The Tjoa ash house originally intended for the family’s ancestral tablets has stood at the top of Kota Cahaya’s exclusive Green Hill for a century. Now, it is all drooping lintels and sagging roof; a haunted house with a haunted heir in it – Arno Tjoa, a Barbie-doll fixated cripple whom Sister Mary Michael, the clairvoyant nun, has been sent to set free.
Arno believes that Bing-Fa --- the fascinating spirit of a pipa-diva trapped by a ghost marriage to Arno’s grandfather --- is the key to solving the misfortunes plaguing the house. All will be well with Girl, the comatose maid he is obsessed with, Irene Tjoa his controlling aunt, and the Tjoa fortunes if Bing Fa is released from her doll-house prison.
However, as the family’s skeletons are unearthed, the nun realizes it is not in her power to save everyone or everything. Who or what must be sacrificed? What must be left to turn to dust?
Set in a 21 st century South-East-Asian port city where spirits still linger, The Ash House is the story of an overseas-Chinese merchant family haunted by the legacy of love gone wrong, with an ending both unexpected and heartbreaking.
Singaporean author Audrey Chin has been writing and publishing novels, short stories and poetry since at least 1999. She has been nominated three times in the last two decades for the Singapore Literature Prize. Yet, her work still flies mainly under the radar. Her latest novel was picked up by Penguin SEA and hopefully will attract a wider audience. She is a talented writer and The Ash House is her first full-length ghost story. The novel is part Asian gothic and part paranormal mystery with a detective nun on the case.
The novel is set in a haunted ancestral shophouse in a fictional, affluent South East Asian city. Sister Mary Michael is a detective, clairvoyant nun sent to investigate a haunting in the Tjoa family home.
The Tjoas' featured in the novel are a motley bunch squabbling over what is left of the family fortunes. Arno is the current heir, a crippled young man who collects Barbie dolls and is possibly possessed by a spirit. Sister Mary Michael's job is to listen, intuit, and make sense of several conflicting stories being told, including those from the spirit, Bing Fa a pipa playing diva trapped by the family's founder in a ghost marriage nearly 100 years ago.
This makes for an unusual narrative structure as the reader is initially unsure who the story belongs to but Chin's prose shifts fluidly between different points of view and ghostly monologues.
This novel operates on so many elements. There is plenty of creepiness and ickiness and Barbie dolls! The males are despicable and pitiful, and the females, we discover, are hungry and angry.
In this work, the beautiful young victim is a domestic helper (maid) known only as Girl who has travelled from her remote village to the Tjoa house to earn enough to marry her village boyfriend Buffalo boy. Girls eyes are opened to new opportunities in the Tjoa household the possibility of marrying up. As she wrestles with her own heart, she becomes embroiled in the house's mysteries and becomes a pawn of the spirit Bing Fa.
The themes are both simple and complex in this novel which explores, love, control, the ties that bind, gender bias and social inequality. Great for those who love a good yarn, a spooky ghost story or reading about crumbling family dynasties set in SE Asia. Part of the proceeds will be donated to the non-for-profit HOME to support abused domestic workers in Singapore.
Thanks to Audrey Chin and TLC book tours for making this book available to me! . So basically, a clairvoyant nun is sent to the Ash House to look into the Heir, Arno of the Tjoa family and rumours of his obsession with dolls. But on getting to the house, Sister Mary had to contend with the ghosts that roam, the ideas that flourish and the continuous test of his faith and will.
We go back a few years before Girl, the maid was comatose and how she got to that state. Taken from her small village to serve at the house, she becomes a victim of the house, Arno's father and history! While Arno did care for her, it was so selfish. I mean the guy kept her hair under lock and key. Even when she was comatose, he wanted to marry her without her permission. I mean ghost marriages was what started the whole thing with his grandfather. One would think he would stay far away from the kind of thing.
