Category Archives: Asia

Discussion: Beijing Comrades (Lan Yu) by Bei Tong

This was the night when minority races were racists, starting with Raj saying “All Chinese homes have prawn crackers what!” With the Chinese theme, we had beer cocktail, dumplings, mooncakes, and eclairs.

Attendance included Veronika, Pierre, Calvin, Chams, Raj, Timmy, Asyraf, and Aaron.

We asked questions about the authorship as Asyraf noted that it felt like a female writing fan fic, not unlike the Japanese boys love manga genre, written by women, for women. Chams wondered if the book would be more organic in its Chinese format.

Themes:

1. Death: Most of us expressed our disappointment at diabolus ex machina of the sudden death of Lan Yu when they are about to live happily ever after. Pierre noted the trope of the time. Chams claimed that the sad ending makes the story more poignant. Raj playfully suggested that perhaps that author is saying that the person who screws around is better for survival (in Raj’s words, “Cheebyes always live”), although Pierre rightly noted that we were assuming that staying alive is a good thing.

Aaron brought up the history of sad endings. EM Forster wanted a happy ending for Maurice, but the only way he could envision them together was to remove them for society, staying in isolation in the woods. Like Forster, Bei Tong just couldn’t envision a happy ending in the 80s. Veronika pointed that that this is especially true in the age of HIV/AIDS in the 80s. Han Dong associates sexual diseases with angmohs, Raj noted.

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2. Communism, Money, and Love: There are several communist references in the book: Asyraf noticed that Han Dong means “defend Mao Ze Dong”  and Chams said Han Dong is conformist, when compared to Lan Yu.

Aaron noted that in the postscript, Bei Tong wrote that she was surprised to come across such strong love existing in a capitalist society like USA. In short, Beijing Comrades argues that money is bad for true love, that is, a true form of communism is actually good for love.

Timmy said, “Chey. So typical of Chinese. You Chinese love money, you can talk about money the entire day. Lan Yu is the true Malay, giving up money for love.”

Raj chimed in, “Yeah la, Chinese people are very good at saving money.”

Asyraf shrewdly noted the irony: Han Dong embodies a good communist, and he hates anything Western (from angmohs to their food), and yet he is so good at earning money, and he uses money to buy boys.

3. Communism and sexuality: Calvin informed us the tension between Confucianism and communism. Communism wished to get rid of old “gods” and so Confucianism wasn’t popular. And Beijing Comradeexemplifies this tension. While communism means that people are equally valued for their production value, that is to say that being gay is ok since sexuality is not important in work, China is essentially a Confucian society in terms of being filial and producing heirs.

It is such a society that we see a shocking scene. Han Dong’s mother cries, and Han Dong says his love for Lan Yu is not as important as his mother’s wellbeing. Chams saw it as Han Dong taking the path of least resistance, as he is a conformist. Veronika put herself in Han Dong’s shoes and agrees with Han Dong’s thinking.

4. Gender: Seen in the communist/capitalist light, Raj notes that most people are commodities. Boys are bought for sex; women have sex with rich men who are potential husbands; and in a sense, women are seeing rich men as commodities.

We also talked about Han Dong leaving the curvy woman for the slim Lin Ping. Timmy scoffed, “Chey, so typical of Chinese.” Raj added, “Yeah la, Chinese fuck Malays and Indians, but marry Chinese in the end.” HAHAHA. How come so much Chinese bashing one?

In any case, there is much complexity about gender in the book. But since only two of us read the book fully, we didn’t delve deeply.

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5. Sexuality: In the essay attached to the end of the novel, Petrus Liu argues that because Han Dong doesn’t believe in labels, “Han Dong stands as an example of a failed gay identity” (379). But Asyraf, Calvin, and Veronika called on Liu’s narrowmindedness: Han Dong by sleeping with everyone is bisexual or polyamorous; just because he’s not absolutely gay does not mean it’s a “failed” identity. Aaron also said that Liu uses a Eurocentric point of view on Han Dong. Han Dong needs to overcome societal and familial pressures, which he does in the end, and admits he is gay eventually, even if he lacks courage to live the life. Isn’t an acknowledgement of his gay self an affirmative identity even if it doesn’t adhere to the Western notions of screaming to be out-and-proud? 

