave off.

SS. But I adopt an entirely different approach when it comes to writing English novels. For Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!, I wanted to write a story of the first baby born in independent Singapore, and his life spanning five decades. I did not want any pre-structured plot. What I did was to mind-map a handful of characters, and tie them to several themes I wished to explore.

SS. I imagined what kind of personality Singapore would possess if the country were a person, and allowed the protagonist Gimme Lao to imbibe such a personality. After Singapore became independent, there were those who continued to yearn for the language and culture of the colonialists, and who chose to cling on to remnants of the bygone era. Elizabeth, the Anglo-loving piano teacher, was thus created. Another major character, Mary Lao, epitomised the fearlessness of the pioneers in the 60s and 70s who were hungry for success and unafraid to challenge societal norms. And I allowed these characters to drive the plot.

SS. When I began a chapter, I was in fact clueless as to how it would end. But I trusted that my characters would know their own way. The trust was built on the fact that I understood what drove them, what excited them, and what scared them. In a way, the characters in Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao! practically wrote the novel themselves.

SS. Where The Riot Act is concerned, my approach was again slightly different. The event that sets the story rolling is inspired by a real event in Singapore – the Little India riot of 2013. I have witnessed how the shocking event was interpreted in different ways by various organisations and segments of society. Some interpretations were deliberately engineered to serve an agenda, while others were simply reflective of the bias or prejudices the person already harboured. I immediately thought it would make for a delightful socio-political satire.

SS. Once again, I mind-mapped the major themes I wished to cover, and assigned the three protagonists their very specific roles. There was certainly more planning that went into each chapter, and the characters were not allowed to drive the action as freely as their predecessors in my earlier novel.

SS. I am not the type of writer who pushes through the first draft quickly, and then revises the manuscript repeatedly. I am a slow writer. If I reach a point where both my characters and I are unsure how to proceed, I take a break, do something else unrelated to writing, and come back to the manuscript a few days later. This break often rejuvenates me and allows for fresh ideas to brew. If the story sees a new development in chapter 5 that controverts something I wrote in chapter 2, I will go back and fix it before moving on.

SS. The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is an annual event that I leverage on to enforce a writing regime and a non-negotiable deadline. The publicity and prize winnings, if one gets shortlisted, definitely motivates me to keep setting my alarm clock to go off at 3am.

SP. How do you fit writing around your day job as a management executive? What are some habits that have proven useful to your writing? What are some less productive habits you’d like to kick?

SS. My day job as a management executive sees me working shifts. On days that I start work at noon, I will make it a point to wake up at 3 am, write till 6 am, stop for breakfast, write a little more, and then catch a short nap before reporting for work. On days that I start work at 8.30am and finish at 6 pm, I do not write. Those evenings will see me reading or surfing the internet, or spending time with friends and family. My rest days may see me writing at a cafe for blocks of three to five hours.

SS. Procrastination is a challenge I face. One needs to cultivate certain habits to overcome it. So I establish a ritual that is simple to follow. I wake up, I wash up, I extract my de rigueur can of Red Bull energy drink from the fridge, and I fire up my laptop. I spend the next ten minutes rereading the last segment that I wrote. Because this series of actions are easy to execute, I trick my mind into going through the motion until I am seated at my desk and the next logical action is to figure out how to write that next paragraph.

SS. I have several ‘comfort’ drinks, and I convince myself that cosmic balance is attained as long as I am holding a mug filled to the brim with one of these. And they are location-specific. Red Bull at my writing desk at home, Teh-C (tea with a generous serving of evaporated milk) at my favourite Hans outlet, or Hazelnut Latte if I happen to be writing at a cafe. There is, of course, no science to it. But because these beverages are a constant and are readily available, I feel that I am in control, and that helps to anchor my mind even before I begin to write.

SS. Other than procrastination, the temptation of passive internet surfing or binge watching drama series is also a problem for me. My solution is to identify the time slots that I cannot produce good writing, and restrict these time-stealers to these very specific time slots. Still, I wish I can do less of these.

SP. As you’ve mentioned, you wrote Chinese-language wuxia novels before turning your hand to English fiction. How has this earlier writing influenced your current work? What is the difference between writing in English and in Chinese? What is the difference in writing for an English readership as opposed to a Chinese readership?

SS. I had a torrid love affair, as a reader, with the wuxia genre. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese-language newspapers carried serializations of wuxia novels by prominent writers like Louis Cha (金庸) and Gu Loong (古龙).  I was one among a multitude of readers who could not wait to get our hands on the morning papers for our daily dose of sword-fighting saga that would run for well over a year or two. Within a column containing no more than a thousand words, one would be treated to dramatic tension, comic relief, majestic sword-fights, or enticing clues to a larger mystery. More often than not, it would end with a mini-cliffhanger.

