Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology
Lethe Press, 2012
Charles Tan, a Philippines-based member of the speculative fiction writing and blogging community, has brought together a wonderful buffet of spec-fic stories in this collection, the third that he’s compiled (the earlier two are The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009 and Philippine Speculative Sampler).
This time, he’s focused on stories by Filipino-Chinese writers. As is true throughout Southeast Asia, people of Chinese ethnic origins are integral to the history of the Philippines. Some came to the Philippines centuries ago and intermarried with Spanish colonists and members of the local population; others came during the first half of the twentieth century, when the nation was an American protectorate. And people continue to emigrate from China to the Philippines today.
In his introduction, Tan brings up the issue of who’s considered Filipino-Chinese:
Heritage is always a tricky subject--my family being a good example of Chinese purity and prejudice: whenever I’d bring a friend to the house, the first thing my parents would ask was whether they were Chinese or Filipino, and would speak about the latter with contempt. A lot of Filipino-Chinese families I know even forbid their children from marrying someone that wasn’t of “pure” Chinese blood (i.e. someone whose parents are both Chinese), even if they themselves had broken that taboo by marrying a Filipino.
“Pure,” by Isabel Yap, addresses precisely this issue: teenaged Arrie drinks a “purifying” syrup from shady shop in Binondo (which Wikipedia will tell you is the oldest Chinatown in the world) when the boy she’s crushing on tells her his family doesn’t want him to date anyone who isn’t pure Chinese. The outcome is unsurprising, but I enjoyed all the details of modern adolescent life in Manila--habits, fashion, family relations, and friendships.
Erin Chupeco takes up the theme of who’s suitable dating material in “Ho-we” ("boyfriend"), but puts a hilarious spin on it, as the narrator’s Achi (oldest sister) and father spar over who Achi can date. Dad is not keen on Achi’s choices. Why can’t she find a nice minotaur from mainland China, like Di-chi, or a Taiwanese half-dragon, like Sa-chi? Dad’s trying to foist Gary Cheng on Achi--Gary’s father is a business colleague--even though Gary is a zombie. The story is excellent; I read it out loud to the teenagers in my family, who appreciated it thoroughly.
Many of the stories take place during or around funerals; my favorite of these was “The Stranger at my Grandmother’s Wake,” by Fidelis Tan, about a mysterious mourner. Others are about ghosts, including the stunning first story, “Two Women Worth Watching,” by Andrew Drilon. Faye is a TV star, but Mia has an even larger fan base . . . among the dead:
Mia is quite content with where she is right now. At ten years old, she had a total of fifty followers. The number grew as she got older, in ones and twos each year. She lucked out in high school, when she dated a third-generation legacy celebrity and managed to hijack his 1,562 viewers. They had been trailing him out of loyalty to his grandfather, and were growing bored anyway. Mia attended a concert in Araneta Coliseum and nabbed another couple thousand by getting arrested in front of a camera. She took a dance class in Malate, enchanted a hot gay barkada and picked up over three thousand deceased homosexuals . . . Mia is now pushing 60k.
Feeling inadequate when you contemplate your number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or website page views? Never mind: maybe you’re really big among the dead!
Gabriella Lee’s “August Moon” is a ghost story with a more traditional sort of twist; the viewpoint character wakes up, amnesiac, beside a coffin, and gradually the events that led to this outcome are revealed. In Kenneth Yu’s “Cricket,” a talking cricket has unwelcome words for Richard Chuang on the occasion of his mother’s death at “a venerable one hundred eight.” The narrator in Douglas Candano’s “The Way of Those Who Stayed Behind” has an equally disturbing experience when he comes from Canada to Manila upon the occasion of his grandmother’s death, though in his case it relates to discovery of a mysterious book expounding the tenets of a secret family religion.
And speaking of grandmothers, they’re another common element in these stories, whether as mourned matriarchs, as in Candano’s story, or as wise advisers, as in “Two Women Worth Watching.” In “Chopsticks,” by Mark Gregory Y. Yu, the purchase of a pair of porcelain chopsticks prompts all kinds of memories and stories from the grandmother in the family, including the story of a special pair of chopsticks the grandmother received when she emigrated to the Philippines in 1950.
Two of the stories have an erotic horror tinge to them: Christine Lao’s “Dimsum” (in which the roles of blood and milk are confused) and Margaret Kawsek’s “The Tiger Lady” (where it’s blood and semen). In both cases, young men, beware!
Two draw explicity on Philippine history. The first is the “The Captain’s Nephew,” by Paolo Chikiamco, in which Captain Paua tries to enlist a tikbalang--a creature from Philippine folklore--to fight against the Spanish in the Philippine Revolution. The second, Yvette Tan’s “The Fold Up Boy,” features the ghost of a boy who died in the Sangley Rebellion of 1603, in which some 20,000 Chinese were massacred. That second story tries to do perhaps a little too much, addressing not only the present-day focal character’s disconnection from her heritage, but also her family, while also throwing in the hint of a romantic element. I’d love to see it expanded into a YA novel, where all the themes and plot elements could receive their due.
Although none of the stories is exceptionally experimental in narrative style or language use, Chrystal Koo’s “The Perpetual Day,” which imagines a world suffering a pandemic of incurable insomnia, conveys the febrile, unfocused, semi-hallucinatory experience of chronic sleep deprivation, all the while developing a cast of characters and the personality of a neighborhood, which impressed me, and Kristine Ong Muslim uses the device of descriptions for the signs of the Chinese zodiac as a launch point for twelve micro-flash vignettes.
I highly recommend the collection; it’s a varied and entertaining set of stories. Come back and tell me which you like best!