It was a very refreshing read. I got to learn a bit about this side of Singaporean culture! This gothic novel was not what I was expecting! Themes -Sexual Assault -Ghost marriages -Demonic possessions -Exorcism
It was hard to put down once I started reading it. Riveting parallel stories of the struggle for power and money within a wealthy family upstairs, the yearning for a better life of a young village Girl, later a migrant domestic worker with no name or face, constantly preyed on by older men, and the dreams for a happy retirement and machinations of Cook. Audrey Chin skillfully wove the stories to highlight the plight of migrant workers as the downstairs class, a nameless mass except for their roles. I loved the choice of the nouns Girl, and Cook. It was also fun to read again about Asian old ghost stories, exorcism, and about souls with unfinished business. Thanks, Audrey for an entertaining weekend and food for thought.
The Ash House does not need skeletons. It is not filled with explicit violence, blood and gore. Instead, playing with light and shadow, faint melodies, half-remembered flavours, flecks of skin, strands of hair, mucous, snot and slime, it builds tension with the mundane, everyday acts of living. Deeply-held native and religious rituals, suppressed longings, plump or aging flesh and naked dolls feed the familiar till it becomes fetish. Unknowable, imponderable spirit powers enter their victims quietly, unlock secrets and nurture their deepest desires in order to control them. The characters, dead or alive, are all children of the generations that came before and the cultures that they have adapted to. How much agency do they really have? How much do they really know? Thank you Audrey, for adding another layer of understanding about the complex lives inner lives of all who inhabit the worlds around us.
The Ash House is an enchanting Gothic tale of how hunger can lead to one's undoing. The unnamed Girl and Cook are emblematic of anonymous domestic workers who do thankless jobs for their oftentimes abusive employers. Nevertheless they are given agency in this house of horrors, with a privileged Peranakan family at its center. Gender and class intersect with a multi-generational curse and a Catholic nun with her own past holds the key to a buried secret. A great read for anyone who loves ghost stories enriched with the particulars of Southeast Asian mythologies and culture. Audrey Chin, a well-loved Singaporean writer with several books already under her belt, writes with a keen eye for detail, humour and heart.
Ash House by Audrey Chin from Singapore provides great insight into the culture and traditions of a Chinese family that is also following the Catholic faith. It is fascinating to blend Chinese cultural beliefs and superstitions with rituals of a global religion that is largely perceived as a "Western faith". And yet, this is how many families here live, seeking goodwill from gods and spirits as suits them, even the Girl who comes from another land and culture also succumbed to the lure of spiritual beings
The Ash House is a more than just a ghost story. It brings into the light those beings who exist in the shadows and, by doing so, fits brilliantly into the modern tradition of using horror to highlight terrible realities.
Audrey Chin is a fantastic writer who should be read more widely. Recommended.
The Ash House - Audrey Chin is Escher like in her meticulous details and dovetails, the novel is an honest and open delve into the depths of consciousness and desire. One gets sucked in to the 'other' world, regurgitated back and cycled, and is left amazed at the cleverness of it all.
Singapore writer Audrey Chin’s latest offering refuses simple classification. A ghost story that’s also a tense tale of the travails of Southeast Asian women through a century, The Ash House opens with a nun being called on to exorcise a demonic female spirit. Arno Tjoa, the crippled heir of a wealthy Indonesian Chinese family, has been caught stripping naked six Barbie dolls and staging a hanging of them from the tops of sliding doors. This, together with other weird happenings, draws a bishop and Sister Mary Michael Chan to the Tjoa mansion. Initial investigations suggest a pipa-playing, freedom-loving second wife of Arno’s grandfather has apparently possessed the grandson in a bid to release herself from a curse that binds her to the family. But that’s just an obvious interpretation. The truth is much more complicated than that. The women in the story—from long-dead first and third wives to their living daughters, domestic helpers and the music-minded diva herself—are not victims of the patriarchy but agents of their own entrapment. Since this is a multicultural spooky thriller, prepare yourself to be wowed by a magical trafficking of desire between this world and the next through malefices--objects that channel curses-- that include dolls in a red qipao and a Peranakan wedding dress, a pipa glass charm as well as strings of hair and silk that bind everyday objects such as shoelaces and coins. Don’t be surprised either by the skilful mediation of Eastern and Western Gothic traditions and Taoist and Catholic beliefs about ghosts that will have you wondering what ghosts, and ghost stories, are really all about. Are they the past talking to you, trying to pull you back into their ancient twisted emotions and mindsets? Or do they signify the foolish moments that you think you could make a deal with the devil and win? In this story, spirit possessions are also a metaphor for the way the empty soul, fearful of love and feeling, ironically becomes a doorway to other people’s forbidden desires. As a non-Chinese reader, I found this to be a useful introduction to the way early 20th century Chinese women thought about the relationship between the earthly and spiritual worlds but I was glad to see the female modern spirit survive this attack from its past.
