Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Aunty Lee's Delights

 LUCY BURDETTE: A couple of weeks ago, Hallie said she'd heard of a book I'd want to read--and boy was she right! You know I love mysteries and other novels with lots of food in them. I also love novels that take place in the Far East. Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu has them both.

Ovidia is a Singaporean novelist and playwright. Although she's received several national and international writing and arts awards, when she is recognized at home it is usually because of her stint as a regular celebrity guest on Singapore’s version of the Pyramid Game show. But today she's stopped by to tell us about her personal connection to her new character, Aunty Lee. Welcome Ovidia!

OVIDIA YU: In Singapore, unrelated older women are often called ‘Aunty’ as a term of respect. At least it was when I was growing up. Now women my age are often addressed as ‘Miss’ regardless of marital status. I don’t mind, but someone like my late mother would have been offended because by getting married she had ‘earned’ the right to be addressed as ‘Madam’ by strangers and called ‘Aunty’ by family and friends.

Anyway the real life role model for my Aunty Lee was called ‘Aunty’ by us children because she was a Second Wife. I know having more than one wife is regarded with horror in America. I think in today’s Singapore it's generally regarded with horror too. But when I was  growing up as part of the first generation born after the war, it was a lot more common.

Having more than one wife was officially illegal under colonial law. But during the Japanese Occupation so many men and boys were taken away and killed by the Japanese that men were scarce after the war. Being a Second or Third wife (and I have an aunt who was a Fourth Wife) was not ideal, but it guaranteed a woman a family network as well as shelter, support and education for her children and a home to grow old in. And she would be addressed with the respectful prefix ‘Aunty’ by younger members of the household rather than the suffix ‘-jia’ applied to servant girls and unmarried aunts.
Anyway Aunty X the Second Wife was my favorite adult when I was growing up. My mother disapproved not only because she was a friend of the First Wife but because Aunty X was a fantastic cook. My late mother was proud to be an educated, working woman and felt that someone who actually enjoyed cooking and homemaking was setting women back. But I wasn’t prevented from visiting because although a picky eater, I ate everything I was given at Aunty X’s house. Aunty X had a maid who helped her in the kitchen and I was sometimes allowed to help the maid top and tail bean sprouts or peel chestnuts. But I never learned much more about cooking because of the other big draw of Aunty X’s house: stacks of Readers’ Digest and murder mystery paperbacks.

Aunty X had all the golden age favourites like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh as well as some I haven’t seen much of since then—Margery Allingham, E.C.R. Lorac and Leo Bruce. Once I discovered reading the kitchen was forgotten.

Adjusting to the times, Aunty Lee is a consecutive rather than concurrent second wife but I’ve given her my Aunty X’s talent for cooking and passion for mysteries!

Lucy: Ovidia, I love this story! Do you have a beloved relative, quirky friend or mortal enemy colleague with characteristics you would like to see in a book? And would this person be a sleuth, victim or Murderer? Ovida has a copy of the book to give away to one of the lucky commenters...

 Aunty Lee's Delights: After losing her husband, Rosie “Aunty” Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai”, an idle rich lady devoted to an aimless life of mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served by Rosie Lee to locals and tourists alike. And when bodies start showing up Aunty Lee turns to cooking up solutions...


  1. Oh, I can think of one or two who would make quite satisfactory victims!
    Aunty Lee sounds delightful and I look forward to reading her story . . . .

  2. Ovidia and I were on the same food-mystery panel at Bouchercon last Friday! (And what a fun panel it was, too.) The book sounds delightful and it's on my list.

  3. Hi Edith! Great to 'see' you again. And yes, we did have a great time didn't we?
    Hi Joan and thank you for that :) Actually I have more fun 'turning' difficult people into murderers... so when they get caught it's more satisfying--or as Aunty Lee would say, more 'shiok'!

  4. "Do you have a beloved relative... with characteristics you would like to see in a book? And would this person be a sleuth, victim or Murderer?"

    That would be my beloved Aunt Mary. She was my mom's older sister, very frail for many years - yet she lived longer than her brothers and sister. She was kind, compassionate, full of common sense, loved everybody she met, adored babies (she had six of them herself, and many grandchildren), and I still miss her every single day. She died about five years before my mom. She's the one person I most wanted to talk to when my mother died. The rest of my siblings felt the same way. I see Aunt Mary as a sort of American Miss Marple, but surrounded by grandchildren. She had a difficult life, with constantly being sick from the time her youngest child was an infant. She was close to death too many times but always managed to bounce back until the last year of her life. Her husband was disabled from Parkinson's at a young age, and died when he was in his fifties. Money was scarce. She never, ever complained. Back when I was in my twenties one of my friends was going through a hard time, and she asked "can you take me to see your Aunt Mary? She always helps me to put things in perspective". So we went to see her. And my friend left there in good spirits. Aunt Mary was always smiling, always cheerful, she truly believed that things would work out for the best, she was so full of common sense that she could probably have written an advice column! And she had a terrific sense of humor! I can imagine her as a Miss Marple type of sleuth, but with the ability to talk even the most hardened criminal into turning himself/herself in, "because it's the right thing to do, dear."

