'One of Singapore's finest living authors' South China Morning Post 'Simply glorious. Every nook and cranny of 1930s Singapore is brought richly to life' CATRIONA MCPHERSON 'Charming' RHYS BOWEN 'One of the most likeable heroines in modern literature' SCOTSMAN ________________ Has Su Lin summoned a tree demon who is now killing on her behalf? The overpoweringly fragrant flowers, snakelike vines and deadly fruit of the cannonball tree are enough to keep most people away. But when a piece of expensive photographic equipment is found nearby, on closer inspection Su Lin discovers the body of Mimi, her horrible relative who has been trying to blackmail her. Su Lin is not the only one to realise how much easier this death makes things for her in the new normal of life in Syonan (Japanese Occupied Singapore). And then more fortuitious deaths follow. But is someone really killing people on her account? As Su Lin contends with the fear and rancour of those around her, the resentment of former friends and a whistling demon, can she hope not only to survive but untangle the cannonball tree's secrets to prevent further deaths... and possibly turn the tide of the war? ________________ Praise for Ovidia Yu: 'Chen Su Lin is a true gem. Her slyly witty voice and her admirable, sometimes heartbreaking, practicality make her the most beguiling narrator heroine I've met in a long while ' Catriona McPherson ' Charming and fascinating with great authentic feel. Ovidia Yu's teenage Chinese sleuth gives us an insight into a very different culture and time. This book is exactly why I love historical novels ' Rhys Bowen 'A wonderful detective novel . . . a book that introduces one of the most likeable heroines in modern literature and should be on everyone's Must Read list' Scotsman 'Unassuming, brilliantly observant' SCMP 'Ovidia Yu's writing helped me peel back the layers to understand Singapore. The story and Chen Su Lin's initiative and tenacity, set against a backdrop of wartime Singapore, intrigued both the historian and the mystery lover in me' Kara Owens CMG CVO, British High Commissioner to Singapore
Release date: June 3, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 352
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The Cannonball Tree Mystery
Until the flyers started appearing.
The first I saw read,
US President Roosevelt & Brit PM Churchill & Chiang Kai-shek in Cairo talk combined forces against the Japs. The Allies are Coming. Hold on to Hope, brothers and sisters.
It was a poorly typed carbon copy and I didn’t take it seriously till a rash of official Japanese announcements claimed the Cairo Conference (a) didn’t take place, (b) was a complete failure, while (c) offering cash and extra rations as a reward to anyone who turned in the traitors producing the flyers.
In other words, what the flyers said was true or they wouldn’t have bothered to deny it.
After that, I watched out for them.
British, Canadian and American troops take back Italy! Hitler’s pal Mussolini is out. The tide is turning. Hold on, brothers and sisters.
I couldn’t help feeling encouraged, though even if the tide was turning in the West, Japanese boots still crushed the back of the East.
Then the flyers showed hope moving closer to home:
USA Marines crush Jap stronghold in the Gilbert islands. Japs Pacific blockade cracked! Don’t give up. Won’t be long now, brothers and sisters.
The official Japanese news announcements were silent on these events. But they no longer celebrated the glorious victories of their brothers in the West, and the authorities increased the bounty offered for information on the criminals who distributed printed lies.
So, of course, we went on believing them.
But, day to day, it was hard to believe that anything would ever change. The Japanese were using Singapore much as the British had. Our island’s natural deep-water port and strategic location made it the ideal hub from which to channel arms and supplies across the seas to Japanese-occupied territories all over the region.
But to hold their advantage, the Japanese forces had to consolidate their sea-to-land transition. India’s location at the tip of the Indian Ocean made it their ideal entry point to the South Asia mainland.
It was becoming clear why the Japanese had funded the formation of the Indian National Army (or Free Indian Army) with Indian PoWs captured in Malaya and Singapore. Indians would be sent to fight their brothers, leaving the Japanese to move in after the worst of the carnage. They already occupied India’s neighbour Burma, and would likely launch their attack from there. Even knowing that, the extensive border, along with the coast of the Bay of Bengal, made it impossible to prepare an adequate defence without more information.
