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Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials: A Singaporean Mystery


TGIF Morning Drive Time News:
Though several residents of the Ang Mo Kio Housing Development Board block of flats heard a loud crash sometime after midnight early Friday morning, none of them made their way downstairs to investigate.

Our reporter spoke to Mr. Toh Kang, 78, who said, “I thought it is car crash. Car crash what for rush downstairs to see? So late. Car will still be there tomorrow, what.”

But it was the body of a young People’s Republic of China woman that two students found at the foot of Ang Mo Kio Block 352 on their way to the bus stop just before  6 a.m. this morning.

“There was blood everywhere,” Tristan Tan, 14, told reporters. “She was just lying there wearing  a lacy white dress all covered with blood. It was so shocking I almost  fainted and I couldn’t go for band practice and my mum had to call my teachers and say it was because of the trauma so that I wouldn’t lose points.”

The Straits Times Online:
Police traced the dead woman to an illegally sublet ninth-floor flat in the block. Seven other PRC women renting beds there said they did not  know her well. She had arrived only a few days before and kept to herself. They gave the police a note the woman left before climbing over the barrier at the lift lobby and dropping into the night.

My beloved husband-to-be, you came to Singapore for the sake of our future together. Because of me, you were willing to sacrifice part of your own body. Because of wanting  life with me, you lost your own life. I followed you to Singapore to die where you died and be with you forever. But I can find no sign of you. I pray that when I am dead we will be together in the next life. (Translated from Chinese)

The Lianhe Wanbao (Singapore’s Chinese evening tabloid, known for covering movie-star scandals and government gossip):
The  dead  woman  was Bi Xiao  Mei, 24, a factory worker from Xixiang village in Shandong province. (Translated from Chinese)

Bi Xiao Mei and her coworker Zhao Liang, aged 23, had been dating for several months when Bi found she was pregnant. Zhao arranged to come  to Singapore to sell a kidney. They calculated the money would be enough to pay for a wedding and an apartment and seemed their best chance to start a life together with their child. A family member who did not want to be named said that Zhao was a responsible and devoted  son.

“He knew such transactions are illegal. But his intention was to save a stranger’s life and at the same time gain enough money to provide for his wife and child.”

Unfortunately the operation went wrong. Zhao Liang’s family was informed he had not survived the procedure. They were offered compensation money if Zhao Liang was cremated in Singapore. Alternatively, if they were willing to pay for tickets, they could go to Singapore to collect his body. Zhao’s family accepted the compensation money. In life, Zhao Liang had always wanted to travel, so they decided to let their son’s ashes rest in Singapore. They saw no reason to provide for Zhao Liang’s pregnant girlfriend. They blamed her for their son’s death and said there was no proof her baby was his.

Bi Xiao Mei came to Singapore intending to kill herself and her unborn child in front of Zhao Liang’s funeral niche. But with her limited English, she could find no record of his death or remains. It appears she killed herself as publicly as she could, hoping to be cremated and her ashes left with his.

It is not yet clear whether this will be permitted under Singapore government regulations.

Chapter 1

“Madam, you will kill anybody who eats that!” Nina said.

Aunty Lee continued shaking drops of chili oil into the spicy peanut sauce she was stirring. “Just a bit more. Just for flavoring,” she said. “This oil is not  too hot. Read me some more about  the dead woman.” Aunty Lee was working on a new line of chili oils to go with Aunty Lee’s Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar. Glass jars containing a variety of thinly sliced chili peppers fried in different oils lined the kitchen counters.

“Finish already, madam. No more.”

“If you want hot, you should  try the one I made with my naga king chili,” Aunty Lee said. She had started growing imported chili plants in the garden of her Binjai Park house to see how they did in Singapore. The hot, humid climate seemed to suit the naga king chili, reputed to be the hottest chili in the world, and Aunty Lee had just bottled her first harvest. “The naga king chili is so hot the Indian army is trying to use it as a weapon! In tear gas and hand grenades!”

“And you want to feed that to customers? If they all die, who will buy your food?”

“Hot country you need hot food. Besides, if it is so hot, you only need to use a few drops each time, one bottle will last a long time, good value for money!”

“Good for the customers. Not for you. How are you going to make money if you sell them one bottle and they no need to come back for years? You should be like the iPhone, iPad, like that. Every year must upgrade!”

Aunty Lee could launch an iCook device, Cherril Lim-Peters thought. She smiled to herself in the dining area separated from the small but airy kitchen of Aunty Lee’s Delights. She was packing freshly cut fruit into huge plastic containers. At first Cherril had been taken aback by how Aunty Lee and her maid, Nina, talked to each other. But she had soon realized it was a game for them. Like children playing chatek, a rubber disk topped with rooster feathers; the goal was to keep the “dialogue” going rather than score points. When Nina was not around, Aunty would talk to one of the photos of her late husband.

