Timeless Tale of Gender Bending, Art and Loss
By Meira Chand
Suchen Christine Lim's work draws its strength from the cultural history of Singapore, Malaysia and China. Her novels, besides their literary value, are an important vehicle in which is preserved knowledge of the past. Besides historical perspectives, her fiction illuminates codes of behaviour and ways of life already long gone or fast disappearing. Her latest novel, Dearest Intimate, follows the trajectory she has already established in her earlier books. It explores not only the dying art of Chinese opera and a lost etiquette of love, but the unchanging plight of women, both past and present, trapped in male-dominated societies.
In novels that look back in time, events or characters become a textural site offering new perspectives on history. They can bring to life voices that may have been silenced through historical neglect or cultural mores. Kam Foong, in Dearest Intimate, is one such voice, vocal in her professional role as an opera singer, but silenced as a woman by traditional constraints. For the reader, the novel becomes a form of virtual witnessing and a powerful explanatory force in understanding the past and the fenced-in emotional world that Kam Foong inhabits, with all the limitations society imposed upon women of her generation.
Working on two timelines, moving between contemporary and pre-war Singapore, Dearest Intimate is a work of literary mirrors, reflecting and connecting images across time and space. It is a book about love and duty; love as it is found in the human heart, poignant, brutal, steadfast, unconventional; duty as demanded in filial obedience, however painful that may be; and the artist's love of their craft through the mystical state of grace that is found in all deep creativity. Above all, this is a book about transformation and transcendence.
Within its present-day timeline, the novel explores the abusive relationship of Xiu Yin and her domineering Eurasian husband Robert. Woven into this modern story is the tale of Xiu Yin's grandmother – her Por Por, Kam Foong – a famed Chinese opera star, whose love for her childhood friend, her Dearest Intimate, closer than a sister, pervades the whole of the book. Kam Foong's extraordinary life as a traditional Chinese opera singer and her inner world of yearning for the woman she loves and has lost, is lived out for the reader through the medium of letters written to her friend in an old journal that is discovered and given to Xiu Yin on her grandmother's death. Towards the end of the book, Xiu Yin's correspondence with her own Dearest Intimate, her lover Meng, mirrors in modern times the unchanging and tangled ways of the human heart.
Kam Foong and her Dearest Intimate, who is never named in the book, were betrothed by their mothers before they were born, destined to marry if one was a boy and the other a girl, or if of the same sex, sworn to life-long allegiance.
In her journal, Kam Foong's most secret thoughts are revealed, as when she writes of the night the two teenage girls swore their love for each other: "It was on Mid-Autumn night that I gave you my heart, and you gave me yours. This night will never change, you said. This is our memory. Our history." The girls are inseparable until, at the age of 14, they are married off by their parents, one to a goldsmith and the other to the son of a pig farmer. Kam Foong is bereft. Selling the gold ring her friend has secretly given her, she disguises herself as a young man and leaves her hateful marriage to follow her friend to Singapore, where she has gone with her goldsmith husband.
On arrival in the port city, unable to find her friend, and still in male disguise, Kam Foong joins Master Wu and his troupe of Cantonese opera singers, and is from then on known as Young Dog. When it is discovered that she is literate and can read, she is put to work as a prompter. Few women of that time were literate, but as a child Kam Foong had learned to read with the help of her elder educated brother. Her career begins when one of the actors falls ill and she is ordered to take his place on stage as a young servant boy in the opera, The Butterfly Lovers. The story of this opera, in an uncanny reflection of Kam Foong's own unfolding life, is about a girl who, in traditional mode, is not allowed to leave home to study. Kam Foong notes triumphantly in her journal that, in the theatre, women are not allowed to go on stage and act with men, and yet, she is doing just that, and no one knows.
"There I was, Young Dog, a woman acting as a boy servant. And there he was – the male actor singing and acting as Miss Ying Toi, the girl who disguised herself as a young man to study in school with other young men for the imperial examinations. Everyone on stage that night was not what he was in real life." So too in the novel, no one is who they outwardly appear to be.
By its very title, Dearest Intimate sets out to explore the nature of love within both conventional heterosexual relationships and bisexual liaisons. Kam Foong's relationships, not only with her childhood friend, but after her marriage, with other female lovers such as Mei Lai, her fah dan or feminine lead on the stage, place her outside the conventional womanly role of wife and mother.
In our modern times, one of the greatest social changes must be the growing acceptance of more fluid attitudes to gender. We think of the struggles of today's LGBT community as a modern phenomenon, but throughout human history people have been people, and lived with the same issues, in secret, hidden ways. One area where gender bending and cross dressing has always been acceptable is in the theatre. From ancient Greece to medieval Japanese Noh and Kabuki, from Shakespeare to modern British pantomime to Chinese opera, men have played the role of women. The Second World War, we are told in the book, brought changes to the world of Chinese Opera, and in further gender fluidity, women were sometimes allowed to take on the roles of men. Even after her true sex is discovered, when her husband, Wah Jai, finds her in Singapore, Kam Foong continues to exclusively play male roles in the opera.
