Crafting Stories Set in Southeast Asia for the World

By Marc de Faoite

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WRITER WAN PHING Lim (her preferred name order) was born in Butterworth and lives in KL. Many of the 14 stories in her recently published debut short story collection Two Figures in a Car and Other Stories strongly reflect her Penang roots.

“When one writes about Penang, places like Batu Ferringhi, George Town and Penang Hill usually feature,” says Lim. “But because I was born in Raja Uda and grew up in Sungai Ara, I set a lot of my stories in the less popular, southern part of the Island.”

Not only does she draw her inspiration from her native Penang, but also from the pages of Penang Monthly. “In The Apparition I wrote about an abandoned mansion in Relau, based on a Sino-Venetian bungalow that was featured in Penang Monthly,” she says (see Penang Monthly, May 2019).

Two of the stories feature Manchester in the U.K. as a setting, while several other of her stories are based in and around Singapore – fittingly enough since this book’s publisher Penguin Random House has its Southeast Asian base there.

The Red Kemboja Tree is perhaps the most taboo-breaking story in this collection, a magic realist tale that leads its perfumist protagonist to an abandoned quarry on Pulau Ubin. Meanwhile The Ruby Case uses a police station in Jurong as the base from which Corporal Jeffrey Kong ventures to different areas around Singapore. The title story Two Figures in a Car also uses Singapore as its setting, featuring a morally flexible receptionist named Nadine who works in a homestay in the vicinity of Changi Beach.

Setting is almost as important as characters and plot in almost all these stories and it does not take long before Lim transports the reader back to Penang again. “Bukit Gambir, Lip Sin, Jelutong and Gelugor are suburbs that my parents grew up in and where my extended family lives,” says Lim. “Jalan Masjid Negeri and Jalan Scotland were where I went to school. These places are hardly ever written about in fiction.”

Readers familiar with contemporary Malaysian writing in English may already know Lim’s work. Her short story The Goddess and the Sea is the strong opening piece in Home Groan, a collection of Penang-centric stories and poems published earlier this year and reviewed in Penang Monthly, February 2021.

While that particular story curiously doesn’t feature here, the majority of the stories in this collection have previously been published elsewhere, though this is their first time assembled together in one volume.

The stories span a range of socio-cultural settings, from working class to jet-setting upper class, from gangsters, thieves and killers to policemen, from sushi chefs to mat and minah rempit, and many more besides. The host of characters is as diverse as the individual stories. In the intriguing Confessions of a Sushi Boat, the narrator – as might be deduced by the title of the story – is a wooden sushi boat, lovingly scrubbed and soaped by Chef Sakamoto.

Two stories, Snake Bridge Temple and Races – one of which appears early on, the other much later in the book – are linked, with an overlap between the characters. The action culminates in a motorbike race. The perceived invincibility of youth is on display in the characters’ cavalier and acrobatic approach to road safety.

“In Races I wrote about the Seagate Highway,” says Lim. “It was a nickname for the stretch of highway popular for illegal motorbike racing before the days of Queensbay Mall and the second Penang Bridge.” It doesn’t take a lot for the double meaning of the title of that story to become apparent, though it is not a point that is laboured. Instead throughout these stories, the social divisions are more along class lines and have little or nothing to do with the characters’ diverse ethnicities.

Wan Phing Lim.

That said, there are stories where nationality as an aspect of identity is integral to the plot, arguably overlapping again with the socio-economic context. In The Last Day of January – another of the Singapore-based stories – Amelia is at a loose end. She invites Kaw, a migrant worker who works as a cleaner and who is handsome “like one of the dark-skinned baddies in a Bruce Lee film” into her apartment. This story is quite ambiguous and open to interpretation, but Kaw’s foreignness makes him expendable, perhaps even disposable. When questioned by the police as to Kaw’s fate, Amelia shrugs, explaining that migrant workers die all the time, that “maids can fall over from cleaning windows”.

Chee Seng, the protagonist of the opening story The Roof Walker is an undocumented Malaysian worker trying to eke out a living in restaurant kitchens in the U.K.. Among other things, the story serves to highlight the fact that Malaysians overseas can suffer an ignominious fate not entirely dissimilar to the plight routinely faced by undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia.

While all these stories are rich in detail, many would benefit from being a little longer. Several come to a very abrupt conclusion, which led this reader to leaf back on more than one occasion to see if a page or even several pages had been inadvertently skipped. But perhaps it is better to be left wanting than to have had too much.

It could even be said that concision is one of the author’s strengths as a writer. Lim manages to fit a lot into her pages. The stories are tight and move along at a good pace with admirably little wasted space. There were a few sentences an eagle-eyed editor might have singled out for improvement, but it’s unclear if the omission to do so was due to the stories being published as they originally appeared, or whether they were reworked and re-edited for this collection. But these are small quibbles in the overall scheme of things.

Lim’s distinctive voice is a welcome one in the local contemporary literary canon and holds a lot of promise. Hopefully this collection will be a stepping stone to greater things yet to come for Wan Phing Lim, allowing her to bring stories of Penang and elsewhere to a wider audience. Certainly, that seems to be her ambition. As she says on her website, “My hope is to be agented in the U.K. and North America and to tell the stories of my world to an international audience.”

Marc de Faoite

is a freelance writer and editor based in Penang. Originally from Dublin, he has lived in Malaysia since 2007. @marcdefaoite