Petrus Liu also claims that since Lan Yu stumbles upon being gay–as Asyraf puts it succinctly that Lan Yu doesn’t choose to be gay–Lan Yu has a “non-identity” (379). But we disagreed with Liu. Obviously Lan Yu has a choice. He rejects a violent advance, and psychoanalysis, as Pierre noted. We also observed that Lan Yu goes out to find gay friends; you’re gay when you choose to make friends in the gay community. That is an identity.

6. Sex: Besides sleeping with men and women, Han Dong sleeps with “Annie” (drag queen) and HJ (guitarist who wears makeup). Why does Han Dong sleep with men he is not attracted to, Aaron asked. Both Raj and Pierre said that because Han Dong doesn’t know how to deal with relationships, he is experimenting.

Are there too many explicit sex scenes? Raj said, “Yeah, what’s up with emphasizing Han Dong’s big cock?”

Timmy responded, “Yeah lah, it’s so un-Chinese.” When asked to clarify if big cocks are un-Chinese, or if writing about big cocks is un-Chinese, Timmy declined to answer.

Aaron admired the sex scenes because they defy the hush-hush taboo secrecy of Chinese society.

Conclusion

As we always want to end with a positive note, nobody had anything good to say, although everyone who didn’t read the book were persuaded to read the book. Chams said in the tiring world we live in, it’s good to read a trashy book to relax. Calvin liked the purity and steadfastness of Lan Yu. Although Pierre said the book is dated, Aaron felt that it has captured a cultural zeitgeist at a particular point in history; he could identify with the struggles of Han Dong (“The struggle is real!); and the complexity of gay relationship between Han Dong and Lan Yu is universal and still relevant to reflect on our own modern gay relationships. Love is timeless.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bei Tong, Bisexuality, China, Class, Family, Gay, Love

72nd Discussion: Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask

Moderator: Raj
Attendees: Alexius, Dominic, Ivan, Timmy

The biggest complain we had about the book was the way it was written: Dominic felt it was unlike the “Japanese style of writing”, comparing Mishima to Murakami. Raj thought the book was draggy, describing “mundane things in mundane ways.” Alexius did not like the ending and was left disappointed by the book. Timmy found it uninteresting as a whole.

For this discussion, we forewent our usual style and went through the book chapter by chapter.

Chapter One – which we deemed “Resurrection” because of an experience the narrator went through when he was four.

Believability
We started doubting the narrator’s credibility from the start of the book. Timmy thought it was all “fluff and bluff,” while Dominic opined that the book seemed like a semi-autobiography of the writer… a romanticized version of himself as the narrator.

Childhood
Timmy was amazed by how well-read the narrator was, even questioning his accessibility to such literature at that age. Raj added on his penchant for changing the (fairy) tales that he read, which added (and accentuated) his morbid nature from that age onwards.

Donning the mask      
According to Timmy, the turning point was when he started playing dress-up as Tenkatsu. This went on as he started being masculine in front of his cousins.

Obsession with death
“Maybe he finds life hopeless?” Alexius joked.

Joan of Arc
Raj noted the narrator’s disgust of Joan after finding out that the martyr was a she, declaring that incident as the “first disappointment of his life.” (Joan of Arc was Raj’s favourite of the book)

Chapter Two – “Boys with Toys,” because:

“The Toy”
The matter of the narrator referring his penis as “the toy” was brought up. Timmy quipped that the narrator thought his penis had a mind of its own; Raj observed that he was very detached to his member despite being an adolescent in this chapter. Alexius offered that perhaps he was ashamed of his homosexuality.

From St. Joan to St. Sebastian
Raj made mention of the narrator moving on from one historical figure to another, noting his preference for “virile, lean (guys) with muscles and wearing very little,” adding that St. Sebastian may have been the narrator’s role model at that point of time. According to Timmy, this may also be a continuation of the narrator’s sexual awakening. (St. Sebastian was Dominic’s pick as favourite.)

Omi
Was he gay? Raj and Timmy said no, while Alexius said yes. (Both Alexius and Timmy picked Omi as their favourites.)

Delusions of grandeur, S&M, and armpits were also discussed during this chapter. Overall, we felt that this chapter did not make a lot of sense – just like an adolescent’s mind, according to Timmy – and contained “too much fantasizing,” according to Raj.

Chapter Three – for which we termed “Regressed Suppression” as the narrator did not face any pressures from external forces, only internal conflicts.

