17A Keong Saik Road by Charmaine Leung

My enduring love affair with Keong Saik Road was what led me to pick up Charmaine Leung’s memoir. I breezed through it in a day, thanks to the straightforward and accessible narrative and writing style. Through a series of flashbacks, Leung recounts not just her own experience of growing up in the seedy, red-light district, but her mother’s journey as a child who was put up for sale and how she eventually became a madame of a brothel. 

While Leung’s personal story was compelling, it got a bit too draggy for my liking at some points. What got me hooked, though were the glimpses into the history of Keong Saik Road as a former red-light district, as well as the stories of the ma jiepei pa zai and the dai gu liong — the working girls who lived and breathed in these very same streets. I found myself trying to imagine their lives and locate the brothels amidst the now-gentrified Keong Saik Road that I am familiar with. Whether one finds Leung’s personal story relatable, her memoir is still very much relevant for it sheds light on the lives of the women of Keong Saik Road, whose voices would otherwise be obscured. All in all, I would say 17A is essential reading for anyone who is interested in a slice of Singapore’s history — one that is not typically found in the textbooks. 

by Dawn Tan

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