Spider Boys sequel after 20 years

It is a sequel almost 20 years in the making.

Ming Cher, whose 1995 debut novel Spider Boys was picked up by Penguin (New Zealand) and United States publisher William Morrow, has completed the manuscript for its follow- up, Big Mole.

If Spider Boys was about youth street gangs in 1950s Singapore, its sequel traces the life of a secondary character, known as Big Mole - the only girl in the male-dominated Chinatown street gang.

An orphan from Indonesia who is separated from her parents during the Japanese Occupation, she is so named because of an unusual beauty mark under her left eye.

"There were a lot of boy heroes in Spider Boys. We need some girl heroes for a change," says Singapore-born, New Zealand-based Cher, speaking to Life! over coffee.

The 68-year-old was in town to submit his manuscript to Epigram Books, which published Spider Boys two years ago as part of its Singapore Classics series. The last time he was back was in 1998.

Cher, a full-time writer who gets by on a state pension, has been living in New Zealand since 1977 and is now a citizen of the country. He took 21/2 years to finish Big Mole, encouraged by the success of the republishing.

Founder of Epigram Books, Mr Edmund Wee, 62, had not expected a visit from the author at his Toa Payoh office, and especially not with a new book.

"We didn't know he was in Singapore. When he walked into the office, we were all shocked," says Wee. "He said, 'You read it first. If you want it, then we talk.'"

Wee says Epigram "would definitely like to publish the sequel", adding that Cher has the "storyteller's instinct", though details have not been firmed up.

Back in the 1990s, the news of Spider Boys being published overseas sent waves through the literary community, at a time when very few home-grown novels, by the likes of Gopal Baratham and Catherine Lim, were being written.

Straits Times reviewer Koh Buck Song wrote in May 1995: "The publication of Spider Boys under a major imprint comes out of a recent trend in the West to pay more attention to minority cultures... Exotic is 'in', from beauty pageants to books, and Cher's good timing has put Singapore on the world literary map."

The novel was noted for its use of broken, street-style English with Hokkien phrases translated literally, resulting in sentences such as "Ah Seow clap away the dust from the run and moan". Epigram's version cleaned up much of the language.

With this new book, Wee says that the author's command of the language has improved: "In over 20 years, he has learnt to speak proper English."

Cher, whose father died when he was 12, left school at age 13. His mother was a domestic servant. He took on odd jobs such as being a steel mill labourer, construction worker and sailor before finding a home in Auckland, New Zealand, selling batik cloth.

He started writing Spider Boys in 1988 for his son Marco, then five. He is divorced from Marco's mother, an Australian teacher, and remains unmarried.

Marco, 31, is now a sound engineer in Australia, and Cher also has a 19-year-old daughter who lives in New Zealand.

The success of the book led to a fellowship at Auckland University in 1996, but he did not publish any other books between then and now. He lives on a 100-acre farm with a female farm manager.

Between 1995 and 1998, there had been talk of a movie based on Spider Boys, to be directed by Singapore's Glen Goei, but this did not materialise due to funding problems and difficulties finding suitable actors to play the street kids.

With this new book, Cher says he would not rule out revisiting the idea of doing a movie based on his work.

The author, who is working on two science- fiction books unrelated to Spider Boys, is also open to pursuing opportunities here to conduct workshops and talks with youth or seniors like himself, to encourage them to write. He has six brothers and sisters who live here.

He says with a smile: "I can't forget Singapore. My roots are here. I still have a lot to contribute - you want to do what you can while you're still alive."


This article was first published on Nov 18, 2014.
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