Raj found this chapter “bizarre,” which probably had to do with the myriad sub-topics we touched on but barely managed to delve deeper into:

  • The narrator acting more of a teenager, which included mimicking his peers (Raj noted his obsession with kissing, which he found interesting) in his attempt to appear straight;
  • His body, which he seemed to be embarrassed about;
  • War and the military (according to Raj, women were front and centre in this chapter because “the men went to fight”);
  • Voyeurism;
  • Dying young.

Chapter Four – “The Beginning of the End”

A continuation from the previous chapter, where the narrator was labelled “the last virgin alive” by Raj and his desperation to have sex (“everybody’s doing [and done] it, so I should too.” – Timmy) despite ending up not doing it. We didn’t get the chance to discuss more about Sonoko and their relationship.

“So when did the mask come off?” asked Raj.
“It didn’t,” Timmy replied.

And that concluded our discussion, followed by an apology from Alexius who regretted recommending the book as well as did not find it as appealing upon second reading.

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Filed under Classics, Coming of Age, Disability, Family, Gay, Japan, Time, War, Yukio Mishima

69th Discussion: Lydia Kwa’s Pulse

Moderator: Brian
Attendees: Alexius, Kenneth, Raj, Timmy

The idea of bondage in a predominantly Singaporean setting intrigued us to read the book, though not enough to sustain our interest in it – all of us disliked it, with Kenneth finding the novel “myopic” and not relatable, and Brian claiming “struggling” to finish the book, “paragraph by paragraph”.

THEMES
The usage of kabuki was questioned – why the Japanese term instead of bondage? Kenneth explained the difference between Japanese bondage (not a sexual fetish, more instinctive, cultured and all about aesthetics) and Western bondage. He further added that the ideology was only touched on a superficial level. Brian had hoped that there were more bondage scenes.

With reference to the above and sex, Raj opined that Natalie only did bondage and controlled sex because she has difficulty letting go and being free. Overall, we are in the belief that the book painted Singapore and Singaporeans as a repressive society.

Raj found the portrayal of mother figures in the novel stereotypical and delusional – far worse than the portrayal of gay men. Kenneth thought how the grandmother was written was a representation of her generation, while Alexius saw her as offering Natalie nothing much apart from “gambling her life away”. There also seemed to be a generational divide, with the old folks seeming guarded and the younger generation adopting a devil-may-care attitude.

Kenneth interpreted the use of fortune telling as an “informed way of looking at life”, though Alexius found it stereotypical in relation to race, preferring that tarot cards be used instead.

On the issues of race and racism, Raj described the book as “rojak gone wrong”, noted that Indian people were only featured in the book as an afterthought. Brian highlighted the anti-white sentiments. Alexius observed that the Peranakans were aggressive and quipped that “if Adam was an ang moh, he should have gone with a Malay boyfriend.”

There was also semi-political tones adopted throughout the book which, according to Alexius, alluded to the government’s relations with the Malay community. Brian, however, begged to differ, stating that the book tries to avoid being political.

CHARACTERS

None of us liked any of the characters, with Alexius deeming all of them as fakers.

Brian outright hated Natalie, while Raj found her to be full of herself.

Alexius felt that Selim sacrificing himself to be a stretch though Kenneth empathised with the character.

There were still a couple of things that we liked about the book: the romantic innocence and first loves (Raj) and an oddly “feel good book” as “other people have duller lives in comparison (Alexius). Brian liked a particularly paragraph in Chapter 5 which he thought went against the rest of the book. Raj was touched by the ending.

By the end of the discussion, we still stood firm in disliking the book. Brian deemed the book empty, while Raj thought it tried to cram in too many ideas and didn’t challenge anything. “Like a city bus,” he purred.

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Filed under Canada, Family, Lydia Kwa, Queer, S/M, Singapore

62nd Discussion: Ellis Avery’s The Teahouse Fire (or Q&A with Raj)

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Poor Raj! He set such a beautiful table, and no one came for the book club. Aaron had emailed Raj a list of questions beforehand to moderate the discussion, but since no one came, Raj decided to answer them.