And if British India fell to the Japanese, regardless of what Allied victories were won in the West, here in the East we would have Japanese bayonets at our necks for ever.
‘You people can’t even find out who’s leaving those damn flyers all over the place – and you want to investigate the army and the INA?’
‘The flyers are irritating, like mosquitoes. This is serious. You, girl,’ this was to me, ‘come back. Eat this. Don’t just put it into your mouth. Swallow it!’
Major Dewa watched me swallow a spoonful of the soup I had just brought him. For one crazy moment I thought of clutching my throat and making gagging sounds, just to see how the new chief of the Syonan Police Investigation Bureau would react. Of course I didn’t. That would have got me killed faster than any poison – and probably a lot more painfully.
‘Well, girl?’ Colonel Fujiwara was already halfway through his own soup.
‘The soup is delicious. I hope you’ll like it, sir,’ I said.
‘Ha! If he doesn’t want it, give me his bowl!’
Major Dewa glared at me as though waiting for the poison to take effect. Maybe he sensed how much I would have liked to poison him.
It was 5 p.m. on 31 December 1943, eve of 1944, in Syonan. Singapore Island, once the British Empire’s ‘Gibraltar of the East’, was now a supply port to the Japanese Empire.
We were in the Shori headquarters, the office and official residence of Colonel Fujiwara. His ceremonial photograph hung next to that of the Japanese Emperor in all schools, factories and offices. In person, his face was red and sweaty, and his belly was bigger than his chest. Colonel Fujiwara was fonder of food than of work. If it hadn’t been treasonous, I’d have said he would have been much better off – and happier – running a restaurant than an island.
However, Colonel Fujiwara was Syonan’s highest-ranking Japanese military administrator, and Major Dewa probably wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand what a crippled local girl was doing there.
‘The girl makes good soup,’ Colonel Fujiwara said.
‘You should have a cook and staff who have been vetted by the proper authorities. You know nothing of this girl—’
‘Miss Chen is the daughter of my late cousin,’ Hideki Tagawa said. ‘If you have any objection to her, you may address it to me.’
He had been so quiet in his corner of the room that the others had forgotten he was there. Hideki Tagawa was a small, dark man, who had a way of hunching and dipping his head as though he was trying not to be noticed. He had no official post in Colonel Fujiwara’s government, but those in the know feared him. Hideki Tagawa represented and reported directly to Prince Yasuhito Chichibu, Emperor Hirohito’s only brother. It was whispered that Hideki Tagawa had helped Prince Chichibu establish the military dictatorship in Japan. Also that he had instigated the assassination of the prime minister, Tsuyoshi Inukai, and steered Japan into the alliance with Nazi Germany, even though he had attended university in Great Britain. Now Hideki Tagawa was part of the Kin No Yuri or ‘Golden Lily’ organisation that collected ‘donations’ from Japan’s colonies to finance the Japanese war effort.
‘I’m surprised to see you here too, Tagawa,’ Major Dewa said. ‘It is only one of the many things that surprises me.’
Did the clumsily officious Major Dewa know he was casting suspicion on one of the best-connected (and probably most dangerous) men in the Japanese military empire?
Colonel Fujiwara and Joben and Ima Kobata stared at Hideki Tagawa. They reminded me of children half afraid a dog might bite and half hoping it would. Major Dewa’s aide moved a hand to his pistol, as though preparing to defend his master.
Hideki Tagawa bowed slightly and Major Dewa looked triumphant.
We could hear the trucks of soldiers waiting outside. They were en route to their festive dinner, but it looked and sounded like a coup – maybe intentionally.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the Syonan Police Investigation Bureau was investigating the Shori headquarters. In the past year, some bizarre things had happened there. A senior officer had committed suicide, the editor of the Syonan Weekly had vanished and the entire household staff had been fired.
Colonel Fujiwara was not cooperative. The assassination attempt against him by one of his own officers had left him paranoid and suspicious. Now he trusted only me and Hideki Tagawa because we’d foiled the would-be killer. The colonel had even rejected the trained staff provided by the military. He had brought family from Japan to manage his household for him.
