In the first of a two-part episode on the Singapore Writers Festival 2021, Nabilah Said chats with author Grace Chia about her book The Arches of Gerrard Street, and her thoughts on writing crime while exploring themes surrounding the experiences of minorities and the Chinese diaspora in London, and exoticism. Grace is part of SWF panel Crime And The City on 7 Nov 2021, alongside writers Håkan Nesser and Neil Humphreys. It takes place digitally on SISTIC Live.
Grace is also part of the panel Guilt, Pleasure and Everything in Between that takes place on Facebook Live on 6 Nov. Singapore Writers Festival 2021 runs from 5 to 14 November 2021 with the theme “Guilty Pleasures”.
Stream Podcast 96. Also available on Spotify. The podcast transcript is available below.
If you like crime, check out these other SWF events:
Serial Crime Time With Sarah Koenig | 6 Nov Sat, 9pm – 10pm
Singapore Crimes: A Tour | Various dates & times
Making the Perfect Detective | 13 Nov Sat, 1pm – 2pm
Nabilah: Hi, everyone. Welcome to ArtsEquator’s podcast. Today we’re doing something slightly different, we are focusing on books. And this is really in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival 2021, which is happening from 5th to 14th November. And we have with us today author Grace Chia.
Nabilah: And Grace is a prolific author, I think starting out with poetry, before moving on to fiction, and a short story collection as well. Today we’ll be focusing on her novel The Arches of Gerrard Street, published by Penguin. And the reason why we’re focusing on this, is because Grace is doing a panel at SWF entitled “Crime and the City”. So Grace, maybe you can start with introducing the book. What is it about?
Grace: So The Arches of Gerrard Street is set in London’s Chinatown, where there is a street called Gerrard Street. It’s very prominent. It basically signifies that you are entering the the space of Chinatown. So the most important element of this is that there is a murder mystery, and the victim is a Malaysian Chinese men. And in the first chapter, he was shot dead. And subsequently, the entire novel revolves around how Molly, who is a childhood friend, also from Malaysia, goes to Chinatown on the urging of his parents to try and find out the truth behind why he was murdered. Apart from that it also has a romance element in which Molly is not only just a childhood friend of Donald, who got shot, but she was somehow romantically involved with him, and then also there are other men who enter her life. So in a way, I would say that this is a whodunit with a romance element and a coming of age novel about this young lady Molly, who then journeys physically to London, and then also undergoes an emotional journey in which she finds out more about herself.
Nabilah: So you lived in London 16, 17 years ago. Is that when this story was like bubbling, how did you get started thinking about wanting to write this particular story?
Grace: So in total, I lived about six years in London specifically, and during that time, while being Chinese, Singaporean and female, I always felt a little bit kind of invisible. Whenever I navigate the space of London, it was basically as a minority. And then there was a news report, actually, there were two news reports. One was about the shooting in Chinatown in a bar of a Chinese men. And it was a very short report in which there was no conclusive answers. And subsequently, there was no real resolution to his murder as well. They couldn’t find the killer, and then the case was closed. Then there was another incident, which is a tragedy, and it’s very well known, is the Morecambe Bay cockling incident in which Chinese illegal migrants drowned in the Lancashire coast, while cockling. And they were illegal immigrants, and this is tied to snakeheads and gangs – human trafficking and all that.
When I read these two news reports, it struck me that basically being ethnic Chinese in a place which is predominantly white, when things happen when tragedy or crime happens, I often wonder, basically, how much does the British law enforcement are interested to pursue the truth to the end. And not just that, but in many cases of unsolved crime all over the world, when it comes to kidnappings and murders, and even human trafficking, it is very, very hard to have closure to the events if there is no real conclusive evidence. And finding out the truth, it’s very important for the families who are affected. As I was living there, I wanted to spin a yarn in which someone who is a minority disappears or basically gets murdered in a space like Chinatown, which is a very complex enclave of its own with its own rules, and so on and so forth. You know, it’s a community that is quite closed to itself. What would happen then, if something happens to that person? Yeah, I wanted to have a mystique at the heart of this location and for a character to then uncover the truth.
Nabilah: So this particular work, you started writing it quite early on, and it was published quite recently this year. Do you usually write about so-called “crime themes”?
