Literature and Historical Fiction Books Southeast Asia 

The Philippines, Malaysia,

Burma / Myanmar, Thailand and Singapore  

 

Malaysia

 

And I think writing can be a political act, if only to let those people accountable know they are being watched. Literature can be a conscience.

Miguel Syjuco

 

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng, 2012

Malaysia, 1951. Retired Judge Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred survivor of a Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands. There she discovers 'The garden of Evening Mists', the only Japanese garden in Malaysia. The owner and creator of the garden is the enigmatic Aritomo, who was once the former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in a Japanese war camp. Aritomo refuses at first, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon comes”. Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

 

Kirkus

"Grace and empathy infuse this melancholy lanscape of complex loyalties enfolded by brutal history, creating a novel of peculiar, mysterious, tragic beauty.”

 

Man Asian Literary Prize (2012)

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng, 2007

The novel is set in Penang Malaysia in the years just before and during the Second World War and the Japanese occupation.  Sixteen year old Philip Hutton is the child of a Chinese mother and a British father, who is the head of a big trading company. But Philip feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He befriends a mysterious Japanese diplomat and aikido master, Hayato Endo. He shows his new friend Penang and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language, Zen meditation and trains him in the art of aikido. 

But when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted mentor has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must decide whether to join the resistance against the Japanese or show his loyalty to Endo by collaborating with the occupying army.

Whatever choice he will make, at the end he has to risk everything to save those that he has placed in danger.

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Other Bestsellers and Recommended Books  

- based on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews in journals -
The Best Historical Fiction Southeast Asia Rani Manicka The Rice Mother

The Rice Mother

Rani Manicka, 2004

Historical fiction

This is the story of Lakshmi who moves from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Malaysia when she is fourteen. During the turbulent years before and after the second World War she raises a family and tries to secure a good future for the ones she loves. 

The Ghost Bride

Set in Malaya in the 1890’s Li Lan is offered to marry Lim Tian Chian. But Lim Tiang is dead.

According to the old tradition a ghost bride appeases vengeful spirits from the deceased. After drinking a potion Li Lan is transferred to a ghost world and the lives of Lim Tian and her deceased mother.

The Best Historical Fiction Malaysia The Ghost Bride Yangsze Choo

Yangsze Choo

 2014

Historical Fiction

The Best Literature Books Malaysia Preeta Samarasan  Evening Is the Whole Day

Evening is the Whole Day

Preeta Samarasan, 2009

Family Saga

As the story unfolds we learn about the lives and secrets of the Rajasekharan family members and Chellam, the servant girl. What was Chellam's unforgivable crime? Why did the eldest daughter leave the country? What is Appa - the family patriarch - hiding from his wife and his children?

The Best Historical Fiction Southeast Asia Tash Aw The Harmony Silk Factory

The Harmony Silk Factory

Tash Aw,   2006

Historical Fiction

Set in Malaysia in the 1930s and 1940s, just before the invasion of Japan, this book is about three men who love Snow Soong. Johnny, who uses The Harmony Silk Factory as a front for his illegal business, The Englishman Peter and Kunichika, a Japanese officer.

The Philippines

About 82 million Filipino’s are living in an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. They were first colonised by Spain in 1521, then by the Americans in 1898, and by the Japanese in 1941. Philippine literature focus on the country’s wealth of ethnic traditions and themes follow its history of colonisation, the influences of the Spanish , the Second World War and the subsequent role of the US in Filipino politics.

 

Ilustrado - Miguel Syjuco, 2008

It begins with a body. On a clear day in the winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River. Taken from the world is the controversial writer of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and Crispin's only friend, sets out for Manila to investigate.

 

To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, piecing together Salvador’s story.The result is a rich and dramatic family saga of four generations, tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves.”

 

'Illustrado' won the Man Asian Literary Prize of 2008

 

"Ilustrado pushed readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging. Despite its various comic turns, it is ultimately a tragedy – a raw reminder of the fact that we can never, really, find our way back home.”  - The Financial Times

Playing with Water - James Hamilton-Paterson, 1997

This is the personal story of the author who went to the Philippines and lived for years in solitude on an tropical island. Paterson lived in a hut on stilts on top of a jungly hill, surrounded by coral strands and volcanic cliffs. He survived by fishing and by drinking rainwater.

