Ripples from the headlines
A fictional take on a high-profile drowning case charts the currents and undercurrents in Singapore society
By Stephanie Ye
Back in March 2010, the body of a woman was discovered in a Sentosa Cove bungalow's swimming pool, naked and floating face-down. If the lack of clothing and opulent location weren't enough to set tongues wagging, the identity of the dead woman certainly upped the salaciousness quotient: she was a KTV hostess from China. Then there was the matter of the owner of the pricey home a real-estate investment company chief executive and, as it turned out, the dead woman's client.
Cue discussions about the immorality of Chinese nationals, the plight of foreign workers, and the sleaziness of rich business/finance types. Even though Ms Li Hong Yan's death was subsequently ruled an accident and Mr Adrian Chua faced no charges, the film of scandal still clings to the tragedy like grease.
There is admittedly some degree of insensitivity involved in regarding someone's demise as material for a novel. Yet from the get-go, the dramatic potential of the case was undeniable. It was perhaps only a matter of time that someone wrote a work of fiction inspired by the incident, Law & Order style. The good news: someone has indeed written that novel. The better news: that someone is Claire Tham.
The author is known for her social critiques and biting observations of human nature. This is her second novel, after Skimming (1999), and her fifth full-length publication. Her past works are characterised by taut writing and the tension between society and the individual, and this novel does not disappoint in those respects. I would even go so far as to say that The Inlet is currently my recommendation for any reader new to Singapore literature, or even to Singapore itself. This novel is well-written, mostly well-edited (though there is a distracting bit where the dead woman is said to be wearing a backless dress while being naked at the same time), has an intriguing story arc, and gives a good overview of key issues in Singapore today.
Despite the ripped-from-the-headlines premise, this novel is not a mere rehash of events. I won't go into a laundry list here, but suffice to say many details have been changed and names substituted, probably in part to avoid libel suits (Tham is a lawyer by day) but also, it seems, to further milk the dramatic potential of a scenario already swollen with drama.
Notably, the name Sentosa Cove is not used in the novel. Instead, the ultra-expensive gated community by the sea is called The Inlet. Now, this is not the most attractive of names, lacking the cosy, seaside associations of 'cove' and bringing to mind images of pipes and firehoses. But Tham is not a lazy author, so we should ponder the choice of name.
An inlet is the connection between the sea and an enclosed body of water such as a lagoon or a bay. Likewise, The Inlet and what happens there is the funnel through which the reader is introduced to various strata of Singapore society, in the form of the novel's dramatis personae.
The third-person limited narrative is told from a variety of viewpoints, the chapters switching back and forth between characters. It is the interplay between the different perspectives seeing how characters relate to one another and to society at large that mainly drives the narrative; though there are some plot twists, those looking for the mind-blowing revelations of whodunit-style thrillers will be disappointed.
The political hot potatoes of expatriates and the income gap are embodied by the crime scene itself, as a Singapore police officer susses out the neighbourhood: "He was struck again by how quiet The Inlet was, compared to his HDB estate, silence a prerogative of the truly wealthy. The accents he heard were all foreign northern Chinese, Indian, American testimony to the fact that most of the property owners and tenants here were foreigners. A veritable United Nations, he thought, a little sourly."
Indeed, much of the novel is preoccupied with us-versus-them divides of various kinds, and suitably, it is the super-rich who get the best lines. Says one: "You can't be sensitive in business if you want to be sensitive, go play the violin." Another's impressions of Chinese peasants are "derived mainly from the arthouse movies of Zhang Yimou".
Unavoidably in this kind of state-of-the-nation novel, with an ensemble assembled as a cross-section of society, the characters do hew to certain 'types'. As the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that despite a superficial diversity in social rank, the author is sticking largely to a middle class of office workers and civil servants to populate her cast, all of whom have achieved some level of educational or professional success. Even Wang Ling, the ill-fated KTV hostess, is a university graduate who worked in a lab in China before coming to Singapore (a noteworthy deviation from her real-life counterpart, who left school early and worked blue-collar jobs in hairdressing and catering).
It would be churlish to criticise a work of fiction for deviating from reality. But given the undeniable source of inspiration, it is interesting to note which real-life characters the author has chosen to cut entirely or leave on the periphery.
Gone is the Myanmar maid who found the body, replaced by the smart teenage daughter of the India-born Singaporean neighbours (or 'new citizens', as official parlance has it), whose cynical outlook makes her a spiritual sister of the disaffected youngsters in Tham's debut story collection, Fascist Rock: Stories of Rebellion (1990). Meanwhile, the dead woman's peasant parents are literally seen and not heard.
