‘Spider Boys’: Interview with Author Ming Cher
Last week, our editor Jocelyn offered some insight into the editorial process behind Ming Cher’s Spider Boys—part of our Singapore Classics series—and gave us an overview of the gritty story set in 1950s Singapore. Today, read on to find out more about the novel from the author himself!
Epigram Books: What prompted you to write Spider Boys? At which point in your life did you write it?
Ming Cher: I wanted to write a novel about Singapore’s recent history since the country had changed so much over a 30-year period. I began writing in 1988 when my son Marco was five years old (Marco has an Australian mother) to show him something of my own childhood at around his age. I was living in Auckland and had just sold a shop on Grafton Road which I had owned for ten years (Batik Bazaar) and was at a loose end and needed something to do.
I also wanted to move into the present by setting down everything I knew personally about the past. The past is of value especially when it leads us into the future.
EB: How long did it take you to write Spider Boys?
MC: It took me four years to write Spider Boys. Writer’s block was always a problem and my English was not really up to the task. The writing went very, very slowly. A page often seemed to take an eternity.
EB: Which of the characters do you most closely identify yourself with? Why?
MC: I identify with most of them in a literary sense. I should stress that while it is not “my” story, many of them are based loosely on my friends—Kwang, Chinatown Yeow, Sachee. It is however a work of fiction—to protect the reputations of the innocent! Although it sounds autobiographical, it is not an autobiography. My own life has been different and often darker than the events within the book. I am however proud of all my characters in their struggle for survival and in their truth to themselves. They are colourful and essentially honest. There is a lot about life in Singapore that I do not wish to talk about.
EB: We understand that you grew up in Bukit Ho Swee, represented in the book as Ho Swee Hill. How did life change after the big fire in 1961?
MC: I was away from Bukit Ho Swee, living on construction sites wherever there was work—Jurong, Bedok. The whole face of Singapore was changing rapidly and we lived in workers’ camps wherever the big jobs were.
EB: Why did you leave Singapore? Do you think you’ll return any time in the future?
MC: I went to work in Sabah and then worked in Vietnam as a construction supervisor. I became a seaman and for seven years sailed all over the world with many of the big lines at that time—Hogg Line, under the Norwegian flag, Neptune Orient Lines (Singapore), KDM Shipping.
However, my six brothers and sisters all remain in Singapore. If I return, it will be only as a visitor, since I relinquished my citizenship for citizenship in New Zealand.
Original 1995 Penguin and William Morrow editions of Spider Boys
EB: Spider Boys had been out of print for several years now. Do you have any particular thoughts on this new edition?
MC: I am delighted by this new Singaporean and Malaysian edition for many reasons. The first is that I am working on a sequel to Spider Boys, which follows the characters after the first novel ends. It is called Big Mole and any interest which comes as a result of the new edition may translate into interest in the sequel.
The second reason is that the book has never been published before in Singapore. It has been successful in the US, in Australia and New Zealand, and in Italy. It is the subject of many university courses on Asian writing in English but, really, has been looking for its true home for almost twenty 2 years.
The third reason is that it was written away from Singapore, and from memories of a distant past, so naturally there were some inaccuracies. The excellent team at Epigram Books, and in particular my editor there, Jocelyn Lau, have ensured through diligent historical investigation and enquiry that location and street names are all accurate for the time it was written, which means, in turn, that it will read more authentically for a contemporary Singaporean. These things do not matter in an “overseas” publication, but are vital in your homeland. Funnily enough, the Italian edition, I Ragazzi di Singapore, was very popular with readers there because in translation into the Italian tongue, the street slang of the spider boys rang true immediately for local readers!
Find out more about Ming Cher’s Spider Boys and read sample pages from the novel here.