It describes the hard beauty of the sea, the animals that live in them, and the fishermen who make a living among the labyrinth of islands that make up the Philippines.

Beyond descriptions of surviving on a desolated island, the book also narrates about life in the class-bound country as a whole. “For it is in places like this rather than Manila hat the underlying political and cultural reality of the Philippines may be seen”.

 

From Hamilton-Paterson own site:

“My intrigued involvement with the local culture laid the foundations for my later book America’s Boy”.

America’s Boy: A Century of Colonialism in the Philippines - James Hamilton-Paterson,1999

Gives an impressive insight in the history of the Philippines.

James Hamilton-Paterson lived in the Philippines for 18 years. He witnessed the peak and then the downfall of the Marcos regime. Even after Marcos the author observed a persistent nostalgia for the Marcos years among Filipinos. 

In this book Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos emerge not simply as the caricature despots of the popular press but as products of a culture that for centuries had functioned through strong tribal personalities who wielded power and dispensed favors. Imelda's bravura shopping expeditions and Ferdinand's crony capitalism become more understandable. He also makes clear that not just Filipino culture but also the US were responsible for the Marcoses' long-lived kleptocracy, because they needed a pro-Washington ally who could provide extensive military facilities for the expanding war in Vietnam. President Reagan and his wife remained close personal friends and supporters of the Marcos family up to the end.

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Other Bestsellers and Recommended Books  

- based on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews in journals -

The Last Time I Saw Mother

Caridad receives a letter from her mother in Manilla to visit her. Will Caridad finally learn the secrets of the past?

Arlene J. Chai  1997

The Best Literature The Philippines

Dusk

F. Sionil Jose

Historical fiction

F. Sionil Jose, born in 1924,  is one of the most famous authors of the Philippines. His stories are are about the effect of class struggle and colonialism on society.

One of his best known writing is the Rosales Saga, that consists of five novels spanning a hundred years Philippine history. ‘Dusk’ ( published as Po’on in the Philippines) is the first part of this saga and set in the 1880’s narrates the story of the Samson family.

The Best Historical Fiction Southeast Asia Dusk Sionil Jose

The Umbrella Country

Bino A. Realuyo, 1999

In the chaotic street life of Manila we follow the story of eleven year old Gringo and his family. 

The revelation of secrets of their past trigger events that leave no one untouched.

The Best Literature The Philippines The Umbrella Country Bino A. Realuyo

The Mango Bride 

Marivi Soliven

 2013

Two Filipino women, Amparo and Beverly (a mail order bride), are trying to build a better life in America, adapting to the difficult immigrant circumstances and overcoming their troubled pasts.

The Best Literature Southeast Asia The Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven

Singapore

At one o’clock in the night Mei, a young Singaporean lawyer, receives a phone call.

Her English boyfriend Andy, working in Singapore as a teacher, is  arrested for masterminding a multi million dollar soccer gambling syndicate. According to the Singaporean justice system Andy has less than two weeks to prove his innocence.

Mei, together with her best friend Eugene tries to uncover the truth. But in doing so they must confront their own long hidden secrets. 

See more info about this book on amazon.com.

Foreign Bodies - Hwee Hwee Tan, 2000

“Tan’s lucid and wide-ranging first novel is a memorable portrait of disenchanted youth, a narrative that gains indelible resonance as the plot unfolds… This seductive novel moves with furious grace to a transcendent conclusion.”

— Publisher’s Weekly

In 2003 Hwee Hwee Tan published  Mammon Inc. 

 

Other Bestsellers and  Recommended Books  

- based on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews in journals -
Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan, 2014

Kevin Kwam is a popular contemporary author from Singapore. Crazy Rich Asians is his debut novel about three super-rich Chinese families and the gossip and scheming that occurs within the Asian jetset when Nicholas, the heir to one of the biggest fortunes in Asia, brings home his American-born Chinese girlfriend Rachel. 

The book was adapted into a movie

The best Asian Literature Singapore Kevin Kwan Crazy Rich Asians
A Different Sky - Meira Chand 2011

Spanning the period from the Chinatown riots in 1927 to the Malayan emergency in the mid-1950s this is the story of three young people living in Singapore, about the forbidden passion between Howard Burns and Mei Lan and Raj who wants to become a successful businessman.