SS. This delirious longing for the serialized dosage of fiction left an imprint that was to shape my writing. I convince myself that no reader who picks up my book is obliged to finish it. I have to constantly, repeatedly woo the reader. I should not expect the reader to plough through more than a few pages without rewarding them with some form of a takeaway. Make them chuckle at the absurdity of human behaviour, gasp at a plot twist, or fall in love just a little more with a character. I apply the same principle to both my Chinese and English writings, for I see this as a novelist’s duty to pay out dividends to readers who invest their time. 

SS. Having said that, there is a fundamental difference between writing wuxia novels for Chinese readers and contemporary novels for English readers. To a large extent, avid readers of traditional wuxia novels are a homogenous lot. On the one hand, they have an affinity for and familiarity with Chinese history and culture. A wuxia novelist who wishes to be taken seriously ought to fact-check his material against the era that his story is set in. On the other hand, readers allow the novelist free reign to invent fantastical elements of martial arts. Characters can tap on inner energy (内功) so that they can battle an army of villains indefatigably, scale up vertical walls, skip across roof tops, and accomplish physical feats of acrobatics that put Olympic gymnasts to shame. This expansive but targeted suspension of disbelief is an implicit contract between reader and novelist of the wuxia genre.

SS. I find it generally less stressful writing wuxia novels, simply because the rules of the game are quite established. I am confident I can push the character way beyond the usual limitations imposed by age, sex, physicality, or social status, and yet remain credible. I celebrate this mixture of freedom and constraint. My galloping imagination leads the readers as a stallion does a pack of wild horses across an expanse of grassland that is vast and yet hemmed in by boundary fences.

SS. In contrast, I do not imagine the readers who read my English novels as a homogenous lot. I choose to craft stories set in Singapore, a country whose journey has shaped me over five decades. I imagine my readers fall into one of three groups.

SS. The first group are my contemporaries or people who came before me. They are familiar with the Singapore I grew up in. When I write for them, it is a shared journey of nostalgia, a re-visiting and re-examination of an era we participated in and helped shape. It is an invitation for them to stop the mad paddling down the gushing river of time, to sit on the bank for a little while, and make sense of what has gone on before.

SS. The second group are young people who grew up in a Singapore vastly different from mine. When I write for them, it’s an unstacking of a Russian doll set. A peeling off of what is contemporary and familiar to them, to reveal what life was like for an older generation, and perhaps to shed a little light on how things have come to be the way they are. To ask for a little forgiveness for the mad world they have inherited, and to offer a little advice on how they can craft a better future.

SS. The third group are readers who are not familiar with Singapore. When I write for them, it is a curated house tour. I leave the soiled dishes in the sink unwashed, and the laundry unfolded. It is a parting of the curtains, so they get to peep into a lived-in space. Hopefully, they will understand why I both love and abhor this city I grew up in.

SS. Unlike the flights of fancy I indulge in when I craft wuxia sagas, I keep it real when I craft my English novels. The bipolarity keeps me sane as a writer.

SP. Both your novels are satirical comedies. Humorous books bear unfairly the stigma of being lightweight. Where does your sense of comedy come from? Are there people, books, or films that have colored your sense of the world? More philosophically, what are the uses of humor in literature? Is it a weapon of the literary and social outsider? Is it a whip of the would-be moralist? Or is it the wrench of the anarchist?

SS. If I have to pick a book and a movie that have left a deep impression in my teenage years and which have shaped my writing, it would have to be the Chinese novel 骆驼祥子 [editor: published in English as Rickshaw Boy] by Lao She(老舍)and the movie Brazil.

SS. The body of work by Lao She focuses on the life stories of the struggling masses belonging to the lower stratum back in the 1920s and 1930s in China - the uneducated blue collar workers, the underpaid civil servants, the disadvantaged and handicapped. Take 骆驼祥子 for instance. It is a story of an idealistic, hardworking rickshaw boy who was punished by society for trying to uphold virtue, and who eventually succumbed and compromised his principles. This story of lost innocence would have been an unbearably heavy read were it not for Lao She’s signature humour. The reader is given permission to laugh at the absurdity of the human condition and scoff at the hypocrisy of society. It was my first introduction to satirical work with underlying socio-political commentaries.

SS. I found myself in awe when I first caught the movie Brazil back in 1985. This brilliant satire by Terry Gilliam hits hard at many aspects of contemporary society, and does so via absurdist comedy. The audience, after they recover from their paroxysm of laughter, realises they have been tricked into laughing at the absurdity of current reality, one that they are often complicit in sustaining.

