The Marginalisation of Women in Wuxia: A Tale of Three Dragon Gate Inns


Posters of the three Dragon Gate Inns: (from left to right) Dragon Gate Inn (1967), New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011)

In 1967, King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1967), was released to critical acclaim in Taiwan and the region. One of the earliest and most prominent examples of the wuxia genre, Dragon Gate Inn codified the genre and inspired many modern wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). More than twenty years later, in 1992, Dragon Gate Inn would be remade as New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) by Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark. And almost another two decades after that, in 2011, Tsui Hark would revisit the film and remake it again as Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011). These three films are quintessential wuxia classics, representing the genre domestically, regionally and worldwide.

The main protagonists (left), main antagonists (right) and Dragon Gate Inn (centre) of the three films.

The premises of all three films are similar – a helpless character (the Yu children in Dragon Gate Inn and New Dragon Gate Inn, a pregnant maid in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn) is on the run from the imperial palace and seeks to escape across the border through Dragon Gate Pass with the help of vigilantes. All three films feature Dragon Gate Inn, a shady lodge near the pass as the central site of the narrative conflicts. All three films feature a xia protagonist – Hsiao Shao-Tzu in Dragon Gate Inn, Zhou Huai’an in New Dragon Gate Inn and Zhao Huai’an in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. All three films also feature high-ranking officials from the imperial palace as their main antagonists – Tsao Shao Chin in Dragon Gate Inn, Tsao Siu-yan in New Dragon Gate Inn and Yu Huatian in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn.

The women in the three Dragon Gate Inns: (clockwise, from top left) Chu Huei, Yau Mo-yan, Jade, Su Huirong, Gu Shaotang, Zhang Xiaowen & Ling Yanqiu.

However, a distinct difference across the three films is the women featured in them. Dragon Gate Inn features Chu Huei as its sole alpha female – fierce, headstrong and competent in battle.

New Dragon Gate Inn replaces the male innkeeper of the original with Jade, a sharp-tongued vixen who seduces and kills men for their meat on the side. Joining her is Yau Mo-yan, a traveling vigilante. These two characters come across as derivatives of Chu Huei, with Jade inheriting her sharp tongue and Mo-yan her prowess in battle.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate reimagines Jade as Ling Yanqiu, who is closer to Chu Huei than either woman from New Dragon Gate Inn. Zhang Xiaowen fills in Jade’s archetypical role as another sensual, lustful character, but is given an exotic slant as a Tartar (Chinese ethnic minority) leader. Gu Shaotang is the leader of a team of treasure hunters, also bearing many similarities to Chu Huei. Finally, Su Huirong makes the last of the seven women across the three films, a pregnant palace maid who shows her true colours in a surprising plot twist at the end of the film.

Altogether, the three Dragon Gate Inns have spanned 44 years, during which the role of women in wuxia, and in Chinese films in general, has ostensibly evolved drastically. However, upon closer inspection it is revealed that the increasing role of women in wuxia is nothing more than an increase in numbers. Despite the greater prevalence of strong ‘feminist’ characters, all the seven women across the three films are ultimately marginalised through similar means – their inevitable links with men, their exotification and and their marginalisation in battle, the very cornerstone of wuxia. Hence, as exemplified by the three Dragon Gate Inns, women in wuxia are still very much marginalised even today.


Links to Men

Throughout all three Dragon Gate Inns, a majority of the women are marginalised through their inevitable links to men – none of them exist in a narrative vacuum and thus can exercise singular agency like many of the men do. These male-female links manifest in two varieties – links of romance and links of subordination.

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The romantic links of Mo-yan and Yanqiu.

Six of the seven women are linked romantically to men – Mo-yan, Yanqiu, Jade, Xiaowen and, to lesser extents, Shaotang and Huirong. Mo-yan and Yanqiu’s links with their respective male leads, Zhou Huai’an and Zhao Huai’an, are extremely similar – both initially appear to be strong women but, upon their encounters with the male lead, are effectively stripped of their power and become emotionally dependent on the latter. Mo-yan’s mental fortitude as a vigilante is quickly undone when she resorts to drinking away her sorrows after Huai’an agrees to marry Jade as part of a plot to find the secret tunnel out of the inn, despite being fully aware of the plot. Yanqiu’s battle prowess is quickly undone when she first sets her eyes on Huai’an – she is hit by Shaotang’s thrown daggers, stumbles off a ledge and has to be saved by Huai’an from being crushed by collapsing rocks. In the midst of this she drops her sword, long considered a phallic symbol of male dominance (Chan, 2004), and in that moment her attempt to transgress gender boundaries in dressing like a male is discredited entirely in favour of portraying her as a lovestruck damsel (her inherent transgendered portrayal is itself discredited below). In both heroine’s cases, the appearance of the male lead causes them to act so out of character that their very characterisation is destroyed entirely, substantiating the extent to which their romantic links characterise and bind them. An interesting point to note, however, is that these two romantic links are severed at the end of their respective films, though in different ways – Mo-yan dies to a stab wound from Siu-yan due to Huai’an’s mistake, showing how the romantic link has effectively destroyed her entirely; and Yanqiu leaves Huai’an and returns to the wilderness, showing how she has only achieved freedom by severing that romantic link and, by extension, the binding and marginalising effect the romantic link has had on her.

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The romantic links of Jade and Xiaowen.

Jade and Xiaowen are also romantically linked with men – Huai’on and Wind Blade respectively – but these links are built up through the course of the film, leading to an entire loss of agency for both women. Jade’s love for Huai’on leads to her burning down the inn at the end of New Dragon Gate Inn, in what has been perceived as an act of feminist agency but is in fact an act of feminist weakness, alluded to by Wind Blade in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate as a rash act caused by “male provocation”. Xiaowen’s infatuation with Wind Blade leads her to follow him at the end of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and subsequently become a palace maid, traditionally a role of subservience and objectification in historical China (McMahon, 2013), and one which is discussed derogatorily at the start of the film in reference to Huirong. The fact that this sudden deconstruction of a strong female warrior and leader into a subservient palace maid is done for the sake of non-sequitur black comedy reflects especially badly on this particular romantic link.