Historical Fiction

The best Historical Fiction Asia Meira Chand A Different Sky

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder

Shamini Flint 2009

Mystery Novel

In this first book out of seven in the detective series Inspector Singh investigates the disappearance of a bride at the evening before her wedding. Did she run away to avoid an arranged marriage, or is there something more sinister afoot? When a corpse is found inspector Singh soon uncovers layer upon layer of deceit.

The best Mystery Books Southeast Asia Inspector Singh Shamini Flint

Asian literature is evolving with the people. It's always a reflection on what's happening to the culture at large. 

Kevin Kwan

Aunty Lee's Delights:

A Singaporean Mystery 

Rosie Lee is owner of a famous home-cooking restaurant in Singapore but she is also an amateur sleuth and when one of her guests fails to show at a dinner party and a body is found in one of Singapore's tourist havens, Rosie start a thrilling investigation into the  connection of these two events.

Ovidia Yu, 2013

Mystery, Detective

The best Mystery Books Southeast Asia Ovidia Yu Aunty Lee

Breaking The Tongue

Vyvyane Loh, 20o5

Historical Fiction

During the winter of 1941-42 when the Japanese army closed in on Singapore, Claude Lim, an ethnic Chinese, the British Jack Winchester and Ling-Li, a Chinese nurse try to defend the city all on their own personal way. After Singapore falls to the Japanese Claude, Ling Li and Jack try to flee afraid of the repercussions of the conquerors.

The best historical fiction Southeast Asia Vyvyane Loh

The Bondmaid

Catherine Lim, 1997

Historical Fiction

At the age of four peasant girl Han is sold as a bonded servant to the powerful House of Wu. Over the years Han forms a bond with master Wu. Their friendship becomes a doomed love when Wu moves to the United States, and Han find herself stuck with jealous bondmaids and Wu's relatives in Singapore. Behind the scenes plots and schemes are being concocted to drive the two lovers apart.

The best historical fiction Southeast Asia Catherime Lim The Bondsmaid

Thailand

Bestsellers and Recommended Books 
- based on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews in journals -

Laos

Sightseeing

This well acclaimed book consists of seven stories. In ‘Farangs’ the son of a beachside motel owner commits the cardinal sin of falling for a pretty tourist.  The story ‘Sightseeing’, is about an holiday of a young man and is mother  come to terms with the fact that the mother is getting blind. In the story ‘Cockfighter’ a young girl witnesses her father’s valiant but foolhardy battle against a local delinquent.

The best literature Southeast Asia Sightseeing

Rattawut Lapcharoensap

2005

The best historical fiction Southeast Asia Four Reigns Pramoj

Four Reigns

Kukrit Pramoj

1998

Historical Fiction

This is the story of Phloi and her family, both inside and outside the palace walls in Bangkok during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) at the  end of the 19th century to the mid 1940s with the death of King Ananda Mahidol (King Rama VIII). This family saga narrates about the history of the kingdom, the social and political changes and the Japanese occupation of Thailand during the Second World War.

The best historical fiction  Southeast Asia Letters from Thailand Susan Fulop Fepner

Letters from Thailand

Susan Fulop Kepner, 2002

Tan Suang, a young man who leaves China to make his fortune in Thailand at the close of World War II,  writes letters to his mother in China about his life, the care for his family and his determination to become a successful businessman. All against the background of the difficulties of adapting to the rapidly changing Thai society.

The best mystery books  Southeast Asia Six and a Half Deadly Sins Cotterill

Six and a Half Deadly Sins

Colin Cotterill ,2015

Mystery Novel

The 10th and most recent book in the Dr. Siri series.

It is 1979 and Dr. Siri Paiboun, the retired coroner of Laos, receives an unmarked package in the mail. Inside is a handwoven pha sin, a colourful traditional skirt. But there is a severed human finger stitched into the sin’s lining? Who sent it to him, and why? Follow dr. Siri in his exciting investigation into the truth.

 

Myanmar / Burma

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan 2013

Winner of the Man Booker Prize

In the despair of a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the Burma Death Railway, surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle's young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, cholera and torture he receives a letter that will change his life forever.

The Glass Palace - Amitav Ghosh, 2000

This epic saga spans a century beginning at the British invasion in Burma in 1885 through the Second World War to the 1980’s. Primarily set in Burma and India it describes the evolving history before and during the years of the second world war and India's independence struggle.

