The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai: Four Girls and a Compact


The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai deserves a better reader than me. It required three renewals – easy enough as it was an ebook and no one else was interested in it. There was quite a bit of glancing through of passages. And I really got confused by the very many characters in this book. The lack of a true story arc didn’t really help matters. In fact, it seems that few Chinese have read this tome – The New Yorker said that it may be “China’s ‘Ulysses'”!

But while it is lengthy and not the easiest of reads, it is a fascinating look into a time that is hardly written about. Brothels in 19th century Shanghai, specifically, in the foreign settlements outside the city.

It begins with a young man arriving in Shanghai, fresh from the country, and falls for a courtesan who turns out not to be a virgin despite his having forked out plenty to ‘deflower’ her. It is a cutthroat business after all! The story is more episodic than most, so we catch glimpses of this young fellow throughout the book. The focus here is on the (many) girls instead.

Here’s what I did gleam from the book:

– there are different classes of prostitutes. There are girls and there are “maestros” who sing and don’t play finger games. The ones called ‘prostitutes’ are something else altogether. More like streetwalkers. Likewise, there are different ‘classes’ of sing-song houses, and within those houses, the girls were ranked. Although all of these girls really do provide more than entertainment, it is only hinted at in the book. Nothing hot and heavy here!

– there is a ‘humble’ side to a divan

– opium opium opium. All the time!

– Besides opium, plenty of drinking  and finger games. Having watched my share of Chinese movies, I can guess at what the finger games are like but I wish there was more description.

- To “call” a girl, you send a servant out with a ticket
- They did eat “western” meals and drink coffee, probably because they were in the foreign districts. I wish the western-style meals were described though. There were also ‘foreign’ policemen.
- Girls are bought at ages 7 or 8. And they can “do business” at age 16.
- The Shanghainese thought the Cantonese uncouth. Cantonese prostitutes are described as having “terrifying” physical strength.
- bound feet can make a “rickety noise”. Yikes!
- Although most of the girls, especially those who have been in the trade since young, are skilled in music and singing and charm, they were almost always illiterate
- Courtesans were not supposed to go anywhere on foot. They were usually transported from party to party by sedan or rickshaw, or even carried by manservants

– Plus, it was first translated by Eileen Chang, of Love in a Fallen City fame. The translation was discovered among her papers after her death.

Here’s the New York Times’ review for a more complete picture.

Also some background to how prostitution transformed Shanghai’s Old City in this article from CNN Traveler.




2015 Translation

I read the Sing-song Girls of Shanghai as a Translated Classic for Back to the Classics Challenge

And for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge



In contrast, the novella Four Girls and a Compact was light, breezy and easy to read. But also quite forgettable.

The girls are tired of work and life in the city. They’re ready for a break out in the fresh air. They send one girl out to seek their El Dorado.

“To get out of the hot, teeming city and breathe air enough and pure enough, to luxuriate in idleness, to rest—to a girl, they longed for it. They were all orphans, and they were all poor. The Grand Plan was ambitious, indefinite, but they could not give it up. They had wintered it and springed it, and clung to it through bright days and dark.”

The girls are a little indistinguishable but otherwise it’s a cute little story. It’s available to read online or as a free download at Project Gutenberg


I read Four Girls and a Compact for the Back to the Classics Challenge – Novella

Read in February 2015

Thanks to Comics February, I read SO MANY BOOKS!!!

27 comics/graphic novels in February alone. And perhaps more importantly, books I wrote about! Ok so these were mini reviews, but hey it’s a start. Plus I never feel qualified to really talk about comics. My best drawing = stick figures. So really, anyone who can draw more than a stick figure is in my opinion an artist.

Still, I am so glad for this opportunity to have explored new territory. I’ve become rather fond of Osamu Tezuka and his bizarro imagination, enamored with Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona and her hilarious medieval-tech world (I’m a SHARK!!), sniffed away at the sweet life of Ethel and Ernest, and cheered on the Green Turtle in The Shadow Hero, and was truly grateful for Shigeru Mizuki’s manga about the history of Japan. And I finally got to read Ms Marvel!

Aren’t comics just wonderful?