  5. Deb your Aunt Mary sounds lovely. I think the sense of humour you mention must have made a real difference too--and what I find both wonderful and amazing is how she came out that way after such a difficult life!

    (Sometimes it seems--from the outside anyway--that it's people who have it easy who end up the most discontented)

  6. What a fun premise for a book. I'm a mystery fan, but also love stories that take place in different cultures, Lisa See's, for instance.

    Yes, my Aunt Rosie. I have to run out now, but will try to share her with you all later. She was a pistol.

  7. Hi Ovidia! so nice to have you here:).

    Deb, your description of Aunt Mary is wonderful. I love the idea of a character who is able to talk the bad guy into turning himself in.

    And what a compliment that your friend wanted to be taken to her when she was troubled...

  8. Great to "meet" you, Ovidia. Auntie Lee sounds like a great character; I can't wait to read the book.

    My mother was a Navy nurse in WWII. I like reading books about military nurses - Charles Todd's Bess Crawford especially and even Diana Gabadon's Claire in the Outlander series. I just finished a nonfiction book about Army Air Corps nurses who crash landed in Albania in 1943.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  9. I, too, had the pleasure of meeting Ovidia at Bouchercon -- waving!

    This is completely fascinating about Singapore and women's roles. I had no idea . . . and what a lovely memory of your "aunt," Ovidia.

    Oh, dear, thinking of relatives who would make good murder victims -- not going there.

    But I will say that my fondest and most vivid memories of my grandma are all about food. Delicious thin crisp cookies sprinkle with a layer of cinnamon sugar -- if anyone has a recipe I'd kill for it. And scrumptious chopped chicken liver (begin by rendering chicken fat -- I have her wooden bowl with the chop marks in the bottom).

  10. Hi Karen, I love Lisa See too! Especially as my late mother was Shanghainese and I actually had a great uncle (who I never met) who returned to 'build the new China' but who got put into a re-education camp (he had two doctorates and was a classical violinist) and then just disappeared. For a long time I thought Lisa See had to be Chinese and my mother's age but I'm seeing now she's not... and younger than me, let alone my mum!

    Hi Marianne, I haven't read those books you mentioned but thanks for the pointer--I'll look them up. I used to avoid war books after hearing Japanese Occupation stories from parents and grandparents but maybe that was the wrong way to deal with it. So... yes, maybe stories from the West would be a good place to start.

    Hi Hallie!!! *waving wildly* you walk really fast! (no I wasn't stalking / tailing you... just doing the fan lurk thing and getting lost in the city...) I had no idea people in America ate chicken liver too. It's a side you can order with chicken rice in Singapore but only the 'serious' chicken rice eaters know that.

  11. Ovidia,

    I didn't have time earlier to say that I want to read that book! I enjoy reading about other cultures, and your protagonist sounds intriguing. (I can almost smell the kitchen aromas!)

  12. Back from the gym. Ovidia, that's so interesting about Lisa See. It's fascinating to read about a completely different perspective, so I'm sure I'll enjoy your story, as well. Aunty Lee sounds like a winner!

    My Aunt Rosie was almost a widow in WWII; Uncle Red was a POW for nearly a year, but when he got home they were inseparable for the rest of their long lives together. She had two sons, and was a Cub Scout leader for both of them, and later a Boy Scout leader, in the 50's and early 60's, when women did not do such things. Uncle Red was an electrician and his company was working on a power plant in Argentina, so they went, the whole family, for five years. Aunt Rosie had to buy her meat in burlap bags from an open-air market, and they really had to rough it, even by standards in the 60's.

    She could do any craft you can think of, and was a weaver almost to the end of her life, as well as a golfer, a bowler, and a tennis player, despite being blind in one eye. I still have the dolls she dressed in exquisite hand-crocheted outfits for me, including three bridesmaids, a flower girl, and a bride, plus some others, complete with picture hats and nosegays. (I always thought it frustrated her not to have a daughter!)

    One of our best family stories was of Aunt Rosie, doing laundry at the wringer washer in the basement, and getting her waist-length hair caught in the wringer, which imprisoned her for hours. She cut her hair short and it stayed as short as a boy's for the rest of her life.

  13. I'm blessed with a family rich in characters -- and what fun it is to borrow bits and pieces and reassemble them into whole new people on the page!