Grace: Primarily as a writer, I like to challenge myself to write different things in different genres. So I do write a lot of poetry. And I have now ventured into prose as well. Each of my books are remarkably quite different from each other. So this is something that I started 17 years ago, it sort of is the first manuscript that I tried to write. The other novels that I have since published are quite different. So the subsequent ones, The Wanderlusters, which is about the backstage lives of a modern circus, and the latest novel that I just published, it’s called White Cloud Mountain. It’s set in in South Korea, and it’s about self-actualisation.
This particular crime fiction genre that I attempted is really a way to challenge myself to plot something that is a little bit more complex than I normally would. So when I attempted writing this novel, I obviously faced a lot challenges. And with the good editors at Penguin, a lot of restructuring had to be done, a lot of chapters had to be moved around, details had to be fixed, and to be accurate. Because when it comes to something that is crime, and it’s sort of loosely based on real-life incidents, there is a responsibility on me as a writer to be accurate. So especially the Morecambe Bay cockling incident, it’s an actual tragedy that affects a lot of people. And I have a character who is somewhat associated with that, in that sense, I needed to be quite respectful to the material. So not only did I then try to delve myself into a lot of research, reading up on news reports, there was also a documentary about this incident, and I watched it. And, of course, the aspect of Chinatown itself, the location, I hope to pay justice to it in terms of it’s authenticity, because I did actually live in London, and I visited this location quite often during my stay.
Nabilah: What I am starting to realise from listening to you is that crime actually is not one thing. With your book, it’s kind of a gateway to quite a number of themes. And some of them, very much serious, and dealing with human rights and the minority experience overseas and the Chinese diasporic community.
But it’s kind of interesting, when you’re talking about plotting, when you think about crime authors, you always think about, like, very fast-moving action of always feeling like – every chapter, there needs to be a forward-moving momentum. And the kind of example that I can think of right now is the much-maligned like Dan Brown, and this idea of always moving towards the next mystery, the next mystery, and things like that. Were there those kinds of considerations when you were plotting?
Grace: I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, whom I read quite a lot when I was much younger. So one thing I feel that is quite important, not just in terms of the complex plotting and brisk pacing is clues. And how clues build up and add up to the conclusion. That should ideally, I feel, for a crime novel to have a satisfactory ending. So in that sense, there needs to be some form of closure at the end, so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated for having followed through this narrative in which there is already all this ambiguity. Yeah. It’s basically following breadcrumbs leading to the destination.
So The Arches of Gerrard Street is really the mixed genre novel, where crime is one of the elements of the book. As well as the journey of a character who starts off being a little bit naive and powerless, and learning more about the world, other people and finally, herself. So I wanted a narrative arc in which the discovery of the self is as important as the truth of the murder.
What I feel is that sometimes when we read crime fiction, or we watch movies based on crime, often the plotting is very important, the pacing is important, but the characters somehow are a little bit not nuanced. And I felt that that could be changed to make them a little bit much more rich, so that it’s not just (about) an investigator, but the repercussions of crime. It affects the families. It affects the people who care about the victims. It affects the community that has lost such a person. Because of the setting in Chinatown – it is an enclave. It is a place where people come and go. So for one to be missing in such a space or to have your life terminated prematurely, I felt like if the law does not help to find out the answers, then who would, right? It may be up to the families of the victims.
So I’m just going to read one paragraph from my novel, this dialogue is from Mr. Gan, who is the restaurant manager that employs Molly, she’s working there because she needs the money. And so what he’s saying, it’s about being a foreigner in a place where you really don’t have much rights. (reads excerpt)
Nabilah: Thanks for reading that. There are also quite a number of interesting female characters in your book. Do you mind sharing about your approach in terms of gender in this particular book?
Grace: Actually this novel is largely driven by the resources and the motivations of a couple of women. Molly is the protagonist. She is an undergraduate studying in Singapore, who is from Malaysia, from a small town in Batu Pahat. Then there are other characters, Mandy is one of them. I cannot give spoilers, but she is quite important in giving clues to why Donald, the victim, was murdered. Her background story is a little bit sad. And also she is not completely innocent in a sense. Then there is Ee-Ling, from Hong Kong, and basically, she is the street savvy lady who then helps Molly navigate the space of Chinatown by giving her a job and then somehow being a catalyst in something. So it’s a very much female-driven plot, where the males are not the drivers of this engine, but the females are. So it is not typically like a Dan Brown narrative in which the female basically is the sidekick to the wise investigator male who then runs around the city and solves everything, but it’s actually the females who then fill in the clues and help each other out.