To a lesser extent, Shaotang and Huirong are also romantically linked with men insofar as in their character’s premises – Shaotang used to be lovers with Wind Blade and Huirong was impregnated by an unnamed palace guard. In Shaotang’s case this premised link is used to generate romantic tension between her, Wind Blade and Xiaowen, and the rivalrous love triangle has the effect of empowering Wind Blade as the decider and marginalising both Shaotang and Xiaowen as suitors. Huirong’s link is used as a tool of discrimination, with her pregnancy being the reason she had to escape the palace. In this case, the implications of premised romantic link leads to a negative characterisation. This is also not the only incidence of feminine elements of romantic links being used as plot points – the apparent love triangle between Xiaowen, Wind Blade and H’gantgan is used as a plot against the antagonists, and the marriage between Huai’an and Jade in New Dragon Gate Inn is used as a scheme to escape the inn. This nefarious use of romantic links as an underhanded method cheapens them and further discredits the women involved in them.

The subordinate links of Huirong and Yanqiu.

Two of the seven women are linked to men by subordination – Huirong and, to a lesser extent, Yanqiu. Huirong’s subordinate link to Huatian is obvious at the end of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, as she betrays the protagonists and addresses Huatian as “your highness”. Yanqiu is subordinately linked not necessarily to the physical character of Huai’an but to the idea of Huai’an himself, passing herself off as him at the start of the film. These two subordinate links have the effect of removing any agency both women have over their actions – what they do is for the sake of, or in the name of, the men they are subordinate to. Academics have argued that this is very much in line with Tsui Hark’s depiction of women in his films as being controlled by men and nothing more than male projection (Lo, 2006).


The Exotification of Women

The exotification of women in the later two Dragon Gate Inns is highly apparent, not simply as a coincidence of narrative but as a trait of director Tsui Hark. In a scathing criticism of his portrayal of women in his films, academic Lo Kwai-Cheung asserts that “in Tsui’s movies, woman does not exist in herself but merely as the embodiment of male fantasy”. This can be seen in his character archetype of the transgendered woman protagonist – a female lead who hides the physical aspects of her gender and acts in a masculine way – as exemplified by Mo-yan and Yanqiu. This deliberate obfuscation of gender, while initially coming across as a bold transgression and even transcendence of gender boundaries, instead further exotifies the female body. Academic Jie Lu reiterates that “the body itself remains a key site for shaping both femininity and masculinity” in Chinese cinema, and this is very much so in the case of the three Dragon Gate Inns.

The strongest example of this particular exotification is in the playful skirmish between Mo-yan and Jade in New Dragon Gate Inn, in which both attempt to clothe themselves while undressing the other. Both characters are not fighting over anything substantial but are doing so simply as an apparent attempt to relate to each other in the most intimate way affordable in wuxia – fighting – despite the fact that the much larger enmity between Huai’an and Cha is tackled through measured discourse, a perceivably more mature and level-headed form of communication. This double standard paints the two women as the brutes – only capable of fighting to communicate and show dominance. This primal, even animalistic behaviour, combined with nuanced camerawork which deliberately obfuscates sensitive body parts of the two women, effectively combines eroticism and exoticism, portraying both women as almost sub-human in their interaction, yet with an erotic twist, and much is left up to the imagination and perception of action cinema’s primary target audience – the adolescent or young adult male (Lu & Lu, 1997).

Jade herself is an interesting example of exoticism. Having already been exotified as the owner of a ‘black’ inn – one that is nefarious and the site of many fights – her gender adds another layer of exoticism in its juxtaposition with her job. The fact that she is introduced as a seductress who kills men for their flesh puts her in such an exotic light as to appear caricaturish – and this is certainly not helped by Maggie Cheung’s impish portrayal of her character. Again here female eroticism and exoticism is combined to further portray the woman as the ‘other’ (Negra, 2001).

Huirong, the pregnant palace maid.

Another example of exoticism is in Huirong, the pregnant palace maid. Her pregnancy, while not a major plot point in the already-convoluted Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, renders her an exotic character. The other characters, even the women, handle her with a certain delicacy not present in other character interactions in the film, and this has the effect of ‘othering’ her character and defining her solely by her pregnancy. This exoticism is even abused at the end of the film to set up a completely improbable plot twist in which she is revealed to be in cahoots with Huatian. The fact that the entire surprise of her character revelation is premised on the unlikelihood of her being anything but a pregnant damsel in distress shows that her character’s exotification is highly intentional.

Xiaowen, the Tartar leader.

Possibly the most unfortunate victim of exotification is Xiaowen, who is not only exotified through gender but through ethnicity, being a Tartar leader herself. In her initial appearance in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, audiences are led to believe she cannot speak Chinese, only say certain derogatory phrases in it. This is in contrast with her partner H’gantga, who is shown to be fluent enough in Chinese to communicate with the other visitors to the inn. Xiaowen herself is adorned with tribal facepaint. Even in battle, Xiaowen is seen wielding a circular blade, a marked departure from the standard weapons used by the other characters in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and wuxia as a whole, further adding to her apparent barbarism and hence exoticism. This exoticism stems back to the advent of cinema itself with the sinicisation of cinema, a western innovation (Zhang, 1997). Due to a perceived racial self-other dynamic built up by modern western cinema and its increasing obsession with the exotic east, Chinese filmmakers are forced to establish the same ethnic self-other dynamic, inadvertently targeting their own ethnic minorities as the ‘other’ and thus the exotic. In the case of Xiaowen, this exotification is entirely baseless, because later in the film she is shown to be indeed fluent in Chinese, thus her exoticism is simply for the sake of exoticism.


