This week we have mentioned that The Red Thread, the first instalment in Dawn Farnham’s The Straits Quartet is available for free from iBooks. After hearing from Monsoon’s publisher, we thought we would ask the author a few questions as well!
Can you describe The Straits Quartet to your new readers?
This is the story of the collision of worlds and cultures.
The story of Scottish Charlotte and Chinese Zhen, the lovers whose lives intertwine over twenty tumultuous years, stitched into the rich tapestry of mid 19th century colonial Southeast Asia. A story of ambition, greed, family intrigue, incest, passion – and enduring love.
What was the inspiration behind the books?
When I first moved to Singapore as the proverbial ‘trailing spouse’ I joined the Friends of the Museums and became a docent (guide) in the Asian Civilisations Museum. The training programme and subsequent guiding led me to the discovery of the rich diversity of the unique Southeast Asian mix of cultures and the stories of their peoples. I began to understand that few people understood the intricate world of Chinese Singapore in the 19th Century. A portrait on the wall of the museum showed a couple – a Chinese couple on their wedding day. Except that one was not Chinese. The bride was Peranakan, the Straits-born Chinese – a mix of Malay and Chinese cultures – who had lived for centuries in Southeast Asia and the groom was from provincial China, a poor but educated boy straight off the boat. Neither could speak to the other. He was necessary to renew the blood of the Straits Chinese and tie it back to China by his language knowledge – and thus were his fortunes made. I began to imagine a story where that young Chinese man, betrothed into that strange, incomprehensible family, would meet and fall in love with a young white woman and what dramatic possibilities and fascinations it held for a novel. Fleshing it out with the real-life characters of the day was the fun part.
How did you research the background to the series?
I had a great deal of historical background presented to me by the museums’ docent training programme: colonial life, the Straits Chinese, Malay world, etc. Then I found a map of Singapore – the original map of the first architect and surveyor of Singapore – George Coleman (who features prominently in the first and second books alongside his Dutch/Javanese mistress) and could actually see where everyone lived. The story came alive then and I began drawing pictures in my head and on the map. The river, Chinatown and the old colonial district of Singapore today are, topographically speaking, remarkably unchanged. You can still walk the streets of that map. The names are the same, the temples are still there. I visited them all.
After that I read two very important books: ‘An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore’ by Charles Buckley and ‘A Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore’ by Straits Chinese writer Song Ong Siang. These books contain a wealth of detailed chronological events from Singapore’s past told from both sides of the cultural divide. Anything additional I needed – diaries, memoirs, cultural studies – were to be found in the extensive and wonderfully organized reference section of the National Library of Singapore which I salute.