The River’s Song tells the story of Ping and Weng, who both live along the Singapore River. It’s a story of love lost and found, of music, and of the great cleanup of the Singapore River in the 1980s. Even though I don’t know much about Singapore at that time, I got easily immersed into the lives of the people who lived on and along the river.
Ping is the illegitimate daughter of Yoke Lan, who makes a living playing the pipa (a short-necked Chinese lute). She is celebrated as the Pipa Queen, but it is not enough for her. One day, she abandons her daughter to reinvent herself in a different place. Even though Ping can stay at the coffee house where she lived with her mother, she feels lost and lonely. In order to survive, she sells vegetables, and she would not have been successful if not for the help of Weng. Weng and his family live right along the Singapore River. They are part of the countless squatters who make their living off the river. The two children become close, and Ping starts to take music lessons from Weng’s father.
Eventually, Ping’s mother returns. She has married into a wealthy family, and her husband is the owner of the land along the river. He is instrumental in the plan to clean up the river and help turn Singapore into an economic powerhouse. Ping’s mother eventually takes Ping back, which sets up a growing conflict between mother and daughter; rich and poor; progress and tradition; and Ping and Weng, who have to figure out whether their alliances lie with each other, their families, or a way of life that is threatened by the massive cleanup of the river.
In the end, Ping is forced to move away from Singapore. The only thing she takes with her is her pipa, which somewhat ironically will help her establish herself in an entirely different culture. She doesn’t return until 30 years later, struggling to reconnect with a city she no longer recognizes, people who have grown up without her, and a way of life that has changed in her absence and no longer feels natural to her.
I truly enjoyed reading about Ping and Weng. They were both well-rounded characters, and the social setting was very interesting. A lot of the direct speech was written in dialect, which is not easy to pull off. But it felt very natural and authentic in this book. It was a pleasure to read this book.
*I received a copy of the book from the publisher via Netgalley.