The Marginalisation of Women in Battle

All three Dragon Gate Inns feature spectacular final battles between the main protagonists and antagonists. However, a common trait of these final battles is the omission or marginalisation of women.

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The protagonists of Dragon Gate Inn during the final battle.

Dragon Gate Inn sees Shao-Tzu, Chu Chi and two defectors face off against Shao Chin. Chu Huei, having fought competently previously, is instead sidelined and instructed to bring the Yu children to safety on the account that she is injured. The short conversation she has with Shao-Tzu prior to the final confrontation is particularly damning to her character – Shao-Tzu paints himself as the saviour and her as the damsel, rejecting her offer to help him. Even Chu Huei is written to respond in a particularly subordinate manner, by highlighting the danger Shao-Tzu will be in (as opposed to her apparent safety). Not only is she the only character out of the protagonists to be injured in battle, but that injury is used as a scapegoat to marginalise her character, despite the fact that when Shao Chin escapes the protagonists and comes face-to-face with her later, he dispatches of her easily despite being grievously wounded himself. Chu Huei’s resignation to the role of caretaker constitutes the enforcement of that particular female stereotype, but more importantly she has been denied an opportunity to participate in the final fight, a hallmark of wuxia.   

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The protagonist of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate during the final battle.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate takes this a step further, with Huai’an opting to go solo against Huatian, leaving Yanqiu behind. The conversation between the two before the battle is symptomatic of the developing archetype of the lonely male hero with a thirst for martyrdom (Teo, 1997), an archetype which only further serves to marginalise the fighting woman in wuxia. Even when Yanqiu and Shaotang do enter the final battle, they simply face off against Huirong, another woman, until the very end. The main battle is almost exclusively fought between Huai’an and Huatian, and is a highly masculine one with a particular focus on the phallic symbol of the sword. When Yanqiu intervenes in their battle Huatian in fact forces her to stab Huai’an, in an ironic twist of fate that further asserts how, in the world of Dragon Gate Inn, women have no proper role in the predominantly male battlefield.

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The protagonists of New Dragon Gate Inn during the final battle.

The final battle in New Dragon Gate Inn is arguably the most progressive of the three, featuring an even male-to-female ratio at first – Mo-yan and Jade work with Huai’an to take down Siu-yan. However, both women are obviously overpowered by the male characters, with Mo-yan dying in the sands to Siu-yan and Jade having to be protected by Huai’an. The power hierarchy created by this battle places the women beneath the men. Even the supposed agency both women display in even being present in the battle is discredited in the final part of the battle, where Dao suddenly intervenes in a deus ex machina moment, turning the battle in their favour. In his intervention any contribution either woman has made is rendered obsolete, as Dao would have changed the trajectory of the battle regardless. This makes Mo-yan’s death almost inconsequential and merely a tragic moment to enthrall the audience. In this fight the woman is clearly the sacrifice, and her presence is justified not by her merits but by the effect her sacrifice has on the male character (Chow, 1995).



It is inherently unsurprising that a genre of cinema catered to the adolescent male (Lu & Lu, 1997) would contain ingrained discrimination against women. Though throughout history attempts have been made to give the genre a more progressive slant (for instance, King Hu’s nüxia), the fact remains that wuxia, and the xia, which has been compared to the Japanese samurai and European knight (Chen, 1992), is in itself a masculine concept so entrenched in history it has no hope of truly becoming progressive without losing its identity. As chinese cinema continues to evolve, there may come a day when wuxia shrugs off its masculine shackles and embraces progressivism. But when that day comes, it will no longer be known by that namesake.



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Lu, J. (2011). Body, masculinity, and representation in Chinese martial arts films. Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge, 97.

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The Banquet (2006): Showing that wuxia, like any other genre, belongs to everyone and no one.

Poster for The Banquet, featuring the four main characters – (from left) Emperor Li, Empress Wan, Crown Prince Wu Luan and Qing.

Wuxia has long been the pride of Chinese cinema. Some of the most noteworthy transnational films to come from China have been wuxia films, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). And yet, despite the potential and track record of Wuxia as a transnational genre, Chinese audiences still set a high standard for any film purporting to be an wuxia – it must be ‘Chinese’.

Understandably wuxia has become a nationalist cinematic genre. Teo (2014) asserts that “having been grafted onto the period epic, wuxia becomes a showcase of Chinese history, seeking to be universally accepted while at the same time locating itself within the historicist confines of the nation-state”. It is then no wonder that films perceived as foreign adulterations of wuxia – the most noteworthy one being The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – are met with disdain from Chinese audiences. Wuxia, to them, is a cinematic genre deeply rooted in the concepts of the xia code and the jianghu – that is perceived as being exclusive to Chinese filmmaking.

Is there, then, no way to effectively globalise wuxia? The answer is a resounding no. While globalised wuxia films like The Forbidden Kingdom may have inflamed Chinese audiences with its haughty westernisation, other films, such as The Banquet (夜宴), have slipped past their hawkish nationalist gaze. The film, directed by Feng Xiaogang and released in 2006, was not only well-received by Chinese audiences – it was Hong Kong’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for five awards at the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, of which it won two.

The Banquet, on the surface, seems an unlikely contender for a globalised wuxia, but upon closer inspection it is the epitome of one in both content and form, transcending the nationalist boundaries of wuxia Chinese audiences have grown to so fiendishly protect. The Banquet, in its transnational subtlety, perfectly demonstrates that wuxia is a truly global cinematic genre.