Joben Kobata, bored and half asleep in a chair next to Colonel Fujiwara, was broad-faced and chubby. He looked enough like the colonel to be his son, but was married to his daughter, Ima. The two men got along well, chiefly because they shared a love of comfort and a dislike of work. Ima was from the colonel’s first marriage. His second wife had left no children, and the third was in Japan with his younger son and daughter.
Ima Kobata’s complexion was fair and she had thick brown hair. She wore a lot of powder and had drawn-in eyebrows, giving the impression she was dressed up for a special occasion. She always looked like that. The powder was because she had spots. She had her father’s chubby face and chunky build and wasn’t much taller than me, though almost three times as broad.
‘In fact this girl makes better soup than you will get anywhere else on this island!’ Colonel Fujiwara said loudly. ‘You’re mad if you think Ebisu-chan wants to poison me. She saved my life – not one of your over-trained soldiers!’
Colonel Fujiwara called me ‘Ebisu’ because childhood polio had left me with a limp, like the god of good fortune. He trusted me because – well, because I’d saved his life. I hadn’t intended to, but it’s difficult to think straight under pressure.
I was twenty-four years old and didn’t know if I would live to see twenty-five. Or even next week. I had just discovered that my long-dead mother had not only been Japanese but a cousin of Hideki Tagawa. In fact, my presence in the Shori headquarters was a favour to Hideki Tagawa, who also had rooms there.
I was assistant editor of the English-language Syonan Weekly, and helped with the management of the household since Ima spoke little English and no local dialects.
‘Her soup is irrelevant. She should not be here.’
Well, Major Dewa shouldn’t still have been there either.
Even I knew that when Colonel Fujiwara said, ‘I’m going to take a break to have some soup. Will you join me?’ It was a dismissal, and the correct thing to say was ‘Thank you, but I was just leaving,’ and bow your way out.
After all, others were waiting for their audience with Colonel Fujiwara. The New Year’s Eve meetings were a formality for the island’s top brass to congratulate Colonel Fujiwara on a successful year and exchange good wishes for 1944.
The hall and grounds were filled with officials and administrators waiting their turn to bow and present the small gifts that would formally wipe out all errors of 1943. Ceremonially, at least, the new year would start with a clean slate.
But still Major Dewa stayed. He seemed determined not to leave until Colonel Fujiwara had signed the authorisation forms he’d brought. ‘I tried to make appointments to meet you. Many, many times I tried. But your people always say you’re too busy. I don’t want this swept under the carpet because the year is over.’
Major Dewa had announced his intention of eradicating all corrupt officials from the Syonan administration. This meant that while all officials applauded him, none helped him. It was impossible to get on without back-door help and black-market goods.
‘You’re chief of local investigations. Go and investigate whatever you want!’
‘The local administrators won’t cooperate. But once you sign these forms, the police can force them to do so.’
‘Leave the papers. I’ll look at them tomorrow.’
‘Sir, tomorrow you have the official photograph ceremony. I don’t want to inconvenience you.’
‘You are already inconveniencing me. I’ll deal with them in the New Year. Give them to Kobata.’
Colonel Dewa looked at Joben Kobata. ‘Sir, if you authorise these investigations now, we can start immediately. No more waste of time.’
‘The worst part of this war is all the nobodies that crawl out of the mud and think themselves important just because somebody gave them a uniform,’ Joben Kobata said. He held out a hand for the papers, not bothering to stand up. ‘Come on, bring them over here.’
Major Dewa held on to his forms. ‘I just want to get all this paperwork cleared up before the new year.’
‘This is no time for work,’ Colonel Fujiwara said. ‘It’s New Year’s Eve, man!’
‘Once you’ve signed, you can leave the work to me.’
‘Father, a lot of people are still waiting to see you,’ Ima said.
Major Dewa should have been in and out of the office in less than fifteen minutes but still he hung on. ‘We cannot close the year’s records without resolving the matter of the missing funds and the pineapple grenades.’