 

Questions for Teahouse Fire:

  1. On p. 284, there is a Japanese phrase “ichigo ichie” for the tea world. It means “one moment, one meeting,” or in the deepest sense, it means there are no mistakes in life. What does this phrase mean about life in general? Does the novel embody this phrase? Which character, do you think, apply this philosophy?

avery - The_teahouse_fireIchi-go ichi-e is linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience, particularly depicted during the tea ceremony conducted in the style of famed tea master Sen no Rikyu where unique scrolls, tea bowls and flowers are set up in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique. This is also true that there is has been no repetition of the set up for the varios tea ceremonies in the book. In each of the tea ceremony, the host and guest had one unique experience that lead to friendship or disaster

In a deeper sense, it is about Aurelia meeting Yukako in the teahouse that night of the fire – it is that one moment, one meeting that changed the courses of their lives. Towards the end, in the same tearoom, Aurelia kissed Yukako and again changed the course of their lives.

  1. What are the similarities and differences between Western and Japanese cultures in the book?

Similarities:

Mary vs Goddess of Mercy.

The status of fallen women is the same – Aurelia’s mom and Kenji’s girlfriend Aki – outcast.

Differences:

Bath rituals

Role of wife

Social order – Samurai, Traders and the untouchable working class

  1. Is Urako/Aurelia responsible for her uncle’s death? (Also note the molestation scene before the fire.)

She prayed for her life to change and she rather not have the uncle with her – shown by her praying to change her life before the goddess and also her uncle only showed up in nightmares later in her life as Urako. Also, she never bothered to find if her uncle survived the fire at all.

  1. Why does Urako/Aurelia have made up last names?

I believe that she doesn’t know her father’s name and that name “Bernard” was given by her uncle. Hints that her mom could have been raped by a priest was suggested by both Aurelia and her mom when she said, “Aurelia Bernard. Who is this Bernard, tell me? The Church hates truth, and the nuns hate it most of all.”

  1. Why does Urako have sex with Nao?

She wanted someone who desire Yukako to desire her as well. Also she believes Yukako desires Nao instead of her and she wants to punish her.

  1. Objects in the book often have significant meanings: the lightning cup, Yukako making a spoon out of Baishian’s wood for Urako, and Urako’s Catholic medal. What gives these things meaning? And what is the significance of these things? On a side note, does Yukako’s marketing on tea ware cheapen or ennoble the art?

Symbolism and subtle messages are very much a cultured Japanese behaviour – the book is full of hidden messages just like Urako’s closeted sexuality – classic example of her dress handing in the alcove.

Yukako’s marketing of the tea sets made them more of a commercial item rather than “ichigo ichie”- “one moment, one meeting”.

  1. Why does Yukako set Baishian on fire? What is the significance of fire and water in the book?

Yukako’s way of atoning for her mistake – she will never be able to host another tea ceremony in Baishian again – again on the theme of Ichigo Ichie.

You need fire and water to make tea – its sweet irony. Also Aurelia had a fire after a long journey over sea into Japan and after another fire she sails away from Japan.

  1. Yukaka appears to be half sister to Koito. Does it give her a right to teach Koito, a geisha, chado?

Yukako did it for other reasons rather than the fact that she is a half sister. Yukako , according to the book, has been key reason for women to learn tea. She also introduced this to the Geisha world through Koito. But whether she has a right – it all depends on who’s perspective you want to look from.

  1. During one teaching lesson with Koito, Yukako honors Urako’s Western dress. Why?

Yukako’s acceptance of the western influence into their lives. Also Urako is her first student.
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  1. Why does Aurelia’s mother insist on calling her blond when she has black hair?

Maybe her real father had blond hair??

  1. Comment on the throwaway reference to Singapore as a name for a ship. Is it exoticizing Singapore?

Author wants to show the historic importance of Singapore as a port as well of the fact that Japan owned Singapore at one time.

  1. Incest: Comment on the rampant incest that occurs in the novel: Aurelia with her uncle, Yukako with her half brother, Nao; Kenji (Yukako’s son) with Akio (Nao’s daughter).

Its common in those days – people don’t get out of their circle and houses too much

  1. Why does Akio dress Koito in Yukako’s kimino?

Fantasy – Fetish – every man wants a virtuous wife who is a whore in bed!

  1. Discuss the male-female relationships in the book. Are there any positive ones? (Also look at mother-son relationships).

Yukako – Tai – positive

Tai – Tsuko – positive

  1. Discuss the male-male relationship in the book, especially the triangle between Nao, Hiro, and Akio.

There is a lot of brotherly love and jealousy by Nao to Hiro and Akio. Hierarchy in the teahouse is one the reason for this and class status.