In content, The Banquet not only transgresses national boundaries but dismantles them entirely, A key character archetype of wuxia is the knight-errant, or xia, who follows a strict xia code of conduct comprising of eight main attributes: benevolence, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth and desire for glory. The Banquet’s protagonist, the Crown Prince Wu Luan, seeks retribution for his father’s unjust death at the hands of his uncle, the current Emperor Li. Eschewing the masculine notions of a crown prince he instead asserts his individuality by staging a play instead of a fight at Empress Wan’s coronation. At the end of the film, when he is faced with the chance to claim the title of Emperor himself, he refuses, calling it a “sinful title”. These character traits Wu Luan embodies are characteristic of the xia code, and Wu Luan himself fills perfectly the role of a knight-errant save for a distinctly feminine slant – he is a capable warrior and presents his skill in multiple scenes throughout the film, but opts to display his vengeance through masked drama, an important symbol in the film.

Wu Luan, the protagonist and knight-errant (xia) of The Banquet.

The other characters in The Banquet also fall into character archetypes commonly seen in wuxia – Empress Wan is a tragically evil figure possessing an almost ethereal beauty; Qing is an almost flawlessly-innocent girl who yearns for the hero in vain. The various characters in this film seem to come straight out of a Jin Yong classic. It is then surprising that the premise of The Banquet is not steeped in any particular wuxia novel but Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Wu Luan is the titular Hamlet, Emperor Li is Claudius, Empress Wan is Gertrude and Qing is Ophelia.

But rather than being caught between east and west, the characters bring the two cultures together, challenging any notion of distinction between the character archetypes found in wuxia and those in foreign literature and film. The knight-errant that so characterises the wuxia genre can be found in many films across many borders – only under different names. The deconstruction of both Wuxia and Shakespearean tragedy The Banquet entails substantiates that there is no distinct identity to either genre that any audience can make an exclusive claim to.

In form, The Banquet utilises many cinematic techniques that find their origins outside China. The gratuitous use of slow motion, most apparent in the many fight scenes such as the one in the bamboo forest theatre at the start of the film, is a technique that has been separately conceived and innovated by many filmmakers from different countries such as Japan’s Akira Kurosawa in Seven Samurai (1954), and the slow-motion technique itself was an innovation of August Musger, an Austrian priest.

Scene of the battle in the bamboo forest theatre, showcasing elements of slow motion.


The film also heavily borrows from Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory. The fight scenes employ various jump cuts and axial cuts, repeating action and dilating time in a manner reminiscent of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sequences involving great emotion arrange themselves into tonal montage, such as in the final scene where Empress Wan’s death is dragged out over a few minutes. A notable example of intellectual montage appears during the play Wu Luan stages at Empress Wan’s coronation – at the climax of the play, when the actor falls dead onto the stage, the film cuts to a closeup of the previous Emperor’s mask with blood leaking from its eyes, associating the events of the play with the events leading to the previous Emperor’s demise.

Scene of the play Wu Luan stages at Empress Wan’s coronation, showcasing elements of tonal and intellectual montage.


The multiple origins of the various cinematographic techniques present in The Banquet is by no means a unique case – many filmmakers across the globe innovate styles and techniques of filmmaking that can and will overlap. But it is this apparent un-uniqueness that substantiates how The Banquet transcends national boundaries in its form – and more importantly, that no one film apart from the early works of pioneers can ever be kept within the boundaries of a certain country’s national cinema. Feng’s cinematographic vision may have been individually developed, but it is not unique in the grand scheme of global cinema, nor does he, or Chinese audiences, have an exclusive claim to it.

In conclusion, there is no such thing as a cinematic genre any group of people can make an exclusive claim to. Wuxia, as Chinese audiences lay claim to, is a genre that finds many overlaps with other foreign genres. And, as The Banquet has shown, there is no problem in a fusion of cultures – the audience does not care about the authenticity of the world in which the wuxia exists (Wu, 2007). After all, in the jianghu where knights-errant of different wuxia works, sub-genres and media dwell, why not different cultures too?

The ending theme of The Banquet, Only For Love



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What Writing a Novel has Taught Me

Roughly a year ago I began writing a novel called Kisetsu. Its idea and concept was conceived even longer ago – two years ago when I listened to this song. In July last year I finished a working copy of the Kisetsu. At the end of August last year I submitted it to the Epigram Books Fiction Prize. I had no expectations – the submission field was likely dominated with more seasoned writers.

In November last year, surely enough, the shortlist and winner were announced, and I wasn’t in the list. Still, the submission conditions described a six-month long period during which the company had rights to Kisetsu and could publish it – so I held on.

And in May this year, the six-month period passed by. I hadn’t been contacted. The rights of Kisetsu were returned to me by default.

Am I disappointed it wasn’t published? Well, yes and no. Yes, because no one ever wants to have their work rejected or deemed unworthy. And no, because while being published may have been the final goal, the journey itself was just as rewarding. And that journey has taught me some crucial things – not just about writing Kisetsu, or even writing in general, but life lessons I’ll treasure.

1) Whatever it is you do will be hard work.
In a writer’s perspective this may be evident – up till last year I had never written anything beyond the ten-thousand-word mark. My niche was in writing short stories – little fragments of experiences or emotions captured in a thousand, maybe two thousand words. Plot, to me, came secondary to atmosphere and mood. In a sense I wrote poetry, but in a prose format (I hate to say this because I have a thing against poetry – more on that later). To step out of that comfort zone – to break out of the shell I called a ‘niche’ – was difficult. I spent months planning out the plot meticulously before I even felt confident enough to write – and even then Kisetsu went through three prior failed attempts before its final iteration began.

