Saturday, February 7, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Robert Liow #SteampunkHands

Robert Liow hails from my own home country, and like me, doesn't live there either. He writes to us from Singapore, with a story featuring a childhood game of FIGHTING SPIDERS. I have never played fighting spiders myself, but it's hard not to be aware that this is a thing. Combining this game with the technofantasy of steampunk, "Spider Here" has got the makings of a dramatic movie! 

Give a one or two sentence summary of your story.

Dai Ji, the young leader of a spider-fighting ring, is forced to confront the realities of political and communal tensions in a newly-independent Singapore after a suicide bombing.

Why did you choose this particular theme?

First of all, I'm a Malaysian Chinese. I've lived in Singapore long enough to consider it my home, but I have family in Malaysia. Anti-Chinese discrimination in Malaysia has always been an issue close to me. My father was in Kuala Lumpur during the May 13, 1969 race riots, and Malay soldiers broke into his family's house, threatening to shoot them. The racism might not be so apparent these days, but it's still there; the 420.000-strong Malay-supremacist group Perkasa repeatedly makes inflammatory, violent statements against non-Malays, while serving Malaysian politicians including the keris-waving Minister of Defence have previously espoused similar Malay-supremacist ideas. Frankly, it terrifies me, and this is partly a reaction to that.

Secondly, I'm probably one of the biggest fans of both spiders and Singaporean literature around. I used to catch fighting spiders as a kid, though I didn't play the game. When I read Ming Cher's "Spider Boys", about a bunch of 1950s kids who bet on spiders, I said to myself, "This is it, this is pretty cool." I'm interested in telling a new kind of story about historical Singapore, one that takes the existing post-colonial literature and gives it a bit of a shake. I'm rebuilding Singapore, challenging and playing with existing narratives in a fictional universe.

Did you do a lot of research for this story? If you did, found anything interesting?

I did a lot of research for this story, in order to try and capture the feel of the alternate Singapore I was constructing. One of the most interesting things I found was the Lanfang Republic, possibly the first republic in a long time when it was founded. It was one of many Chinese mining communities in West Kalimantan, founded by imported Chinese labourers. It declared itself a republic in 1777, six years before the USA was recognised as an independent country, and survived for 107 years before being defeated by the Dutch in 1884. It wasn't the only Chinese republic in the area, but it's the only one for which we have records. The main source I used for this, a book by Mary Somers Heidhues', goes into greater detail about autonomous Chinese mining settlements of the sort in West Kalimantan, which both fought and collaborated with the various Sultans already present.

Tell us a bit about where you've set your story.

I've set my story in a world where Shaping, or the magical manipulation of biomass, is teachable and scientific. Shaping is commonplace and essential to daily life; the protagonist herself is a skilled Shaper, using this talent to make "casings" that house the fighting spiders, and operates a walking-chair with that same ability. In this universe, Shaping has helped people outside the West resist colonisation; while some areas eventually fell to colonial powers, many remain free thanks to military and technological advances made possible by Shaping. The various Sultans of West Kalimantan and the Chinese kongsi formed a symbiotic relationship to consolidate their forces against Dutch and British imperialism, resulting in the Federated Sultanates of Borneo, which play host to the autonomous Nanyang Republic (from the Chinese term for Southeast Asia).

This universe's equivalent of World War I started with a war between the Kingdom of Sarawak, ruled by Dutch- and British-backed Rajah James Brooke, and the Sultanates/Republic, backed by China and Thailand; the story takes place years after the war, with ex-British Singapore on the brink of transitioning from a Thai-Nanyang joint occupation to Nanyang control, sparking a confrontation with the Malayan Federation. The bombing in question was inspired by the MacDonald House Bombing of 1965, where two Indonesian saboteurs detonated a bomb at MacDonald House in then-Malaysian Singapore as part of the Konfrontasi, an undeclared war caused by Indonesia's opposition to a unified Malaysia.

What was the hardest part about writing this story?

Choosing what to keep, and what to hide. I'm a military tech enthusiast; if you gave me the chance I'd go into detail about the various weapons technologies I've already come up with for this universe, but it wouldn't fit into a story about the more mundane experience of political conflict seen through the eyes of a 17-year-old girl. I also had to take out some material exploring the political side of things to streamline the story; it was a balance between getting the context right, and over-burdening the reader.

I might revisit this universe again from those angles, though. This universe is too interesting to leave alone. Stay tuned.

Thanks, Robert! Robert tweets radically at @boygainvillea and will be there for our February 15 #SEAsteampunk chat!

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