Friday 9 February 2024

Hair the Dragon

In conjunction with the year of the dragon and Chinese New Year, here's a short story I wrote and performed at the Butterworth Fringe Fest with Readings@Tanjong last year. 


They say that the tunnels under George Town are where the dragons used to live. I don’t know about that. It’s 2023, for God’s sake. What dragons? Have you ever seen a dragon? They’ve probably been hounded—or hunted—to extinction by now. It’s not like we’ve seen any in recent decades. Centuries, even. The stories still stick around, though. 

Like the one my uncle’s uncle’s uncle once told my uncle’s uncle, who told my uncle who told me about this dragon that he used to know. Yeah, but unlike the song, it wasn’t a breakup. It wasn’t even a romance. More like a…threat?

Anyway, back in ye olden days, we used to have wells. There’s one at Kuan Im Teng—The Goddess of Mercy Temple—if you want to know what a well looks like, though no one uses it anymore. It’s like this deep hole that’s all dried up and probably filled with rubbish, but that’s where people used to get fresh water and stuff in the past, no kidding. They didn’t twisty-turny or pushy-pully, yay clean water! You had to work for it by going out to the garden, to the well, and pull up a bucket of water on a chain. Then boil it or something so you don’t die. The water, not the bucket. You reuse the bucket. 

If I lived back then, I would have lots of muscles. Or I would be dead of dehydration. Probably dead.   

So, there’s this network of wells, and obviously they’re connected by tunnels, all the way from Fort Cornwallis through to Masjid Kapitan Keling. Or not so obviously because they’re hidden underground. I haven’t seen them myself and I don’t plan to. I don’t think half of them are even accessible now, so I really don’t think we have dragons living in Penang anymore. Where would they even stay? 


I’ve been trying to imagine this, but the best I can come up with is like the underground sewer network, which eww, why would a dragon live there? Aren’t they supposed to be majestic creatures of death and destruction and all that? 

But lots of the old stories say that dragons like caves, so I suppose this was maybe what they were used to. I dunno, I thought they’d hoard enough money to buy themselves a mansion or two. Maybe dragons are just weird that way.

This dragon that my uncle’s uncle’s uncle used to know was called Hair. Not because he had a lot of hair—dragons don’t have hair, they have scales. I definitely have the intonation wrong, but it’s something like the Hokkien word for prawn? Ha, He, Heh, Her, Haaaaiiir. ANYWAY. It probably means something else and may not even be Hokkien so who knows what his name is actually supposed to be? Hair is easier to say for a banana like me. 

Right. Back to the story. 

Hair is an ancient dragon, because all dragons are ancient, and my uncle’s uncle’s uncle was ancient, so everyone I’m talking about is very old right now and mostly dead. Except the dragon, because dragons don’t die, and my uncle, because well, he’s only seventy-ish. He still has a strong heart and he’d be here telling you this story except he doesn’t speak much English and he says his legs get tired, but I know that’s a lie because he always goes for these long walks to the apartment on the next road to see his mistress. (Who he thinks we know nothing about.) Now, if there were tunnels in Butterworth, I’m sure he’d be all for using them so that no one could follow him to her place.

I wonder where I can find that info...

I met Hair once. Or at least, I think it was him. My uncle wasn’t really clear in the introduction, but I think my Chinese was passable enough to understand that he said, “This is Hair the Dragon,” instead of “This is Prawn the Loan Shark.” Which is what I hate about Chinese languages, you know? Everything could be another word if you say it wrong and it should be so pretty and witty and poetic but really it’s not. Plus, I can’t really tell the difference between Mandarin and Hokkien and Cantonese and whatever else. So, who knows what my uncle really said?

The guy I met is now a Facebook friend, which is kind of cool, assuming I met the dragon and not the loan shark. If they even are the same person. He looked like a human, which is a thing I’m told dragons can do. Maybe you should prod your neighbour and see if they’re really human. They could be a dragon in disguise. 

Anyway, next year is the year of the dragon, which is Hair’s year. He hates it, apparently, and says it’s supposed to be mine. Because Rats and Dragons get along or something like that. Don’t ask me the specifics, it’s not like I believe in it anyway, but I believe in knowing stuff. Knowing stuff is always helpful. Maybe that’s why Hair likes me. I know a lot of stuff. 

But you’d think that you’d like your own year, right? I thought so too, because I always thought that if it was your year, they would favour you, right? Your greatest cable, right there. Boom! Direct connection to the gods or whatever. But he told me that having the same year as your zodiac animal was actually bad because then you would clash with them. The only way to resolve that is by signing a “peace treaty” with your “zodiac animal general”. Which is stupid. Like, we’re Chinese, we’re buddies, right? We’re Penangites, we’re buddies, right? So if you’re both dragons, you should be buddies, right? 