  1. Nao’s class struggle.

Didn’t help when he married an untouchable gal !!

  1. Love: Does Urako love Yukako or Inko?

Different sort of love – Yukako is a sort of motherly-sisterly love – whereas Inko was more of her equal. Inko loves Urako more that Urako loves her while Urako love Yukako more than Yukako love her.

  1. Discuss the female characters (Pipe Lady, Yukako, Urako, Chio, Aki, Koito, Inko)

Really? Why??? There is too many female characters in this book!!!!

  1. Discuss the male characters. Are there any strong and positive male characters? Is this another male-bashing lesbian novel? (Mountain, Akio, Jiro, Kenji, Tai.)

There was no real great male characters , but at the same time there is no real male bashing. There are more mean gals depicted in this book than lame men. This book centres on women rather than men.

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Colonialism, Ellis Avery, Family, Food, France, Historical, Japan, Lesbian, Love, Race, Religion, USA, War

61st Discussion: Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang

Moderator: Aaron
Attendees: Dominic, Faizal, Hisham, Javin, Jiaqi, Timmy

mchugh, maureen - chinamountainzhangThis is one of the rare times that we decided to do a (gay) science fiction book. Everyone had something to pick on with the book – from its setting (Javin found it “unnecessary” and depressing, Dominic thought it was a dauntingly boring disturbia, Jiaqi didn’t think there was enough “sci-fi” and advanced technology to classify it as futuristic) to the writing style (Raj didn’t find it appealing, Timmy thought it was too static and sterile) and even to how prehistoric some concepts were (Aaron scoffed at the idea of cruising despite being set in the future).

THEMES
1. Structure: Jiaqi liked the diversity in showcasing the varied characters, which Javin disagreed with as he could not invest in them as much. Raj hated having to connect all the dots, which Aaron added made the book all the more messy and chaotic. Hisham felt that it could have been done better.

2. Homosexuality: Everyone agreed that homosexuals were stereotypically portrayed here, from the rich ang mohs to the Chinese gays with the inability to say no to everything. The happy ending that Zhang received drew ire from Aaron and Javin, who felt like it was forced, though Raj and Jiaqi thought otherwise, even if it was clichéd.

3. Women: Portrayed negatively except for the Korean woman (Jiaqi), and the doctor, who came across as domineering (Hisham).

4. Racism: Raj quipped that despite being set in the future, the only thing that was progressive was the food. Aaron pointed out that the Chinese characters suffered terrible fates, eliciting a rather long racism rant.

5. Relationships: The gay relationships featured came across as passive (Dominic) and devoid of love (Javin), to which Jiaqi vehemently opposed, commenting that it was filled with affection. Timmy noted that the heterosexual relationships showed the most growth throughout the book.

Dysfunctional, queer (Aaron) and atypical (Raj) were used to describe the familial relationships, though Jiaqi thought the families featured were portrayed normally.

CHARACTERS

1. Jiaqi didn’t think Angel was a fully developed character, and whose only sole purpose in the book was to be the information superhighway to Cinnabar, according to Dominic. Aaron saw her as a fag hag, to which Javin quipped that her being a fag hag gave her the opportunity to win races.

2. Everyone agreed that Peter was the most well-adjusted out of all: partly because he came off as relaxed and was able to come to terms with himself (Javin), and mainly because he was ang moh and didn’t worry about others’ opinions (Raj). Jiaqi deduced that Peter had it easier than Zhang. Peter is Javin’s favourite character.

3. Aaron thought that as a character, Cinnibar was not properly fleshed out.

4. Raj viewed Matador as another typical young gay boy who didn’t give a hoot about the world, to which Aaron concluded that he was another whiny bottom who just wanted to be taken care of.

5. Based on our observations, Hai Bao was set up as Zhang’s (life?) mentor. His suicide served as a milestone in Zhang’s life, causing him to “wake up” from his “catatonic” state.

6. We looked at Martine as a repressed being who had difficulty expressing her emotions. Timmy envisioned her to be like the ultimate on-screen ice queen, Tilda Swinton.

7. Aaron selected Zhang as his favourite character; citing his determination that gave everyone hope. Jiaqi liked that he was funny, relatable and sympathetic.

The question as to whether he was a depressed individual elicited two responses – Jiaqi, Dominic and Timmy didn’t think that he was ever in that state in the first place, while Raj and Aaron believed that he was.

