Shirley Lim’s Layered Confection

A daughter rapes and kills her father. This was how I first came to know Shirley Lim – through a short story entitled Mr. Tang’s Girls that I had to analyze for a literature class. Lim grew up in Malaysia but moved to America in her twenties. It is from her diasporic experiences that she writes. Rife with issues of identity, displacement, gender, and race, Lim’s works are profound and moving but not exactly the kind that makes you turn the last page and say to yourself, “Aah. That was enjoyable”

Her latest work, Princess Shawl however, is like the rebellious child that breaks away and goes all out to just have fun. During the novel’s recent launch at Silverfish Books, Lim told us that while she normally finds writing painful and lonely, she really enjoyed herself writing this book. As Lim’s very first young-adult novel, the writer deserves to rebel a little.

Princess Shawl is based on a famous account in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) of Puteri Hang Li Po, the daughter of the Emperor of China, sent to Malacca in the 15th century to be wed to Sultan Mansur Shah.

Mei Li, the nine-year-old protagonist belongs to the standard 3-person Singaporean family. Two weeks before her tenth birthday she inherits a magic shawl from her deceased grand-aunt which transports her back in time. Her quest is to rescue Princess Hang Li Po — who has been exiled on an island because of an evil bomoh — and reunite her with the Sultan.

The time-travel adventures only take place at night when Mei Li goes to bed. Each night, she is transported by the shawl to a different period in Malacca’s history where she learns skills such as cooking and nursing from older women surrounded by an atmosphere of female strength and solidarity that would have Oprah nodding in approval. When she wakes up, she goes back to her daily life, with last night’s adventures still fresh in her mind.

Instead of a continuous adventure, Lim says that this narrative structure is distinctly Malaysian-Singaporean because she has layered it like a layered kuih lapis, a recurring symbol in the novel. Each layer of Malaccan history goes back further in time till we arrive in the 15th century. The layers worked well and I found myself eager for Mei Li to return to bed again so that I could read another new and exciting encounter.

However, I am not entirely convinced that the layering lends the story its unique Malaysian-Singaporean identity. That sort of layered narrative is common in time-travel literature. I think it is not so much the layering but the very presence of the kuih lapis that makes Princess Shawl irresistibly Malaysian. Kuih is on my table every Sunday morning, it’s there at every buffet I go to and now it’s only right that it should be in a book. And besides, Malaysians love anything with food in it (yes, even if it is a book). Using the kuih lapis instead of any other kuih is genius on Lim’s part. I’m sure all of us who grew up in Malaysia can attest to kuih lapis being a favourite amongst kids simply because we could peel of the layers and eat them one by one.

Those are the type of simple childhood joys that Princess Shawl is filled with, transporting me back to innocent days when my world was my family and I still believed in true love and handsome princes. Lim creates an enchanting and magical world steeped in culture, with misty mountains, junk-ships and magical well water that takes you home. But what I enjoyed most was the feminine aura that surrounds it – magical hairpins, sandalwood rouge (known as blusher to the MTV generation) and skilful women.

The strength of this book lies in its layers of meaning. There are two voices that blend together seamlessly – a childlike one and an adult one. Lim has done a remarkable job in capturing the cute and simple perspectives of a child that serves to remind us that at times we grown-ups can be too complicated for our own good. The other voice, smuggles in issues that the discerning adult can pride him or herself in picking out such as Article 11 of the Constitution, lawyer P. J Lim and witty remarks at Singaporeans. My favourite is the part when Mei Li wants to give food to the orphans and Mama rationalizes that ‘…the government takes care of these things…our government would never leave orphans hungry in Singapore’.

Most of all, Princess Shawl is an important book. Here is a story that is based on the history of Malacca and not about children in Germany escaping the World War. Princess Shawl carries themes pertinent to the Malaysian and Singaporean. Themes of home, belonging, journeying, and one’s roots and origins are explored in a very tender and simple manner. Mei Li’s journey back to her roots in Malacca and China mirrors the journey of the Malaysian-­Singaporean reader who learns about his or her own culture through the book. The re-uniting of the sultan and the princess is representative of the Malays and Chinese coming together in a united Malaysia.

This book is after all still in line with Lim’s post-colonial and diasporic themes. However, I felt it was a pity that none of the issues or themes could appear prominently as she was trying to squeeze in too many of them in such a short book without adequately developing any one.

If you have children or if you want to have the pleasure of being a child again go and get this book. My hope is that this book will eventually be part of the English for Secondary School syllabus. Despite its one or two flaws, Princess Shawl is a delightful book of good over evil and love over hate that is very true to itself.


Princess Shaw by Shirley Lim is available from Silverfish at RM18.90.

Grace’s childhood ambition was to be a brownie-baking, cross-stitching Girl Scout. Upon realizing that this was not a high paying job, Grace decided on a new ambition – to be an actress and writer in Malaysia. Well, at least the two have something in common.

First Published: 02.07.2008 on Kakiseni

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