SS. Humour in satire, whether in the form of a book or a movie, is a key that unlocks the door to a passageway leading into the reader or audience’s rational mind. There are many good articles and documentaries that shine the light on social injustice. But for every single reader or viewer who reads the article or watches the documentary, and ponders the issue, many others choose not to, because they find the subject matter too heavy. There is a need to repackage the messages into a form they find palatable. And satirical comedies and parodies are one of the forms that work. They may bear the stigma of being lightweight, but they do get the messages across effectively, and that is what matters.

SS. I remember that, as teenagers, my friends and I were emotionally susceptible to triggers. We got enraged when we read about social injustices, be it child brides in Yemen or child prostitutes in Cambodia. We gasped in horror and disbelief when we learned that a rape victim in Saudi Arabia received public caning, or read about a rape victim in Pakistan being forced into a marriage with the rapist. We found it hard to believe that civilised society would turn a blind eye to all that was wrong and unjust.

SS. But as we grow older, we ourselves begin to turn a blind eye. We become simply too engrossed in making a living. We are unapologetic about our ambition to aim for a good life. We want to be financially secure, to be physically safe, and to earn enough to afford consumption and entertainment. We work hard for what we want. There are only 24 hours in a day. Our focus on attaining the good life leaves little time nor energy to care about the many ugly realities in the world. At the periphery of our consciousness, we know there are societies which punish women for getting raped and allow the rapists to go free. We know there are men who travel to poor countries where they pay for sex with minors. We know there are segments of the population who suffer discrimination and harassment because they are in the minority. We know all these. But many of us are too busy striving for the good life to stop and study these problems. There is this layer of encrustation that leaves us numb to anything else that is not immediately related to our livelihood. 

SS. I see myself as part of a larger group of novelists, artists, film-makers, and other story tellers, who feel it our calling to break through this encrustation. Some produce art that shocks the viewers into a re-examination of issues and values. Some produce films that move audience to tears and reflection. I choose to leverage on humour and satire to disarm the reader. When we laugh, we tend to lower our defences. Hopefully, a message or idea will slip through, which will in turn create awareness, deepen understanding, and trigger change or action.

SP. Could you provide an excerpt from The Riot Act that you’re most pleased to have written? Thanks very much for doing so, and for this interview.

An excerpt from The Riot Act by Sebastian Sim:

The first hint that a nasty surprise might have been in store was the apologetic grin the director wore when he received her at the entrance. “We have three very enthusiastic residents who are putting up a dance performance this morning and they insist they want you to join in during the final segment. I hope that is alright with you, Miss Sharon?” “That’s perfectly ne.” Sharon smiled benevolently. She imagined the elderly men and women were performing some line dance routine; nothing she couldn’t handle.

The director heaved an undisguised sigh of relief and led her to the holding room where the three performers were waiting. Sharon caught her breath. She was unprepared for the spectacle of three shrivelled elderly women in tight, sleeveless cheongsams that clung mercilessly to their shapeless torsos, exposing their sagging arms. The caked foundation on their wrinkled faces was a gaudy sight to behold and the unrestrained application of blush an indefensible overkill. Nevertheless, the three were beaming with over flowing confidence.

“Let me introduce you to our three lovely ladies!” The director enthused. “We have Grandma Lucy, Grandma Mimi and Grandma Beebee. They used to be professional dancers.”

“How lovely!” Sharon tried to match the director’s tone of delight. “Do you perform traditional Chinese folk dance?”

“Oh no, we were professional dancers at the Apollo Night Club. We do sexy numbers.” Grandma Lucy winked.

“Don’t worry, we designed a set of very simple steps for you,” said Grandma Mimi, quick to give assurance when she saw that Sharon had turned a shade paler. “And you only come in for one minute at the very end.”

“Erm... I am just worried that I might spoil it for you,” Sharon began, but Grandma Beebee had already thrust a pair of maracas into her hands and signalled the director to start the music.

The piece that tumbled out of the CD player was an iconic dance number called “Ja Jambo”. Sharon had heard it before; her own mother might have taken to the dance floor back in the 1970s while the band played this very song. To their credit, grandmas Lucy, Mimi and Beebee had choreographed quite a showpiece that matched the quick tempo of the music. Although Sharon cringed when she realised she was expected to perform the same sequence of hip sways, butt thrusts and armpit- exposing arm-over-the-head postures, she reminded herself that it was entertainment meant for the Sunflower residents. She would just have to bear with it.