We also questioned his decision/motive of revealing his sexual orientation to San Xiang at the end, and wrote it off as him finally accepting and being comfortable with himself.

In rounding up the discussion, everyone generally had nice things to say about the book – that it was interesting (Dominic), an “MRT-friendly” read (Raj), likeable and memorable characters (Jiaqi) and being enjoyable overall (Timmy). Aaron appreciated the literary values the book brought across, and being one of the only few books that saw the gay man eventually getting his happy ending (pun not intended). Hisham profoundly expressed that the book made our #firstworldproblems seem minute in comparison. Javin succinctly summed it up best: “It’s a gay book.”

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Filed under China, Class, Colonialism, Ecology, Family, Gay, Love, Maureen F. McHugh, Politics, Post-Colonialism, Race, S/F, Space, Technology, USA, War

47th Discussion: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt

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Raj, as our chef de cuisine whenever we hosted the discussions over at Tanjong Pagar, served up food inspired by the book – crepes with duck & fig and ham & cheese fillings, and duck and chicken & prawns spring rolls. Merci, Raj, comme toujours.

Aaron moderated the discussion; Amit and Luke were there to show their support.

What did we like about the book? Food and France, according to Raj, were the two factors that he approved of. Miss Toklas was also a contributing factor, whom Raj said reminded him of his lesbian friends. Overall, he thought the book felt “real” and was a nice read. Har enjoyed the way that the book was written; he appreciated its specificity and how accessible the text was. Aaron agreed, saying that the writing was beautiful and cited the first chapter as “amazing”. Timmy commended Truong for the thorough research she conducted for her first book.

Monique Truong's The Book of Salt

We questioned the meaning of the book’s title. Raj talked about the usage of salt in French cuisine, and briefly explained that for one to become the top chef in France, he has to master its cuisine. Timmy brought up the quote about salt existing in the kitchen, sweat, tears, and the sea, and viewed it as the ingredient that gives any dish its flavour. He alluded that life is not always sweet; there is always a little salt to give it more taste and flavour. Aaron opined that it is about ambition.

In Chapter 19, Miss Toklas instructed Binh not to use salt in his cooking. (“Salt is not essential here.”) What we have derived from that exchange was a showcase of who the superior in the house was (Raj); an indication of the characters, highlighting the charmed life Alice has been leading (Aaron); a no-salt diet requirement (Timmy).  “Because it may lead to high blood pressure,” Raj quipped with regards to Timmy’s observation.

We also talked about the significance of food in the book. Aaron thought the ways in which food was described was very sensuous, to which Raj explained that food was used as a form of seduction. “Trust me, I know it!” he boldly proclaimed. Har then brought up the plentiful mentions of rice within the book and what it meant. Raj quipped that it showcased how versatile Asians can be, i.e. being able to adapt to different kinds of situations as well as the varied tastes in men we have.

If food is the metaphor for sex, then what is love? Raj brought up the bit about quinces. (“To answer your question, Gertrude Stein, love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched.”) According to him, humans and quinces are not dissimilar – “People have to be given the right amount of heat, to be cooked and simmered (like quinces) before they attain the ability to love.”

Binh, the protagonist of the book, was brought up, which led to a discussion on his name, and why there were instances of characters not using their real names when introducing themselves. Raj vehemently said Binh was not his real name. “We don’t even know his real name!” Aaron said, before proclaiming that names are important in that it gives one his identity. Timmy thought that Binh giving false names during encounters with other people was his way of creating a new identity for himself. Aaron added that Timmy’s explanation was akin to an outsider looking in, before further questioning Truong’s intention of creating him as a gay character on top of being a second-class citizen in a foreign country.

The pronunciation of Binh’s name was also briefly touched on, with Har asking whether this was racist as none of the Caucasian characters could even pronounce his name correctly. Aaron and Raj both agreed that “Ang Mohs don’t care”, further perpetuating the notion that they really are racist.

An example of Binh’s name being “mangled” is when Sweet Sunday Man started calling him Bee. Timmy felt that that was used as a term of endearment, while Aaron equated it to Binh being a “honey bee”. Raj then explained how Caucasians tend to call others by the first initial of their names, i.e. A for Aaron, T for Timmy, and so forth. Very Gossip Girl.