Of course, I had help on the way. A great friend of mine whom I met in National Service took it upon himself to become my pseudo-editor. He and I threshed through every single concept, every single character, every single line of dialogue I could brainstorm. We had our disagreements, but I don’t doubt that without him Kisetsu would have never been written. And when I finished writing its epilogue it was all too evident – this is hard work.

But you don’t work hard because the work is hard. Work isn’t “hard” or “easy” – a cashier could achieve maximum efficiency cutting down microseconds from his actions behind the counter; a sculptor could cut a block of marble into two and call it a masterpiece. You work hard because you want to work hard. You work hard because you have set goals for yourself – and never let your goals be nothing but the absolute best – and you want to achieve them. That is why you work hard. That is why you should work hard. The work doesn’t make the work hard, you make the work hard. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

2) Don’t break your momentum.
When I was planning Kisetsu and working on its earlier iterations I found myself slipping into a certain ‘flow’ of things. I knew what came next, I knew which character would do what to propel the plot, I knew which character would say what to reveal important information. But when I ran into a wall – and there were many walls on my journey – it was the worst feeling imaginable. I didn’t know how to continue. I couldn’t reconcile certain elements of the plot or characterisation that were at odds with each other. At the highest of these walls I scrapped my drafts entirely and went back to the drawing board. Of course, I was all the better for it, but at those moments writing a novel seemed impossible – like hard work, if you will.

That’s not to say, during the process of writing the final iteration of Kisetsu, that I never ran into walls. I did, but I was prepared for them. Instead of stay there and find a way to surmount it I would go back through the rest of my writing, maybe smooth out a few paragraphs, correct a few mistakes here and there – and eventually, most of the time, the walls revealed themselves to be little molehills, optical illusions perhaps, and when I resumed work no momentum had been lost.

Momentum is important. Losing momentum is disastrous – and not simply because it stops your work. It feels terrible too. And there are two ways to get around this – plan and adapt. Plan, and keep planning so that you minimise the risks of running into a wall. Adapt, and adapt quickly, so that you never lose your footing and stop working. And of course, these two come hand in hand – your plans will constantly evolve to adapt to changing scenarios; your adaptations will become increasingly planned so as not to leave you hanging. Keep that momentum.

3) Don’t get caught up in the details.
I like to tell a little story about this – years ago I thought I would write a short story about a child’s experience in a burning building. I started out my planning simply – listing down the emotions he might have felt, the things he might have done. Fast forward a few hours and work had come to a complete standstill, simply because I could not picture how the various melting points of various materials in the building would affect how the ceiling collapsed.

It’s a funny story, yes, but it describes a very real danger to writing – getting caught up in the details. Many times I will dwell on a certain detail which just doesn’t make sense, or a certain lapse in logic I do not understand enough to rectify. Sometimes I’m referred to as a perfectionist, but regardless of whether or not that is accurate I find it extremely frustrating when some details just don’t add up.

But during the writing of Kisetsu I realised that sometimes it’s best to just let go. You don’t have to be a professional F1 driver to write a story about racing. You don’t have to be a professional cop to write a story about crime. There are certain intricacies of certain niches you cover in your writing that you will never be able to adequately grasp – and if that’s the case, chances are your reader probably doesn’t care to grasp it either. Let it go.

It’s about give and take, in the macro-perspective. You can’t have everything. Compromises will have to be made. Your job is to aim for perfection not without compromise, but despite compromise. Again, plan and adapt.

4) In the end, what you create may not be the best…
When I read Kisetsu again I’ll readily admit it’s more than a little flawed. The plot is a little shabby under scrutiny. The characters are walking ideologues and feel inhuman at points. Some conversations are pretty forced. Certain sections are overly-dramatic. There’s too much emphasis on description and atmosphere that the story becomes draggy. I could have easily cut down on the 82,000-word behemoth Kisetsu turned into. All in all, it’s probably not very good – a 5/10 at most.

And I’m perfectly fine with that. Herein lies a crucial difference between the goals I described earlier and a concept I absolutely hate – expectations. I’m a jaded fellow – I do not harbour expectations. But I’m ambitious – I have goals. And when you work hard and expect nothing, it’s really not so bad.

Your first work is not going to be a masterpiece. Your second and third works are not going to be masterpieces. Perhaps in a hundred different works you’ll never find a masterpiece. But there’s nothing wrong with that. What matters is not that you didn’t do a good job – what matters is that you tried.

5) … but really, it’s not bad either.
Despite all its shortcomings I love Kisetsu as a story. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I love the characters despite their flaws and my flaws in writing them. I’m a huge fan of the female lead, Haruka. She is, to me, the best character I have ever written, and the others are no slouch either. Maybe I’m biased, but let me be biased. I love Kisetsu.

And hey, I tried. No great battle has ever been won with inaction. The fact that I decided to step out of my comfort zone and write a novel that spans almost three hundred pages is a victory in its own right. The fact that I stopped being lazy and brought four distinct characters to life is a victory in its own right.

I tried. And that’s a victory in its own right.

Kisetsu is a story of a high school student who, on a hike in the mountains, chances upon an android when he takes shelter from a snowstorm. The android is still functioning, and has lost her master. In pity he takes her in and decides to help her return to the master who created her. But her presence begins to drive a wedge between him and a close friend, in addition to alerting parties hungry for her technology. And through it all the main characters discover who they really are.

Kisetsu teaches that society does not shape who you are. Kisetsu teaches that sometimes the greatest of journeys begins with a single step. Kisetsu teaches that the toughest decision to make is the one between maintaining the status quo and undergoing a rude awakening. It is then apt, that these lessons roughly mirror what I have learned from writing it.

If you’re interested in reading Kisetsu, feel free to drop me a message anywhere and I’ll give you a link. All I ask for is your attention. Kisetsu is a story I am proud of, and a story I deeply respect. Despite its flaws, I love it, and I hope you’ll love it too.


