Olivia Ho hails from Singapore, and writes to us from Scotland (ah, we fine expatriates) a story that rather fits the theme that informs many other stories in this anthology: COMPLETE LADY-FEST. Cranky ladies, angry ladies, confused ladies, curious ladies, smart, smart-mouthed, ladies ladies ladies. Also, an anecdote of explaining steampunk to her father.
Give a one or two sentence summary of your story.
When a Chinese woman disappears in a Malay neighbourhood in turn-of-the-century Singapore, one-eyed mercenary Ning Lam is hired to track her down. But her quarry is not all she seems, and nor is the widowed mechanic sheltering her.
Why did you choose this particular theme?
My parents had a lot to do with this, as they do with many of the choices I make. My mother taught me to love the heritage of Singapore, including the neighbourhood of Kampong Glam, which in a sense is where Malay culture in Singapore first takes root. From the start I knew I wanted to set a large part of the story in Kampong Glam, and a lot of the story locations are mapped onto real-world reference points there (for instance, Khairunnisa's toy shop in the story is where a children's toy museum stands on the real Bussorah Street today). It is a very old, very wonderful part of Singapore that never ceases to be fascinating.
I tried to explain the concept of steampunk to my father, whose response was "YOU MEAN LIKE KILLER ROBOT SAMSUI WOMEN?" And I was going to correct him, but then I thought - you know, why not? Why not killer robot samsui women? Historical samsui women were already pretty superhuman to begin with, when you consider what they went through to get Singapore built. So what would happen if you took that and added 'killer robot' into the equation? Everything snowballed from there.
Did you do a lot of research for this story? If you did, found anything interesting?
I didn't do as much research as I would have liked - I was based in Scotland at the point of writing, not Singapore, and didn't have access to all the resources I wanted. Something I read up on and wished I could have written about more in the story was the history of the mui tsai, 'little sisters', young girls sold into slavery by their parents to rich Chinese or Peranakan families. The girls usually worked as servants until they had paid off their 'bonds', although the lack of contracts meant they often risked being sold by their employers to brothels instead of receiving the freedom they were promised. In 1932, the British colonial powers banned the import of mui tsai and required the registration of existing ones. In this story we get a brief glimpse into Ning's previous life as a mui tsai; a sequel, I hope, would explore her path from from bondmaid to mercenary.
Tell us a bit about where you've set your story.
This story is set in turn-of-the-century Singapore, in a world where the advent of steam technology has made air travel possible, thus negating the relevance of Singapore as a trading port and forcing its colonial government to reimagine the island as a dirigible hub instead. Thus we have the construction of Changi Airport several decades earlier, leading to the flood of Chinese immigrant workers - among them the samsui women - occurring earlier than the 1920s to 1940s. The secret societies are weakening in the wake of a crackdown by the Chinese Protectorate, following the 1887 axe attack on the Chinese Protector William Pickering, and they are casting around for ways to hit back at the British.
What was the hardest part about writing this story?
Language is a major aspect of this story, and I struggled with getting the representation of the various tongues right. Everyone knows how Victorian English sounds because of the glut of literature on the subject, but what does early 20th-century Malay sound like? Early 20th-century Cantonese? And then how would all this sound translated back into English? For all linguistic anachronism, I apologise in advance.