As someone who has recently relocated to Southeast Asia, I've become more aware of the many mythologies, legends, and traditional ghost stories of the region unknown to me before. Such stories deserve a wider audience, especially in the West. In Audrey Chin's skillful hands, The Ash House will hopefully address this.
The author's haunting, evocative, and compelling prose drew me in right from page one, and clung to me throughout. It's rare that I have the time or inclination to read a book in a single sitting, but Audrey Chin's The Ash House would not let me go.
This stunning tale centers around the theme of "spiritual affliction" (what some in the West might term "possession"). But although described in some circles as a Gothic ghost story, I didn't see it as such - it's much deeper and, in that way, more haunting.
"Something in its walls seems determined to pull it down. Something that wants to escape--to set itself free." Such is the mission of Sister Mary Michael Chan when she visits the Tjoa family ash house, at the behest of her Bishop. In the vein of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, The Ash House offers an equally disturbing yet thought-provoking read.
The novels that draw me in the most are ones from which I learn something new. In the case of The Ash House, it has been a greater appreciation for the way the physical and spiritual worlds are interlinked in Asian culture.
A beautiful, immensely readable book. Highly recommended!
Ghosts, Possessions, family secrets and complicated family dynamics written in a way I have never read before! Ash House is unique book and keeps you bound from start to finish, its a really entertaining book!
A fascinating book that was easy to read and blended cultures together seamlessly. The characters are memorable and the horror lends itself easily to the atmospheric build up. Would definitely recommend for anyone interested in horror that is more based in Asian culture.
The Ash House is a subtle, nuanced study of family, every-day living, human agency. I was absorbed in the narrative: the exorcisms, the investigation, the ghosts, the weird and wonderful women, love and loss. Absolutely recommend it if you’d like an atmospheric horror that makes you think.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary pdf copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
Content warnings: Possession by ghost/spirit, sexual predation by employer, domestic worker abuse, elderly neglect, ableist language
The Ash House, slated for release in August 2021 by Penguin Random House SEA, is written by Audrey Chin. Ms Chin is an established Singaporean author of Peranakan Vietnamese heritage, this is my first encounter with her work. Described as an 'Asian Gothic' story, the book opens with a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Mary Michael Chan, being assigned by her local bishop to investigate the house of a prominent merchant family for malignant paranormal influences. The young master of the house, Arno Tjoa Jia Hao, has been behaving in an extremely strange manner with his collection of Barbie dolls, each draped in his designer Peranakan costumes and corresponding to the female relatives and maid in the house. Yes, it's as creepy as it sounds.
The story is set in a contemporary setting in Kota Chahaya, malay for City of Light, a 21st century affluent port city in South-east Asia. As the investigation proceeds and pieces of the sordid tale emerges, we are privy to the history of three generations of the Tjoa family as well that of Bing Fa, a pipa player courtesan from Guangzhou, and Girl, an unnamed domestic worker from what sounds like Indonesia, who works in the Tjoa household and had a suspicious debilitating 'accident.' What struck me as each voice in this atmospheric house tells their story and viewpoint is that there's no central protagonist, everyone gets equal billing. Each character is encased in their role, sure of their contribution and control over cause and effect in the events, yet each story unfurls yet another layer of complexity, revising our understanding. Two of the characters are deliberately not named, Girl and Cook, 'the help' of the house.