Ode to Kirihito – Osamu Tezuka
Ms Marvel Vol 1: No Normal – G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona
Dancer – Nathan Edmondson
The New York five – Brian Wood; Ryan Kelly
Pretty Deadly Volume One: The Shrike – Kelly Sue Deconnick; Emma Rios
Watson and Holmes: A study in Black – Brandon Perlow and Paul Mendoza; Karl Bollers
Fairest: in all the land – Bill Willingham
The Last Unicorn – Peter S Beagle; Peter B. Gillis; Renae De Liz
Rose and Isabel – Ted Mathot
Black Widow Vol 1: The Finely Woven Thread – Nathan Edmondson, Phil Noto
The Shadow Hero – Gene Luen Yang, Sonny Liew
The Rat queens vol 1: Sass and Sorcery – Kurtis J Wiebe
Vietnamerica: a family’s journey – GB Tran
Saga. Volume three – Brian K. Vaughan, writer ; Fiona Staples, artist
Wonderland – Tommy Kovac, Sonny Liew
I Remember Beirut – Zeina Abirached
Will and Whit – Laura Lee Gulledge
Apollo’s Song – Osamu Tezuka
The Big Skinny: How I Changed my Fattitude: a Memoir – Carol Lay
Glacial period – Nicolas De Crécy
A + e 4ever – I. Merey
Nimona – Noelle Stevenson
Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan #2) – Shigeru Mizuki
Ethel and Ernest – Raymond Briggs
Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939 (Showa: A History of Japan #1) – Shigeru Mizuki
Lost at Sea – Bryan Lee O’Malley
A Chinese Life – Li Kunwu and P Otie


Somehow I managed to read some non-comics too. Among my favorites this month were Love on the Dole, Station Eleven and Kabu-Kabu.

I really need to write about more of these books!

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby
Florence Gordon – Brian Morton
Four girls and a compact – Annie Hamilton Donnell
The Last Good Paradise – Tatjana Soli
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai – Han Bangqing
The Last Colony (Old Man’s War #3) – John Scalzi
Love on the dole – Walter Greenwood
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Under a Silent Moon – Elizabeth Haynes

Kabu-Kabu – Nnedi Okorafor

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear




In the third novel of this unique and masterly crime series, a deathbed plea from his wife leads Sir Cecil Lawton, KC, to seek the aid of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator. As Maisie soon learns, Agnes Lawton never accepted that her aviator son was killed in the Great War, a torment that led her not only to the edge of madness but also to the doors of those who practice the dark arts and commune with the spirit world. Determined to prove Ralph Lawton either dead or alive, Maisie is plunged into a case that tests her spiritual strength, as well as her regard for her mentor, Maurice Blanche. The mission will bring her to France and reunite her with her old friend Priscilla Evernden, who lost three brothers in the war, one of whom has an intriguing connection to the case.


It’s always a bit odd reviewing a book in a series. Do I talk about the series expecting any blog readers out there to know about the characters and their background? Or do I have to begin at the beginning?

Good thing I actually have a post about the first Maisie Dobbs book, right here! So I can cheat a little bit.

But here’s what you might need to know about Maisie Dobbs:

– she was a nurse during the First World War

– she honed her investigative skills while under the mentorship of Dr Maurice Blanche and now runs her own agency

– her first job was as a maid, and her employer catches her reading in the library and sends her off to school. She’s a bit of a prodigy

– this book is set in 1930s London.

Pardonable Lies is the third book in the series.

And Maisie has not one but three mysteries to uncover. Two men lost at war. One young girl accused of murder. How will she manage?

To make things worse, there seems to be someone following her and trying to kill her!

That always makes things exciting.

And it is interesting to see how Winspear is developing her character – as well as bits about the other side characters that feature in Maisie’s life. Winspear has a good eye for details and setting the scene when it comes to 1930s London. Often it is subtle, the street scenes, the clothes Maisie wears, little details like bandages and newfangled technology like long-distance phone calls! I mean, how did detectives or the police manage then without recording devices?

But while I was reading this book, I had another on my mind that I was also reading (why yes, I always have several different books going at once – do you?). A different crime series, involving a rather precocious youth.

I know it’s unfair to compare Maisie Dobbs to Flavia de Luce. Flavia is young – a child really although if she heard me say that she would likely slip some poison into my next cup of tea or something more devious like eye drops. But she is so much fun to read about, and I feel like she’s become a good (imaginary) friend of mine. The Flavia de Luce series is one that I never hesitate to jump on, grab hold off and lose myself in.

And Maisie, well, compared to Flavia, there is an aloofness. Her work is her life. Sure the work might be exciting, thrilling even, but when she’s not working, I’m not all that sure who she is sometimes.