How to frame your facts


The moon is 384,400 kilometres away from Earth.

If, to this statement, you asked, “And?”, “So?”, “Uhuh?” or “So what?”, I understand perfectly.

384,400 is a huge number. It also doesn’t tell me much. And that’s the problem with facts these days, or rather, the people who handle these facts – they don’t package the facts. They just throw them out there and expect audiences to understand the significance of whatever numbers they see. It’s lazy and boring. Facts should be surprising. Facts should surprise or shock audiences. Facts should make them stop and think.

So here’s how.

1) Round up your numbers

Nobody likes numbers. They’re among the most boring of facts you can have. A number, like the one at the start of this post, don’t tell us anything in particular. Numbers can be perceived relatively – someone can think that a hundred is enormous relative to their current GPA; others can think that a hundred is minuscule relative to the number of stars in our universe.

To remedy this – make sure you give audiences a basis for comparison. But if you can’t – if you really, really can’t think of any – simply round up your numbers.

“95” is “almost a hundred”. “2800” is “almost three thousand”. The only exception to this is if you just barely scrape past a certain number – in that case, round down and say “over x hundred/thousand/million”. Nothing quite matches the impact of calling 950 “almost a thousand”, and 950,000 “almost a million”. People don’t need exact numbers – they just need estimates.

Sure, some of you may feel like doing this is akin to misleading your audience, but the point of facts was always to emphasise, not galvanise. If you feel like a slightly liberal estimation of a number will influence your audience in a morally-unacceptable way, then perhaps the entire reason you’re bringing up that number may be morally questionable in itself. Facts cannot substitute arguments – they merely supplement them. But let’s get back to the point.

2) Make sure your audience can relate to the fact

Facts exist in a vacuum. In their purest form facts have no relation to anything or anyone apart from the people they directly influence. But you don’t need to give the facts to those people – they already know. A good fact aims to educate people who are far removed from it – and how does it do that? By relating to the audience.

Relate to your audience by comparison. Take your statistic and translate it into something the audience understands, then compare the two. Last year, as part of a speech assignment, I planned to inform my audience that a single-deck public bus in Singapore could hold 85 people. But the number 85 would mean nothing to them apart from showing that public buses could fit a lot of people. So I did some research and found out that the average car occupancy in Singapore was 1.7 according to a study by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in 2006.

So my initial fact:

“A single-deck public bus in Singapore can hold an average of 85 people.”

Became this:

“A single-deck public bus in Singapore can hold an average of 85 people,
whereas a car only holds an average of 1.7.”

So now there were two numbers – room for comparison. But that wasn’t enough – audiences wouldn’t be able to process the staggering difference in the short amount of time the fact was exposed to them before I moved on to my next point. So with the help of basic mathematics I enhanced the fact:

“A single-deck public bus in Singapore can hold 85 people
– that’s 50 cars’ worth of people.”

And immediately the difference was clear. Quick and simple.

3) Involve your audience

As I said earlier, all audiences start off detached. They have no emotional investment in your arguments because they have no relation to your facts. And sometimes simple comparisons aren’t enough – you need to bring the audience into the equation.

Here’s an example:

“In 2012, 896 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day.”

Let’s quickly apply point 1) to the fact:

“In 2012, almost a billion people lived on less than $1.90 a day.”

As an addendum, this fact reflects a current global trend – poverty. The date of the statistic should be emphasised – particularly its recency:

“Just four years ago, almost a billion people lived on less than $1.90 a day.”

And now we get to the crux of the fact – “less than $1.90”. Sure, it’s perfectly fine if you compare it with the average monthly Singaporean household expenditure of $4,724 (or “almost five thousand dollars”) in the same year according to this report by the Department of Statistics. But in the interests of the topic at hand, you don’t want to stop there. You don’t want your audience simply to acknowledge the vast difference – you want them to feel guilty.

So let’s take $4,724 and divide it by 30 – roughly $157.50, which is the average daily household expenditure. Then let’s divide that further by 3.53, the average household size in 2012, to get $44.60 – the amount of money the average Singapore lived on a day in 2012.

So now, we have:

“Just four years ago, almost a billion people lived on less than $1.90 a day, about 23 times less than how much the average Singaporean lived on a day in the same year.”

But that’s not enough! Let’s go even further:

“Four years ago, with the amount of money we spent a day on average,
we could have fed almost 25 of the world’s poorest people for a day.”

Or perhaps:

“Four years ago, with the amount of money we spent a day on average,
we could have fed one of the world’s poorest people for almost a month.”

Your emphasis is distilled – no multiple italics to split the impact – and more importantly, each fact only contains a single number. Remember, numbers are boring. These two variations not only deliver the same message as the previous ones – they make the audience complicit in your argument, almost as if you’re blaming them for living in excess. Of course, there’s a fine line between this sort of persuasion and straight-out blaming, but that’s navigated in the delivery of your argument, and I won’t delve into that.

4) Subvert your audience’s expectations

Finally, your facts should be surprising. The opportunity for this comes by extremely rarely – but when it does, you need to take advantage of it. Subverting your audience’s expectations can be as easy as giving them a fact that seems far-fetched but is in fact true, and as hard as using comparisons or complicity but presenting your final revelation in an unexpected way.

Here are a sample of a few (not written by me):

“There are more ways to arrange a standard deck of cards than there are atoms in our solar system.”

“Nintendo existed at the same time as the Ottoman Empire.”

“Oxford University is older than the Aztec Empire.”

“Every 40 seconds a person commits suicide in the world.”

“The amount of time between Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus is greater than the amount of time between Tyrannosaurus and us.”

