Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu
Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu (William Morrow, 2013) proudly proclaims itself A Singapore Mystery and, unlike the Inspector Chen series by Liz Williams which is set in a fictional Singapore 3, this is the real deal — a double murder set in the contemporary “garden city”. Not that this is in any way relevant to the assessment of the book but I suspect, if asked, the Singapore Tourism Board will be secretly delighted by this book since it sells the city as a destination for foodies to enjoy. The titular Aunty Lee runs a Peranakan eating place of considerable virtue, offering traditional Nonya recipes with a modern twist. The point of reading a mystery set in a “foreign” country is that it allows us to enjoy solving the puzzle while learning something of the people who live in this “place”. For those of you not certain where it is, there’s a tiny sliver of land at the end of the Malay peninsula. It’s a “red dot” which faces Indonesia. In 2012, it had 14.5 million international visitors — not bad for an island which has a total population of slightly more than 5 million. This is not to say it depends on tourism to earn its living. The number of visitors is just one more string to the economic bow which primarily grows through international trade and its substantial financial muscle. Why is this even remotely relevant? Because to understand the book, you have to understand something of the country.
Singapore is a melting pot of different races and cultures. In some respects, it’s immensely conservative, e.g. this October, in a case brought by Tan Eng Hong, the Singapore court upheld section 377A Singapore Penal Code which criminalises male homosexuality, but as a financial and industrial centre, it’s one of the most innovative and competitive business centres in the world. This is an essential paradox as the small nation struggles with its transition to first world status in having AAA ratings from all the major credit agencies, but lacking some of the attributes that characterise the Western democracies. This is to some extent reflected on the ground where the international visitors see the film set of a modern vibrant city while, behind the scenes in the heartlands, the local people live their lives. Hence this book represents an honest view of what life is like for the locals. It’s perhaps appropriate to dispel any prejudices that may be lurking. Some readers in the west resist reading books in translation. Have no fear. English is one of the four national languages of Singapore and Ovidia Yu uses a form of English that’s perfectly angmohised with, unless I blur, only one or two local Singlish usages like kiasu, kaypoh and goondu, i.e, out to win, usually an older person who’s somewhat nosy, and a relatively polite way of referring to someone as an idiot. Readers in the West will find this novel not only accessible but also a rather delightful exploration of the potential of English to sound faintly exotic.
So what’s it about? Well, Aunty Lee finds herself somewhat vexed because people who have eaten her food have ended up food for the fishes. In her lexicon, people who eat her food become family so any attack on them is an attack on her. There’s just one problem. As a stereotypical little old lady, she can hardly emulate Charles Bronson in a Death Wish sweep across the island, exterminating all villains as she comes across them. But she knows the right people in the local police force and can manipulate the people around her into accommodating her wishes. This enables her to become indispensable to the investigation and, in the style of all amateur sleuths, to steer the police in the right direction. The result is a delight, even boasting a Golden Age confrontation between our hero and the villain at the end. On the way, you will learn a few recipes, come to understand a little of the centrality of food in the local culture, appreciate the sometimes difficult position of foreign maids in Singaporean households, and get a fresh perspective on Singapore’s gay laws. The end result is essentially Singaporean but wonderfully universal. Crime is crime no matter where it’s committed. What we see here is marriages that accommodate the stresses and strains of different personalities, loyalty within the family, prejudices that poison relationships, fear that drives people to actions they sometimes regret after the event, and love that sometimes transforms lives for the better. Aunty Lee’s Delights really is a delight to savour at every level.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.