Again, as I mentioned, it’s not entirely fair. I’ve read seven Flavia books and just three Maisie Dobbs. So I’m still in the process of getting to know Maisie Dobbs.

She kind of reminds me of House MD, yes, the TV doctor addicted to Vicodin, whose love is not the medicine or the healing of the patients but about the puzzle. Especially when she talks like this:

“Sometimes it’s as if truth were like a festering wound, ready to break open and be cleansed. It seems as if the information I am seeking is just there, lying in front of me on the path, asking to be discovered, asking for a kind of solution – or absolution. Then again, it can evade me, like a small splinter that escapes under the skin. Then I have to wait, be patient. I have to wait for it to fester.”

One of the best things about reading a book like this is beginning to understand how life must have been like as a woman in those times, a single woman, a career woman, a woman who has come up in the world and risen above her ranks. It has such wonderful historical details of life during that time that the less-than-stellar plot resolution is easily forgiven. Hopefully the later books in the series – there are seven more for a total of ten books – will give me a better complete picture of Maisie Dobbs!

Pardonable Lies is a well-researched, atmospheric, fun read. I would encourage those who are interested in historical fiction and less traditional mystery series to give Maisie Dobbs a try.

winspearJacqueline Winspear is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Leaving Everything Most LovedElegy for EddieA Lesson in SecretsThe Mapping of Love and Death, Among the Mad, and An Incomplete Revenge, as well as four other national bestselling Maisie Dobbs novels. Her standalone novel, The Care and Management of Lies, was also a New York Times bestseller. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Agatha, Alex, and Macavity awards for the first book in the series, Maisie Dobbs, which was also nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and was a New York Times Notable Book.

Find out more about Jacqueline at her website,, and find her on Facebook.

tlc logo

I received this book from its publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Check out the other tour stops!

It’s Monday and what a weekend of feasting we had!

itsmondayIt’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney to share with others what we’ve read the past week and planning to read next.



Good Monday to you! We had such a busy weekend, heading out on Saturday morning to Saratoga Springs for the first Singapore Community Day!

There were games to play like five stones, zero point, kuti kuti, chaptek. All the games of my childhood!

A lion dance performance, music and a photo booth.

Best of all, the food! There was such a variety, nasi lemak, mee siam, chicken rice, Hokkien mee, satay, ngoh hiang and more. And so many different desserts too! Pandan cake, kueh ambon, kueh kosui. Many of these are hard to find in the US so it was such a treat!!

Too bad the weather wasn’t cooperating. A drizzle here, a drizzle there, some hail even. And it was cold! Umbrellas and winter coats were a necessity. The roti prata got soggy and we all were rather damp but we had fun and were stuffed to the gills.

Of course just a few minutes out of the hills and the roads were dry and the sun was out. That’s the Bay Area for you.





On Sunday, we had our proper Lunar New Year celebration at home. With yu sheng and hotpot! It was such a treat to have yusheng. It’s a Singaporean/Malaysian tradition and not easy to find at restaurants here. Because it requires a lot of pickled vegetables, it isn’t the easiest thing to make at home. So my Mum brought over a package from Singapore – just shred carrots, daikon and add raw fish!






Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers

How odd that I’ve never read this. It’s for the Back to the Classics challenge. And will also fit right into Reading for England!


As Chimney Sweepers come to Dust (Flavia de Luce #7) – Alan Bradley

Fun as always!



I finally watched the first episode of Breaking Bad and quite enjoyed it! Can’t wait to watch more!


Pernice Brothers

Cheer Chen Qi Zhen


As I’m writing this, it’s almost dinnertime and we’re having leftovers. Plenty of hotpot stock and ingredients. Just cook up some instant noodles and we’re ready for dinner.


Water. But I’ve had so much jasmine tea today.


We’ve got lots of asparagus and cauliflower, so I’m thinking an oven-roasted cauliflower and asparagus pasta with bacon or maybe chicken.

Some braised chicken wings to be eaten with stir fried kale and rice.

Also there are tons of mushrooms so maybe a minced pork mushroom noodle.

Last week:

I posted:

Comics February – the end!

Library Loot (27 February 2015)

Reading a forgotten classic: Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood

Weekend Cooking: Lo Hei and Yu Sheng





 (Just some of the goodies from Singapore that my Mum brought with her)

Lunar New Year is awesome. Seriously. Especially as a kid growing up in Singapore.

