Of all things ripe for a zombie apocalypse, Singapore, with almost 6 million people squeezed into a tiny island, sounds like the perfect place to die undead. Land Of The Meat Munchers by Singaporean author Nicholas Yong takes the zombie invasion idea – most recently popularised by the TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead – and whips up a novel with a local spin. But does the zombie genre still have bite, or is it on its last legs? Read on to find out.
If you’ve stayed in Singapore you might have noticed how our densely built urban landscape is ripe for some adventures, and Yong (no relation to our Melvin Yong) has placed the tale right in the middle of the Lion City, where zombies have tons of space to gather and hide. You might not have put much thought into how our society would collapse when the plague hits (will our bomb shelters be safe enough? Will there be proclaimed areas where zombies are not allowed to lurk?), but Yong has, and the result is a zombie novel with a distinct Singaporean flavour.
Land Of The Meat Munchers is an easily digestible novel(ette?) that moves at a fast clip. From the MRT to HDB flats, the familiar sights of Singapore – especially the Tiong Bahru region – gets fleshed out vividly. If you’ve visited or stayed in the region regularly, it’s easy to imagine the situations the characters endure. I myself stay in the east of Singapore, but could very quickly picture the situations they were in, as many locations were familiar in one way or another. Singaporeans (especially westies) should get a kick out of this – but there’s also just enough explanation for non-local readers to get a handle on things.
The book focuses on the lives of Jim, Selina and Raj (two of them named after Batman characters? Or all three?), all of who survive the early stages of the zombie plague. We start off with Jim, attempting to find supplies for his gang of survivors at Tiong Bahru MRT, and come across an MRT train derailed (!) by zombies before we meet Selina and Raj. Jim’s a self-professed geek, while Selina is an emo Poly student, and Raj an Indian smooth-talking lawyer-wannabe – all, in a sense, simple stereotypical characters any Singaporean would have met.
You also meet the typical thematic Singaporeans, from the ambling Ah Beng zombies to the cranky uncle who hates everything and wants to be left alone. If you didn’t know any better you might think Yong hates these aspects of local culture – but suffice to say it’s more of an endearing laugh at the stereotypes in Singapore in Yong’s own voice (if you knew him you’d be able to imagine him reading the novel).
Cliched characters are fine and good – it’s a great shorthand for us to get into the story – but what ruins the tale are some silly errors. High on the list is “LAN line”, which I suspect is meant to say “land line” (I.e., the telephone line, not the local area network), something an editor should have caught. Others, like “westies” getting lost in Tiong Bahru (very vaguely permissible, I guess) only serve to distract a little, together with the rampant overuse of the Singaporean-ised contraction of “what happened” to “wah’ppen”. Another editorial niggle: Some terms, like “bak chor mee”, get a definition in the footnote, while “bee hoon” gets the definition in parentheses. Others, like “mee siam”, do not get a definition. Poor, poor laksa and mee siam.
But what bugged me the most was how the titular “meat munchers” become known as “wayangs” in the middle of the book, because of how one character felt they moved like puppets (wayangs). It’s not really because of inconsistency in the title, but really how – my impression, anyway – people in Singapore take wayang to now mean “to do something for show”, instead of the original puppets. This seemed like trying too hard to add more Singaporean flavour to it, when we already had just enough sugar and spice and all things nice.
It’s also clear how much this novel owes its existence to TWD: The main character – a self professed geek – refers to the zombies as “meat munchers”, just as zombies aren’t called zombies in TWD. That shouldn’t be a big deal except he says he’s a geek – so he should know what a zombie is – and at any rate mostly does nothing geeky. It is a short book, and one wonders if any future novels will be able to take a closer look at how the characters’ brains tick.
There’s a lot of potential to have separate end-of-days scenarios played out in various parts of Singapore, after all, Telltale Games’ TWD series showed just how many stories can be told just around a small area in 400 Days. So it’s a pity that Nicholas didn’t get a better editor to wipe out the silly mistakes in the novel that can throw you off being totally immersed in the story. That said, it is his debut novel, and this is a Singaporean novel for a Singaporean reader, and at 300 pages, is an enjoyable quick jaunt.