After ten minutes of practice, the director mowed down the protests of the dancing grandmas and ushered Sharon to the meeting room where the media representatives were waiting. Sharon delivered a short speech about the need for the government to be frugal while rolling out social welfare programmes, and emphasised that the citizens must not be allowed to develop a crutch mentality. The reporters looked bored. Sharon felt sorry she wasn’t able to reveal some of the exciting initiatives the government had lined up, but the next election was two years down the road and it was not yet time to re up the voters’ enthusiasm.

The director then led Sharon to the activity room where the Sunflower residents were seated in tidy rows of wheelchairs awaiting her arrival. Sharon took her time to shake their hands one by one, stuffing auspicious red packets, each containing a $10 bill, into their palms as she did so. One of the elderly, a hulking man sporting multiple faded tattoos on his arms, was apparently having a bad cold. He emitted a thunderous sneeze as she neared, wiped mucous off his nose with his right palm, wiped that palm on his pyjama bottoms and then extended the hand to Sharon when she came to him.

Sharon froze. Every cell in her body was recoiling in disgust. Thinking quickly, she pretended not to see the man’s extended hand and moved to pat him on his shoulder instead. The man gave her a toothless grin. Sharon next pinched the red packet by the edge and gingerly offered it to him. It was at that point that her luck ran out. The grateful recipient grabbed her hand with both palms and shook it warmly, leaving a wet smear behind.

Sharon wanted to scream. But her intuition as a politician told her that even the act of extracting a sheet of tissue paper to wipe away the mucous might be wrongly interpreted by the reporters present. She could come across squeamish or insensitive. Luckily for Sharon, the director saw what had happened and was quick to offer a box of tissues.

The residents had lined up an abbreviated string of musical performances for their esteemed parliamentarian. Two solo singers heartily belted out “The Wandering Songstress” and “Night Jasmine” in croaking voices before the trio of dancing grandmas took over the mike to perform the final number. Grandma Beebee slid over to Sharon, who was seated at the front row, and stealthily handed her the maracas.

“Don’t be nervous. We’ll guide you,” she whispered.

Sharon wasn’t nervous until this moment. It hadn’t crossed her mind earlier that reporters would be among the audience.

“We are the Apollo Sisters!” Grandma Lucy beamed as she introduced their act. “Back in the 1970s, we were professional hostesses at the Apollo Night Club. We were adored by the towkays who tipped us more in one night than they paid their coolies in one month. Those were golden years for the cabaret scene. Today, we would like to present a cabaret number for our special guest Miss Sharon Shi.”

As the director orchestrated a round of applause from the Sunflower residents, Grandma Mimi took over the mike and continued, “We would also like to dedicate this number to an old and dear friend who is celebrating his ninetieth birthday today. He was a strong and handsome club bouncer back in his prime years. Can someone help to wheel Black Cougar to the front, please?”

As it turned out, the birthday boy was none other than the hulking resident with the faded tattoos. Sharon imagined that the ex-bouncer probably had a spread of other tattoos underneath his singlet and pyjama bottoms. But as the nonagenarian sat in his wheelchair sniffiing away, it was hard to imagine him as a muscled bouncer back in his heyday.

Once the infectious tempo of “Ja Jambo” kicked in, the audience perked up and began to bob and tap to the beat. Even the reporters standing behind shook themselves out of their lethargy and clapped along cheerily. The spunky trio turned up the heat and elicited catcalls and screeches with their provocative hip sways and butt thrusts. Two of the reporters extracted their mobile phones and began to lm the performance gleefully. Everyone was charmed.

Everyone but Sharon.

She had thought it would be harmless fun engaging in a little uncoordinated buffoonery with an elderly trio. What she hadn’t anticipated was how spectacular the dancing grandmas turned out to be. Their routine was show-stopping! She would be the only buffoon on stage.

Sharon’s palms were sweaty and shaking slightly when Grandma Mimi swirled towards the front row to lead her into the dance. There was a collective gasp of surprise and delight among the audience. The clapping intensified once they realised their esteemed guest had humbled herself and secretly practised just for them. Every single one of the reporters was now recording the performance on their mobiles.

It was the most torturous and interminable sixty seconds Sharon had ever experienced. She was constantly half a beat behind the trio, thrusting her singular butt out when they had retracted theirs and lifting her arm over her head as they were swinging theirs down. Some of the old folks in the audience began to giggle. They were charmed by Sharon’s obviously intentional buffoonery. The reporters knew better and had to bite their lips to stifle their grins at Sharon’s mortification.

As the dance came to an end, the audience rewarded them with enthusiastic applause. Sharon was slinking back to her seat when grandma Lucy grabbed her wrist. “We have to take a picture with the birthday boy.”