    I've been thinking about elders quite a bit lately -- true elders, who glow with wisdom and inspiration, draw us to them, and Deb's Aunt Mary fits the bill beautifully.

    Sounds like Ovidia's Aunty Lee does, too -- what an intriguing premise! Thanks to Ovidia and Lucy for telling us about it.

    (I believe Lisa See does have some Chinese ancestry, through her mother, novelist Carolyn See. Loved Lisa's Peony in Love.)

  14. I am ordering this book immediately. If I "win" a copy, I know just the friend who will get it. I love the sound of this book, but especially the back story. Don't we all have a beloved auntie? I am rich in aunts, although only two are still with us.

    Now that you suggest it, I may put a Visitation sister, a cloistered nun, brilliant and funny like Aunt Pat, into my story!!!

  15. Karen, that's a fabulous character--love the story about the hair in the wringer!

  16. SO lovely to meet you at Bouchercon, Ovidia! And characters in my family? The wacky ones are so prevalent, they are shouldering each other aside to be in the book. A few of them are so unpredictably nutty, you'd never believe them as fictional characters.

    My Gramma Minnie made chopped liver too..YUM! With onions, and tiny bits of hardboiled egg white.

  17. This sounds marvelous!
    In Hawaii "Aunty" is also a term of respect.
    When I was growing up anyone older than me was either Mr. or Mrs._____.
    A close family friend might be Aunt_____ even if she did not earn that title through marriage.

  18. Hi Ovidia! It was so nice to meet you at Bouchercon--and I am so aggravated that I didn't get a copy of your book! It sounds wonderful and I'm very much looking forward to it.

    Characters in my family... I adored my grandmother, Lillian. She was called Nanny by all the grandchildren. She was always kind, always encouraging, and interested in everything. Just last night I was pulling some coffee table books out of a basket and found her copy of a huge book on Tutankhamun. She was fascinated by Egypt and many other cultures. She's been gone more than thirty years and I still miss her.

  19. My Grandmother Sue would be a perfect cook and problem solver. She has been gone a long time, but I still see her in my mind.

  20. Hi Karen I so love the hair in the wringer Aunt Rosie story too! Short hair is so much more practical but she must have had beautiful hair... waist length... I love the idea but could never live with that, even without using a wringer! Wish long hair could be put on for special occasions... like agonizingly gorgeous heels.

  21. Thanks for that, Deb. I hope you like it!

  22. Sorry, sent before I was ready.

    Deb, your grandmother Lilian sounds lovely too. It's hard for me to imagine my granny being interested in Egyptology but of course that happens.

    Something I think is a pity though. My mother (who has the same name as I do) became 'Mummy' after we kids came along--even my Dad called her 'Mummy'. Then after my brothers' children came along she became 'Nai-Nai' (which is Chinese for mother of a father. Mother of a mother is 'Poh-Poh'). Even my Dad called her 'Nai-Nai' for years before her death. I guess that's the equivalent of 'Granny'. Other people called her 'Mrs Yu' and 'Aunty' and she had few friends her age. Till one day in hospital when the nurse called her 'Ovidia' my Mum just didn't answer because it had been so many years since anyone called her by name.

  23. Denise Ann I love the idea of your Aunt Pat playing the role of a brilliantly funny Visitation sister, a cloistered nun!

  24. Hi Gram, I agree--the loved ones who stay alive in our memories can sometimes be both the ones who see most clearly and thanks to who we see more clearly too...

  25. Ovidia, so interesting about your mother's name in the hospital!

    Seems like a lot of friends with new grandchildren have spent time trying to decide what they want to be called...that may be something new for this generation of grandparents.

  26. Dear Ovidia,
    Your novel sounds wonderful. Having been a food writer for almost 20 years (I specialize in Vietnamese food), I have met a few people who would make wonderful amateur PIs ... the woman who is on my mind now is one of the founders of the LA Times food section (50+ pages each weekend with one of the largest test kitchens in the world back in the day). She specialized in Mexican food, spent her days exploring LA's ethnic food scene - and so had access to unique communities and all the comings and goings at the newspaper. In fact, I am actually working on a series based around this woman's life. So it's wonderful to read about your experiences incorporating fact with fiction. I can't wait to read Aunty Lee's Delights.

  27. Oh Kim, that sounds wonderful--hope we get to read your book soon too!

  28. Sounds interesting and different. The only other mystery I have that's set in Asia is by Nury Vittachi. It's a feng shui detective book.

  29. Ovidia, I love the cover art. Your character is very intriguing. I'd never heard the back story or known that part of history. I'm sure I will enjoy reading the book.

  30. I hope to be done with my first volume in about 6 months, Lucy. Then I set my agent to work :) Thank you for your kind words!! Best, Kim