Saturday, July 22, 2017

Singapore: The River's Song, by Suchen Christine Lim

Earlier I read Kevin Kwan's book, "Crazy Rich Asians" as the Singapore contribution for my round the world reading project. Then I spotted Suchen Christine Lim's book at our library, and it looked interesting enough for me to want to read it also. It had quite a different feel to it - Kevin Kwan's rather like a very rich dessert (a bit overwhelming towards the end) and this one more like a fresh, flavoursome and healthy Asian stir fry.

Before Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew's modernisation of Singapore, a large population of street hawkers, fishermen, boat builders etc lived along the crowded and winding banks of the Singapore River. They are there no longer. They were evicted and moved to high rise blocks of modern flats, while tower blocks of offices and hotels were built along the river, which was cleaned up and straightened, with many of the winding creeks that fed it concreted over.

This novel tells the story of Ping, the daughter of a pipa songstress, and Weng, the son of a carpenter and musician. Ping's mother's fortunes improve when she marries a wealthy businessman. Weng takes the part of the local people and acts as their voice in protests against the clearance of the riverside settlements. He is imprisoned for his part in the protests, while in the meantime Ping has left for America where she studies music.

After thirty years, Ping returns to Singapore, meets Weng again and reveals the secret that has kept them apart for thirty years.

The narrative is skilful, and kept me absorbed throughout. I felt I had learned a lot about the development of Singapore, but never in a way that prioritised teaching over story-telling.

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