Suchen Christine Lim is one of Singapore’s best-known novelists. In her new work, Dearest Intimate (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2022), she explores her family’s roots in southern China while continuing the excavation of what it means to be Singaporean that characterises all her books.

When Kam Foong, a young village girl in the rural China of the 1930s, strikes up an intense friendship with a neighbour’s daughter, little does she realise the extent to which their lives will reflect the tumultuous decades that follow.

Isolated and powerless within her impoverished community but bound to her ‘dearest intimate’ in sworn sisterhood, the teenage Kam Foong pours out her heart in her journal. Later, at 15, she’s devastated when her beloved friend marries and leaves her behind to start a new life in ‘the Nanyang’, or Singapore. Soon, Kam Foong abandons her own arranged marriage for a perilous ocean voyage south to find her friend.

Though the search proves fruitless, she’s taken in by a Cantonese opera troupe, in whose cross-dressing culture she discovers an outlet for her artistic talents. As World War II breaks out and the Japanese invade, the troupe never stops performing – and Kam Foong never stops documenting it all in her journal.

Many years later, Xiu Yin – Kam Foong’s granddaughter – discovers the journal. Trapped in an abusive marriage, she finds its pages and the glimpses they give of her feisty grandmother’s youthful adventures a revelation. As she begins the task of translating the journal from Chinese into English, she slowly gathers the courage to assert herself and embark on a voyage of self-discovery of her own.

The narrative shifts between present and past, balancing compelling descriptions of pre-war China and the terror and chaos of the Japanese occupation with Singapore’s own evolution as a modern state.

With empathy and penetrating insight, Dearest Intimate explores what makes a lover, a friend, a wife, a mother, a daughter – and a nation.

By Melissa de Villiers


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