Aunty Lee’s Delights was a little Peranakan café in Binjai Park, less than five minutes’ walk from Dunearn Road. Binjai Park, one of Singapore’s oldest elite residential districts, was rapidly becoming known, especially among wealthy local foodies, for the achar and sambals and  good traditional Peranakan food available at Aunty Lee’s Delights.

Cherril Lim-Peters was new there. And so were the blender and juicer health drinks she was introducing to the menu. But that  morning, as she peeled and sliced and diced at the long stainless-steel table (that had supported the cooking demos and wine dining events that had first brought Cherril to Aunty Lee’s Delights), the former flight attendant felt she had found her new vocation. Her  husband, lawyer and nominated member of Parliament Mycroft  Peters, was a much pleasanter man in private than many would allow. But Mycroft had insisted Cherril give up her job with Singapore’s national airline after their  marriage. Cherril might have fought this (having been a Singapore Stewardess, she was trained to fight all manner of battles with a smile), but the man had won her over with a simple “I need  to see you after a tough day. Even if you’re already asleep in bed. Just seeing you makes me feel that everything is worthwhile.”

Mycroft Peters admitting he needed her still gave Cherril a shiver of pleasure. And Aunty Lee had said she needed her too, that she cheered up the shop. Cherril had never known anyone like Aunty Lee before. Her  plump Peranakan boss was an overprotective grandmother, inspiring teacher, and gossipy girlfriend all rolled up into a kaypoh (meddling) kiasu (competitive) pohpiah (spring roll).

Cherril was planning to buy the wine business Aunty Lee’s stepson had set up to complement her food business. After the café had been involved with a couple of murders and a gay marriage (which Mark and his wife, Selina, considered even worse), Mark decided that the catering business did not really suit him.

Aunty Lee approved wholeheartedly. Mark would never have helped cater any event where plastic cups were used, as Cherril was doing that morning. Also Cherril had got her husband, Mycroft, to agree to finance her new venture while Aunty Lee had had to finance Mark. Mycroft hadn’t liked the idea of his wife working in a café. But at least Cherril would be on the ground.

Aunty Lee worked on the principle of doing what she could to make others happy and letting them know how they, in turn, could make her happy. She thought people who tried to earn virtue points by being martyrs just ended up making everybody unhappy. Aunty Lee had realized Cherril could learn almost anything she applied herself to but still had trouble fitting into her husband’s world. Aunty Lee had taken her on (against the wishes of Mark, his wife, Selina, and Mark’s sister, Mathilda, who lived in London) because after thirty years of marriage she had  learned that fitting in was a matter of deciding what made you comfortable. She was more comfortable working with Cherril than with Mark.

Cherril turned her attention back to the mounds of freshly chopped watermelon, papaya, pineapple, and guava. There were also chopped apples,  pears, and carrots that had spent the night in the freezer.

“We can call these drinks ‘doctails.’ ”

“Why you want to call them duck’s tails? What have they got to do with ducks?”

“Not ducks, Aunty Lee. You know, like cocktails and mocktails, only these are healthy, like a doctor would recommend, so we call them doctails. I’m using green tea, barley water, soy milk, and brown rice tea as bases for the freshly juiced fruits.”

Aunty Lee liked the idea enough to wish she had come up with it herself. “You can bring the juicer with us. Then you can ask people what they want and then add fresh fruit juice, like in the food court.”

Mark had objected to Aunty Lee serving her homemade barley water, soy milk, and tap water instead of pointing people to his wine list. His wine dining events had been his attempt to cultivate like-minded people who shared his love of fine wines. Cherril, like Aunty Lee, preferred that people simply ate and were happy—and healthy.

Rosie “Aunty” Lee was a plump Peranakan supercook who divided  her  energies between  fixing meals for people and helping them fix their lives (whether they liked it or not). As far as Aunty Lee was concerned, the two were different sides of the  same coin. How could you feed someone well unless you understood them? And how could people appreciate her food if the rest of their lives was out of balance? It was no use simply letting people decide what they wanted to eat because Aunty Lee had long ago realized most people had no idea what foods suited them. They remembered dishes prepared by loving grannies or shared in the first flush of romance and spent the rest of their lives complaining that nothing tasted the way it used to. Aunty Lee also believed Peranakan food was the best food in Singapore, possibly the best food in the world. Her definition of Peranakan food had got her into trouble with Peranakan purists, because as far as Aunty Lee was concerned, “I am Peranakan. So all food I prepare is Peranakan food!”

