Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2020

How We Disappeared (2020), by Jing-Jing Lee

On a day that commemorates Victory in the Pacific, it seems appropriate to take a look at a novel which explores the long term effects of Japan’s Occupation of Singapore.

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, How We Disappeared was featured in the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival, where Jing-Jing Lee discussed the book with Adolfo Aranjuez.  It’s a remarkable book and a stunning achievement for a debut novel.

There are three strands to the story: in the present day there is newly widowed Wang Di, deeply troubled by her refusal to let her husband tell her about the massacre of his entire family by the Japanese, and now it’s too late.  And there is Kevin, a young boy who has found intriguing documents among his dead grandmother’s effects and tries to solve the mystery of his father’s true identity.  In 1941 there is the story of Wang Di’s lost girlhood when she was enslaved as a Comfort Woman when she was only a teenager.

Moving back and forth between these narratives, the reader encounters people of this novel who are a long way from the shiny apartments and lavish lifestyle that tourists see in Singapore.  In her old age Wang Di is a Cardboard Lady,  who makes a modest living by collecting and recycling cardboard, an occupation considered demeaning by the other people in her apartment block.  She has also become a hoarder, believing somehow that being surrounded by things makes her safe.  Illiterate because of her disrupted schooling, and shamed into isolation from anyone who might know her story, she is incredibly lonely.

Kevin is lonely too: badgered by his parents about his school results and not much else, he doesn’t have the kind of home that enables bringing friends over to hang out.  He has shared a bedroom with his grandmother for years, and has a close relationship with her, so much so that it is to Kevin that she says her last words, which are the catalyst for a search of her things in his bedroom.  He finds letters never sent which set him off on a remarkable quest.  He does not have his parents’ interest or support because of the constrained relationship that he has with them.  Shame and reticence pervade these characters’ lives to a degree unimaginable to many readers in free-and-easy Australia, I suspect.

Friendship, however, blooms in the strangest place: Wang Di, enduring appalling conditions in the ‘black-and-white house’, finds friendship with two other girls, Huay and Jeomsun.  They share the scraps of food some soldiers give them, which supplements their starvation diet, and they find some solace in each other’s company.  But on release, they have to go their separate ways and keep silent about their experiences:

‘Don’t tell anyone.  Not me or your father or any of the neighbours.  Especially not your future husband, not matter how kind you think he is.  No one must know.  You need to forget her, Huay, and the other girl.  They didn’t exist.  You understand?’ She reached out and I backed away, thinking she was going to strike me.  But she gripped my arm and pulled me forward, as if trying to shake me awake.  ‘Understand? It’s for your own good.’ (p.279)

How We Disappeared is an unforgettable book.  Highly recommended.

See Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile as well.

BTW There is a memorial to the Comfort Women in Sydney, where the controversy surrounding it is a testament to the ongoing Japanese refusal to face up to their past.

Author: Jing-Jing Lee
Title: how We Disappeared
Cover image by Sukutangan
Publisher: One World, 2020
ISBN: 9781786075956, pbk., 341 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $19.99



  1. I agree, Lisa. I read and reviewed this book last year:


    • Thanks Jennifer, I’ve added the link above:)


  2. After attending the MWF session I am especially curious to read this book.


    • It was a terrific session, I agree. But isn’t it strange how we have had next to no books about the Pacific War in Asia? Apart from Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, I’m struggling to think of any…


  3. Sounds very powerful Lisa. And vaguely shocking that there are still parts of the past which can’t be confronted…


    • The book implies that it’s part of Chinese culture… but surely we would have said the same about British and Australian reticence until comparatively recently but that younger Brits and Aussies have now become more likely to ‘tell-all’ ?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a really moving story Lisa, covering several issues. I think there are quite a few ww2 novels set in China and Japan – but in our area of the Pacific, hmm, I’m struggling a bit too. Weird. A town like Alice of course. The narrow road to the deep north? And lots of films.


    • Yes, but I didn’t make it clear, I was thinking of WW2 novels not from the Australian PoV but from the PoV of people in the countries occupied by the Japanese, i.e. written by Malaya, Indonesia, Korea &c. I’m sure there must be some, but we hear so little about boks published by our neighbours, it’s very frustrating.
      One I’d forgotten about is set in Sumatra: And the War is Over, by Ismail Marahimin, translated by John H. McGlynn,


      • Oh, yes, fair enough. I certainly haven’t heard of many. Some books, like Pachinko include the war but it’s an epic so it’s just one part, and is written by a Korean-born American writer. But, as you say, we just don’t see enough southeast Asian books full stop.


  5. Perfect! I can’t wait to read it even more now.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds such a richly rewarding read. Tales of friendship always appeal to me. I’ll definitely be hunting down a copy!


    • I won’t spoil the ending but will only say that Wang Di finds herself able to perform a great act of friendship for Huay at the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m pretty sure my own grandparents would have kept quiet about it if they were raped during the war. It must be a problem in any occupied country (which of course Australia and England were not). It is a truism that the Japanese won’t face up to the atrocities they committed in the 30s and 40s but at least they, like the Germans, are now responsible world citizens, which is more than we might have expected 70 years ago. I hope that other demonized countries, like Iran for instance, are given the same chance. One day the US and their allies (us) might face up to the atrocities we committed in the Middle East instead of jailing the whistleblowers.


    • I agree that reticence in the immediate aftermath of horror is a common response from individuals, and that is probably more true of older people. PoWs and survivors of the Burma Railway were the same, and Holocaust survivors often could not talk about what happened, not until their very old age. But the reticence of individuals is not the same as the whole topic being taboo. People did know about the Comfort Women: local people knew and governments certainly knew because the military liberated these camps and provided immediate health care. Japan has been allowed to get away with its denial of this, it’s been absolved from its refusal to apologise sincerely or pay immediate or meaningful compensation to anybody, and its ongoing denialist school curriculum is still business as usual — all because of the Cold War (which is now morphing into a Cold War with China).
      (Not that Australia is squeaky clean either, of course), I wouldn’t call the Japanese ‘responsible world citizens’: they donate massive amounts to the UNHCR so that they can ‘maintain face’ despite their racist immigration policy that keeps outsiders out. Worse, they don’t accept their share of the world’s refugee problem, accepting just 152 people of nearly 6000,000 applications since 2012. Those figures presumably don’t include any from people who know it would be a waste of time. (See Their record on environmental issues is atrocious: they make an art form of wrapping anything in tonnes of paper and that’s just one aspect of the unsustainable consumer culture which they export to the world. Their stance on hunting of whales is appalling. There is no humane way to kill a whale.
      These wartime atrocities are human rights issues which cannot be whitewashed by ‘whataboutery’ or claims of ‘cultural relativity.’ IMO the term ‘responsible world citizens’ is a meaningless term used to label allies to distinguish them from pariah states. All countries are ‘responsible’ for the mess that the planet is in, and none of them are acting in a ‘responsible’ way to fix it.

      Liked by 1 person

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