Shanghai, Saigon, Bangkok—through the centuries these cities have taken on the alluring shadows of carnality and vice. But Singapore? A city where you can drink the tap water but can’t chew gum on the street, where, as myth has it, cameras are hidden in public restrooms to ensure that the occupants flush, where many people refuse to travel because it has the reputation of being the Santa Barbara of the East?
If this is your idea of Singapore, brace yourself because Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is out to change that perception with the collection of stories that she’s edited for Akashic Press, Singapore Noir. These glimpses of the Lion City will have you heading for a hot shower after you put the book down—yes, they are that dark, that gritty, that unsettling.
Singapore, Tan tells us, is a city dominated by girls, gambling, and ghosts, a product of two divergent cultures, English and Chinese. “No Disneyland here,” she says cheerfully, “but there is a death penalty.” And then she backs up her introduction with fourteen different writers, each showing a city that should be visited in the company of body guards as well as a tour guide.
It’s probably no accident that the two mildest viewpoints are given by S.J, Rozan and Lawrence Osborne. Nonresidents themselves, they give the viewpoint of expatriates in Singapore, with Rozan’s American trailing husband falling in love with the city’s culture and Osborne’s Japanese salaryman falling in love with a tattooed lady of the night. But for those writers who live in Singapore, the darkness is absolute.
From poison to defenestration, death comes fast in these stories, which are vividly populated by debt collectors and prostitutes, rent boys and battered housemaids. They are often difficult to read, with their graphic descriptions of sex and violence. But they show a city that is eerily attractive, decadent, and dangerous. From the kelong houses on the piers to the air-conditioned shopping malls on Orchard Road, they offer a sense of place that is assured and knowledgeable beneath the layers of crime.
Macaques, mahogany trees, and street markets, the “green and ordered legacy” of colonialism, the “deathly quiet” of the city’s Nature Reserve, the sea with “shades of blue…like flowing silk,” the cadence and music of Singlish, “the swirling scents of curry, coconut milk, and coriander,” all give a gleaming luster to a city that is as clean and safe—or dark and dirty—as you might want it to be. Singapore Noir takes away the stigma of Asia Lite from the city-state by draping it in dark and sinister beauty.~Janet Brown