Once Upon a Time in a Malaysian Coffeehouse: A Review of Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

“… Let the lady be. Heaven will punish her if she is wrong.”

“That’s right,” said the waitress, but the customer did not agree.

“Lady!” he snorted. “This girl is a useless slut.”

“Actually I’m a nun,” said the waitress, pointing at her bald head. “So, literally the opposite of a slut!”

Zen Cho’s novella, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, is a sumptuously packaged bundle hiding a series of surprises for me—some great, some good, and some less so. The biggest suprise for me was that a novel this Malaysian managed to pass the harrowing gauntlet of Western publication with seemingly minimal compromise. Like Ms Zen Cho, I am a Malaysian Chinese, and I cannot think of another fantasy work that I am more culturally competent to read.

Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water (2020) by Zen Cho

One of my job as a reviewer is to equip readers with the correct expectations, so books can find the right readers. Order of the Pure Moon is written in Manglish (what we affectionately call “mangled English”), an English-based creole used in Malaysia that is liberally sprinkled with loanwords from Malay, Tamil, and various Chinese dialects. Spoken and written Manglish often borrow the syntactical structure of these disparate tongues so sentences often sound ungrammatical to American and English ears. As the author herself said in a tweet,

My editor & copyeditor were great but Manglish is hard to edit. I did a lot of stetting: “I know it sounds wrong, but that’s how we talk”

I suppose they drew the line at the inclusion of “lah“? That could have easily padded the novella with another 20 pages.

Seriously, I don’t speak like how I write in this review or in my other reviews. In real life, I speak more like the characters in Order of the Pure Moon, and it warms my nusantara heart to see so many regional words (like umbra, lalang, tokong, and mata) being included into the novella without italicisation or a handy glossary of terms. I did Google each and every one of them—not because I did not know their meanings, but I wanted to see if they are easily accessible for non-Malaysian readers (yes, they are). If you are able to accept these quirks in the text in stride, you’ll find Order of the Pure Moon to be a playful, charming, and slapstick read with a tone that calls to mind the author’s Hugo winning short story, If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again (which I adore). As a bonus, you’ll also be able to learn the very real Malaysian swear word: pukimak.

Another adjustment of expectation I would like to put out there concerns the marketing surrounding this book that touts it as a wuxia fantasy. Yes, there are recognisable wuxia elements in it, but if you are expecting an action-packed read featuring tabletop, treetop and rooftop fights using qinggong (轻功) a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you should look elsewhere. These things might actually be happening elsewhere in the world of the book, but the book is more interested in the story of Guet Imm, a seemingly naive, wide-eyed nun from the titular Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water who, through a series of farcical events, found herself embroiled in the dealings of a band of “contractors” (i.e. bandits) led by Fung Cheong and Tet Sang.

It might be lost on non-Malaysian readers but the setting is very specific: it is a barely fictionalised version of Emergency Era Malaya when the British colonial government battles the guerilla Communists—the same communists that the Brits armed and trained to oppose the Japanese occupiers during World War II. Ms Zen Cho calls the the Malay, Chinese, and Tamil people the Malayus, Tangs, and Damilans respectively. The British became the Protectorate, the communists became Reformists, and the Japanese are the Yamatese. Even the Goddess of the Order of the Pure Moon is obviously representative of a version of Guanyin, especially with the references to her genderfluidity,

Attitudes varied, but the Pure Moon was a fairly relaxed deity in this regard. Though it was controversial in certain tokong to say so, she had historically been worshipped in male incarnations; even now, there were countries where the deity was chiefly known as a male god. As the Pure Moon, she only accepted women as her votaries, but her doctrine allowed her followers to decide for themselves whether they were women enough to count

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is an interesting story about personal identity, brotherhood, friendship, and love in the margins of society in a hostile country. It’s a slice-of-life tale that prefers the mundane to the showier aspects wuxia and fantasy. Its biggest flaw, I feel, is in just how transient a glimpse it gave us into the lives of these characters. I bemoan the abruptness of its ending just when the story shifted into a higher gear. Only Guet Imm and Tet Sang received any significant exposure from the author while the other characters were left tantalisingly undeveloped.

I was left with the impression that I only read half a book, but I will gladly pay the author the compliment of asking for the other half because I do want to know more about this distinctly Malaysian fantasy world. I want to know more about the higher mysteries of the followers of the Pure Moon, particularly the abilities its votaries cultivate by “shaping the earth” and “shaping the air”. I want to know if devotees of others gods and goddesses referenced in the novella have their own supernatural secrets. I want the author to really dig all her fingers into all the sociocultural edifices she set up in passing in this little book between the Protectorate, Reformists, and everyone else, and see what she has to say about our history through the lens of fantasy. And I want to know what comes next for Tet Sang, Guet Imm, and Fung Cheung because I am sure their journeys would be fun as heck to follow as they make their way through the jianghu (江湖) of this broken country.

I have been a fan of fantasy literature for far more years than I care to disclose, and I am unspeakably happy to witness that the mainstream caretakers of this genre beloved to me are finally ready to publish the stories of my people told in a voice familiar to our ears. And I have been ready, for a long time now, to read them.

Rating: 3.75/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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