Singapore Shelf

6 reads for January

In this monthly feature, Arts Correspondent Olivia Ho lines up hot-off-the-press home-grown books that readers can dive into

Elaine Chiew, author of The Heartsick Diaspora, is a former lawyer who was born in Malaysia and is now based in Singapore.
Elaine Chiew, author of The Heartsick Diaspora, is a former lawyer who was born in Malaysia and is now based in Singapore. PHOTO: GISELA TORRES



By Elaine Chiew

Penguin Random House SEA/ Paperback/246 pages/ $24.50/ Available at

A teenager is plagued by hungry ghosts who follow him around his Housing Board flat, demanding blood and forcing him to buy them kim zua (joss paper offerings).

A "tiger mother" copes with the stress of her child's London prep school by rapping.

An American doctor finds out more than he would like about the dysfunctional sex lives of his Singaporean immigrant parents.

This debut collection looks at Singaporeans and Malaysians living in diaspora in short stories that are wickedly funny or melancholic.

The title story is about a writing group that is upended when a handsome young man joins their number.

The collection's other stories are attributed to these writers.

"Having the stories written by different members of a writing group in the eponymous story - when, of course, they were all written by me - showcases how a diasporic person's 'authorial voice' is perhaps polyvocal," says Chiew, 50, a British national and former lawyer who was born in Malaysia and is now based in Singapore.

"I wanted to explore the metaphysical, historical and social routes a diasporic person takes to reconnect with 'root culture' or to formulate a sense of integral identity. Where does one locate 'home' when one is 'unhomed'?"



By Sun Jung

Penguin Random House SEA/ Paperback/414 pages/$29.85/ Available at

Hong-jo leaves Seoul for Singapore when she receives an e-mail from her old friend Ji-won, only to discover on her arrival that Ji-won was found dead in Bukit Brown cemetery three days prior.

In documents she left behind, Ji-won claims to have travelled back in time to 19th-century British Malaya, growing entangled in the travails of migrant workers, the intrigue of Chinese secret societies and the life of Park Si-min, an exiled potter from Joseon-era Korea.



Chou Sing Chu Foundation and Popular Holdings/ Paperback/ 272 pages/$22/ Available at

Most people in Singapore know of the Popular bookstore chain, but few are familiar with the story of the man behind it.

This bilingual book chronicles the six-decade-plus career of Popular founder Chou Sing Chu, who arrived in Singapore in 1924 as a 19-year-old.

Fresh off the boat from Shanghai, he set up shop in Tanjong Pagar selling books and products such as Chinese New Year pictures and interior decorations.

In the 1930s, he founded World Book Company and Popular Book Company in quick succession and soon expanded them swiftly.

The late Mr Chou's story is set against the wider backdrop of Singapore's book industry, from the book bans of 1940, 1948 and 1956 and the golden age of the 1950s to the 1970s, when Chinese bookstores in Singapore numbered more than 230.

Mr Chou retired in 1958 and handed over the business to his sons, though he continued to keep tabs on the stores and even once caught a shoplifter in World Book Company's South Bridge Road bookstore during a visit.

He died in 1986.



By Suffian Hakim

Epigram Books/Paperback/ 260 pages/$20.22/ Available at

Suffian first made his name online in 2014 with this self-published Singapore parody of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (1997).

It returns in a new edition with updated jokes and illustrations by Muhammad Izdi.

Harris, an orphan living in a kitchen sink cabinet, discovers he is a wizard and enrols in Hog-Tak-Halal-What School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he learns to cast spells with satay sticks, eschews the sport Quidditch in favour of void deck football and faces the dark lord Oldermat, who killed Harris' parents by magically weaponising the folk song Chan Mali Chan.



Edited by Boey Kim Cheng, Arin Alycia Fong and Justin Chia Ethos Books/Paperback/684 pages/$30/

Available at

This tome gathers Asian diaspora poetry from around the world - written by emigres, refugees and descendants of migrants - and spans three decades and three generations.


Its contents page is a who's who of Asian poets writing in diaspora: Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Li-Young Lee, Romesh Gunesekera and the late Agha Shahid Ali of Kashmir, as well as rising names such as Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong and Singapore-born Australia-based Eileen Chong.



By Johnny Lau

Shogakukan Asia/Hardcover/ 68 pages/ $18.90/

Available at

Two popular toons have an unlikely encounter in this collaboration with TV network Nickelodeon to mark their character SpongeBob's 20th anniversary.

Mr Kiasu goes swimming at the beach - because it is free - and ends up with a funny ailment. Meanwhile, SpongeBob finds himself in an exciting part of Bikini Bottom he has never been to before.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2020, with the headline '6 reads for January'. Subscribe