Hell Notes

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee is a novel set in wartime Singapore. For the main character Wang Di, this is hell. She’s 17 years old when Japanese soldiers take her from her village home to become a “comfort woman.”

How We Disappeared is also a novel set in modern day Singapore. Kevin, a 12 year old boy, hears his grandmother’s deathbed confession. He doesn’t understand it but he also can’t let it go.

Eventually, the two story lines will merge in a surprisingly hopeful way. For a novel about shame and secrets, How We Disappeared tells us that there can be redemption in speaking the truth though it may cost a struggle.

all that history like a large, wriggling fish she was trying to wrestle to shore, how she had to fight not to get pulled under.

Jing-Jing Lee, How We Disappeared (OneWorld 2019)

A home body

Last week, I interviewed Jing-Jing Lee for a master class hosted by the International Writers’ Collective. We spoke about the things writers get excited about. For example, which was the first scene you wrote? Jing said, Wang Di at home.

Home is a theme in Lee’s work. In her novella, If I Could Tell You, the authorities decide to demolish an apartment building. Never mind that, for some of the residents, Block 204 has been home for 40 years. Wang Di appears in the novella, known only as Cardboard Auntie. In How We Disappeared, Wang Di and her husband must decide where to move.

They chose the one closest by, a thumb’s length away on the map. It turned out to be thirty minutes away on foot. It might as well have been another country, another continent.

Wang Di’s world is small. The village where she grew up, the few blocks that comprise her entire world, the cell in the comfort station.

The room was no bigger than three or four paces and separated from the ones next to it by thin plywood. At the end of it was what used to be a window, but with the glass smashed out and boarded up from outside. Most of the space was taken up by a rattan mat.

Ghosts

Ghosts abound in How We Disappeared. The girls who did not survive the war. The Old One, Wang Di’s husband whom she marries after the war. Kevin’s grandmother, Ah Ma. Some times, the dead receive a funeral. Some times, they do not.

At a traditional Chinese funeral in East and Southeast Asia, it’s customary to burn hell notes along with a wide assortment of paper luxury goods to enjoy in the afterlife. Hell notes come in astronomical denominations. Some look like US dollars with the Jade Emperor on the front and the Bank of Hell on the back. You burn them at funerals and during Ghost Month.

When Kevin’s grandmother dies, the funeral lasts for 3 days. Burning the hell notes is the last step. Kevin helps his father prepare the pyre of paper.

joss money, designer clothing, a chest full of jewellery, a chauffeured car, a villa and its two accompanying servants, all the things Ah Ma never had while she was alive. A few scraps of joss paper floated away from the pyre like butterflies lit aflame. ‘Get them before we burn down the building,’ my mother said.

A debt to pay

A lot of research went into writing How We Disappeared. Jing worried about writing a story worth reading. Then she worried some more about getting the history right.

History, in this case, is at odds with the national narrative in Singapore. The government would rather celebrate its heroes and survivors. There is little attention for women, let alone the victims of sexual violence. Jing notes that, of the 50+ Statues of Peace erected to commemorate the suffering of “comfort women,” none stands in Singapore.

As the war went on, conditions inside the comfort stations worsened. Rations decreased. Malnutrition and disease were rampant. The Japanese soldiers were no longer confident of victory and the comfort women unsure of whether they wanted to survive.

Even Jeonsum was starting to fade away. She spoke less and the light in her eyes — that quietly burning anger — had all but been extinguished. The same thing happened to the other girls, their colour and skin and flesh withering away into pale shadows, until they were little more than a collection of cuts and bones and bruises, badly healed. This, I thought, this is how we’re going to disappear.

How We Disappeared is Lee’s way of writing Wang Di and her fellow “comfort women” into history. It’s a different sort of hell note, a payment for debts incurred in the past.

18 July 2021 | Karen Kao