Authors: Kevin Kwan
A traditional roast pig and one of the hallmarks of Filipino cuisine.
TYERSALL PARK, SINGAPORE
Before Rachel was even fully awake, she could smell the coffee. The aroma of the Homacho Waeno beans she loved so much roasted, ground, and poured into a French press with boiling water. But wait a minuteâshe was still in Singapore, and the one thing that wasn't absolute perfection at Tyersall Park was the coffee. Rachel opened her eyes and saw her usual breakfast tray placed on the ottoman next to the tartan-covered armchair, the beautiful silver curves of the Mappin & Webb teapot glinting against the morning light, and gorgeous Nick sitting in the armchair smiling at her.
“Nick! What are you doing here?” Rachel sat up with a start.
“Um, last time I checked this was our bedroom.” Nick laughed as he got up and gave her a kiss.
“But when did you get back from Thailand?”
“An hour ago on Prince Jirasit's plane. Guess what type of coffee they had on board?”
“Oh my GodâI think I smelled it in my dreams!” Rachel exclaimed as Nick handed her a cup and sat cross-legged on the bed next to her.
“Mmmmm!” Rachel sighed in contentment after taking her first sip.
“I love seeing you so satisfied.” Nick beamed.
“I thought you were going to stay in Chiang Mai until the end of the week?”
“You know, I went to Chiang Mai expecting to meet a guy who would lend me a few billion dollars. But what I discovered there were treasures far beyond my imagination, things you can't place a monetary value on. I was reading Ah Ma's diaries, and what I found in them was so important that it couldn't wait another day. I needed to share them with you.”
Rachel sat up against her pillows. She hadn't seen Nick this excited about anything in a long time. “What did you find?”
“There's so much to tell you, I don't even know where to begin. I think the first revelation was that Prince Jirasit was my grandmother's first love. They met in India, where she had escaped to just before the Japanese invaded Singapore during World War II. She was twenty-two, and they had a passionate wartime affair and traveled through India together.”
“That's not too surprising. I mean, she did entrust him with her most private journals,” Rachel commented.
“Yes, but here's a surprise: At the height of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, my grandmother actually managed to sneak back onto the island with Jirasit's help. It was pure madness, because the Japanese were on a torturous rampage, but she did it anyway. And when she was reunited with her father, she found out he had arranged for her to be married to a man she had never even met.”
Rachel nodded, recalling a story Su Yi had told her. “When we had tea five years ago, your Ah Ma told me that her father had specially chosen James for her, and that she was grateful for his actions.”
“Well, she was actually dragged kicking and screaming to the altar by her father, and for the first few years, she resented my grandfather and treated him abominably. After the war, she reunited with Jirasit in Bangkok and although both of them were married to other people by this point, they couldn't resist resuming their relationship.”
Rachel's eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes, but that's not even the real shocker. She found that she was pregnant in the midst of her affair.”
“Noooo!” Rachel gasped, almost spilling her coffee. “Who's the baby?”
“My aunt Catherine.”
“Oh my God, it all makes sense now. That's how Auntie Cat knows Prince Jirasit, and that's why she was left the estate in Chiang Mai! Are you the only one besides her who knows?”
Nick nodded. “I actually flew back to Bangkok last night and had a very interesting conversation with her. We sat in her garden overlooking the Chao Phraya River and she told me the whole story. My grandmother was in a terrible bind, of course, when she found out she was pregnant. Jirasit couldn't leave his wifeâhe was a prince and too bound to all the family politics, and they also had two young childrenâso my grandmother was faced with a choice: She could either divorce my grandfather and live as a single woman alone with an illegitimate child, cast out by society, or she could tell him the truth and beg him to take her back.”
“I can't even imagine how hard it must have been for her in those days, especially for a woman of her background,” Rachel mused, suddenly feeling sorry for Su Yi.
“Well, I always knew my grandfather was a saint, but I didn't realize quite how much. Not only did he take Ah Ma back, he apparently never once gave her any grief over the affair. He knew going in to this marriage that she wasn't in love with him, but he was determined to win her over. And that he did. Being the good Christian man that he was, he forgave her completely and he treated Auntie Cat exactly as he did his other children. In fact, I always thought she was his favorite.”
“So you think your grandmother grew to love him then?” Rachel asked.
“According to Auntie Cat, my grandmother fell in love with himâtruly, deeplyâwhen she saw the kind of man he really was. You know, before I left her last night, Auntie Cat told me something else she's never told anyoneâwhat happened the day that Ah Ma died. She was the only one in the bedroom with her when she passed.” Nick's voice became a little choked up as he recounted his aunt's words:
When I first got to Singapore, your grandmother told me that the spirits had been visiting her. She said that her older brother, Ah Jit, had come, her father had been in the room. Of course, I thought that all the morphine she was on was giving her hallucinations. Then on the afternoon she died, I was sitting at her bedside when her breathing started becoming more and more labored. I watched the monitors, but everything seemed fine and I didn't want to raise the alarm just yet. Then suddenly Mummy opened her eyes and gripped my hand. “Be a good girl, give up your chair for him,” she said. “Who?” I asked, and then I saw this look on her face, this look of pure love. “James!” she said in this joyous tone, and that was her last breath. I swear to you, Nicky, I felt him. I could feel my father's presence in the room, sitting on that chair, and I could feel them leave together.