One of the underlying themes of the book is the lust for young women's bodies by men in positions of power and the crushing inexorable effect of that on their fates. The business family holdings founder Tjoa Ek Kia who traps Bing Fa in a ghost marriage, his gambling son drunk on alcohol and carnal pleasures and finally grandson Arno a fixated obsession with marrying doll Girl by proxy. This has a domino effect on the tapestry of events eg the other wives of elder Tjoa plot to deal with Bing Fa's usurpation of favour in the household in the style of Raise The Red Lantern. Listening to the old Shanghainese song 秋水伊人 which plays an important part of the story definitely added to the nostalgic seductive melancholic ambience.
There's a few areas in the book that discomfited me: 1) How Gran was depicted, albeit in the eyes of Girl - basically "sick, slop, shit" in detail. This elderly person was reduced by language repeatedly to crude biological functions, this may be harmful considering our rapidly aging society, the intimation of them being an enormous burden and robbing them of dignity and humanity. 2) Girl's seduction of Arno, under Bing Fa's tutelage. One of the common often unfounded fears of employers is that the female migrant maid will use her feminine wiles on the husband or males of the house, I've heard some will request "ugly, old" maids to guard against that. So having Girl fulfill this suspected action in this fictional story may fuel this paranoia. 3) Arno described as "maimed baby", "stuttering", cripple, variations of fat. 4) The contemptuous sneering by Girl and Cook privately of 'the Cinos.' All this is not to be conflated with the author's views, she is giving voice to traditionally disempowered women and donating proceeds of the book to HOME (the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics), a non-profit that supports abused domestic workers. Highlighting the plight of migrant workers who have suffered horrendous abuse is a worthy cause.
Lastly, I would have liked more fleshing out of Girl's background. What are the specific ghost supernatural Indonesian stories or folklore she grew up with? What's the Malay name of her childhood lover Buffalo Boy and why are they so attached? What were her favourite childhood comfort foods? (There was a mention of an Indonesian oxtail soup by her mother). Why does she like that kdrama You Who Came From The Stars (and when did she have time in her exhaustive schedule to watch it)? And this last little niggling curiosity, did Arno talak x 3 her according to tradition?
Many thanks to the author for giving me the opportunity to read this unique work.
In case you’re wondering, I gave it a 3 because I expected a total spookiness. Which wasn’t the case for this book. Anyhow, read below to know my points from this book
The writing is good! The author effortlessly sweep you into the scenes, you won’t find trouble in envisioning yourself in the ash house. Enormous yet eerie; a house lived by 3 generations of Tjoa
✨Bonus point if you’re Peranakan or familiar with Chinese family traditions. Also some knowledge of Catholicism
At first, it was a bit confusing esp with the changing POV of different spirits. I was unsure who’s the main character since the voice of nun became less apparent. But the story progressed well after getting more insight stories of each spirits, and finally uncurled the family drama…
So the ghosts are there for a reason 😂😂
✍🏻 Also, I need to point out the use of metaphors in this book, which is genius! One of the spirits is simply called Girl, we never know her actual name. This irks me at first, I was questioning why didn’t the author name her? A simple name will do. It’s ironic since the nun & Tjoa family members have been given full name and mentioned in full every time. Then it occurs to me that the author is actually touching the issues of social & gender inequality. Back in the days when upper class citizens didn’t give much attention to those of lower class, they were only described by their role. E.g Cook
Overall, paranormal, superstition & family drama are blended well. There’s a bit of doll fetish but not creepy enough. Honestly I was anticipating total spookiness but it wasn’t there 😅
Good news to those who wanted to read horror but not too scary!
The Ash House is an imaginative ghost story yet so much more than that. It opens your eyes to all those beings in South East Asian cities we often simply don't see. Not just ghosts but also flesh and blood women like Girl and Cook, both migrant workers from Indonesia. A dead pipa player, a large Peranakan family - all strong women that try to direct their own lives but get stuck in the complicated world around them.
Chin spins a web that entangles the reader as much as the vivid characters whose lives and dreams are thwarted by forces bigger than them. I loved it!
