Little Ironies: Short Stories of Singapore, Heinemann, 1978
This is my first book, the one that launched me on the road to authorhood. The 17 short stories are about ordinary men and women living their ordinary lives, often with a determination that is no less than extraordinary—the woman desperate to have a male child to appease her tradition-bound husband, the young student who jumps to her death after her poor exam results, the savvy Singlish-speaking taxi driver who makes extra money looking out for male Caucasian tourists to take them to the city’s brothels.
Or Else, the Lightning God and Other Stories, Heinemann, 1980
Encouraged by the warm reception of Little Ironies, I set out to do another collection of short stories. Once again, I present a succession of vignettes of ordinary people one meets with daily in the wet market, the bus stop, the groceries’ store. The last story which provides the title for the collection, reflects an enduring theme in my short stories—the conflict between tradition and modernity, as seen when the uneducated, elderly woman, suddenly finds the temerity to rise against her intimidating English-educated, career-minded daughter-in-law, calling upon the Lightning God to strike her dead for committing the greatest sin—ill-treating the old.
The Serpent’s Tooth: A Novel, Times Books International, 1982
This is my first novel, in which I present the conflicts experienced in a family, against a backdrop of Asian superstitions, myths and legends. The theme is the fearful dereliction that is visited upon the younger generation when the primary Confucianist injunction—’Honour thy father and thy mother through filial piety’—is ignored. The title is taken from Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, where the old king, after being abandoned by his daughters, curses them and cries out, ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth/ It is to have a thankless child!’
They Do Return—Stories of the Supernatural, Times Books International, 1983
These 15 short stories are ghost stories, not the usual supernatural stories of violent hauntings and visitations, but quiet, even mundane tales that examine how people cope with their traditional beliefs about death. The dead seem to have been suddenly transformed into powerful beings who can reach beyond the grave to affect their lives. The result is a conflict of emotions—the fearful realization that those who have died do return, the urgent need to placate them if they are angry and to help them on their journey home if they are lost and still wandering restlessly on the face of the earth. But the ultimately reassuring emotion must be this: that the ties of love and caring will never be severed by death.
The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream: Love Stories of Singapore, Heinemann, 1987
This is my first collection of short stories devoted entirely to the theme of love. I fear they won’t appeal to the romantic and the dewy-eyed, for none of them has a happy ending! Indeed, the stories take a brutally honest look at a possibly over-celebrated thing, and concludes there may be little to celebrate, and much to lament – the huge gap between love’s ideals and its harsh realities, the sad choices, the eventual dismal compromise. Ideal love is not only a dream, nor even the shadow of a dream, but a shadow of the shadow of a dream, three desperate stages removed. But even in such darkness, something must be allowed to shine through—the indomitability of this something called the human spirit.
O Singapore! Stories in Celebration (Satirical Stories of Singapore), Times Books International, 1989
This is my first humorous book—a collection of 8 boisterously playful stories satirizing the relentlessly competent political leadership in Singapore, that reaches into every aspect of the lives of a compliant, unquestioning people. One reaction is to view this with alarm, another is simply to shrug it off and be resigned, yet a third is to see the lighter side and have a good laugh at ourselves. I have used as focal points for these stories the traits that we Singaporeans have good-naturedly identified ourselves with—materialism, money-mindedness, ‘kiasuism’ (calculating, self-protecting behaviour), ‘humsubism’ (a brand of lecherousness said to be peculiar to Chinese males). The result is one rambunctious romp through the Singapore social landscape.
Love’s Lonely Impulses (Poetry), Heinemann, 1992
Over many years, I had discovered that poetry, rather than prose, was the best medium for expressing certain intensely personal and poignant experiences in my life, such as the exquisite joy and wonder as I gazed upon my newborn baby. Or the anger upon reading a newspaper report about a young girl who one morning took a short cut to school, and was raped and killed, her body dumped in the bushes. Or the anguish at the devastation of the lives of the already suffering poor, each time a natural disaster struck, in a world supposedly ruled by a benign and loving Creator. I remember I wrote each of the poems in a single burst of creative passion and energy, and hid them away in a drawer until a friend persuaded me to put them together in a book.
Deadline for Love and Other Stories, Heinemann, 1992
Here is another collection of love stories, and once again, I have to confess that I am less interested in exploring the inspiring, uplifting aspect of this most vital and vaunted of human emotions, than in its complexities. Nothing can be more complex than the psychodynamics of the man-woman relationship, with its underlying sexual tensions. In a rapidly modernizing society like Singapore where old values and new needs collide, these complexities can only be worked out in the dark labyrinths of secret lives. In the last story titled ‘Bell Jar’, a highly successful career woman in a loveless marriage has an affair while she is attending a conference overseas. But in the end, weighing duty against personal happiness, she settles for the first and duly returns to her life in Singapore, back to her suffocating but ultimately secure Bell Jar.
