Meet the author peeling back Singapore’s Crazy Rich Asians veneer

In her novel The Great Reclamation, author Rachel Heng cuts to the core of Singapore’s identity, how it was formed, and what was lost along the way.

By SGN | 20 Jul 2023

To the uninitiated, impressions of Singapore tend to be simplistic – reduced to caricature. 

“It used to be ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’. Now it is ‘Crazy Rich Asians’,” Rachel observes. “I think the challenge of being such a small country, infrequently represented on the global stage, means that whatever little representation there is tends to take over for some time.”

Amid the roaring box office success of the 2018 Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians were cries that Singapore was misrepresented, its lens focused on the upper crust of society while largely leaving minorities and commoners out of the picture. Also, where was the Singlish?

“I’m sure there must be ultra-rich people in Singapore, but they live amongst their own, and personally I’ve never come across them in real life,” Rachel says. “The fact that 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing gives you a sense of how relevant that ‘ultra-rich’ segment of the population is to everyday life. It’s like saying that the Kardashians are a truthful representation of America.”

Connecting past and present

So what would a truer representation of Singapore look like, and how can we come to a clearer understanding of its identity? These are questions explored in Rachel’s new book, The Great Reclamation.

While her first novel, Suicide Club, reached into a dystopian near future, her latest is a historical epic that casts its gaze backwards, on Singapore in the mid-20th century.

“I was interested in the years 1941 to 1963 as a formative time,” she says. The period was filled with seismic events that shaped Singapore’s emerging identity: the Japanese occupation, the return and eventual withdrawal of the British, the Malayan Emergency, and the clash of local political parties.

“This is a book about the Singapore I know and love,” Rachel says.

Rachel’s research process was rigorous, to say the least. “I spent about a year on historical research, listening to interviews, digging up archival photos, government documents and newspaper clippings. I also interviewed my elderly relatives, which was a wonderful experience.” 

To her, historical fiction allows us to understand the present by examining the past. “This is a book about the Singapore that I know and love, in all the complicated ways that one knows and loves family and home,” she says. “I wanted to write about how Singapore came to be the place that I grew up in, and what choices and sacrifices had been made along the way.”

Her novel lays out two coming-of-age stories as intertwining strands: one of Singapore as a nation, and the other of the central character, Ah Boon, who journeys from boyhood in a fishing village to adulthood in a modern capital. “Like his country and his community, Ah Boon has to make choices about what he values, who he aligns himself with, and what future he wants for himself and his family,” she says.

This forging of identity, this transformation of self, is encapsulated by the process of land reclamation, an act that Rachel sees as ambitious, destructive and fascinating. “How do you ‘reclaim’ something that was never yours to begin with?” she asks. “Framing it as ‘reclamation’ hides much of what gets destroyed and paved over in the process, I think.”

A dream she never had

Since its publication, the positive attention and glowing coverage heaped upon The Great Reclamation have been thrilling and overwhelming.

“Waking up to lovely reviews in The New York Times and The New Yorker, seeing The Great Reclamation featured on CBS Mornings and the Today show were definitely surreal moments,” Rachel shares. “It’s also always wonderful to walk into my favourite indie bookstores and see my book hanging out on a table or in the window!”

The experience has been all the more incredible considering that she had never dreamt of becoming a published author. “I loved reading from a very young age, but never thought of being a writer as even a remote possibility,” she says. Raised by a single mother, Rachel felt obligated to get a ‘good’ job that would provide financial stability. 

“I was fortunate to win a college scholarship from [Singaporean sovereign wealth fund] GIC and worked in finance for several years after,” she recounts. It was during this time that she attempted and abandoned her first novel, only to revive it when an excerpt drew the interest of agents and editors.

To manage her fulltime job, Rachel would wake at 6am to write for an hour before work commenced each day. After selling her first novel, she left GIC to pursue a three-year MFA fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers, where she began penning what would evolve into The Great Reclamation.

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Rachel in conversation with fellow author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan at Urban Hawker, a foodhall in midtown Manhattan serving Singaporean street food. When the Prawnaholic stall overheard during Q&A that Rachel misses white carrot cake (chai tow kway) the most, they surprised her with a plateful of it!

Sharing Singapore stories with the world

Given that her novel deals in part with Singapore’s decolonisation, Rachel deemed it important to represent the country’s rich multilingual environment. Much of the book’s dialogue is in Singlish and includes Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese terms.

“I chose not to italicise, translate or gloss any words,” she points out, “because I did not want to position the language of my Singaporean characters as something foreign that needed to be made legible for the Western reader.”

Rachel wrote primarily with a Singaporean audience in mind, but that doesn’t mean non-Singaporean readers are excluded. “Isn’t it one of the great joys of reading to encounter literature not explicitly written for oneself?” she muses. “I myself read books set in places and times that are unfamiliar and untranslated. I can only hope that others feel the same way.” 

Even if certain references are intimately local, the themes of the novel are universal. “What one owes to family, to country and to oneself – these are questions everyone has to grapple with. And I wanted to explore how the people around us can shape our values and choices in unpredictable and surprising ways. I hope this is something that resonates globally.”

Judging by the reception of her work – The Great Reclamation recently earned a spot on Amazon’s Top 20 Best Books of 2023 So Far – it most certainly has.

About Rachel

Rachel is a Singaporean writer who studied comparative literature at Columbia University and completed an MFA in fiction and playwriting from the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, Esquire, Guernica, and McSweeney’s Quarterly. The Great Reclamation is her second novel.

Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.

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