Another Spooktober read I have on my list is Audrey Chin’s ‘The Ash House’. I was first drawn to the cover and then when I read the blurb, I immediately added this to my #tbr. She was so kind to provide an arc for readers who were interested in the story and that’s how I got my copy.
This story follows Sister Mary Michael Chan, a nun who is sent by her bishop to investigate a possible haunting in the Tjoa family home. The Tjoa family is a well-established business family who had experienced some paranormal activity in the house. The youngest master of the house, Arno, has been portraying strange behaviours with his collection of dolls dressed in his hand-made Peranakan costumes. These dolls are a imitation of the female relatives and maid in the house. He is possibly possessed by a spirit…Initial investigations suggest the second wife of Arno’s grandfather, Bing Fa, is behind this in order to release herself from a curse that binds her to the family. Or is it?
Another important character is Girl, a maid hired to care for Arno’s grandmother. She seeks for better opportunities in life and doesn’t want to be a slave to forever, like Cook. She is opened to the possibility of marrying into the Tjoa family, but is that what her heart desires? As she looks for a way out, she becomes entangled with the Tjoa family and becomes a useful tool for Bing Fa.
I absolutely love the setting of the story which is filled with Asian culture and beliefs. I also got a glimpse of the Tjoa family history which transcends generations, mixing the old with the new. I love that all the main characters have a voice in this story and their contributions which led to their demise. She also covers themes of filial piety in a rich household - how many of us would personally take care of our elderly till the end? Do we not rely on domestic help and end up not spending precious time with them? Another theme she covers is the abuse of female domestic help who are not able to fend for themselves which is a common occurrence nowadays. There were also glimpses of social injustices, family hierarchy drama and gender biases.
I love how Audrey seamlessly added all these themes into the story. Although this didn’t spook me, I was quite invested in the story and I really enjoyed it! Thank you Audrey for sharing an arc with me.
I signed up to this book tour as the author is from Singapore, and for those of you that don't know, that is where my boyfriend is currently living for work. The book was also shipped from Singapore so I thought that would be a cool little connection, to own a book that's come from where Jack is living now!
This was a brand new genre to me - Asian Gothic. I have recently discovered a love for gothic fiction in general, and was super excited to see what this book was like. I really loved the author's writing style - it was very easy to get into and was so immersive and interesting that I always wanted to keep reading!
Obviously this book is fiction, but I loved all the literal cultural references and nods to Southeast Asian traditions that I had not previously known much about - definitely some areas I want to read up on in future!
I really liked the character development throughout the book, and all of the characters were really well written.
I love a paranormal element in a book, and this was no exception. This wasn't a scary book, but there were definitely bits that were creepy and made you think hard! It was such an interesting concept for a book, and I hope to read more from Audrey Chin in future!
Stories on horror and spirituality are always crowd pleasers with the South East Asian audience, and so I wonder about that thinking when I started with this book, as I thought that Audrey Chin has never sat on the obvious in the past. But Chin has basically transcended the easy option by leapfrogging into producing what is really, at the heart, a good story. Mastery of language has never been a problem for the writer, and in this case, I appreciate that she has leant more into the story-telling and less into the lyrical, like in the case of the earlier book, As the Heart Bones Break. Common in her themes which I enjoy most as well, as that she participates more in the broader human condition, rather than writing on the South East Asian's condition and stopping there. I think Audrey Chin should get more exposure; she has the propensity to touch much more souls.
I really enjoyed the Ash House. This story of an old-money Peranakan family in decline evokes an intricate world full of nostalgia. The reader is drawn into a web of conflicts, desires and deceits of various ancestors and the continuing impact they have on the remaining family members and domestic staff. The domestic staff, plus a nun, are entwined with the family’s ghosts and secrets and provide contrast and complementarity versus the family, making the story richer. As a reader, I was rooting for the subversive and assertive female characters trying to gain agency over their lives and afterlives.
Intricately woven and beautifully written, The Ash House is more than just a ghost story. It's a tale of how life, and our wants and choices never quite come together in the way we expect. It also shows how inextricably we are bound to our ancestors, and their lives, actions and choices, despite our best efforts to break free from the mould.
