‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes and it would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, says Anuradha Kumar in this review of The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim (Aurora Metro Press, 2014, pp 363).
In Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, there is an entire section of photographs and wall displays that show how the Singapore River was transformed in the 1970s. The river was once famous for the hawker stalls along its banks that drew people from all over the city, the shanties that ran along, the vegetable plots sustained by those who lived by it and the fishing and other bumboats that plied at all hours. Yet all this was to change in the 1970s, soon after Singapore came into being as an independent republic. Now besides the museum, there is the lovely much sought after Clarke Quay area, where people hang around at riverside cafes, the only boats that ply are those that take tourists around, and down the many bridges that cross the river, while glass-fronted tall buildings stare down at all this. But the river changed around the 1970s and Suchen Lim’s book writes of this as a time crucial to Ping and Weng, the two characters whose intertwined story drives much of her book.
Ping’s story begins a decade or so before this. As a young girl she is subjected to routine humiliations by people who refer to her derogatorily; she also realizes that she must refer to her mother as Ah-ku and never acknowledge their relationship, neither openly nor to herself. Yet she also sees a fiery side to Ah-ku, who marches to the house of wealthy state official when he has chosen to insult her despite seeking her favours. Ah-ku, meaning aunt in Cantonese, is a popular songstress who performs in the city’s clubs, and has wealthy clients who she has to please. Ping, though, also knows the terrifying insecurity that haunts her, should her little success vanish.