When I first began the daunting task of re-editing the original edition of Spider Boys, published in 1995 by Penguin Books, New Zealand, I had to decide how to go about making the book more accessible to readers—both international as well as Singaporean and Malaysian. For me, not only was the use of tenses in the narrative and the dialogues inconsistent, but the depiction of the ‘street slang’ was not wholly accurate; I found it taxing to read beyond even the opening paragraphs.
The work involved ‘regularising’ the narrative so it conforms to standard English, and also retaining as much of the colloquial flavour in the dialogues as possible; this was so that readers from our part of the world would identify more closely with the language they use in informal banter, as they certainly would with the life in Singapore in the 1950s portrayed in Ming Cher’s novel.
As I turned the millstone, I was gratified to discover how handsomely the story would reward my efforts. Set in Chinatown and Bukit Ho Swee, two historically-rich neighbourhoods, Spider Boys is true to “[…] aspects of colonial Singapore in the mid-fifties: gangs and gang rivalry, fighting spiders, fighting fish, kite flying, adolescent angst, religious observances and superstitions amid working-class poverty”. (Robert Yeo, introduction, Spider Boys).
“As someone born in 1940, who also flew kites, kept fighting fish and spiders and took part in competitions […], knew gangsters in my district of Hougang and grew up hearing stories of old wives’ tales, I can testify to the authenticity of the novel.”
— Robert Yeo, introduction, Spider Boys
Gritty, it is unsentimental in its description of poverty: while the parents are out all day (or, in some cases of live-in servants, all month), the street children scrabble in mosquito-infested grasses for fighting spiders that would bring them extra pocket money through bartering or gambling, or in stench-filled monsoon drains for recyclable scraps for the karang guni men—while tourists took photographs of them. Grim, it tells how betrayal of one’s compatriots can result in untimely death—by knife, perhaps, plunged into the chest once in drunken sleep. Gripping, it is evident of first-hand experience in its richly textured account of Chinese festivals, such as the Hungry Ghosts Festival, and attendant superstitions—pontianak can be kept at bay with a six-inch coffin nail, for example, while one must be careful not to be suddenly shocked, because the soul can unknowingly jump out of its body.
But it’s not all gore. The teenage protagonists of the novel, Kwang and Kim, while grappling with the daily reality of making ends meet, also spend leisure moments chatting, playing with their fighting spiders and—exploring each other’s sexuality. When the heat from the ‘Spider Olympics’ intensifies, Kwang becomes increasingly obsessed about winning the Championship—equally for prestige as for the prize money, and his bored companion turns her attention to Kwang’s dangerous gangster rival, the smiling-faced Yeow, and finds herself on unfamiliar terrain.
“It reminds me of the old days, when your mum used to cut our hair by putting a rice bowl on our head! Very funny.”
— Priscilla Lee (my aunt!)
Hypnotic, arousing and shocking all at once, Spider Boys will especially endear itself to readers who grew up in Singapore between the late 1940s and early 1970s. To readers younger than this, the realness of the story, the palpable excitement in the plot and the historical value of the novel will appeal.
Find out more about Ming Cher’s Spider Boys and read sample pages from the novel here. And visit our blog again next Wednesday for an insightful interview with the author himself!