The problem, I was told, was that whilst Hair is a dragon, he’s not one of the dragons of the zodiac. There are five elements in the cycle, like earth, fire, wind, water, heart, by your powers—no, that’s Captain Planet. This makes me feel old, but I don’t think anyone remembers who Captain Planet is anymore. The shiny white guy with green hair? That anti-pollution campaign cartoon? Oh well. 

The five, um, Chinese elements, which I don’t remember, means there are five different dragon generals, and Hair isn’t one of them so I suppose that puts him in opposition with all of them. Unless I’m getting this wrong and all this applies only to humans and not to dragons. 

All that aside, Hair used to live in the tunnels under George Town for whatever reason. I’m actually still not convinced there are tunnels. Or that dragons lived there. Though I was told that if you visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion—you know, that light green building where they filmed The Little Nyonya—there’s another well leading to a tunnel right there. I remember visiting once, but I can’t for the life of me remember if I saw a well. But they might have filled it in and covered it up because, well, tourists. You don’t want things falling in that might awaken something scarier than a dragon. 


They say the tunnels of George Town were used for other nefarious reasons in those days, besides potentially housing dragons which are not Balrogs. One of those reasons was to smuggle drugs like opium and other, um, illegal items, like guns and weapons. There was a gang war going on, after all. And a war against the British. I could be getting all the years wrong, so don't quote me on this, but anyway, another place where you’re supposed to be able to find a dragon—or THE dragon—in the tunnel network is at the Cheah Clock Tower, which was built to summon a dragon to save Penang from the Big Bad Mat Salleh. I guess it didn’t work because it's now called the Queen Victoria Memorial something or other.

So, the supposed tunnels somewhere under George Town is where my uncle’s uncle’s uncle met Hair, because dragons were honourable creatures who very much did not like smuggling going on in their homes, even if those homes were smelly old tunnels. I mean, I would be upset too, if someone were to use my house as their gang’s hideout and potentially get me into trouble. And obviously, my uncle’s uncle’s uncle was one of those involved in the smuggling. 

It was kind of how my family made their money back in ye olden days. It’s not like all the stuff they smuggled was bad, just controlled, kind of like if you bring chewing gum to Singapore now. Smuggling things like spices and tea to evade taxes was quite A Thing back then because He Who controls the Spice controls the Universe… It really was just that the British wanted to own all the things and didn’t want anyone else to have the money. And my family wanted to get in on that money, at least, until Hair frightened the living daylights out of this ancestor of mine so much so that he avoided the tunnels from then on and went back on the straight and narrow for pretty much the rest of his life. 

I’d like to say that my uncle’s uncle’s uncle never saw Hair ever again, but that’s not the truth. Hair kind of stuck around and checked in on him every once in a while to make sure he didn’t go back to smuggling things in tunnels, which is why, I guess, this story kept getting passed down through the generations. Plus, the story goes, after meeting Hair one too many times, the whole family just up and left George Town and moved to Butterworth. 

Actually, I should ask Hair whether he really lived in the tunnels of George Town or if all that was just a stupid story my uncle’s uncle’s uncle told my uncle’s uncle to entertain him, who in turn told my uncle, who in turn told me because I like knowing things and maybe I’m just gullible like that. I guess I’ll message him when I get home. He’ll probably laugh himself silly and say that everything my uncle’s uncle’s uncle said was a lie. 

He’s probably Prawn the Loan Shark anyway.

That's all, folks!

Originally written for and performed at:

Wednesday 24 January 2024

#bookreview: Renegade Skyfarer | RJ Metcalf - and a #writing update

Renegade Skyfarer (The Stones of Terrene Chronicles Book 1)Renegade Skyfarer by R.J. Metcalf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I... kind of regret putting this off for so long, because I really, really, really enjoyed this book! But the plus side of putting it off so long is... I supposed I can now just get all the other 3 (4?) books in this series and binge them at a go.

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I've apparently read 3 books already this year, but written 0 reviews (well, now a very short 1), mostly because I have been busy trying to write. "Trying" being the operative word here, because I'm not being as prolific as I would like. 

I'm trying to finish off edits on the Tea Novel so I can get that sent out.

But I'm also working on another novel that I want to finish drafting before CNY so... 


Probably need to be a leeeeetle bit more consistent in sitting down and working on it!

Tea update: currently still obsessed with Empress Grey, alternating with ChaTraMue Red label.