Rachel sat on the edge of her bed, blinking away the tears. “Wow. I'm getting chills. It's starting to make sense nowâ¦why your grandmother was so opposed to our marrying.”
“She felt that her father had been right to choose my grandfather for her, and she should have obeyed his wishes all along.
why she was so adamant that I obey her!” Nick said.
Rachel nodded slowly. “Yes, and think about how she found out that my mother had an affair with a man out of wedlock, and that I came from that relationship. It must have brought back all her own fears and her guilt over her affair.”
Nick sighed. “It was so misguided, but she thought she was protecting me. Let me show you something. It fell out of one of her diaries.” Nick took out a small folded letter and handed it to Rachel. Embossed in red below an ornate coat of arms were the words:
My Dear Su Yi,
I cannot begin to express my debt of gratitude for all you and your brother Alexander did during the darkest days of the war. Allowing Tyersall Park to be a safe haven for some of our most essential British and Australian officers played no small role in saving countless lives. Your acts of heroism, too many to recount here, will never be forgotten.
“George R.Iâ¦.” Rachel looked at Nick incredulously.
“Yep, Queen Elizabeth's father. He was the king during the war. Rachel, you won't believe some of the stories in my grandmother's diaries. You know, growing up I was told so many stories of how my grandfather was a war hero, how he saved countless lives as a surgeon. But it turns out my grandmother and her brother were also instrumental in saving so many lives. Right as the occupation was beginning, Alexander was in Indonesia officially to oversee my great-grandfather's business interests, but secretly he was helping get important people out of the country. He helped hide some of Singapore's most crucial anti-Japanese activistsâpeople like Tan Kah Kee and Ng Aik Huanâin Sumatra. In the end, he was tortured to death by a Japanese agent trying to find out his secrets.”
“Oh no!” Rachel gasped, putting her hands over her mouth.
“Yes, but as it turns out my grandmother had secretly returned to Singapore at the height of the Japanese occupation. And she had made a daring trip to see Alexander in Indonesia right before he died. She absolutely adored him, and this tragedy is what galvanized her to continue his fight. Tyersall Park became a sort of Underground Railroad for all the operatives passing from Malaysia through Singapore, trying to get to safety in Indonesia and Australia. It became a place for secret high-level meetings and a safe house for some of the key people who were being hunted down by the Japanese.”
“How amazing! I would have thought that this house would be too conspicuous a place,” Rachel remarked.
“Well, it would have been, but the leader of the occupying Japanese forces, Count Hisaichi Terauchi, commandeered Tyersall Park and took over the main house. So my grandmother and all the servants were made to live in the back wing, and that's how she managed to hide so many people right under the nose of the general. She disguised them as part of the staffâbecause there were so many of them everywhere, the Japanese troops never noticed. And then she managed to get them in and out through the secret passage from the conservatory to the Botanic Gardens.”
“The one you used to sneak into the house!” Rachel exclaimed.
Nick held the letter up to Rachel. “This is not just about me anymore and losing my childhood home or my connection to the past. It's much bigger than that. This house should be a historic landmark, a heritage site for
Singaporeans. It's far too important to be altered in any way, and I believe conservationists would argue it urgently needs to be preserved.”
“Does this mean you can block the sale to the Bings?”
“That's what I'm trying to figure out. Knowing Jack Bing, I'm sure he'll put up a fight.”
“And so will your aunties. They're going to want their money from the sale. What would happen if you deprived them of what they see as their rightful inheritance?”
“What if there was another way where no one had to be deprived? I've been thinking it over for the past few days, and I think I have a plan that can save this historical landmark
transform it into something viable for the future.”
“Yeah, but we're going to need people with really deep pockets to believe in us.”
Rachel's mind began to race. “I think I may know just the people we need to talk to.”
MATINLOC ISLAND, PALAWAN
Charlie and Astrid stood on the beach of the lagoon, locked in an embrace. “I'm never going to let you go again!” Charlie sighed happily, as Astrid simply smiled up at him. They sat down on the sand, dipping their toes into the gently lapping waters, staring out at the incredible view of the towering rocks encircling this hidden place, holding hands and not saying anything.
Astrid spoke first. “I didn't mean to worry you. I hadn't realized quite how concerned you would be until I heard about the fight at China's from Diego. How's your jaw? It looks a little purple.”
“It's fine,” Charlie said, rubbing his jaw absentmindedly. “I haven't even thought about it once, to be honest. How could you not know I was worried? I mean, you've been missing for close to six weeks!”
“I haven't been missing. I've been on FaceTime with Cassian every other day and my family knows I'm fine. But I guess my mother never mentioned anything to you, did she?”
