Thrilling Cities, Hearts of Glass6 min read

Susan Blumberg-Kason interviews Ivy Ngeow about her new Macau-noir novel

I first came across London-based author Ivy Ngeow last year just after the publication of her second novel, Heart of Glass, set in early 1980s Macau. An architect by day, Ngeow is a graduate of the Middlesex University Writing MA program and has contributed to Marie Claire, The Star and The New Straits Times, among other publications. She won first prize in the Commonwealth Essay Writing Competitions in 1994 and the Barnes and Noble Career Writing competition in 1998. She was also shortlisted for the David TK Wong Fellowship in 1998 and the Ian St. James Award in 1999. Ngeow recently sat down to answer these questions by email about Macau, music, and eerie “olde worlde” relics in Hong Kong.

You write about early 1980s Macau. Not only has there been little set in Macau in terms of fiction, but that period is also special since it’s during the early days of development. How did you research that period?

I found a very old book by Ian Fleming called Thrilling Cities (1963) in Chowrasta Market in Penang, Malaysia, whose strapline was “Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, takes you on an offbeat tour of the flesh pots of Far Asia and America.” It had fascinating, lurid, sexy black-and-white photographs of “thrilling cities” which included Chicago and Macau in the golden days of the 1950s and 1960s.

I can picture both places from back then through photos I’ve seen from my home city of Chicago and my family’s photos from 1965 Macau. The ones in Fleming’s book must have been stunning and quite noir. Speaking of Chicago, your protagonist Li-an is a singer in the Windy City, where she meets an Italian man name Paolo and gets an offer she can’t resist: to move to Macau and sing there. What made you set your story in the music scene? Do you have a background in music? 

I am a fully-qualified musician, a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter. I have won fifth prize in the UK’s Music Industry Charts (the MIC award) for my original song, ‘Celebrity.’ In the noughties I had a band called Satsuma playing my own original dance music (quirky, funky, groove-based urban beats). We gigged in London in top venues. Music is a big theme for me because like any of the arts, it’s obsessive-compulsive and nothing must get in the way of someone who is crazy about music. I identify with that because I forget everything when I am playing. I don’t even know that three hours have gone by.

Macau has always had a dark edge. You write about the 1980s underworld in Heart of Glass. In the 90s there was gang warfare and in the 2000s it became the gambling capital of the world. When you think of noir in Macau, what kind of images come to your mind?

Smuggling, drug crimes, girls in trouble, warring gangs, and gambling.

A couple of years ago you won the prestigious Proverse Award in Hong Kong. I’ve worked with other Proverse Award recipients like James Tam and Feng Shi-chun, both of whom are based in Hong Kong. But you grew up in Malaysia and now live in the UK. How did you learn about the award and do you have ties to Hong Kong?

Apart from old family friends, I have no ties with Hong Kong. I knew my first novel was controversial because it raised the themes of postcolonialism, greed and corruption in modern Asia. I wanted it to go to an Asian publisher who would just “get it” and be unafraid to put it out for its esoteric nature, and of course who believed in me.

You received your award at the Helena May, an old colonial women’s residential hotel. I remember it from before the Handover: only outsiders could stay there, and men could only visit during certain hours. Can you talk about the Helena May and when you received your award? What are some of your lasting images of the Helena May?

It was like 1949 and time had stood still. It was a parallel world to where I was staying, in the student district of Sai Ying Pun (noisy, crowded, mad as all of Hong Kong is). In the Helena May, by contrast, there was an “olde worlde” elegance and charm, the colonial world, opulent, silent. 

Your first novel, Cry of the Flying Rhino, for which you won the Proverse Award, is set in 1990s Malaysia. And of course your second book, Heart of Glass, is set in Macau a decade before then. Some writers worry about being pigeonholed. What do you think about being known as the writer who sets her stories in lesser-known parts of Asia in the past? And is that really such a bad thing?

I believe it is a positive thing. Writing about Asia or Asians is naturally something close to me. It is what I have grown up with. I am equally comfortable with writing about the West and white people because firstly, I have lived in the West for more than half my life and secondly, a good story and great characterization will transcend all boundaries and culture. Human values, the human condition, the struggle for truth and survival is universal. The longer I live in a huge, diverse city, the more I realize people are more similar than different.

Yes! So, what’s next?

I am working on an epic novel set in Thailand and Cambodia, but mostly London, in the present time, on the themes of memory, identity, survival and desire. A man wakes up in a hospital not knowing where he is or who he is, unrecognizable and horribly disfigured from burns and serious injuries. They tell him he is in Southern Thailand and his memory will return, but it does not. His wife Phoebe flies with him back to London to  live with her parents in Fulham until their baby is born and the tenants move out of their flat. One day, he is baffled when he is beaten up by Phoebe’s neurologist father for something he didn’t do, and is told not to tell anyone. He falls over, and when he comes to, he remembers everything. He knows who he is, and why he is being attacked. But he is trapped. He has to live the life of the man they think he is. How does he escape? ∎

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ivy Ngeow, Heart of Glass (Unbound Digital, June 2018).