This twisted world of twisted gender positioning is not the only thing Kam Foong discovers on her first night upon the stage. She is naturally apprehensive, but the other actors assure her that when she steps through the magical doorway of the Fu Doh Muen she will forget who she is and enter the skin of her character. To the amusement of the troupe, she looks about for a physical doorway, until Master Wu, the senior actor, enlightens her: "Young Dog… Fu Doh Muen is an invisible doorway that separates ordinary real life from the dramatic life on the stage. Once the gods have accepted you, you will step through the Fu Doh Muen when you go on stage each night… and become the character the audience sees."
At one point in the story, the opera troupe is performing in the streets of Singapore during the Japanese occupation when soldiers arrive. The performance stops, and in terror everyone bows to the Japanese soldiers, except for Master Wu. Standing tall, playing the role of a famous eunuch and imperial advisor, he does no more than give the military men a curt nod of the head, refusing to bow in deference. For this impudence, he is beaten and narrowly escapes imprisonment or death. When Kam Foong asks him later why he did not kneel to the Japanese, he replies, "I had already walked through the invisible gate, the Fu Doh Muen. I was already Imperial Eunuch Li. I couldn't just get out of character because some dogs with guns appeared."
Although the Fu Doh Muen is a traditional and acknowledged presence in Chinese opera, this magical doorway to the imagination is a sacred portal present in all the arts. Dedication to one's craft, whatever that craft might be, and the inner journey any artist embarks upon in that invisible realm of the imagination, is not easily explainable in the normal world. Yet the unworldly dedication to his role that Master Wu displays before the Japanese is the same strength of commitment to their art that propels Kam Foong and her pig farmer-musician husband Wah Jai forward, and finally brings them together.
The secret writings of Kam Foong's journal carry the book. In our modern age of social media, of emails, Instagram and immediate gratification, the begone age of letter writing, of diaries and journaling, seems not just an outmoded way of life, but labour intensive in the extreme. Yet, until relatively recently, letter writing was a cultural and social practice, and in the privacy of diaries and journals people journeyed within themselves to ease life's pains, recording their problems and traumas. The poet, Emily Dickinson, regarded now as one of the most important figures in modern American poetry, wrote secretly, like Kam Foong, pouring out her longings and observations of life into poems she kept in a trunk, and which were discovered only after her death. In some ways, journaling has always been an anonymous secret ear into which to furtively whisper hopes and fears. Kam Foong's journal is just such a confessionary epistle, a friend in whom she can confide. For the reader there is a sense of eavesdropping, of reading over her shoulder as she writes, that brings a depth and immediacy to Kam Foong's story. In the simultaneous and mirroring story of Kam Foong's modern-day granddaughter, Xiu Yin, her parallel set of letters from her husband Robert, and then her lover Meng, holds much less power.
Love, as we all know, is a many splendored thing, and in Dearest Intimate Suchen Christine Lim explores love's many myriad facets, from the cruel subservience Xiu Yin endures in her abusive marriage to the cold arrangement of her grandmother's loveless partnership. Yet, whatever the situation, Lim seeks to find its human core, as in the gradual and delicate development of a relationship between Kam Foong and her husband, Wah Jai.
The everyday difficulties of life, the terror of war and the love of opera gradually draw Kam Foong and Wah Jai together. He is secretly digging graves for the Japanese army to earn enough money to buy rice for his pregnant wife. Kam Foong knows his secret and in the darkness of night, she hugs his back. "Stop what you are doing. I do not want to lose you," she whispers. Love, unspoken, inexpressible, almost mute, has somehow grown between them.
The circuitous weaving of relationships is complicated and the mirroring of emotional situations equally convoluted. Kam Foong and Wah Jai's unspoken love is mirrored later in the book in the relationship between Xiu Yin's other grandmother, the goldsmith's wife, and her devoted servant and low-born lover, who can do no more than silently and gently massage the aching feet of his beloved. At the end of the book, all these relationships come full circle, and Xiu Yin discovers further poignant layers to her family history.
Against a panoramic backdrop of Singapore's modern history, Lim tells many tales. Whether it is the detailed and delicate emotions of thwarted love in an era of cultural constraints or the timeless and perennial story of human grief and loss, all are movingly told. In a body of work always attentive to excellence, this may be Lim's best book. It draws together not only her deep maturity as a writer, but an understanding of life and emotions that can come only with such maturity.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023