In 2005 Singapore, the elderly Ah Ding is making a precarious living selling packets of tissues in one of modern Singapore’s steel and glass shopping centres. He is sitting in his unneeded wheelchair, in his usual spot at the bottom of the escalators, when a once-familiar face appears on her way down.
She recognises him, too, even after 60 years, remembering his “kind eyes”, and over the following days she starts trying to help him in his life of poverty, returning a favour that he did for her when they met on the day in 1945 when the Japanese occupation forces surrendered.
The action then moves back and forth among different periods and viewpoint characters, from 2005 to the dark days of 1942, with an interlude in 1972 when another incident of recognising Ah Ding’s eyes leads to a tragedy.
This is a moving and gripping story, with no plot as such, but a series of brilliantly described incidents of lyrical joy, and, much more plentifully, of appalling misery and brutality. For readers who are not familiar with Singapore, there is a helpful glossary at the end, but I felt that there are a few more terms that could have been added without making it unduly long.
The story is held together by the motif of Ah Ding’s “kind eyes”, which gives a bitter irony to the accounting of what Ah Ding went through in 1942 during the first weeks of the occupation, when the Japanese were selecting Chinese men to be executed in what became known as the Sook Ching Massacres, in which unknown numbers of thousands died. The atmosphere of tropical Singapore, and the diversity of its casually multilingual population, are well evoked, but it is the memorable characters and their tragic stories that will stay with you. Highly recommended.