The two captured American grenades had supposedly been sent to the Shori headquarters for inspection – and vanished. ‘If you’re looking for missing things, see if you can find our missing photographer while you’re at it,’ Joben said. ‘Ryu Takahashi. Dark-skinned, dirty, lazy, drinks too much and doesn’t wash very often …’
Colonel Fujiwara laughed but Major Dewa ploughed on, ‘We say “missing” or “lost”, rather than stolen, because there may have been an administrative error. They were definitely brought here after being captured from American soldiers in the Philippines. They were signed for by your office. Two yellow pineapple grenades.’
‘Are you accusing me of stealing them?’ Colonel Fujiwara said. His voice was suddenly very calm, a frightening contrast to his earlier manner.
‘Of course not, sir.’ Major Dewa looked taken aback. ‘But they are to be sent to Japan. The technicians are waiting to work on them. I must trace them—’
‘Even if they were brought here, they are not here now. Unless you’re saying I ate your pineapple grenades as a snack.’ Colonel Fujiwara laughed at his joke.
Major Dewa did not. ‘Sir, you are not the only one with access to your office.’ His eyes went around the room.
‘They’re probably in the snake shrine,’ Joben Kobata said.
The snake shrine had stood under the cannonball tree at the back of the building since before the British colonials had arrived. It housed either a snake spirit or the spirit of someone killed by a snake. Or it might have been a shrine to the tree itself. The cannonball flowers look like the hooded nāga, the snake, and the tree is sacred to several religions.
Anyway, people sometimes left protection offerings there. I did, too. I wasn’t particularly superstitious, but when there’s a war on it doesn’t hurt to cover all your bases. And if monkeys or squirrels ate the spoonful of rice or slice of fruit I left, that suited me fine.
‘The snake shrine?’ Major Dewa looked suspicious,
‘The servants leave offerings there. Whenever something goes missing here, they say the snake spirit must have taken it. Do you want to check it for your pineapples? It’s beyond the kitchen garden, behind the bamboo and banana trees.’
‘Do things often go missing here?’
‘It’s the servants,’ Ima said. ‘They’ll say anything. They’re the ones stealing things and lying about it. Please, Father, a lot more people are waiting to see you. Some of them have other stops to make.’
‘Just sign these.’ Major Dewa went up to Colonel Fujiwara’s desk but suddenly stopped and sniffed. ‘What’s that smell?’
It was the strong, strange fragrance of cannonball flowers arranged on the table behind the colonel. Since I’d told Ima their scent kept snakes and mosquitoes away, she’d insisted on always having some in the house.
‘Haru! Get rid of those ugly flowers. They smell poisonous!’
His aide, in defiance of protocol, walked behind Colonel Fujiwara and reached for the vase. Colonel Fujiwara placed a hand on it, stopping him. But the man, in an even greater defiance of protocol, grasped the colonel’s wrist and removed it.
‘It’s for your protection, sir,’ Major Dewa said. ‘Security is important. You never know who can be trusted. Or who may be bribed.’
‘Damn you, dog!’ Colonel Fujiwara swore. ‘You are a dead man!’
Joben took this literally. He took his gun and shot Major Dewa’s aide in the chest. The man dropped the vase, collapsed against the wall and slid to the floor.
‘Score!’ Joben crowed, like a boy who had catapulted a bird.
‘How dare you? You had no right! I will take this up with the highest authorities!’ Major Dewa’s rage made his voice squeak.
I stared at the man on the floor till Hideki Tagawa, suddenly next to me, said, ‘Su Lin.’
‘If there’s any more soup I would like some.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I answered automatically, but didn’t move. Like the others, I was staring at the man on the floor, who was trying to say something through the blood bubbling out of his mouth.
‘Now.’ Hideki Tagawa took my arm and pulled me roughly to the door.
As he pushed me out, I heard Colonel Fujiwara say, ‘Clean up the mess.’
I heard the second shot through the closed door.
I was still shaking when I reached the kitchen. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the Japanese killed people. They killed people for not bowing low enough, for not understanding Japanese or for having been born male. But I’d allowed myself to believe the worst was over. They’d said the war was over for us and we were safe as long as we served the great Japanese Empire.
At least, I’d come to believe the Shori headquarters was a bubble of safety.
The house-boys and the maids looked almost asleep on their feet. It was already three hours past the time they normally finished work, and they had spent days scrubbing down every part of the building, as well as setting up the tents on the grounds in front of the house for the expected visitors.
