Jing-Jing Lee's novel brings to life one woman's storyby Salil Tripathi / July 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
Jing-Jing Lee’s beautifully crafted novel brings to life the story of one so-called “comfort woman,” of Singapore who was in reality a sex slave forced into servicing Japanese soldiers. Wang Di’s parents are poor and she can’t read or write. As a teenager she is taken away by the Japanese in 1942, after the British troops surrender and Singapore falls. For most Singaporeans, the critical moment in their history was not the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, nor independence in 1965, but the fall of Singapore in 1942, and the atrocities that followed.
The Japanese invaders hate the Chinese in Singapore at least partly because prominent local Chinese businesses (far removed from the lives of Wang Di’s family) have been supporting Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in China. Baser and more transactional instincts determine the Japanese interaction with the Chinese women, and Wang Di suffers three horrendous years in a camp with other women where she is forced to have sex with soldiers up to 40 times a day.
The strength of Lee, a Singapore-born, Oxford-educated novelist, lies in her creating an intricate plot, which would have seemed implausible in the hands of a less skilled writer. Parallel to the main story is that of Kevin, a young boy living in modern Singapore who is intrigued by a confession he was not meant to hear from his dying grandmother, which leads him to Wang Di as he tries to unravel the mysteries of her past.
Towards the end, the way the loose ends are tied up may seem to some readers somewhat contrived. But Lee builds up the suspense well, and the images of war-ravaged Singapore are particularly haunting and vivid. She writes about a disappearing generation, which, for many, may as well not have existed. Shame tends to silence.
Lee’s other works include a collection of poems and If I Could Tell You, about residents in a modern Singapore apartment block. She is a writer to watch from a fascinating part of Asia where great civilisations meet.
How We Disappeared
by Jing-Jing Lee (Oneworld, £14.99)