After first making her name in the 1980s with hard-hitting plays that put feminism at the centre stage of Singapore’s theatre land, Ovidia Yu went on to win multiple awards and success as a novelist. Her Auntie Lee series—the third installment, Chilled Revenge, was published earlier this year—is marketed as ‘cozy crime’ and appeals to readers who like a taste of Singapore’s rich cultural heritage. But even Auntie Lee’s hospitality is flavoured with the kind of spice that prompted one commentator to label Ovidia Yu as “an unabashed chronicler of all things female.” Jo Furniss met Ovidia Yu in a Holland Village Kopitiam for SWAG.
You can listen to the interview above or read the following transcript.
OY: I’ve put Auntie Lee aside for a while because I’m writing a historical fiction. The new series has been bought by a different publisher so I can’t use the same characters. But they’re all in the same universe so they might go and eat in her café occasionally. And Auntie Lee will reappear again, I hope.
JF: It’s interesting that you frame the books as being in their own ‘universe’ because they are set in Singapore.
OY: They’re very much set in this Singapore, but as I discovered when I tried to do historical murder mysteries, the publisher was a bit worried about using real life characters.
Originally I had Inspector Onraet, who’s a real guy, one of Singapore’s early police inspectors who set up the first detective unit here, and what is fascinating about him is that he kept warning people during the inter-war period, before the Fall of Singapore, that there are too many Japanese businessmen here.
He spoke Malay and Hokkein so well that he posed as a rickshaw driver. And he had this hang-up about the Japanese. He said they’re not doing business: their hands are wrong. Their hands are too smooth. The ones who come in and really work have rough hands. And when you look back in time, you see that they were probably spies. At the time, everyone told him he was being ridiculous, paranoid, but he was proved right.
So I wanted to use him, but they said no because it’s too recent, there might be family members who mind. So instead I’ve made up a fictional character, named after Jane Austen’s boyfriend, the one who left and never came back, and now you know why he never came back because he had a family in Singapore. That’s a history-mystery that’s coming out in the UK.
JF: Going back to Auntie Lee, she is a Peranakan, which is a culture that’s unique to this part of the world, but her name is also Rosie Lee, which is cockney rhyming slang (for tea) and so very British. Your publishers are overseas and I see on Amazon that many of your readers are international. Do you enjoy introducing people to Singapore, giving them a peek into that culture?
OY: I don’t really have a choice because Singapore and Singaporean culture is all I know. But I think it took getting out of Singapore to look at it from the outside, and I only started consciously writing about it then. You think that everybody lives like you until you step outside of your house. Then I started putting in things that you don’t think of describing to other people, like not everyone drinks condensed milk in their coffee!
JF: The food must be crucial to you – Auntie Lee is a cook.
OY: She’s a cook now. She started as a Tai-Tai. I was researching recipes in the supermarket, Cold Storage, and I asked which vegetables do you put around the Lion’s Head, which is a Chinese New Year dish, and one woman recommended something and another passerby said, no my mother always made it this way. They were getting so excited. I realized that people feel passionately because if you say that this is the correct way it means that your family was wrong. I’d like to capture that feeling in the books if I can. Not just ‘this is how you cook this dish’, but ‘this is how I felt the first time I cooked this dish’, ‘this is how you feel when you cook a dish that was a favourite of someone who is now dead’.
JF: You originally trained in medicine. Does your training come in useful in your crime writing? I know Auntie Lee has once had a deadly buffet!
OY: They didn’t teach us much about killing people in medicine! I’m afraid it came more from reading than it came from practicing on corpses and so on. But it gave me a respect for life, you realize how easily things can go wrong. We are all trained to be safe. It’s not even the physical threats, it’s the mental threats: how far can somebody be pushed to stress, that’s what I’m most interested in exploring. If I had stayed in medicine, I’d like to have done psychology.
JF: That’s what’s so interesting about cozy crime. It’s not tame. In domestic situations there is so much conflict.
OY: It’s always safer to do international terrorism. But domestic affects everybody because everybody is in some kind of domestic situation – even if you are living alone in a room, it’s the situation you left to go there. So that’s relevant to everyone. It’s loneliness, it’s friendship. The most basic needs beyond air and water. I suppose money does come in, but most of it is power.
JF: You must have to understand psychology to write crime, I think.
OY: I don’t understand psychology at all! I write crime to figure it out. Most of the time you can’t go up to strangers and ask what would make them mad enough to kill somebody. But if you’re writing a book you can!
JF: It’s a license for the nosy.
OY: Yes! And I love it!
JF: You have a reputation for being outspoken…
OY: Do I?
JF: Yes! Especially around issues of politics and identity. Feminism. Going back 30 years in your plays, books and short fiction you’ve written about race and sexuality. I wonder if these issues are still pressing for you, if they’re still current?
OY: In theatre, you’re a lot more up front. If you look at the Auntie Lee books, they’ve got politics, sex and race in all of them. But it doesn’t have to be the forefront thing in your life. But it’s there, it’s always there and you can’t say it doesn’t exist because you don’t talk about it. I try to weave it into the characters, even if it isn’t what’s at the forefront of their minds at the time.
JF: You have some same-sex couples in Auntie Lee…
OY: We all learn by example, I think. If we see what could be, then it brings it one step closer to what is. But I think I’m not the best person to write it because I’m getting older. There are so many young writers and I don’t know what they are concerned about. But there is so much energy. It’s wonderful. Once upon a time I could read everything that was written here because most of the time it was written by friends. You would go every night to the theatre just to fill up the audience for their plays, but now you can’t even watch and read everything that’s coming out and it’s really fantastic.
JF: What do you think of this boom in Singapore literature, the high-profile awards?
OY: There’s a lot of energy and when there’s a lot of energy it’s good. I hope it doesn’t become too regimented, though. One thing that worries me is that people want to leave and I think you should always be moving towards something, not away. If you leave to get away, you don’t know what you’re moving towards.
JF: What are you moving towards?
OY: Historical fiction. My next novel is The Frangipani Tree Mystery, set in Colonial Singapore. It’s the first in the Colonial Crime Series. I’m so thrilled because it’s my first three-book deal.
JF: Is it frightening to have a three-book deal in place? There’s a lot of pressure with that.
OY: It was terrifying for a while. But you know, the physiological symptoms of anxiety and excitement are exactly the same, so when you feel anxious, just tell yourself you’re excited!
Auntie Lee’s Chilled Revenge was released in April 2016. All of Ovidia Yu’s novels are available on her Amazon author page.