Despite his affections, Sweet Sunday Man still made Binh steal The Book of Salt. Gertrude Stein wrote about Binh in the book, which caused Aaron to question whether anyone – even the great Gertrude Stein – could describe him perfectly. The part in which Sweet Sunday Man said that Stein captured Binh’s essence perfectly only caused Raj to exclaim that “Americans tend to agree with their countrymen.” We all agreed that Binh did not particularly reveal his true self throughout the book.

Varying opinions were shared when we talked about Sweet Sunday Man. Was he in love with Binh? Was he purely using him for sex? Was Sweet Sunday Man vindictive, since he used Binh to steal the book? Aaron asked whether he was a bad guy through and through. Raj said the only reason why Sweet Sunday Man was called as such was because it came from Binh’s point of view.

Is this book homophobic? Aaron finally tossed out (one of) his favourite question(s). Raj said the book made it look like homosexuals cannot find love. Aaron also added that the book depicted homosexuals as evil; Binh was a stereotypical gay man; lesbians were painted as selfish bitches.

Aaron read out loud the last passage of the book, and asked everyone what it meant. Timmy correctly guessed that it was about suicide. We briefly discussed about the “you” mentioned in that bit, which could have been referring to his mother, or his grandmother. It could even be about love or just holistically used as a metaphor.

Speaking of suicide, we moved on to why Binh kept hearing the Old Man’s voice in his head. The best quote used to describe the father: “He is a bloody cibai!” (© Raj 2013). Har viewed it as Binh’s criticism of himself, while Raj felt that it was his way of fulfilling his father’s expectations of him. Timmy thought he was delusional, and then brought up the scene of him burying his father alive.

Binh’s paternity was also questioned, with Timmy believing that The Old Man was not his biological father due to his mother’s affair with the schoolteacher. Aaron, however, didn’t think it was plausible and instead, suggested that Binh may have made the story up.

Aaron noted that religion played a big theme within the book, though Raj was unsure whether the author was against it.

When it came to favourite characters, Har picked Minh (up until Chapter 8, anyway) as he found the sous chef cool and was often dishing out advice to his younger brother. Both Timmy and Raj selected the mother, who, according to T, was “the Destiny’s Child of Vietnam in the 1920s”, while Raj likened her to The Little Nyonya, who was always busy in the kitchen, has got the guts to go to a different church from her husband’s, and was accepting of Binh. In terms of least favourite characters, Timmy disliked the (ex-) Madame’s secretary, calling her a slut and a bitch. Raj chose Sweet Sunday Man, saying that he was manipulative and had the nerve to break it off with Binh on a Post-It note. He then cited Carrie Bradshaw’s cardinal rule on breaking up with anyone using a Post-It note. Aaron found the grandmother to be selfish as she sold her daughter off to be matchmade before killing herself, just so that she could join her deceased husband in the afterlife.

We rounded up the session by asking one another what we don’t like about the book. Raj thought that it was full of stereotypes, though overall, he does not and could not hate the book. Har found the food references too tough to follow, and after the discussion, thought the ending was horrible. Timmy, who by then could not hold back his vitriol, said he found the book boring and monotonous, joking that he would rather watch paint dry or grass grow than read it. He didn’t think there was any satisfaction from reading the book, and could not appreciate Truong’s writing style. Aaron thought the same. “The writing is so beautiful, yet it’s a beautiful nothing,” he poetically said.

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Filed under Class, Classics, Colonialism, Family, Food, France, Historical, Love, Monique Truong, Queer, Race, Religion, Time, Vietnam

45th Discussion: Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain

Aaron was back in the moderator’s seat for this discussion. Huge thanks to Isaac once again for the venue. A warm welcome goes out to new attendee Andrew for joining us. Javin, Luke, and Timmy rounded up the discussion group. Raj was on a roll tonight! (Apparently he had sex the night before our discussion.)

We decided to switch things up for this discussion and started off asking what do each of us like about the book. Raj found it relatable as the story was set in Penang, which was similar to Singapore. He felt that the book “hits a personal chord”. Isaac felt the book was an easy read – which Javin agreed – and was at its strongest when it was retelling history. Aaron found the sex scenes super hot, and the portrayal of student-teacher relationships.

