Who exactly is my mother-in-law’s son, is it my husband or my brother in law? When posed that question, the author answered, read the book and find out.
It’s a clever title, for it reflects the identity one holds whether we like it or not. After all, we are always somebody’s husband/wife, daughter/son or other relations. And if that somebody happens to be famous, the identity would be linked. In one year’s time, would you know who is Amal Alamuddin? But you’ll probably know George Cloony’s wife.
In this book, my mother-in-law’s son is the protagonist’s husband, Wong Kum Chong, a weak man who, when at home is dominated by his mother, and is known as his father’s son when in public. Set in post war Singapore 1950, it tells the tale of Swee Gek, a poor, English-educated Paranakan woman who married into a rich, Chinese family. Her life would have been perfect if not for her failure to provide a male heir, and instead gave birth to four daughters, one who died at infancy.
Kum Chong, a teacher in a Chinese school, is recruited unknowingly by the Communist party to front the Best Education Society, BESOC, in order to persuade the British to fund the Chinese schools, as well as Tamil and Malay schools, but the real purpose is to use the Chinese school to disrupt order and show the incompetency of the British colonial government.
Caught in the backdrop of domestic bickering between his mother and wife, Kum Chong would rather spend time in nightclubs in the company of prostitutes. Swee Gek, a prisoner at the Wong’s home, yearns to be free of her marriage but has no means of supporting herself or her daughters, until one day when she is banished from the house and meets her schoolmate, Cecilia, a Eurasian girl with freedom and money to help her.
I can’t make up my mind if I like Swee Gek or not. Her husband guards her beauty jealously and refuses to let her step out of the house, and I understand he has reasons to, since both men who happens to meet her, they develop mutual attractions to each other. First attraction is to Teng, the communist who recruited her husband, and then to Daniel, the British friend of Cecilia. Reading about Swee Gek and Daniel’s one week’s sexual roam made me worry for her. After all, contraception is not used during that period. What would she do if she were to become pregnant with a half breed?
Most modern households in Singapore no longer have mother-in-laws from hell, but reading this book reminds me of the mother-in-laws in Korean dramas which apparently is still pretty common nowadays.
This is the most daring local literature I have read, with scenes of sex described although not that explicitly. Many of the descriptions about 1950s colonial Singapore that were described in her other book Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong were also repeated here, like the village life and the ubiquitous five-foot-ways. The dialogues, sounding Singlish but still understandable, make the reading intimate and familiar.
Still, an enjoyable book to pass time.