Everyone in the room cracked up when Grandma Mimi threw a cushion onto Black Cougar’s lap before planting her butt on it and wrapping her arms around his neck. Grandma Lucy herded Sharon to the left of the wheelchair and goaded her to imitate Grandma Beebee, who was sticking her face near the birthday boy’s and pursing her lips as though she was about to kiss him. Sharon grimaced. But the audience had started to sing the birthday song and she felt pressured. So she pressed her face close but tilted her head so that she was looking at the audience smilingly.

As she beamed at the audience, the birthday boy felt another huge sneeze coming. He decided to spare the lovely Grandma Mimi in his lap and so jerked his head to the left and released the wet sneeze forcefully onto Sharon’s upturned cheek.

After a split second of stunned silence, the audience screamed, some in horror, others in hilarity. The director grabbed a box of tissues and rushed over to her rescue. Sharon took another second or two to recover from her shock. As she smiled weakly and waved off the director’s apologies, she secretly prayed that none of the reporters would upload the clip onto social media.

Later, Sharon hid out in the director’s office toilet and scrubbed her face harshly with a hand towel the director had provided. She shuddered when she imagined the virus-laden spittle landing on her cheek. Although she wished fervently that she could drive home to scrub herself from head to toe with antibacterial shower gel, her schedule was much too packed. There was the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) executive committee lunch meeting, the fund-raising event at VivoCity, the airport pickup at four in the afternoon and two funeral wakes to attend; she wouldn’t get to kick off her sensible heels until after a late dinner.

Christina Overee, who chaired AWARE, had booked a private luncheon room at the Tung Lok Signatures restaurant at VivoCity. They had an hour before the fund-raising event began at the mezzanine. As Sharon sipped her cup of oolong tea and watched the others stream in, she felt once again that she was watching a parade of some of the most powerful women in the country. Among the most prominent were the group CEO of Singtel, who had transformed the Singapore-based telecom rm into a global behemoth; the founder and managing director of Spa Esprit Group, who had built a formidable portfolio of over 18 brands and more than a hundred food, beverage and lifestyle outlets; and a managing partner of GGV Capital, who not only made waves in the China tech scene as an astute investor but was the only one in the room who had made it to the Forbes list of 100 Most Powerful Women.

Sharon hated to admit it, but she felt inferior. It was true that the media had trained their spotlight on her four years ago when she joined Temasek Holdings, the colossal sovereign fund with a portfolio estimated at 193 billion Singapore dollars. At the age of 31, she was its youngest ever managing director. Two years later, her star burned even brighter when she ran for election on a joint ticket with Christina Overee’s husband and entered parliament riding on the wings of the dominant political party. Temasek Holdings’ generous pay package, together with the five-figure parliamentarian remuneration, allowed her to make an instant leap into the top ten per cent of income earners in the country.

By all measures, Sharon ought to have been proud of herself. Yet she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by this team of power ladies, most of whom sat snugly in the bandwidth comprising the top one per cent of income earners.

Christina ordered dim sum so that the committee members could munch on the delicacies and discuss business at the same time. In her signature efficient style, she came straight to the point.

“Later this afternoon, we have mobilised thirty-three volunteer nail techs to run the charity manicure booths at the mezzanine. The media reps will arrive at 2.30pm. Sharon will be our spokesperson for this event, as always. She’s our best chance to secure a spot on the 9pm news broadcast.”

The ladies collectively glanced at Sharon and smiled. It was unspoken but understood that AWARE needed a member from the dominant political party to magnify its publicity efforts and to bypass bureaucratic red tape. Sharon returned the smile. Her anchored role in the committee was a security blanket she embraced like a four-year-old.

“But we all know that charity booth runs like these, though effective for media exposure, are not going to help us reach our fund-raising targets. We have a charity dinner event at the Hilton end of January. Five thousand dollars per table. I expect generous sponsorship from all of you, ladies. Let’s go around the tables and make our pledges now.”

Sharon prayed that the burn on her cheeks did not manifest itself in colour. She abhorred this humiliating practice of public pledges. As the running tabulation of fives, eights and even tens inched nearer, she took in a deep breath and steadied herself.

“It will be one table for me, please.”

Sharon hoped she had delivered her line with enough equanimity and that no one would notice the underlying shame. That all the other ladies took pains not to make eye contact with her made it all the more unbearable. Sharon felt like a four-year-old invited to a posh birthday party wearing a cheap plastic tiara with the $2 Daiso price tag intact.

[End of excerpt]

Reprinted by permission of the publisher. The Riot Act by Sebastian Sim is available from Epigram Books (Singapore).