Aunty Lee was the archetypal petite, slightly plump, and very precise Peranakan lady of a certain age. She was familiar to most Singaporeans because her kebaya-clad image beamed brightly from jars of Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar and  Aunty Lee’s Shiok  Sambal.  But today  Aunty Lee was wearing  her work outfit—a  bright  yellow kebaya top with pink and green embroidery over a lime-green T-shirt and dark green tai chi trousers. She was also wearing a batik apron with multiple pockets she had designed herself and had her maid, Nina, sew for her. Aunty Lee’s sneakers that afternoon were yellow and white and worn over bright  green socks. Aunty Lee believed in tradition but she believed even more in comfort.

Her Filipina domestic helper, Nina Balignasay, was the opposite of Aunty Lee. Nina was slim, dark, and minded her own business. But in Singapore it was Nina’s business to keep Aunty Lee happy. Her already considerable powers of observation had sharpened considerably in her time with this busybody aunty. She had also learned not to worry that her employer would lose a finger or eye as she speed-sliced, diced, and waved her chopper around to emphasize her points. After all, Nina, who had been trained as a nurse, was nothing if not adaptable. Even if her nursing degree was not recognized in Singapore, she would have been able to stanch the bleeding should Aunty Lee have a slip of the knife. And she had learned it was dangerous—and pretty much impossible—to stop Aunty Lee from doing what she wanted to.

Aunty Lee’s Delights kept Aunty Lee occupied after ML Lee’s death left her a (relatively) young widow. Of course Aunty Lee always grumbled about the amount of work she had to do on whatever budget her clients gave her. Cherril noticed that if a client increased the budget, Aunty Lee simply upgraded her menu and went on complaining. Aunty Lee’s grumbles were a way for her to disguise how much she enjoyed cooking for  people. When there were no clients, she cooked for free. She had managed fine on her own but she seemed glad to have Cherril around.

Mark had not paid back the money Aunty Lee lent him to finance the wine business, so the handover of the business should not have been a problem. But Mark still had not signed the transfer papers or returned his keys. It was almost as though he was reluctant to let go. Aunty Lee had given Cherril keys to the shop’s front entrance, but there were no extra keys to the service entrances connecting the kitchen and wine room to the alley behind the shop. Aunty Lee had hung the keys to these doors on hooks beside them.

“And don’t forget that today’s people have not paid you yet, madam,” Nina reminded Aunty Lee. “You must ask them right away or else later they will say, ‘I’m sure I paid already.’ ” Nina sounded uncannily like Niyati Fornell, who had given that excuse the previous week. Aunty Lee gave a cackle of delighted appreciation but Cherril’s laugh was a little weak. Nina was a skilled mimic. The thick Filipino accent she spoke with most of the time was a token of subservience, designed to keep her invisible. Cherril was very conscious of this because of the difficulties she was having with her own accent and with standard English. The Hokkien-Teochew infused with Malay and English “loanwords” Cherril had picked up from her parents was as despised by speakers of pure Amoy Hokkien as her neighborhood-school “Singlish” was by her husband’s mission-school-educated friends. Many of Mycroft’s friends affected British, American, or Australian accents depending on where they had gone to study, and several had laughed at Cherril’s pronunciation and grammar mistakes. One (who Cherril suspected had wanted Mycroft for herself) had given her a link to the “Speak Good English” campaign website. Cherril, too  practical to be proud, had found the site very helpful. But the ease with which Nina adopted voices and accents made her wonder if Nina mimicked Cherril’s  “gahmen”  school accent when she was not around. And when Nina so mimicked her, did Aunty Lee cackle with laughter as she was laughing now? Nina  grinned at Cherril as she carried some food out to the car. Cherril smiled back.

Nina Balignasay knew the wealthiest employers and clients could be the meanest and stingiest when it came to not paying up. At least, thanks  to her,  Aunty Lee now collected a down payment when taking on a job. Aunty Lee was too easily distracted by stories and menus. It was a good thing she had Nina by her side and on her side. It was good for Nina too. Though she had not known how to cook or drive when she arrived in Singapore, she had since learned to do both proficiently. Aunty Lee considered her one of the best investments she had ever made, one that had paid off handsomely. From the  start it had been Nina who kept the business grounded and the accounts balanced. If Aunty Lee had a gift for making  food, Nina had a gift for managing money. And, if unleashed, she went after  late payments  like a loan shark.

That bright September Saturday morning Aunty Lee was happy as she followed Nina out to the car. She had a catering job to occupy her and the prospect of looking over an unfamiliar house to entertain her. Could life get much better than  this? But of course she was too much a kiasu Singaporean to tempt fate by saying so.

“Looks like it’s going to rain,” Aunty Lee said, looking up at the brilliant blue sky with only a few light, white clouds. “Sure to spoil the  food. Don’t know why these people with big houses always want outdoor parties. You said it’s a big house, right?”

“A very big house, according to Google Maps,” Cherril said, joining them. “It’s not going to rain. It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.”

