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.
Spider Boys, by Ming Cher, was launched earlier this year as part of our Singapore Classics series. First published by Penguin New Zealand in 1995, Spider Boys has been re-edited to not only retain the flavour of colloquial Singapore English in the dialogues, but also to improve the accessibility of the novel for all readers by rendering the narrative into grammatical Standard English. Our intrepid editor Jocelyn Lau offers some insight into the painstaking yet rewarding editorial process she undertook:
“It’s like reliving my boyhood again.”
— Tan Kok Seng, author of Three Sisters of Sze, Son of Singapore and Man of Malaysia
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!