It all starts on Lunar New Year eve where the family gathers for 团圆饭 or reunion dinner. In my family this meant going to my paternal grandparents’ house for a bit steamboat (what we call Hotpot in Singapore) dinner. The kids at one table. The adults at another. And piles of food waiting to be dipped into the hot broth either using the little wire baskets or chopsticks.
And as my grandfather ran a baking goods company, his suppliers/clients would send over massive cakes that night. There would be at least five or six different cakes. From chocolate to durian! All of us got to take home a big slice of each cake for breakfast. There would be a New Year countdown on TV to watch. New pyjamas to wear. And plenty to look forward to the next day, the first day of the New Year.

So why is it awesome? First, new clothes to wear! Second, after wishing people Happy New Year 恭喜发财 (gong xi fa cai) and other lucky greetings, they hand over red packets full of money. Plus visiting different relatives’ and friends’ houses meant a huge variety of snacks right at our fingertips. From delicate cookies like love letters and kueh bangkit to crunchy savory prawn rolls and bakkwa (a grilled pork slice that is both sweet and salty goodness). Sometimes herbal teas and soups or a lovely longan drink would be served. Most often it was cokes or fanta Orange. My sister and I would hang out with our cousins or friends, play games, run around or just watch tv. And of course all this meant we were on holiday from school for at the very least one day.

As a kid, yusheng, a salad with raw fish, didn’t mean much except that it was fun to “lo hei” or toss the salad with chopsticks for good luck. The higher you tossed, the more luck you were supposed to get. Of course that meant when we kids did the tossing, a lot of the food ended up on the table. The only part I enjoyed eating was the little pillow-shaped crackers. The rest was ugh.

But when I got older, I realized how harmonious the dish was. It’s pretty much a salad, full of vegetables like shredded daikon, carrots, pickled ginger and leeks, dressed with plum sauce, sesame oil, five spice powder and other spices. All topped with thinly sliced raw fish, preferably salmon. And ready to toss.

It’s fresh and vibrant. Sometimes a little too brightly colored but it’s for good luck and an impactful presentation so I can overlook that. The flavours are a mix of sweet sour and savoury. The crackers and nuts provide texture and crunch. The ginger provides some heat, the pickles a little crunch and sourness.

When dining out during the Lunar New Year, the waitstaff will offer auspicious sayings as they prepare the salad at the table. For instance, when adding the fish to the dish, nian nian you yu 年年有馀 or may you have abundance. See more here. 


My mum bought this ‘prepackaged’ yu sheng from Singapore. It has all the pickles and sauces. The rest, like the carrots and daikon and the raw fish have to be prepared.


Sprinkling the five spice powder

Checking the auspicious sayings online!

Ready to toss or ‘lo hei’ – the higher the better


The tradition of lo hei and yusheng seems to largely be a Singaporean and Malaysian one. It debuted in Singapore in 1964 and was apparently the creation of four master chefs.

It’s fun for the family – and really yummy to eat too. I was surprised that this packaged one was actually pretty good.





After yusheng we had hotpot with lots of vegetables, mushrooms, meat and more.

Then fruits, followed by mango pudding and fried nian gao!


Happy New Year!



Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

Comics February – the end!

I still have so many comics to read! Why does February have to be so short? Well I’ll just have to read it in Comics March then. (Not actually an event, I just made it up).


Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939 (Showa: A History of Japan #1) 

Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan #2)

By Shigeru Mizuki


Shigeru Mizuki is a very well-known comic book writer or mangaka in Japan. He’s known for his yokai stories, supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. Well I didn’t know any of that. I just knew that I had to get my hands on it, thanks to this post!!

And I was only slightly intimidated by the size of these two books. Yup, they are big and fat and discuss history, but they were a quick read.

What was amazing though was that I think I learnt more about the Pacific War (as in the theatre of WWII that was fought in Asia and the Pacific) than I learnt in school in Singapore (which in case you didn’t know, was one of the countries that the Japanese occupied). The second book focuses on the war – Mizuki was drafted into the army and sent to Papua New Guinea. At first I worried that it would have a skewed version of Japan’s role in the war but I was surprised, it was honest, it is well-researched, and it is also very personal.

It is truly amazing that he survived the war. He was very naive and rather oblivious to the fact that he was in a war!

I kind of wish I had read this book while learning about WWII in Asia, it would have made it a far less dry lesson!