“Then sure to be too hot to eat outside,” Aunty Lee said firmly. “Nina, better get more dry ice.”

“Did you read in the papers about the Mainland Chinese woman that committed suicide?” Cherril threw this in to distract Aunty Lee from imagining possible weather disasters. Nothing tickled Aunty Lee’s mental taste buds so much as a strange death.

“Of course! But the newspapers never say everything. I can tell there’s some funny business there!”

“Madam, the woman write a letter and say she is going to jump off the balcony and then she go and jump off the balcony. Even you cannot say there is funny business there!” Nina said firmly. Catholic Nina did not approve of suicides any more than she approved of the murders Aunty Lee had a tendency to get herself involved in.

“The Chinese papers said her boyfriend phoned her right before the operation to tell her that everything was going to be all right. She said she already knew something was wrong because even over the phone she had heard angels singing.” “The English papers didn’t report that.” Aunty Lee looked put out. “Nina, I wish you would learn to read Chinese. Chinese news is much more interesting than English news. What else did the Chinese paper say?”

“The Chinese papers interviewed one of the women staying in the one-room flat where Bi Xiao Mei stayed. She said they pay five dollars a day to sleep there. Bi Xiao Mei went out to search for her fiancé all day, then  went back and cried all night. She could not find any record of his death or of the operation. Because the operation was illegal, she was afraid the people who did it did not bother to properly dispose of his body but just dumped it somewhere.

“Anyway, the woman said that that night before she died they went to Bukit Timah Plaza and Bi Xiao Mei said she heard the same angels singing as she did over the phone. And then she died.”

“Did the woman also hear angels singing?”

“She only heard the getai people playing their music outside. There is an uncle at BTP with Alzheimer’s. When people play getai music he will sit in his chair there and sing.”

“You don’t really know that China man is really dead,” Nina said. “Probably the guy is not really dead. He didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to marry her, so got people here to tell people back home he’s dead.” Nina’s previous experiences with men had not left her with a very high opinion of them.

Aunty Lee’s lips pursed appreciatively. There was nothing she liked more than a good gossip based on romance, betrayal, and death.

“The Chinese papers also said the fiancé Zhao’s father told reporters his son said he was going to Singapore to work and save to pay for his wedding. The father was sure his son would never have come here for an illegal operation.”

“That boy wanted to come here to work and earn enough to save money for his wedding?  He must be crazy! Here, every time you earn one dollar you spend two dollars on food, three dollars on housing!”

“Not really, Nina,” Cherril said. She handed each of them a banana (so full of necessary potassium, healthy fiber, manganese, and vitamins C and B6). “Eat this to keep up your energy.  I know this PRC guy who came over less than five years ago. He rented an HDB flat—yes, illegally—then subrented rooms out. He did the cleaning for them once a week when he collected the rent. Then he got a second  apartment and a third apartment . . . now he’s a millionaire!” Singapore’s Housing Development Board had strict rules on the renting and subletting of the HDB flats, especially where noncitizens were concerned. But new arrivals from the People’s Republic of China seemed able to get around anything.

“I wonder how much you get paid for a kidney,” Aunty Lee said. She looked thoughtfully at the portable food chiller Nina was filling with crab cakes and prawn patties, ready to go onto the grill.

“Not worth the risk,” Nina said sharply. “That is illegal.” “The girl’s family said she had been  depressed since news of his death. And with the baby coming, it must have made things worse. One of the letters they found was from Zhao’s family telling her not to make any more trouble because they had accepted the rest of the payment promised to Zhao for his kidney. Apparently the advance he got was only enough to pay for his ticket to Singapore. That shows his family must have known what he was going to do.”

“What we are going to do is serve food. Come,” said Nina firmly. The last of the food and equipment in the  car, she turned the sign to closed and locked the door, wishing she had the time to go at the kitchen with a scrubbing brush and mop after all the food preparation. People who came in and said how beautifully organized everything in the shop was did not realize how much constant work it took to maintain everything dust-free and functioning despite the stream of people passing through.

“Isn’t that Mark’s car?” Cherril asked as they drove off.

“I already told him the shop is not open today,” Nina said firmly. “If he can’t remember, too bad. He will have to come back.”

Aunty Lee was torn. Her kiasu (fear of losing out) side dictated that she leave immediately in order to arrive at least thirty minutes early for the catering project, but her kaypoh side that made everybody else’s business her own wanted to stay and find out whether it was indeed Mark Lee in the car and what it was that he wanted.

“Maybe he came to talk to me about the handover,” Cherril said.

“Sir Mark just wants to come and look at his wine bottles,” Nina said. “His precious babies. He will stand there and talk to them, his precious wine bottles.”

Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials: A Singaporean Mystery
by by Ovidia Yu

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062338323
  • ISBN-13: 9780062338327