The Woman’s Book of Superlatives, Times Books International, 1993
A young girl squirms and hunches, hoping her father will stop gazing at her growing breasts. A wife tightens her arms around her abdomen to protect her unborn baby from the blows of her drunken husband.
Is suffering the fate of women? Is their lot simply to endure with equanimity? This is a book where my feminist instincts and emotions are at their strongest. I have taken the liberty of shocking the reader by prefacing each sad story with an excerpt from an ancient myth or legend in which woman is glorified and deified: the contrast between the idealized woman of mythology and the battered woman of reality is surely obscene. I have tried to keep my anger down, and my tone quiet, although I have not resisted the bitter sarcasm of the title. Yes, it’s a woman’s book of superlatives, but only of the superlatives of suffering and endurance.
Meet Me on the Queen Elizabeth 2, Heinemann, 1993
This is the merriest, most light-hearted book I have written. I had gone on a cruise on the famed luxury ship the Queen Elizabeth 2, and enjoyed myself thoroughly, meeting passengers from all over the world, and getting a glimpse of the lives of the fabulously rich and leisured. The ship provides the perfect setting for a picaresque novel where I can poke fun at myself, a single middle-aged woman on the watch out for a single, easy-to-snare millionaire, say, from oil-rich Texas. As a strategy of seduction, I bring along a whole wardrobe of the slinky, thigh-high cheongsam. But alas, alas, my quest is continually foiled by all kinds of misadventures, mostly because I am caught between the strictures of my conservative Confucian upbringing on the one hand, and the lush enticements of Pan, the Western God of Pleasure on the other.
The Best of Catherine Lim, Heinemann, 1993
The 12 short stories in this collection were selected from my books published over a period of 15 years, up to 1993. They are supposed to represent me at my best, that is, as a keen, clear-eyed, unsentimental observer of the faults, follies and foibles of men and women in their everyday lives, but at the same time, as one capable of showing a true and sympathetic understanding of the essential vulnerability of the human heart. This engagement of both head and heart gives me an ironic vision, which in turn gives each of my stories a kind of creative tension.
The Bondmaid, Catherine Lim Publishing, UK, USA, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Greece, Italy, Spain, Iceland, 1995; Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2011
This is my first internationally published novel.
Set in Singapore in the early 1950s, The Bondmaid captures the special ethos of a wealthy and powerful Chinese household in that bygone era.
A little girl, Han, is sold as a bondmaid into the House of Wu, where she grows up with the young heir. But the idyll of childhood attachment quickly turns into a nightmare of thwarted sexual passion, as Han, beautiful, proud and uncompromisingly loyal, defies the forces of tradition and tyranny in a household where patriarchs and matriarchs wield inexorable power, lustful male relatives watch young bondmaids to claim their rightful share of pleasure and gods and goddesses smile to see the human drama unfold. The Bondmaid chronicles the strength of one woman’s love—right to its terrifying climax.
The Teardrop Story Woman, UK, US, Italy, 1997; Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2011
To be born female is curse enough. To be born with an unlucky teardrop mole is surely a mark of the gods’ displeasure…
Set in Malaya in the turbulent 1950s, this novel explores love’s eternal quest against a dramatic landscape torn apart by terrorist grenades. Beautiful and spirited, Mei Kwei overcomes the misfortunes of her birth and runs from the men she cannot love into the arms of the man she must not love: the Catholic priest Father Francois Martin, a missionary sent to Luping, a small town in Malaya. In the face of Mei Kwei’s passion, Father Martin’s commitment to his vocation cracks, revealing the man beneath, as the demands of the flesh and of the spirit come into fearful collision.
The Howling Silence, Horizon Books, Singapore, 1999
The living and the dead—there is something that binds them. For the living are endlessly fascinated by tales of the dead, whether they are about an ancestor whose ghost reputedly haunts an old ancestral house, or an airline pilot whose ghost is forever condemned to roam the earth with that of his mistress for an unspeakably cruel suicide pact that plunges a hundred others to their deaths.
The dead too appear to be fascinated by the living. They want to come back to reassure, console, seek revenge, seek forgiveness or simply to connect across an immense gulf of darkness and mystery. Death may bring silence but it is a howling silence with the urgent needs, hopes, desires and torments on both sides.
Following the Wrong God Home, UK, Italy, Indonesia, 2001; Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2011
In modern-day Singapore, a young woman is about to break all the rules. Yin Ling—enigmatic, beautiful, and engaged to the wealthy, politically ambitious Vincent Chee—falls clandestinely in love with Ben Gallagher, an outspoken American professor. Ben is equally mesmerised by Yin Ling and the depth of her inner life which finds expression in an unwavering devotion to an old, eccentric family servant whose obsession is to return a mysterious statue of her god to his rightful home before she dies. Beyond the certainty of Ben and Ying Ling’s love are a hundred uncertainties that break out when heart and head come up against each other: East or West, duty or passion, reality or dream.