Perhaps the author, in the time-honoured 'write what you know' tradition, wished to work around a lack of exposure to the working class. But the focus on the middle class is also rather suitable, given that a key theme of this novel is social mobility and how it applies to Singapore. This is a nation that takes pride in being a meritocracy but which, like most other societies, is also informed by community identities and social connections.
Diversity issues aside, the characters are convincing, both as individuals and as Singaporeans. There are quite a few Uniquely Singapore types, particularly the government scholar who goes from pig farm to politics, making compromises all the way (it is to Tham's credit that this character is not entirely unsympathetic). There are also many opportunities for Singapore readers to experience that specific joy one gets when spotting a veiled reference to a local institution or phenomenon. (It's never named, but surely no Singaporean would be at a loss to identify "the school for male tai tais".)
A word on language: the author tackles the issue of portraying non-English, Singlish and dialects by using standard English for the most part in dialogue, but stating when a character is speaking in another tongue and adding some description of the aural effect (for example, Hokkien makes things sound "much more pungent"). This to me is an elegant solution, though I could see how others might feel some amount of local flavour is thus lost.
However, the success of the novel must hinge on how well the author gets into the mind of the young foreign woman whose death sets the story in motion. This might be why the author chose to open the novel from Ling's perspective: a decision to humanise her from the beginning rather than introduce her as a nameless victim. We meet Ling when she is still working in a lab in an up-and-coming city somewhere in northern China. Through education she has escaped the countryside, but now she yearns to experience even more of the world.
Unfortunately, her story, while convincingly told, is not that gripping an opening. It sounds like any number of "village girl goes to the big city" novels coming out of China nowadays and, at the risk of sounding callous, we've heard it all before. It also feels a little strange for a Singapore story to open elsewhere (though maybe this just reflects how the stories of an immigrant nation do tend to start abroad).
The second chapter would have been a stronger beginning, where we see the crime scene through the eyes of Assistant Superintendent Wong Cheung Fai. Tham is not the writer for beautiful descriptions of scenery, but here she sets her scene masterfully, from the clouds ("fields of dead grey mice") to the body in the pool ("long black hair fanning out in a peacock's train"). There is a deliciously noir feel, accentuated by the distinctly Hong Kong spelling of Wong's given name (he, too, is an immigrant, though neither 'foreign worker' nor 'foreign talent'), imbuing the proceedings with a touch of triad-film glamour.
Wong is this novel's hard-boiled detective, and his personality traits grouchy yet hardworking, insecure yet sincere make him one of the more relatable characters, helped by the fact that we see many events from his perspective. However somewhat ironically the most memorable character of them all is one who, like Ling's parents, does not technically have a voice in this story. Willy Gan is a self-made property tycoon and the owner of The Inlet property in question, and is portrayed largely from the perspective of his grown nephew Jasper, Ling's hapless john and the property's resident at the time of the drowning.
The cutthroat business world is writ small as Jasper reflects on how Willy has engaged him in a Masters of the Sea-worthy game of tough love and manipulation all his life. Willy is shrewd and merciless, but also charismatic and spontaneous, and some of the best passages pertain to his larger-than-life personality and how it goes hand-in-hand with his success:
"Most of Willy's developments are by the sea. Willy loves the sea, even the soup-grey waters around the island. He often laments that the age of running away to sea are over. So he does the next best thing: he brings as many people as he can to live by the sea. (That's how Willy explains it, casting a shiny beneficence over his activities. Sometimes Jasper imagines his uncle to be a sort of Pied Piper, capering away towards a distant shoreline with a long, snaking line of obeisant house buyers behind him.)"
Ironically, rather than Ling of the mysterious death, it is Willy who ends up being the real enigma. Many of the characters relate their encounters with him and offer clues as to what makes him tick, yet his own thoughts remain off the page. In a way, intentionally or unintentionally, this shielding of his psyche reflects the privacy the powerful get that the powerless do not. In the aftermath of the real-life drowning, the media went to town digging up all the details of Ms Li's hardscrabble tough-luck story, but for the most part stayed out of Mr Chua's private life.
At least this means we can give the last word to Ling, for it is she who turns out to appreciate the exact thing about Singapore that so many others rue and which this novel ultimately centres on: its state of flux.
"She's tried to understand this unhappiness from the perspective of someone from a monocultural country with a history and tradition stretching back thousands of years. At times, that history and tradition can seem stifling, crushing. She thinks that, personally, she would prefer a place where the identity is still evolving. A place, in other words, more like herself."
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013