Nabilah: I’m curious to know who have your readers been? Because it’s published by Penguin, and the cover is really striking as well – it’s quite interesting to think about who would be attracted by the cover and what people think about Chinatown, and a Chinese person in Chinatown. What are your thoughts?
Grace: So the setting of Chinatown, it carries its own baggage. I mean, it is exotic. So luckily, I’m not a white male. (laughs) I’m a Chinese person. So the sense in which– I’m trying to own my own exoticism and trying to paint a place in which I actually do know, because I didn’t live in Chinatown, but I lived in London. And it’s a space in which I’m intimately very familiar with, because I’m there almost every week for six years – going there to buy my groceries, and so on and so forth. I understand that there is an element of the Orient, but it is a colourful setting. So it’s not just for the sake of, you know, just to dress up a setting. But really, it is a space in which I wanted to give voice to the voiceless, especially the ones who are illegal immigrants or even just not even illegal, they could be migrants who just feel a bit more disenfranchised, no matter how many years they live in the UK. So Mr. Gan, whom I read from the excerpt, he has lived there for over a decade, and he still feels as though he could never really fit in. And this is kind of a perception that a lot of Asians, a lot of Chinese, people who live in countries that are predominantly white, they never really feel that they fit in. The setting is actually very crucial to this story in which I really just hope that I write from the perspective of someone who is Asian, and trying to speak the voice of an Asian.
Nabilah: You’ve basically been talking about your own entry point into writing in the crime genre. So what advice would you give someone who might be interested to write in this genre, what is some advice that you might have for them?
Grace: When I started writing this, I started with one scene, and that was the shooting. And then from then on, I knew the there were a few characters that would be very prominent, and the characterisation of the victim and the characterisation of Molly, the investigator and protagonist, stood out for me. I had only these few elements when I started. I had strong characters, I had a setting, I had an event. And then I needed to string them all up together.
Actually, it didn’t begin the way it is. Right now it is in multiple voices. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Halfway through into the novel, I think I was writing in possibly all in first-person or something, I can’t remember. But I completely restructured the whole novel at some point. So my advice I would give to writers attempting to write crime fiction is to think very clearly, what inciting incident they want, what are the challenges, what is the exposition, and then what is the resolution they hope to give to the reader. And along the way, there must be all these clues that would fit into the puzzle. So plotting is extremely important – whether you plot at the beginning, or you plot halfway. It is quite difficult to plot at the end, because then you have to rewrite the whole novel. So plotting is extremely important in terms of, I would say, some kind of a mapping. They would do some kind of mapping in which characters are related to this, interact with this obstacle. So really, I would say, when you watch a crime movie, where you have these charts of the police, with who does what and what – actually that was my plotting scheme as well. I had to plot a few chapters into it because I realised that I wasn’t just writing about someone being murdered, and then that was it. But I needed someone to solve the murder and it needed a lot of events and people hiding secrets that will then somehow give clues that will evolve towards the resolution of a truth. So yes, plotting is extremely important.
Nabilah: Right? I have one surprise question if you are game. I’m just curious to know – because the theme of this year’s Festival is “Guilty Pleasures”, right? What is your guilty pleasure?
Grace: Hmm. I think during the COVID situation right, I have been not as prolific as I want to. I know two novels came out this year, but it’s because there were delays in publishing. Yeah, I should be writing more than I am doing, but I’m not. I indulge in movies or TV dramas. Also because watching movies and TV dramas, it helps me with plotting. It helps me understand how characters are driven by a hidden agenda, their backstories and all that. So I came from a theatre studies background, and that also helped me to understand characters much more intimately. Since I can go to a play right now, you know, the best other option of visual storytelling is movies and TV.
Nabilah: So even though you started off by kind of guiltily admitting that you’ve not been writing, you’re still doing work lah?
Grace: (laughs) No, I’m not writing as much as I should. But I mean, if editing is considered writing– but it’s not the same. Yeah, you know.
Nabilah: Is there anything that you want to add?
Grace: Do pick up The Arches of Gerrard Street. Keep an open mind to what it will offer you and I hope you enjoy reading it.
Nabilah: Great. Thank you so much Grace, for sharing more about your book. Yeah. Thanks for being with us.
Grace: Thank you. Thank you Nabilah.
Catch Grace Chia at the panel Crime And The City on 7 Nov 2021, alongside writers Håkan Nesser and Neil Humphreys. More on Grace and her involvement in SWF here. Singapore Writers Festival 2021 takes place from 5 to 14 November 2021.
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About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.