Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 17, 2022


Appalled at the plight of young girls involved in the flesh trade moved author Paul Callan to pen The Secrets of The Sakura Girls.

Central to the heartrending story is Aoki and her fellow karayuki-san – Japanese women and girls who were forced to become sex workers in 19th century Singapore.

Similar to his previous works such as The Brigadier’s Daughter and The Dulang Washer, Callan once again brings a richly nuanced landscape and multiple social vagaries to life: from the limitations faced by the local police force to the inner workings of the Sakura or Cherry Blossom brothel.

The story opened on a sombre note, with Reverend Harry Gilmore and his young son Rupert suffering an unexpected personal loss during their voyage en route to Singapore.

As the pair tried to settle down in their new home, Reverend Gilmore had to grapple with his single parenthood, the lack of funds and necessary church repairs, as well as his own desire for companionship.

A brutal murder in the community created astir and drew constant police visits to the brothel. The investigations caused undue stress to the Sakura Girls which later led to unexpectedly tragic consequences for one of them.

According to Paul Callan, he was working on another story when the topic of prostitution in Singapore in the bygone years touched him so deeply that he became diverted.

Callan said he was appalled at the plight of the young girls and the lives they found themselves living. "I was outraged, angry, and disgusted, especially at the thought such treatment of young girls could still be happening today.

“I wondered, would men really visit a brothel if they knew girls of such tender years, or so vulnerable, would entertain them? I decided I would write the story as a mark of respect for the girls, both then and today.

“I wanted to write, not a sex story, but a story about the lives of the girls, their hardships, and what they had to endure. I want the reader to know them through their emotions, and nothing at all about the activities they were forced to undertake.”

It took Callan two years to complete research for the book. Often, he found himself waking up in the middle of the night, to write a thought down. “I learned from past experience if I didn’t get up and write what had awakened me, I’d lose the thought forever. So, I often write at unholy hours of the day or night. Many times, I write until the wee hours to get the story down.”

When asked about parts of the book that resonated with him, Callan said “Many years ago I was confronted with the issue of suicide. To find young girls resorting to such action (as my research revealed) drove me to seek justice for them by writing the story I did.”

After reading the novel, I asked Callan if he has any plans to follow up with a sequel as there seem to be some potential leads to develop a few of the protagonists’ stories.

Callan responded, “I’ve been asked frequently if there might be a sequel to the book. Right now, I’m waiting for the publication of my next book – a part historical, part fantasy story set in Malaya in the early 19th century by Penguin. While I’m deep into a new story, it’s very much outside my comfort zone and it's a story dominated by one character. Perhaps, after that, I will look at writing more on the outcome of the characters in The Secrets of the Sakura Girls.”

It looks like readers will just have to console themselves with The Secrets of The Sakura Girls for now.

Note: The review copy of The Secrets of The Sakura Girls was courtesy of Paul Callan and Penguin Random House SEA

Friday, October 13, 2017


As an avid reader, I’m always keen to explore different genres of reading material, be it books or magazines. When I was introduced to Paul Callan - author of The Brigadier’s Daughter - by Dato’ Rosemarie Wee of Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur, I had no inkling Paul was a published author of 3 novels.

I was pleasantly surprised when Paul emailed me to inform he actually left me a copy of his novel to be reviewed. The blurb on the back cover sounded intriguing from the get-go so I wasted no time in reading The Brigadier’s Daughter.

The story of Jin, a young Chinese boy with a penchant for art who became infatuated and fell hopelessly in love with Stephanie, a Eurasian girl and daughter of the titular brigadier was set in a small town in colonial era Malaya.

Recounted through a series of flashbacks, the poignant ‘coming of age’ and love story is interwoven with Jin’s present day circumstances as he grappled with his business and life challenges. I find Paul’s writing style pleasantly simple and makes for easy reading; each chapter rousing enough curiosity to spur readers like me fervently wondering if the star-crossed couple would find their happily-ever-after.

When I interviewed Paul for this book review, the author told me he penned The Brigadier’s Daughter to encourage more students especially teenagers and young adults to read. In the novel, Paul painstaking detailed Jin’s emotional state and feelings as an adolescent: his growing pains, his sexual awakening and constant yearning for Stephanie. Pertinent issues that should resonate with young readers and adults who may have forgotten their personal struggles dealing with puberty.

Paul’s extensive research on local history is evident in certain chapters of the book. His fascination with Malaysia and its people stemmed from his marriage to a Malaysian. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Paul Callan was a London-based businessman who turned to writing historical fiction of Southeast Asia.

According to Paul, “One of the great pleasures for me when writing is research.”
Todate, his three novels are The Dulang Washer (MPH, 2011), Shadows Beneath the Fronds (MPH, 2013), and The Brigadier’s Daughter (Epigram Books, 2017).

On his latest tome, Paul said: “Whenever I meet anybody new, I’d asked if they are from Johor. When I get a positive response, I’d expand by asking if they hail from Kluang. Alas, all those I met were too young to tell me anything about Kluang in 1957.”

Undeterred, Paul then made several trips to Kluang town where the story was set. “With the help of an acquaintance familiar with Kluang, and whom I acknowledge in the book, I met several elderly residents who could recall Merdeka Day vividly. It was these residents who told me Kluang had a stadium in 1957, and they readily shared how the whole town gathered there to celebrate Merdeka.”

Paul revealed they also told him how Indian estate workers were collectively driven to the stadium for the great event. “There was even a speaker system set up for everyone to hear the announcement of Merdeka. And yes, the party atmosphere included chendol being available.”

His research efforts are effortlessly interwoven into different parts of the book, in the form of anecdotes and nuggets of information. I particularly like Paul’s detailing of the erhu, a classic Chinese musical instrument and the preparation of Hainanese chicken rice. To understand these intriguing tidbits, you’d simply must read The Brigadier’s Daughter.

Paul Callan now divides his time between his homes in Kuala Lumpur and London. He’s currently writing his fourth novel. Now excuse me while I go hunt down his earlier books to tide me over.

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