From the very first page, this book piques my interest because it gives me an insight into the world of a family following the Catholic faith. A faith that is not only unfamiliar to me but also fascinates me. Exorcisms, demonic possessions, ghosts, some of the cultural beliefs touched upon things that I have heard of yet others were quite foreign. The Ash House also makes me ponder deeper about souls and unfinished business. If you like Asian Gothic and paranormal stuff this is the book to pick up. I find it quite entertaining.
Audrey Chin draws on Southeast Asian and Chinese traditions and rituals along with Catholic beliefs to skilfully craft this atmospheric tale about the Tjoa family house, haunted not just by a trapped spirit but also by the thwarted desires of its current occupants, making them susceptible to ghostly manipulations. But The Ash House is much more than just a haunted house story. It also gives the 'hungry, angry girls’ of the Tjoa house a voice for their stories: The multiple wives of a rich rubber trader vying for his love already lost to the one he entrapped through a ghost marriage. His strong daughters plotting to gain control of the family trust even as they rail against their ‘second-class’ status as females in a patriarchal society. The unnamed foreign workers who trade their village homes and penniless loves for the drudgery of domestic work and elder care in the hope of gaining financial independence and material security. By drawing parallels between different generations and classes of Southeast Asian women, the author shows how little has changed over time where gender and wealth imbalances are concerned. I thoroughly enjoyed Audrey Chin’s elegant and evocative prose woven with a subtle, sly humour, and I look forward to reading more of her work.
Audrey Chin’s The Ash House is the dark and compelling story of the Tjoa family. Sister Mary Michael is sent to the family home to rid Arno Tjoa of the spirit haunting him. Arno believes the spirit of Bing-Fa, who was trapped in a ghost marriage to his grandfather is the key to solving all his problems. All he wants is to be with Girl, the family maid lying in a coma. With his controlling Aunt circling with a view to taking control of the Tjoa fortune, Sister Mary Michael soon begins to unearth the secrets of the family’s past.
The Ash House is a relatively short read, but one that captivated me from the very first page. This Gothic ghost story was beautifully written and I really enjoyed Chin’s writing style. This is my first time reading Audrey Chin’s books, but it definitely won’t be the last. The story was well-plotted, hooking the reader deeper and deeper into the secrets of the Tjoa family. Whilst this is a ghost story it also tackles some complex issues, namely around how women and migrant workers are treated.
Chin has created some really fascinating and complex characters in The Ash House. All the characters felt well created and I particularly felt for Girl and all that she goes through. The Ash House is a dark and atmospheric read. If you’re looking for a haunting, captivating story that will keep you captivated till the very last page, this should definitely be your next read.
The Ash House is a riveting Asian Gothic tale with fascinating characters. It infuses Chinese culture, superstitions, faith and struggles of the many women in the Tjoa household. The novel is set in a haunted ancestral house of the Tjoa, in a fictional South East Asian city.
Sister Mary Chan, a clairvoyant nun is asked to take a stock of the situation at The Ash House in Green Hill and prepare its resident and Tjoa heir, Arno for exorcism. The Tjoa family members scramble to get at the family fortune. Irene, the eldest daughter of the Tjoa family keeps the household running with the help of a cook and a girl from the cook's village. Arno is obsessed with barbie dolls and wants to marry the girl from village.
The girl from the village, an obscure character gets caught up in the chaos that consumes the Tjoa family. Her longing for love is shadowed by her dream to marry up in the society which is used against her by Bing Fa, the spirt that is determined to wreck havoc on the Tjoa household.
The novel is layered and explores different elements like gender inequality, societal bias, love, complex family dynamics and conflicting beliefs. This is a perfect blend of paranormal mystery, Asian gothic and family drama.
The twist that was very subtly revealed at the end was unexpected yet made total sense. Overall, I enjoyed reading this gripping novel with an engaging plot and remarkable characters.
I highly recommend this enthralling book to anyone looking for a diverse, gothic and atmospheric fiction from an acclaimed Singaporean author.