Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

The audio book image for ‘Black Water Sister’ by Zen Cho, narrated by Catherine Ho.

I completed the audio recording of Black Water Sister by Zen Cho a couple of weeks ago. The story is set in Penang and tells of Jessamyn Teoh, a young woman who has lived in the US most of her life, but must move back to Malaysia with her parents when her father falls ill and loses his job in the States.

To complicate the whiplash-sudden change of life and lifestyle, Jessamyn is a closeted lesbian  who plans to escape Penang and reunite with her girlfriend when the latter moves Singapore for graduate school. Plus, once in Penang, she finds herself haunted. By her recently-dead maternal grandmother.

Pretty soon, Jessamyn finds herself involved in a dangerous battle to save a Daoist temple threatened with demolition by a ruthless multi-billion-ringgit infrastructure company, pulled into the fray by the ghost of her grandmother who, turns out, not only used to be the temple deity’s spirit medium, but also has an ancient axe to grind with the big boss of the company.

To Jess’s horror and revulsion, it seems that she is to be the next medium to serve the deity (the titular Black Water Sister) and interestingly, it’s not so much the ruthless billionaire towkay who threatens Jess’s life, but the combination of her grandmother’s rage and regret, and the deity’s destructive fury, both directed at past injustices which they are determined to address. 

I enjoyed this book, not least because it’s set in Penang and features Daoist/folk beliefs and rituals. There is even the appearance of a Datuk Gong, which is a kind of folk deity I am particularly fond of.

The story deals with a number of issues that would be familiar to most Malaysians, like the gentrification of towns and suburbs (in this case, George Town); the exploitation of foreign workers; and the struggle of having desires and values that are at odds with those of your family. However, I’m afraid I was more interested in the supernatural aspects of the novel. I wanted to know more about the Black Water Sister; and I especially liked the various temple scenes; Jess’s visions of the past; and her interactions with supernatural beings, including Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.  I felt the author’s portrayal of Daoism, as a key component of her plot, captured really well the religion’s dramatically confident yet confusingly amorphous quality — well, at least that’s how the religion seems to an outsider (albeit an interested one) like me.

The only thing that got in the way of my enjoyment of the book was the narrator (I listened to the audio recording), Catherine Ho, when she made a mess of certain Malay words. I guess she isn’t local and luckily, the words don’t occur all that often in the novel.


Ayer Itam Dam.

When I was listening to Black Water Sister, it took me a while to make the connection between ‘black water’ and ‘air hitam’ (Ayer Itam). Then I wondered why ‘black water’ sounds so much more menacing than ‘air hitam’. It’s probably because we are so used to it being a place name that we just hear the sounds of the words and have stopped being conscious of their meaning.

I asked my cousin who was born and raised in Penang, what Ayer Itam is called by Hokkien-speakers on the island and she said it is not translated into Hokkien because ‘all place names in Penang are already Hokkien’! What my cousin meant when she said that place names are ‘already Hokkien’ was that they have been absorbed into the Hokkien vernacular. While there are Hokkien words that mean black and water, Ayer Itam as a name is considered Hokkien in the same way ‘loti’ (derived from the Malay ‘roti’) is used by Hokkien speakers to mean bread. The Taiwanese say mibāo in their version of Hokkien, and it is like miànbāo  in Mandarin. However, mi/miàn refers to wheat flour that we would associate more with noodles than bread, and bāo is what we call the kind of (usually steamed) buns stuffed with meat and other filling. It’s like bread, but not like the loaves that we slice and toast. Southern Chinese did not eat that kind of bread, hence the absence of terminology for it and the adoption of roti by the Southern Chinese diaspora that settled in this region. Of course, roti was adopted by the Malays from the Hindi word for varieties of flat bread. (Sliced bread is a wypipo thing and nothing to get too excited about.)

How did we get from Ayer Itam to sliced bread? (Books do that — they take your mind everywhere!) Picture by Jude Infantini on Unsplash.

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