These facts may seem like simple statements that just happened to be surprising at a first glance, but an immense amount of framing went into the creation of each of them. They’re a combination of the previous three points and sheer luck, and that’s why they’re so engagin.

The moon is 384,400 kilometres away from Earth.

To conclude, let’s go back to this fact. It seems like nothing in particular at first, but that’s only because it hasn’t been framed. There’s so much you’d be surprised to find out.

You’d be surprised to find out that you could fit all the planets in our solar system between Earth and the Moon, with almost ten thousand kilometres to spare.

You’d be surprised to find out that if Earth were a basketball the moon would be a tennis ball over seven metres away.

You’d be surprised to find out that ever since the moon landing astronauts have not traveled beyond the equivalent of two centimetres away from the basketball that represents Earth.

You’d be surprised out that if you took a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) and back nine hundred times you still wouldn’t have covered enough distance to reach the moon.

And most surprising of all?

The moon’s getting further away.


Chilldhood Horrors, Revisited


When I was a kid my parents rarely told me any stories. Maybe it’s because they were Christians and pragmatic, but the most common tale I heard before bedtime was “Have you finished your homework and studied yet?”

So naturally I took to my friends and cousins for the juiciest tales.

An early tale I remember, perhaps the oldest, is one a friend told me around Halloween. Of course, I was young and impressionable back then, and the story naturally stuck, but when I look back it really does feel a bit absurd. Then again, stories back then mostly were.

It starts off with a taxi driver making his rounds at the witching hour, driving down Lim Chu Kang Road. By some stroke of fate he encounters a passenger, a mysterious young woman dressed in black whom he can’t see properly in the rearview mirror. She directs him to a cemetery nearby, and when he turns around, lo and behold – she’s a skeleton. And naturally, the story ends with the clichéd, “And he was never seen again.”

Yeah, it’s pretty absurd. But I guess most stories had to be to impress a kid.

Looking back on it, however, the story isn’t particularly wrong. People are afraid of death, so what better way to play on those fears than to have a skeleton pop out from behind you? Of course, I reckon that as people grow older their exact fear regarding death begins to change. It goes from fearing their own deaths to fearing the deaths of others. I mean, we’re not here forever, are we?

So think about that story again. Imagine being a taxi driver driving down Lim Chu Kang Road at 3am. You’re middle-aged, in a midlife crisis. You live alone. Your friends and family have alienated you. By some stroke of fate a young lady flags your taxi down.

“Where to, madam?” you ask as she comes in.

“Do you know where cemetery three is at?” she asks, her voice wavering.

You know, but the alarm bells in your head are beginning to ring. Still, you drive her there – you need the money anyway. Throughout the five-minute drive you try to catch a glimpse of her face in the rearview mirror, but she purposely keeps it hidden from you, leaning against the door. Her dress is a deep black. When you reach the cemetery you feel a chill run down your spine.

“Can you wait here for a short while?” she asks. “Just five to ten minutes.”

You nod silently, and she gets out of the taxi. As you see her walking away, deep into the cemetery, you feel an urge to just drive away, but you’re paralysed with fear. You’ve heard this story before, way back when you were a kid.

After eight minutes she returns.

“To Choa Chu Kang MRT Station, please,” she says. Her voice wavers even more. On impulse you turn on the lights in the taxi and look at her. Her eyes are red.

“I’m fine,” she reassures you, and you begin driving. It’s silent for the first few minutes, but then she begins to speak.

“It’s scary, isn’t it?” she mutters.

“Sorry?” you ask, puzzled.

“To think that the people you love may just die someday,” she continues.

“Ah, yes,” you don’t quite follow her.

“It’s scary that people can just disappear like that,” she seems sad. “But you know what’s scarier?”


“That some people don’t seem to care, or even worse – they forget.”

Your thoughts return to your estranged family.

“My grandmother died a couple years ago,” she explained. “Every year I would visit her grave and put flowers, but then this year, yesterday – I forgot. It was only at midnight that I remembered. And I even forgot which cemetery she was buried in!”

She heaves a sigh. You are nearing the station.

“But at least you went to her grave eventually,” you reassure her.

“I feel horrible for forgetting,” she insists. “You seem like you love your family.”

You don’t reply. You stop at the taxi stand.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to send you straight home?” you ask. “No extra cost.”

“It’s fine,” she says, offering you a fifty-dollar note. “I need time to think. Keep the change.”

And with that she gets out and walks away. You don’t drive away, however – you stay there at the taxi stand, alone, thinking in silence, until the dawn begins to break and your shift ends and you go home.

Frightening, isn’t it?



The distortion – or evolution? – of social networking sites.


At the time of this commentary’s posting it’s noon on a Tuesday. Most students are in school, attending lectures or tutorials. Adults are working, looking earnestly at the clock as it ticks towards lunchtime. A select few victims of a night of hard partying probably aren’t even awake yet.

So why am I posting it now? Well, it’s for the few of you who happen to be on social networking sites at this time of the day. I’m posting it for you so that you can have a few minutes of entertainment (hopefully), and then be on your way.

But hang on – that doesn’t sound like what social networking sites are supposed to be for, does it? Social networking sites are an avenue for people to share about their lives and day-to-day experiences for their friends to see. They’re pretty much akin to a very public blog. For the longest time, the allure of social networking sites has been that it enables you to express yourself – your experiences, your thoughts, your opinions. It’s all about you.

But, then, why are people so concerned about getting comments on Facebook, retweets on Twitter or likes on Instagram? Why are there so many quick recipe or Buzzfeed videos being shared on my feed? Why does a veritable ‘golden hour’ of social networking exist – a time my friend and social networking connoisseur estimates to be around 10pm – when most people post to social networking sites in hopes of ensnaring a larger audience? Having the audience decide how you generate or share content – that doesn’t sound very you-centric, does it?

That’s because it isn’t.

