SPIDER BOYS by Ming Cher

Book Reviews
SPIDER BOYS by Ming Cher
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Apr 4, 2007, 04:45

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SPIDER BOYS by Ming Cher; William Morrow and Co., New York, 1995

Singapore, 1954. The place is swarming with jd's clinging to alleys and gutters like tons of beach scrap from successive waves of war and occupation. Ming Cher's street brats can't afford high tech weapons or cars for drive-bys, not even zip guns. Instead they run in packs, throw pepper in your face, and while you scream and claw at your eyes they slide a shiv in your ribs. In this hell of social Darwinism young toughs don't mindlessly fight for sneakers or gold chains, they fight for food. Or, like Kwang, the novel's scrawny gang leader and protagonist, they hunt, capture, sell and wager Panther Tiger fighting spiders, the coin of this wretched realm.

Singapore's entomological peculiarity—the Panther Tiger wrestling spider (Thiania bhamoensis) is, if not the real central character, the central symbol. This bug is to the Singapore juvies what the buffalo was to the Indians—part toy, part avatar, part totem, item of barter, and basis of social activity. The spiders eat bedbugs and drink human spit and menstrual blood. Kwang trains them with bedbugs tied by a human hair to a splinter of bamboo. If they lose a leg in battle they can grow another one in a month. These spiders can be sold for cash or entered in tournaments where bets can total up to $30,000. Not bad when 20 cents can buy you “two bowls of rich curry laksa soup” and keep you alive for one more day.

For me the novel had a strong high concept and initial interest. Written in Chinese street pidgin, it has the carved immediacy of a William Burroughs cut-up technique as in this description of the pedophiliac grandmother of Chai, Kwang's rival: “Her cigarette stench plus bad breath rose up into his nose which cause him to blinks and shakes head to fight for control over himself.” Essentially West Side Story in the Far East, Spider Boys is a tragic romance between Kwang and Kim who “ride each other like sex-hungry wrestling spiders again and again.” But you don't have a story unless there's a problem and that's Chai, Kim's backdoor man and Kwang's nemesis.

But for all of the novel's stalking and skulking and plotting, whatever driving suspense there could be was lost in the loose and disjointed structure. Too often it read like notes to a preliminary outline. The pidgin English, although occasionally effective, seemed to work against itself much of the time. It gave the story an immediate realness when in the service of a sustained dramatic event, like Chinatown Yeow barely escaping Kuala Lampur after a knifing. But too often the pidgin combined with supernumerary chapters like the one about No Nose the kite maker, and I felt as bogged down as one of the street kids trying, but failing, to get enough to eat. Although the subculture of spider fighting has its fascinations, the lead-up to the “Spider Olympics” was dropped and picked up so many times that I found it hard to keep track of where everything was leading. On top of that it was hard keeping straight the long list of characters moved around like so many interchangeable spiders (in spite of the character list mercifully given at the beginning).

What emerges is a flawed picture of struggle as necessity. And out of this struggle comes victors and victims, the natural evolution of whatever crawls out of the rubbish dumps behind hawker stalls of history.

I found it difficult, like those subtitled foreign flicks about the daily struggles of long lost peasants in the way back when. You know you can see the value in it, but you better drink a lot of coffee first.

-John-Ivan Palmer

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