‘You can go back to your quarters,’ I told them.
I felt responsible for them because I was the one who had interviewed and hired these children. None looked over sixteen, and I suspected Tanis, the fastest on his feet and best at catching and killing chickens, was closer to twelve, though he claimed to be ‘almost sixteen’. I knew he desperately needed the pay and the protection of working for the Shori headquarters because his father had been killed and he was responsible for his mother and younger siblings.
It was impossible to find experienced adult staff because the Japanese had made a point of killing or locking up people who seemed good at anything. I was lucky that childhood polio had left me with a crippled leg. As I was short and skinny as well as crippled, I didn’t look like a threat.
‘There are still people outside,’ Xiao Yu, one of the maids, said.
‘Go. Make sure you get some rest. There will be many more people coming tomorrow and you must clean up tonight’s mess before they arrive. Wash first. I’ll come and lock the doors in half an hour.’
In his paranoia about the people around him, Colonel Fujiwara insisted the house staff were locked into their quarters behind the main house every night till 5 a.m. when the day guards came on shift.
Once I had the kitchen to myself, I checked the soup stock. I doubted Hideki Tagawa really wanted soup, but if he or anyone else did, I had only to strain some into a bowl, then throw in bean sprouts, dried seaweed and buckwheat noodles to make Toshikoshi-soba, symbolising longevity. Having grown up in a traditional household, I always had a stockpot waiting for fish heads, chicken claws and necks, vegetable peelings and leftovers. Tomorrow I planned to make ozouni, a traditional New Year’s Day soup dish. I would add mochi balls, because their stretchiness signified longevity. Was I really wishing longevity on our oppressors? Well, I was quite fond of mochi. Sometimes you just have to focus on the immediate.
The kitchen window slats and both doors stood open to let in the cooling night air. It wasn’t as hot as usual in Singapore – sorry, Syonan – because the rains had just come and gone. The night outside was dark and calm, apart from the whirring of insects and the rustle of night hunters.
It seemed impossible that a man had just been shot upstairs.
Suddenly I wanted to go out into the night and disappear. I could just walk out of the back gate and into the jungle-lined slopes linking Mount Faber and Frangipani Hill and never come back. But where would I go? Back east to Chen Mansion, where my whole family might be punished for hiding me? Into the jungles to scavenge?
I’d thought myself safe here, with guards at the front gate and the high security over the whole district. Even the wilderness beyond the fencing acted as an additional layer of security around Colonel Fujiwara, who claimed he was here to protect us.
What was Major Dewa going to do now? This was a hundred times worse than not getting his authorisation forms signed. Would he arrest Joben? Would Joben shoot him too?
If only Major Dewa had accepted and praised Colonel Fujiwara’s sake and presented his request more obsequiously, the colonel would probably have signed everything without looking. But confrontation made him cross and determined to dig in his heels, like a child intending to make as much trouble as he can. Having Joben around didn’t help either.
And what about the poor man Joben had shot? But I wasn’t going to think about him. The only way to survive is by not driving yourself mad over things you can’t control. That’s why I didn’t let myself think about my family, Chief Inspector Le Froy and all my friends who were missing or in prison.
But I could never put Ah Ma, my grandmother Chen Tai, completely out of my mind. It was she, the controlling brain behind the Chen family’s black-market empire, who’d kept me despite fortune-tellers telling her I was bad luck. Instead of putting me down a well, as they’d recommended, she’d sent me to learn English at the Mission Centre because ‘Su Lin will have to earn a living. Nobody will marry her with a leg like that.’
Later, reading the early signs, my grandmother apprenticed me to a Japanese hairdresser to learn Japanese. I’ve always been able to pick up languages quickly – growing up listening to the mishmash of Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and English that makes up the Singlish patois probably helped.
It was thanks to Ah Ma that I spoke and translated Japanese well enough to work at the Shori headquarters and write for the Syonan Weekly. I owed her for that – even though she’d finally admitted cutting off my father for refusing to leave his pregnant Japanese wife.
According to Hideki Tagawa, my late mother Ryoko came from noble samurai li. . .
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