Showa is at times humorous, at times sobering and sad. It showcases the best of comics.








Nimona- Noelle Stevenson

This is the first time I’ve ever read a webcomic from start to finish in a day. That makes me sound like I know a lot about webcomics. I really don’t. I’ve browsed through some but have never really read any fully. Here’s the link to Nimona or you can wait for it to come out in book form later this year. In May I believe.

Nimona was SO FUN! And I don’t really like to use CAPS so please believe me already.

Awesome characters. Hair swoops. Shapeshifting. Medieval Skype.


Ethel & Ernest: A True Story – Raymond Briggs
If his name sounds familiar it might be because you’ve read that classic picture book The Snowman.

This was one of the sweetest and saddest comics I read this month. Or ever really. It tells the story of Briggs’ parents’ relationship. Him a milkman, she a lady’s maid. And they get married and start their own family. And the years pass – and we catch glimpses of the world around them as they live in their house in London, through the war, through the advent of TV, raising their son, as the decades pass.

And also hilarious. Especially their discussions about politics and the rest of the world.




A Chinese Life – Li Kunwu and P Otie





60 years in 700 pages. I would count that as epic, but I just read Showa books one and two (see above) which explore 7 years in 560 pages in one and 5 years in 536 pages in another. These are very different books, very different lives. I think I am more fond of Mizuki’s illustrative style and narration.

It’s always difficult reading a memoir of life in China under Mao. The things people did, even as young children (see above). Li details the changing times, the hardships they go through. It has its bittersweet moments, and some rather sweet ones too.


Lost at Sea – Bryan Lee O’Malley

Ah where was this comic when I was a teen?

Raleigh is on a road trip with some kids from school, kids she doesn’t really know and they’re very different from her, so how did they end up in the same car?

I wasn’t sure that I would like her at the beginning. Kinda weird (she thinks a cat stole her soul), aloof, a bit melodramatic. But then deep down inside I knew I was a little like her as a teen (and probably still am) – terrified of talking to other people, running a dialogue in her own head, always worried about others’ impressions of her.

Here are my previous Comics February posts!

Week 3

Week 2 

Week 1


Library Loot (27 February 2015)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Comics February is coming to a close! But the comics just keep coming in from the library. I couldn’t resist putting these on hold earlier this month and look! They’re here!

And of course there are still more to come….


PLUTO: Naoki Urasawa x Ozamu Tezuka, Band 001 (Pluto #1) – Naoki Urasawa


In a distant future where sentient humanoid robots pass for human, someone or some thing is out to destroy the seven great robots of the world. Europol’s top detective Gesicht is assigned to investigate these mysterious robot serial murders; the only catch is that he himself is one of the seven targets.

Lost at Sea – Bryan Lee O’Malley


Raleigh doesn’t have a soul. A cat stole it – or at least that’s what she tells people – or at least that’s what she would tell people if she told people anything. But that would mean talking to people, and the mere thought of social interaction is terrifying. How did such a shy teenage girl end up in a car with three of her hooligan classmates on a cross-country road trip? Being forced to interact with kids her own age is a new and alarming proposition for Raleigh, but maybe it’s just what she needs – or maybe it can help her find what she needs – or maybe it can help her to realize that what she needs has been with her all along.

Deadly Class Vol 1: Reagan Youth – Rick Rememder, Wesley Craig (Illustrator), Lee Loughridge (Illustrator)


It’s 1987. Marcus Lopez hates school. His grades suck. He has no money. The jocks are hassling his friends. He can’t focus in class, thanks to his mind constantly drifting to the stunning girl in the front row and the Dag Nasty show he has tickets to. But the jocks are the children of Joseph Stalin’s top assassin, the teachers are members of an ancient league of assassins, the class he’s failing is “Dismemberment 101,” and his crush, a member of the most notorious crime syndicate in Japan, has a double-digit body count.

Welcome to the most brutal high school on Earth, where the world’s top crime families send the next generation of assassins to be trained. Murder is an art. Killing is a craft. At King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, the dagger in your back isn’t always metaphorical, nor is your fellow classmates’ poison.

Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary – Keshni Kashyap, Mari Araki (Illustrator)

In the tradition of Persepolis and American Born Chinese, a wise and funny high school heroine comes of age.