Gift_of_rain_cover_cmykAs to what we don’t like about the book, everyone agreed that the book was too descriptive: Raj thought some parts were too draggy, while Javin commented that reading it was a chore at times as it got too “lor sor”. Aaron said that perhaps Tan had written this book for the Western audience, hence the overwrought proses. He thought that the author didn’t trust the readers, thus having to elucidate every single description. Isaac felt that the book was only ordinary in terms of literary value.

The first thing we (obviously) discussed was the sex scene(s). There were five in total, and Raj was gracious enough to read them all out loud (he had them bookmarked). We deduced that:

  1. The first sex scene was akin to the loss of one’s virginity.
  2. The second one alluded to penetrative/anal sex.
  3. The third sex act depicted a handjob.
  4. The fourth sex scene was all about role reversals.
  5. The fifth sex scene was equivalent to angry sex.

We questioned the overabundance of homoeroticism featured in the book. Raj noted that the allusions could be equated to sexual tension/attraction.

There was also the distinct lack of women being descriptively written in Tan’s book. Apart from Auntie Mei and Isabel Hutton, the only two strong female characters, the other ladies in the book were generic and dismissively written. This was a big disparity compared to the males: most, if not all of the men, were handsome, rich, had rippling muscles, and knew some form of martial arts (kung fu) or self-defence (protagonist’s father was a boxing champion). Both Aaron and Raj highlighted how Tan even went so far as to describe what the male characters were wearing, down to the designs on the cuffs of their shirts.

The negative portrayal of the eunuch (Aaron) was briefly touched on. Raj joked that because “he doesn’t have a sword, so he cannot fight”. This book showcased that there was the fear of people who were different.

Another point that was brought up was the lack of other races. Despite the book being set in Malaysia, there were predominantly more Japanese, Caucasians, and the mixed heritage. Indians were only featured as “gurkhas, the lighthouse guard, Raju’s Mee Rebus, and the bomb traitor,” according to Raj. The Malays were unfortunately almost non-existent, with the only representation being the “lesser” Sultans.

The class system was also another topic that we discussed – the rich versus the slaves. Aaron observed that the rich people controlled the poor people. Uncle Lim, however, was cited as an exception in that despite working as the Hutton’s chauffeur, he was still rich. Aaron deduced this to the fact that he was paid by either the father or the grandfather, and thus represented the lower class. However, the revelation of him being a traitor was viewed as a negative representation.

With regards to love in reference to the context of the book, Aaron noted that “to be in love, (someone) must be twice in age.” This has nothing to do with paedophilia, but perhaps more closer to the May-December romance. Raj believed that Philip and Hayato Endo shared an unconditional love bond.

We also talked about pre-war Malayan and its pro-British stance. Raj countered that “during the British ruling back then, (the country) was (experiencing) glorious times.”

Aaron thought the book was poorly structured, as there were stories within stories. Timmy joked that it was Tan’s version of Inception, albeit in book form. Isaac said it was like a Chinese puzzle.

We didn’t get to discuss why death was so excessive throughout the book, despite Raj reiterating that almost everyone died in the end.

“Why was the book named The Gift of Rain?” Aaron asked. “There were a lot of rain scenes,” Raj quipped. Ultimately, the book was about survival (Raj). Isaac, however, had a more beautiful thing to say about the title: “Life is one of hardship, and rain is a respite from the hardness of life.”

In terms of characters, Raj liked Auntie Mei as he felt that she was “real and stuck to her principles.” Philip, however, earned Aaron’s disdain as he didn’t understand why he became a traitor, and felt that Philip was just stupid. A special mention goes out to Adele, Philip’s secretary, who didn’t die. We joked that she ended up fat (Javin) and became the best-selling artist that she is today (Timmy).

By the end of the discussion, the book did nothing to change everyone’s opinions. Raj stood by with his love/hate relationship towards the book, while Isaac said that what he didn’t like about the book far outweighed what he did like about it. He found the book an exotic, historical piece of fiction. Aaron glorified the book as another MediaCorp Channel 8 production like The Price of Peace. We could not comprehend why the book was even longlisted for the Man Booker Prize when it was not that particularly good.

Throughout the discussion, we also asked whether Tan Twan Eng was gay, and finally deduced that he is, based on his vivid depictions of the male characters in the book, the starring roles conferred to the Japanese, as well as the fact that he is now living in Africa, probably to get all the black men there.

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Filed under Class, Family, Historical, Malaysia, Queer, Race, Tan Twan Eng, War