The Song of Silver Frond, UK, 2003; Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2011
One morning in Singapore, more than 50 years ago, The Venerable One—a wealthy, respected, handsome Chinese patriarch, head of a large household of three wives and many children and grandchildren—takes a walk by a cemetery.
There a young village egg-seller, named Silver Frond, is amusing herself with a comic song-and-dance act based on popular gossip—about him. The meeting instantly changes their lives.
Is he not too old? Is she not too young? Are their worlds not too far apart? Here is a most unusual couple who are ready to struggle through the jungle of human quandaries and predicaments created by the force of tradition, to achieve the ultimate triumph of an even greater force—love.
A Leap of Love, Horizon Books, Singapore 2003; reprinted 2008.
Among my publications, this little novella is an anomaly in many ways. It had begun as a story which I had composed to amuse my students many years ago, and had never intended to commit to writing. In the heady days of the dot.com I was invited to produce a book for the Internet, and I decided to flesh out this story into a novella. But the e-book was a total failure because nobody paid to read it! A local publisher was interested enough to bring it out in print form, and later a local movie company was interested enough to adapt it for a movie which was called ‘The Leap Years’ and which was released, appropriately, at the beginning of 2008.
The story is essentially an exuberant celebration of young love, played out dramatically against the charming Leap Year tradition of 29 February, the only day every four years when a girl is allowed to make romantic overtures to the guy.
Unhurried Thoughts at My Funeral, Horizon Books, Singapore, 2005
This book is part autobiography, part fiction and part polemics.
I portray myself as dead and lying in my coffin. During the three days before the final consignment to dust and oblivion, as friends, relatives, ex-colleagues, fans, lovers and total strangers come to pay their respects, I indulge, for the last time, my love of story-telling, weaving a dazzling, dizzying tale around each visitor.But the tales are more than just that. They are the triggering points for the central concern of this book—the exploration of those achingly urgent human questions that everyone asks at some time or other: Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the purpose of life? What happens after death?
Humoresque, Horizon Books, Singapore, 2006
This is another humorous book, the humour covering a wide range, from light-hearted to serious, from playfully boisterous to darkly satirical. An example of the first:
‘Opening the car door for your wife?
Such men, it is said, are few;
You’re doing it for one reason,
Either the car or the wife is new.’
And of the second:
The abused woman killed her husband;
Said she, ‘Your Honour, it all works out fine;
He abused me because of his childhood,
And I killed him because of mine.’
The book comprises exactly 365 verses, so that each day of the year can begin with a dose of wit, whether funny or serious.
Miss Seetoh in the World, Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2010
Miss Maria Seetoh, a teacher of English and Literature in St Peter’s Secondary School in Singapore, sees herself as a ‘simple soul who only wants to be a good and happy person’, and has a dream to write stories about ‘simple, ordinary people going about their daily lives’. However, God/ Providence/Fate/Chance, etc. decrees otherwise. She is thrown into the tumult of a disastrous marriage that begins as strangely as it ends, a failed love affair that ‘hollows her out’, and a controversial teaching career that ends with her abrupt resignation. Most of all, she is caught in a political event as shocking in its causes as in its consequences.
Set against the backdrop of modern-day Singapore, a hugely successful city-state grappling with changes and challenges that could corrode the very soul, the novel ultimately examines, with wit, wry irony and warm understanding, the unchanging quandaries of the human condition, when love and sex, religion and politics, tradition and modernity, can all come together in an unruly mix, to show human nature at its most depressing and its most inspiring.
A Watershed Election: Singapore’s GE 2011, Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2011
The Singapore General Election of 2011 (GE 2011) gripped me like no other. It was truly a watershed election on so many counts: the emergence of a younger, more sophisticated and articulate electorate, an overall mood of voter discontent, the tremendous power of the Internet, the appearance of a stronger, bolder opposition, all combining to force the People’s Action Party (PAP) government to launch a stunning programme of reforms that would change the Singapore political landscape forever.
For a thrilling three weeks, from Polling Day on May 7, through the nine-day campaigning, the election results, and the post-election announcement of the reforms, culminating with a review of the controversial ministerial salaries on May 14, I was mesmerised, as I watched the amazing developments unfold. I wrote a commentary on each, sometimes on the very day after, to capture the mood at its peak.
Hence this collection of six commentaries, two of them in the form of fiction, is a kind of GE 2011 journal, with the date of each entry duly recorded. The election was a personal watershed too, for it marked a new and exciting stage in my 17 years as a political commentator. I have never enjoyed the role more.