The story is about Rajkumar, an Indian street orphan who falls in love with Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen. After the British soldiers force the Royal Family out of their residence (the Glass Palace) in Mandalay they are forced to go into exile in a small town in India. 

With the help of a Chinese merchant Rajkumar builds up a logging business in upper Burma and becomes a rich man. But he can not forget Dolly and he goes in search for her…

The Road to Wanting - Wendy Law-Yone, 2011

This is the story of Na Ga, a girl from the head-hunting Wild Lu tribe on Burma's north-eastern border with China. Na Ga spends her youth in poverty and as a housemaid in Rangoon. When she returns back to her village from Rangoon Na Ga and many other village girls are promised lucrative work. Happy with the foresight of a better future, the girls are being lured into the desperate world of the prostitution industry in Thailand. After years working in a brothel, the police raids the place and Na Ga is sent to a refugee camp in Burma.

There she meets Will, a foreign aid worker. 

Will brings her to Bangkok to live with him, but after many years when he is tired of Na Ga and her tribal origins and plans to marry a western woman Will arranges her journey back to the country she came from. Na Ga ends up in Wanting, a Chinese town on the Burmese border, waiting for her papers to make the crossing. But Na Ga is not sure of she wants to return to the traumatic past she fled from.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats - Jan Philipp Sendker, 2011

When a successful New York lawyer, Tin Win, suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia have any idea where he might be…until they find an unmailed love letter.  Many years ago Tin Win wrote this letter to a Burmese woman, Mi Mi. Julia and her mother never heard of Mi Mi, Tin Win never told his wife or his children anything about his life before he came to America. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village Kalaw in Burma where she meets an mysterious old man, U Ba. U Ba tells Julia the romantic and tragic story of her father, of his childhood blindness, his education at a monastery, and about his passion for Mi Mi.

 

"An epic narrative that requires…a large box of tissues". Publishers Weekly

A Well Tempered Heart - Jan Philipp Sendker, 2013

The sequel to 'The Art of Hearing Heartbeats'

Almost ten years have passed since Julia Win came back from Burma, her father’s native country. Since her return to New York, she has meant to return to Burma but never got around to it. After receiving a letter from U Ba and tired and unhappy with her private and professional life, she decides to go back to Burma. There Julia learns about the tragic story of Nu Nu, a Burmese woman, and her two sons, child soldiers when Burma was at war.

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Other Bestsellers and Recommended Books  

- based on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews in journals -

 The Best Literature Southeast Asia Pascal Khoo Thwe Burma

From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey 

Pascal Khoo Thwe  2003 

Pascal Khoo Thwe was born in Padaung, a tribal minority in remote Burma. Because of the fierce oppression of the country’s military dictatorship he attempted to escape to the outside world. This book narrates his story, of his incredible journey from the jungles of Burma, where he was a freedom fighter battling the ruling regime to his arrival in Cambridge were he studied literature.

The Lizard Cage

Teza, who sang for the people of Burma his protest songs against the opression of the government was arrested by the Burmese secret police. He spent seven years in solitary confinement. But because of his Buddhist patience, his humor and hope he makes it through the long days. Teza befriends the twelve-year-old orphan Little Brother, who grew up within the walls and ultimately their extraordinary friendship frees both of them in different ways.

 The Best Asian Literature Burma The Lizard Cage Karen Conelly

Karen Connelly 2007

 The Best Literature Southeast Asia Thant Myint U

The River of Lost Footsteps:

A Personal History of Burma

Thant Myint-U 2008

Tan Through the story of his own family, Thant Myint-U portrays Burma from the time of Portuguese pirates and Mughal princes, British colonialism, the devastation of World War II and the military repression and the emergence of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

 The Best Asian Literature Burma George Orwell Burmese days

Burmese Days

George Orwell

1934

Based on Orwell’s experiences as a policeman in Burma, this was one of the first novels that revealed the dark side of the British colonial rule. The story of Flory, a white timber merchant, the Indian Dr Veraswami and U Po Kyin, a corrupt magistrate, illustrates the exploitation of people and resources, all managed by a corrupt and incompetent imperial bureaucracy. 

Historical Fiction

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