Tina M., sophomore, is a wry observer of the cliques and mores of Yarborough Academy, and of the foibles of her Southern California intellectual Indian family. She’s on a first-name basis with Jean-Paul Sartre, the result of an English honors class assignment to keep an “existential diary.”

Keshni Kashyap’s compulsively readable graphic novel packs in existential high school drama—from Tina getting dumped by her smart-girl ally to a kiss on the mouth (Tina’s mouth, but not technically her first kiss) from a cute skateboarder, Neil Strumminger. And it memorably answers the pressing question: Can an English honors assignment be one fifteen-year-old girl’s path to enlightenment?


As Chimney Sweepers come to dust – Alan Bradley

Ok so I was kinda saying (mostly to myself and the voice in my head) about reading less-blogged-about books, but I just had to borrow this!


Hard on the heels of the return of her mother’s body from the frozen reaches of the Himalayas, Flavia, for her indiscretions, is banished from her home at Buckshaw and shipped across the ocean to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, her mother’s alma mater, there to be inducted into a mysterious organization known as the Nide.

No sooner does she arrive, however, than a body comes crashing down out of the chimney and into her room, setting off a series of investigations into mysterious disappearances of girls from the school.

Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein


Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Kids’ loot:

Reading a forgotten classic: Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood


Hanky Park was unbeautiful. Hanky Park and all that it stood for to which they had to return. North Street, smoke, bricks and mortar, seas of slates, Price and Jones, Sam Grundy, Mrs Nattle and her companions, swarms of dirty children. A goading, incredible, awful fact for which there was no explanation. Except that money would solve the problem; with this they could prolong their stay here as long as the money lasted; lacking it they had to surrender themselves to Hanky Park once again.

It is a bleak life, living in Hanky Park. The main employer is Marlowe’s, some factory of some sort. It is where Harry is desperate to be. He who currently slaves away at the pawn shop, working Saturdays even. Envious of the men who work the machines, who slouch off to work at the factory.

“And there, majestic, impressive, was the enormous engineering plant itself; there, in those vast works, the thousands of human pygmies moved in the close confines of their allotted sphere, each performing his particular task, an infinitesimal part of a preordained whole, a necessary cog in the great organization.”

And finally he does it, he gets his apprenticeship, signing away the next seven years of his life. And he gets money and gets a girl and things seem all fine and dandy.

Fast forward several years, his apprenticeship over. And since he’s no longer a boy and would have to be paid a man’s wage, is laid off – new boys are coming in, as are new machinery that hardly require more than a touch of a button.

Harry is on the dole. Trying to get work anywhere is impossible. His girl wants to get married, he doesn’t know what to do.

Life in Hanky Park is bleak, difficult, unfulfilled, but there is a sense of community as the neighbours help each other out when they can. It is painful to read of their time at the pawnshop – on Monday mornings there is a line waiting to pawn off whatever they can, from clothes to bedsheets. On Saturdays – pay day – Hanky Park shines with prosperity:

“No scratching and scraping today; kitchen table littered with groceries; sugar in buff bags; fresh brown crusted loaves; butter and bacon in greaseproof paper; an amorphous, white-papered parcel, bloodstained, the Sunday joint; tin of salmon for tomorrow’s tea; string bag full of vegetables; bunch of rhubarb with the appropriate custard powder alongside.”

I happened upon this book while browsing my library’s Overdrive catalogue for books to read for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I was intrigued by the synopsis, as well as the fact that I hadn’t heard of Walter Greenwood or this book, which was later adapted into plays that ran both in the US and the UK, and even made into a movie, and was apparently a big commercial and critical success.

When reading classics, I’m always a bit apprehensive. Would it be too heavy? Too hard to read? Too tedious? Especially since it’s a book that hardly seems to be mentioned when the ‘classics’ are discussed (not that I really discuss classics).

But it was such a good read. The dialogue is at times tricky and needs to be sounded out loud in order to be understood. But everything else was completely absorbing. It often takes me ages to read a classic, the e-book languishing on my virtual bookshelf for weeks. This one I read in a matter of days.

Greenwood takes us into the minds of his characters, into their homes and their daily lives. His details of life in 1930s England are striking and vibrant. Work at the factory isn’t exactly difficult but it is mundane and they are being exploited.

Greenwood wrote this story when he was unemployed, as a response to the whole unemployment crisis. He had left school at 13 to work as a pawnbroker’s clerk, just like Harry does at first. It’s no wonder that the Guardian wrote about this book when it was first published in 1933: “We passionately desire this novel to be read; it is the real thing. Mr Greenwood is a Salford man… he has been on the dole. He knows and he can tell.



