Peranakan page-turners

Playwright and novelist Ovidia Yu's new detective novel, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, is being published in Britain in June.
Playwright and novelist Ovidia Yu's new detective novel, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, is being published in Britain in June.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Readers on the other side of the world have tried their hand at Peranakan recipes such as achar and candlenut curry, or even mooncakes - thanks to cravings awakened by Singaporean author Ovidia Yu.

The 55-year-old's Aunty Lee mystery books, about a Peranakan cook turned sleuth, have been published by HarperCollins' imprint William Morrow in the United States since 2013.

Yu, a veteran playwright and, more recently, a mystery novelist, says she is just glad the recipes worked. "I didn't reverse-engineer them. It's a huge relief they could travel."

This year, she is moving away from the high comedy of the Aunty Lee books towards something more serious with detective novel The Frangipani Tree Mystery.

I found it strange to have to explain (the Chinese goddess) Nu Wa and pontianaks to a Singapore audience. Meanwhile, my British editor would say, 'They'll find out if they're really interested'.

SINGAPOREAN AUTHOR OVIDIA YU on not needing to explain local references in her work published overseas

The first in a three-book series which was picked up by British publisher Little, Brown's imprint Constable, it will be out in June.

Set in Singapore in 1936, it features young Peranakan detective Su Lin, an aspiring journalist with a missionschool education.

Trying to escape an arranged marriage, she becomes a governess to the Acting Governor's daughter after the mysterious death of the previous nanny. But when another murder occurs, she decides to help Britain-born Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy solve the crimes.

While Singapore's jubilee in 2015 gave rise to much nostalgia for the pre-war years, Yu says: "It was not a nice, nostalgic, cosy time."

Her research turned up "a lot of horrible, horrible stuff - coolies who would smoke opium to survive the pain from having their feet rubbed raw".

She is now working on the next two books in the series - tentatively titled The Betel Nut Mystery and The Tapioca Root Mystery - and on the fourth Aunty Lee mystery, Meddling And Murder, which will be brought out as an e-book in Britain by HarperCollins digital imprint Killer Reads later this year.

While Singapore publishers have fussed about including explanations of local references in her work, Yu was surprised that her American and British editors simply accepted these as part of Singapore culture.

"I found it strange to have to explain (the Chinese goddess) Nu Wa and pontianaks to a Singapore audience, but not Greek mythology or Christian references," she says. "Meanwhile, my British editor would say, 'They'll find out if they're really interested'.

"We should just write what we're comfortable with. If they don't understand, they will tell us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Peranakan page-turners'. Print Edition | Subscribe