I can’t tell exactly when it began, but social networking sites have distorted from the speaker’s corner they aimed to be into something more akin to television. People now generate and share content on social networking sites not simply because they want to convey messages to an audience, but because there is an audience they can convey messages to. They begin with the end in mind – framing their content carefully so as to appeal to the widest variety of audiences.

Of course, not everything they churn out is decided solely by the audience, and in this regard social networking sites start to seem a lot more like Netflix – audiences naturally pay attention, or mentally subscribe, to the content of people they find interesting, whether it’s due to the creator or the content itself. But at the same time social networking sites take on a wholly different dimension as well – audiences are constantly exposed to new information that they may find interesting and mentally subscribe to, and ultimately the content is overshadowed by the personality behind it. It’s a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, unlike any other.

In a sense, social networking sites are like social networking site. They’re unique, and they’re unlike anything they initially aimed to be.

But how did this distortion come about? I suppose it has to do with reciprocity. As more and more people consumed content on social networking sites more and more people realised that the content they were viewing, commenting on, retweeting and liking, came from people very much like them. And then they began to think – why can’t I be like that too? This set in motion a gradual virtuous cycle, and the result is what we see today. Social networking sites are as much about the content generators as they are about the content audiences, and these two groups constitute a nearly-converging Venn diagram.

Is this a bad thing? Detractors might insist that the so-called commercialisation of social networking sites constitutes the falsifying of people’s experiences and the dilution of what social networking sites are really for. But that’s not the case. As aforementioned the content in social networking sites is unique in that the identity of the owner is never placed beneath the content itself. The reason for that is simple, and you may have seen me write it before – the fundamental desire of humanity is to say. Id est, the fundamental desire of humanity is to have content attributed to them.

And here’s where it comes full-circle – the force that compelled the distortion – or rather, the evolution – of the purpose of social networking sites, is the very same force that keeps them from falling into a commercialised abyss – that is, the fundamental desire of people to express themselves, and to do so selfishly. It’s about their audience, and because of that it’s about their content, and at the very same time, it’s about them as well. This is the balance that defines today’s world of social networking sites.

And this balance isn’t bad at all. Imagine if social networking sites were exactly as they initially intended to be – that would simply be a mass of self-satisfied, self-serving content, and that’s not interesting at all. Social networking sites as they are now perfectly blend self-centered content with selfless distribution and presentation, and that’s why we have things like the 10pm ‘golden hour’.

But of course, it’s not like they only show programmes on primetime television. Television broadcasts last the entire day, and in the world of social networking sites where borders and timezones are blurred, the ‘broadcasts’ you see on them are likely to last the entire night as well. Whenever we want, we’ll take out our smartphones, browse Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and laugh a little, grin cheekily, perhaps even empathise with the content we see. And then we’ll be on our way, until the next time we browse the content of others, or perhaps the next time we create and share our very own content.

And that’s social networking.

No-Aircon December

At the start of December, on a whim, I decided to go without an air-conditioner for a month. The decision was completely arbitrary, though it might have been somewhat influenced by a group presentation I worked on a little while ago. On the morning after I embarked on this challenge I bestowed upon it a name fitting its completely unplanned nature – No-Aircon December.

It’s now January. No-Aircon December has been a success, and more surprisingly a success to an extent which I could not have imagined or anticipated.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not a hardened veteran able to take ordeals of this sort easily. The very fact that I’m calling it offhandedly an “ordeal” substantiates that. I like to think I’m frugal or economical, but ultimately I enjoy my infrequent taxi ride home, my venti white chocolate mocha frappuccino from Starbucks and my black tea macchiato large no pearl 25% sugar less ice cutter please thank you from Koi. That’s why I initially began this challenge with almost zero expectations for its success. Likely I’d keep it up for a few days just to feel good about myself, then in a moment of madness on a hot afternoon I’d turn on the air-conditioner and never look back.

A month later, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

I say “yet” because the desire to do so isn’t any less than when I began. There are still hot afternoons I struggle through. There are still times when I look at the remote control and wish I could just pick it up and press the button. I’m not going to say this month has been easy or that living without the air-conditioner is a bed of roses. I have exponentially more mosquito bites on my body now, and I take exponentially more cold showers during the day.

But still, I did it. And while doing so may not have taught me much about the benefits of not using an air-conditioner, it has taught me much about the benefits of undergoing a challenge like this, and that is – it feels pretty good.

It probably feels good because there is no feasible way you can short-change yourself on challenges like this. There is no spectrum of actions you can opt to take – it’s a slippery slope all the way. If I started the challenge telling myself, “I’ll use the air-conditioner only twice a week,” or “I’ll use the air-conditioner only when it’s really really hot,” I’d have failed by the first week. I’m not saying, “Chances are I’d have failed,” because I reckon there’d have been absolutely zero chance of me succeeding if I had opted for a gradual approach.

So, the takeaway is, in short – don’t half-ass it. You either go cold turkey or you go home. Rarely is there any other way. I’ve learned this principle, and I’ll be applying it a lot more this year.

And since it’s January and I’ve completed No-Aircon December, now what? My initial plan was to try the challenge, reward myself with a few days of air-conditioning if I succeeded, and then assess whether I should try doing it for another month.

But I still haven’t switched the air-conditioner on yet. Logically, to my spoiled mind, it makes no sense, but I feel no urge whatsoever to switch it on again. No, I don’t mean the urge to switch it on during a hot afternoon – I mean the urge to return to that lifestyle. I won’t make any arguments about whether it’s better or worse to live without the air-conditioner, but I’ll say this: I succeeded this challenge through sheer willpower and it felt good – I don’t want to lose that feeling, and I want to feel the same thing again, but with other challenges.

So here’s to an air-conditioner-free 2016.