Sunday 31 December 2023

2023: A Year in Review

 I'm starting this at 4:22pm on 31 December 2023, let's see if I actually finish it before the new year. heh.

2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2020 | 2021 | 2022

Right so on to this year. I seem to change my format with each year, so I guess I'll just start with some random something and see if I'll go with it again next year.

Blog Life

I haven't posted about blog stats for a while, so here's a graph from off the stats page.

I... did not know I passed a million views. But then again, this place is over a decade old. Not entirely sure what I did in 2021, though the 2021 review post suggests it was Amok-launch related. 

Readership for 2023 itself isn't half bad, though I haven't been half as consistent at posting as I used to be. 

I have also apparently gained a Singaporean audience. *waves from over the Causeway*

My top 5 posts for the year are all Very Old Posts, which is weird, and which is also why I don't really trust stats. lol. (All-time top post is still my Malaysian Englishes post, which I guess makes a bit more sense.)

Reading life

I read a total of 59 books (2022: 46) this year! Goodreads has my year in books... or you can check it out myyearinbooks for a snazzy new version.

I gave 14 books 5 stars this year, but if I were to select my top 5 reads for the year, they would be:

If you all remember, I tried to take part in the 2023 Booktempter's TBR Reduction Challenge. I started off pretty well, and then slacked off towards year end. It was a good challenge, though, and got me to pick up some books that have been on the shelf (whether physically or on the Kindle) for many, many  years!

My TBR goals for 2024 are going to be a bit more intense, because I have a few boxes of books I need to read/discard/etc. The limits for this challenge is to be mean enough to DNF any book that fails to really capture my interest by page 50, or by about 15% if it's an ebook. I may extend this limit because sometimes I try to be nice, but this is me giving me permission not to *have* to finish every single book.

Writing life

Actual writing has been slow this year, but I have finally, finally finished writing the Tea Novel. It's out with beta readers at this point, but once that's done and I do a final edit based on their feedback (probably by January), I'll be pitching this one to agents. 

But in writing-adjacent stuff (which includes publishing! and editing!), the highlight of the year would be A Spoonful of Malaysian Magic: An Anthology which launched at GTLF in November!

Oh, I also had launches for Absolution at Hikayat and Riwayat once the print book finally appeared in March.

Amok made it to the finals of the Anugerah Buku Malaysia 2023 but lost out to I think Muhammad Haji Salleh. 

We re-started Readings in Penang this year in collaboration with Dabble Dabble Jer Collective, and renamed it Readings@Tanjong! Give us a follow for updates about when and where we are. We had like 6? Maybe 7? events this year but we are absolutely slowing down for 2024 and probably only having 4. lol.

It's only 5:34pm so I guess I made good time on this post. I have this vague feeling I've glossed over many things, and that I should maybe do a top 5 teas section or something but I think I'm good with this. Honestly, the best way to get consistent-ish updates right now is on my Instagram, which I think has taken over the random-post portions of this blog.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

#bookreview: Our Tethered Skates by Naadhira Zahari & School of Thieves by Sabrina Ismail

Might've binged a bit, because these were short. These are MG/YA novellas written for both younger & ESL readers, so I'm not quite judging them against like International Publishing standards. Instead, I'm leaning towards a viewpoint of IF I WERE A TEEN, WOULD I LIKE IT? in the star ratings, with my overall notes in the review.

Our Tethered SkatesOur Tethered Skates by Naadhira Zahari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's go with 3.5, rounded up.
It's a fascinating novella - much more could be developed if it were a longer story, but this worked fine as a short piece.
I had several weather & clothes-related questions that probably can be handwaved away with "magic" (Verglas a magical portal world, after all), but I'd really like to know the age gap between Maya and Layla because that seemed to be the fuzziest point given the 10-year gap between Maya's disappearance and Layla looking for her.

Not quite sure that the present tense quite worked for this story; it was a little clunky in places maybe because it kept wavering between simple and progressive for unclear reasons.

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School of ThievesSchool of Thieves by Sabrina Ismail
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hmmm. A little conflicted on this one. It was an interesting enough read, so I figure it's a little under 3 stars. Like, the plot moves you along enough that you get kind of invested in the story but when you reach the end and think about it, you're like... really? Really?! *side-eyes author*

I like the heist aspect, and the side quest of getting back at Amra's deadbeat father. The characters are likeable and relatable. But ultimately the whole point of WHY the School of Thieves exists and what they're trying to achieve doesn't really make sense.