I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge and Reading England 2015 (Lancashire). 

It’s Monday and I’m reading a detective novel and two translated comics

itsmondayIt’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney to share with others what we’ve read the past week and planning to read next.





A very happy Year of the Sheep to one and all!

It’s very different celebrating the Lunar New Year here in the US, so very far from Singapore. Plus it’s not a holiday, the husband goes to work, Wee Reader goes to school. But I try to make some attempt to celebrate it, like putting up some lame decorations! Please note that the “fu” 福 character at the bottom of the lantern is intentionally upside down, as it means that 福 or good fortune arrives.




You know it’s Lunar New Year eve when the Chinese supermarket has people waiting in line to buy live fish at 930 on Wednesday morning. And those tanks were stuffed with fish!



New Year’s Eve is when we have ‘reunion dinner’ or 团圆饭 (tuan yuan fan). This used to mean a big hotpot dinner at my grandparents’ house when I was growing up, full of plates and plates of raw food to be dipped into the hot stock! But with just the four of us, I wanted to make sure the kids had something they really like eating – sushi! So not traditional, but fun to eat anyway.




It has been spring-like weather here in Northern California. While I like being able to take the kids out, and not have to wear winter coats, I keep wondering, as does everyone on the West Coast – where’s the rain!?!?! We need the rain!






A Chinese Life – Philippe Ôtié and Li Kunwu ; illustrated by Li Kunwu


Under a Silent Moon – Elizabeth Haynes
For an upcoming book tour

Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939 (Showa: A History of Japan #1) – Shigeru Mizuki



Top Gear!



Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi


River City Reading makes some Tournament of Book predictions!

Buried in Print talks about some book awards lists like the CBC Bookie Awards

SO MANY good comics!!

I need to make this Apple Fritter Bread.

This diverse, gender-swap fantasy cast of LOTR is so much fun to read.

An important post by Andi at Estella’s Revenge about Getting Real


I made a chocolate root beer bundt! It was too ugly to photograph but pretty yummy and moist.




I always resort to some kind of noodle dish when lacking inspiration so that’s going to be one to eat this coming week.

And a pasta thingy, probably with sausage and broccoli. Ooh or maybe a carbonara.

Chicken stew


Looking forward to:

My mum’s arrival from Singapore on Monday!


Last week…

I read:

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Finally got hold of this book and proceeded to finish it in the next couple of days. I would have gobbled it down earlier but it felt like something that should be given enough time to digest.

Lots of comics!

I posted:

The Last Good Paradise

Happy Year of the Sheep! – a post on New Year books for kids and ‘sheep’ books for adults!

A non-runner reads Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner – and loves it! Hope you read it too!


Weekend Cooking: Egg tofu with vegetables

Egg tofu is something I grew up eating in Singapore. It’s often found at many Chinese restaurants, although in Singapore, Chinese restaurant range from Teochew to Hokkien to Hakka to Hainanese cuisines, whereas in North America, “Chinese” tends to mean “Cantonese or Hong Kong cuisine.


Egg tofu isn’t easy to find in the US, even in the San Francisco Bay Area which has quite a number of Asian Americans – and many Asian supermarkets within half an hour drive from my house.

Tofu itself – soft, firm, extra-firm, medium-firm – is bountiful. And there are even places which make their own tofu. And oh, even soy milk can be easily found too. Whether at supermarkets or restaurants.

But egg tofu? At Marina Foods, the Asian supermarket I frequent, there are just two types found on the shelves. Sad. Wanting to be taken home and cooked up.

How I love egg tofu. It has that silky texture of tofu and an added bonus of that yellow tinge from the whole eggs added to the mixture.

The best way to eat it is to fry them.


Just slice through the plastic, peel the plastic off. Or gently ease out the egg tofu. Slice into thick chunks. Heat your oil and pan-fry until golden on both sides. It is a softer kind of tofu and so is a bit tricky to flip over. I find that a spatula in one hand and a pair of long wooden chopsticks works best!




I stir fried some vegetables – a mix of chard, broccoli, snow peas, carrots, cauliflower, and served it with the egg tofu. The three pieces of roll on the right are ngoh hiang or a bean curd skin roll with minced pork, chestnuts and carrots inside. It is first steamed then fried and served with a sweet sauce.



Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs