Featuring: "The Billion Shop" by Stephanie Ye (2012), Math Paper Press
The Billion Shop was a shop near my office that sold paper money and other artefacts for ethnic Chinese people to burn as offerings to their dead.
I was drawn to this book because of the title. It was part of BooksActually’s "Babette’s Feast" series, published in 2012. Then the evocative first line of the back cover (above) reeled me in.
The back cover goes on to describe these stories as the writer’s “own paper offerings” to her dead, nodding to her sentimentality about “places gone, loves lost, ideals overturned or, more often, outgrown.”
There are four stories in this slim chapbook, revolving around three characters– Emma, JJ and Sam.
In the first story, "City in C Minor" Emma is an 11-year-old child who becomes fascinated with Western classical music after listening to her first concert at the Victoria Concert Hall. The cellist is a Chinese man of Spanish citizenship and his playing enthralls Emma. Her father somehow scrapes together enough money to pay for cello lessons and Emma becomes quite good, eventually joining the national youth orchestra. But she leaves her cello behind when she leaves for New York on a government scholarship, a scholarship she managed to attain largely because of her musical accomplishments. In New York, she sees the same Spanish cellist perform. This time, he is tapping his Chinese roots and has employed a number of classical Chinese musicians to accompany him. Emma feels alienated by the sounds of the Chinese instruments of her own culture, and is dismayed by the way the cellist is “playing his cello as if it were some other instrument.”
The second story, "Cardiff", is about a JC boy (whose identity remains obscure throughout) having an affair with his Literature teacher, a married Englishwoman named Mrs Williams. Mrs Williams is originally from Cardiff and the unnamed boy says he wants to go there to study when they are alone in a cheap hotel room after the school day. His teacher-lover scoffs at his idealised view of going overseas. Unlike the first story, which was in third person, this second story is told in second person. I found it alienating not because the point of view character was a male teen, but because what he was doing wasn't something I simply could relate to. I found myself wondering how he got into the affair with the teacher in the first place. In some unlikely relationships, incredible conversations and meetings of mind, heart or spirit, make the connection plausible, even sublime. This scenario between a JC boy and his teacher was far from it. Their conversations were riddled with missed notes, and failures at any meaningful exchange. Perhaps that was meant to be a comment on the banality of their relationship, that it was just based on sex (most of the story took place at the hotel room), loneliness, boredom, curiosity, or a mixture of all of them.
The title piece, "The Billion Shop" is from the perspective of Sam. He is back on holiday in Singapore from his tertiary studies in Chicago, and goes to the funeral of a former classmate, JJ. There, he meets primary school classmate, Emma. Sam, being gay, witnesses the arrival of Christian fundamentalist friends of JJ’s with his own reservations. Another day, he receives a request from JJ’s mother, whom he met at the funeral. She asks if he can drive her somewhere. The destination turns out to be the Billion Shop in an HDB estate, where the mother buys paper offerings for her son. The beautifully written ending of this story is particularly poignant:
The paper burned quickly, gaudy reds and golds curling to black. Small flecks of ash darted about like fireflies. It was a hot day made hotter by the fire, and sweat ran down our faces as we watched the smoke ripple into the air, willing that it would find a way to JJ.
The final story, "Astoria’" features an adult Sam and Emma. Sam has been living in a seaside town named Astoria in Oregon, and Emma visits him when she goes to the US on a work trip. This meeting between the two who never knew each other very well, reveals a secret each of them carries. I won’t spoil it here, but I found Sam’s revelation gently poignant. Emma’s secret is two-fold, and while some might think the choice she contemplates barbaric, it reveals an understandable human desire to achieve something beyond the mundane greyness of life.
I enjoyed how the stories gently circled round the three main characters as well as the sedate pace and reflective tone of the book. It was refreshing to not be in the grip of constant tension in these stories, as one usually is with more commercially-driven books.