Like MAYBE if the whole School of Thieves thing was just left vague (i.e. the school exists, don't question it), it would have worked better. I think it was the epilogue that threw me off. (It felt a little like the author was trying to be clever but didn't quite pull it off.)

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A final musing: 

It's fascinating that these Very Malaysian Writers writing for a Very Malaysian Crowd would choose to set their magical worlds in Not Very Malaysian settings. 

I mean, Our Tethered Skates was set in some undefined country with four seasons, the Layla's family name was Montgomery or something like that. Verglas, being a magical world can get away with having ice all the time. But why would the main family have to be White? (Not that they were described physically, but I mean the names, the setting.) I would have liked it better if say they were Malaysian transplants in some foreign country, or they live in KL and visit the local ice-skating ring (Sunway Pyramid?? lol) because they want to be figure skaters (we do have those!).

School of Thieves never quite says where they are and the school itself is set in some mystical island, but Amra's family name is De Silva, which fair, we have De Silvas in Penang (an old line of Eurasians), BUT! then it says her dad is from Mexico, which... WHY. This one at least seems to have a mix of races (there's Khai, Lee, Ratna and a bunch of ambiguous English names.)

I have a bunch more to read, so we'll see. 

Wednesday 13 December 2023

#bookreview: New Name | A.C. Williams

New Name (Morningstar: Destiny Trilogy #3)New Name by A.C. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a long break between reading the first two books in the series and finally completing this one, so I had a bit of a rough start. One thing to remember (lol) is that Xander discovers a lot about her past and who she is in Namesake. So when this one started off, especially since I took such a long break, I had to back up a bit with "Aura, who?" But it's pretty much a new start for her anyway.

If I said Namesake was dark, this one goes kind of... darker... in many ways before finally going PLOT TWIST but ACTUALLY! Then becomes pretty much hopeful again. Which on one hand is kind of cool because Aura really needs a break, but on the other... I guess there were enough subtle cues that I'm okay with it happening.

Williams sets it up so it sounds like there should be another book in this world, even though this book 3 of a trilogy - and honestly, if she does one exploring that whole side quest on the Al units and why this one guy is hunting down the Alpha Prototype, I'd be all for reading it. (I see other short stories in the Morningstar Universe but none that addresses this. Though Promise: A Morningstar Series Novella might be interesting to read.)

Note: When I say "darker", it's not so much about being more graphic. I think the level of violence is about the same, but it's really very... sex-negative. I get that Williams is portraying villains in this (and is giving the Stormcloud sisters a Very Difficult Childhood), but their main means of control and coercion seems to be primarily sex, especially kinky sex, and abuse in the name of kinky sex.

So "content warnings", if you will: difficult discussions on abortion vs bodily autonomy, mentions of pedophilia, and copious references to rape and sexual assault.

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This finally finishes up March's TBR stretch goal. hahaha. I'll work on December's goal, but I think I'll give up on the stretch goals. 

Monday 11 December 2023

#musicmonday: Christmas Unicorn

Facebook reminded me of the existence of this, so now you have to listen to it too. 

Wednesday 15 November 2023

#bookreview: Wings of Truth | Aaron DeMott

Wings of TruthWings of Truth by Aaron DeMott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two warring nations separated by a deep dark secret, a captured queen, an honourable crown prince, cultural misunderstandings, secret factions that might just destroy the whole world... and only! one! tent!

It is also a clean read, despite that trope.

Is this science fantasy? I feel like it's science fantasy because it reads very fantasy with these non-human characters (the Vincetii are purple-skinned and have wings) plus they drink this strange metal thing to... I guess regain power? And Enrik, the Alandran Crown Prince, has a magical sword called Vinrid, which I really thought stood for "getting rid of the Vincetii" lol.

BUT when you get into the details of the Obelisk and other Weapons of Power, it all starts to sound very sciencey in a "we kinda destroyed the world and now we don't know how all this tech works" way and now they need to find out how. Like with secret manuals and underground labs.

It's a light, enjoyable read and leans into the fun and fantastic. Enrik and Natiah have great chemistry, even if they fall in love really, really quickly lol.

There MAY be a slight squick moment when Natiah reveals that her vow either makes her Enrik's wife or slave, which again is very on-brand with current fanfic type tropes, but it's also very squint-and-you'll-miss-it because this is, as I said, a very clean story. No sexy times, a lot of war deaths, but nothing really described in detail.

Overall, Wings of Truth is a solid story simply told, if a little trope-ish.

Note: I won this book in a giveaway! :)

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This is November's updated book on the 2023 TBR Challenge. I may, unfortunately, have to skip this month's stretch goal again, but we'll see.