“No, she didn't! The last time I spoke to her over the phone, she said she hadn't heard from you and she didn't much care to. And then she banged down the phone,” Charlie huffed.
“Figures.” Astrid smiled, shaking her head. “I've been fine, Charlie. More than fine, actually. I needed to take some time out for myself. You know, being here, I realized I haven't ever done that. Any trip I've ever taken has involved family, or it's been a work trip, wedding, or some other social obligation. I've never actually gone anywhere alone just for
“I understand, I knew you needed the time alone. But I also was scared that your mind was spiraling out of control, not knowing all that's been happening back home.”
“I haven't wanted to know, Charlie. And I'm not sure I even want to know now. That's the whole point. I needed to get to someplace where I could really escape and unplug from everything just so I could make sense of what was going on in my own head.”
Charlie gazed at the calm waters, bluing in intensity as the late-morning sun continued to rise. “How did you ever find this place?”
“I've owned a little island here for many years. Not this one, mind you, this is Matinloc, and it belongs to the state. But I have a little spit of land not too far away. Great-aunt Matilda Leong left it to me, but in secret. You know she was a bit of an eccentricâ¦she was a conspiracy theorist and she really thought the world was going to be wiped out in a nuclear war one day. So she bought a little island in Palawan and built a house. âThe ultimate safe haven,' she called it, and she wanted me to have this as a refuge of last resort. I'd never actually visited until now, and I can't believe I've waited this long.”
“It's paradise here. Any minute, I expect to see a naked Brooke Shields coming out of the water!”
“Actually, I have an even better vision right in front of me,” Charlie said, admiring the hints of Astrid's beautiful tan body showing through her gauzy white cover-up. As if reading his mind, Astrid stood up. “Have you ever swum naked in a hidden lagoon before?” she asked, as she removed the linen cover-up.
“Um, won't Marco be back soon?” Charlie asked, a little alarmed.
“Marco's not coming back for a couple of hours,” Astrid said as she slipped off her white string bikini and dove into the lagoon. Charlie reflexively looked around for a moment to make sure they were alone, took off his swimming trunks, and dove in after her.
They glided through the crystal-clear water for a while, peering at all the colorful fish darting about the coral reef, the sea anemones waving their fingers Zen-like in the current, the giant clams embedded in the sand that would open for a split second to suck in water before shutting again forcefully. They floated on their backs in the middle of the lagoon, staring up at the passing clouds, and then Charlie took Astrid in his arms, lifted her out of the water, and made love to her on the smooth glistening sand, their moans of ecstasy echoing in the lagoon as they became one with nature, with the sea and sky.
Afterward, Charlie lay on his back against the pillowy sand. He was beginning to doze off in the sun, slightly hypnotized by the palm fronds undulating in the breeze over him. Suddenly the sound of chattering voices began to fill the air.
“What's that?” Charlie asked lazily.
“Tourists, probably,” Astrid replied.
“Tourists? What?” Charlie bolted up and saw a gaggle of people in bright yellow T-shirts entering the lagoon through the cave, which was only partially submerged now that the tide had gone down.
“Fuck! Where are my swim trunks?” Charlie scrambled around, trying to find them. “You didn't tell me there could be tourists.”
“Of courseâthis is one of the most popular attractions in Palawan!” Astrid giggled at the sight of Charlie rushing around naked on the beach, trying to find his trunks.
“Oy, mate! You looking for these?” an Aussie surfer shouted from the other side of the lagoon, holding up Charlie's blue-and-white trunks.
“Yes, thanks!” Astrid shouted back. She turned to Charlie, who was hiding behind a palm tree, still laughing. “Oh, come on out! You have nothing to be ashamed of!”
changed. I don't know if the Astrid I knew would ever want to make love spontaneously in a lagoon or walk around naked on a beach in front of a bunch of Australian tourists,” Charlie said as they sat having lunch on the terrace of Astrid's spectacular white villa perched on the hilltop of her private island.
“You know, it might sound clichÃ©, but getting away from it all has been a transformative experience for me. I've realized that so many of my fears aren't really my own. They're the fears of my mother, my father, my grandparents. I've just unconsciously internalized them, and I've let these fears affect every decision I make. So a few people see me naked on a secluded beach in one of the remotest places on earth. Who cares? I'm proud of my body, I have nothing to hide. But of course, some voice in my head would automatically say, âAstrid, put some clothes on. It's not proper. You're a Leong, and you're going to disgrace the family.' And I realize that most of the time it's my mother's disapproving voice I hear.”
“Your mother has always driven you half crazy,” Charlie said as he piled another big helping of
over his garlic rice.
“I know, and it's not all her fault. She said some terrible things to me, but I've already forgiven her. She's damaged herselfâlook, this was a woman that was born during World War II, in the midst of the most unimaginable horrors occurring in Singapore. How could she not have internalized all the experiences of my grandparents? My grandfather was imprisoned by the Japanese and barely escaped the firing squad, my grandmother was covertly helping to organize resistance efforts while being a new mother and trying not to get killed herself.”
Charlie nodded. “My mother's entire childhood was spent at the Endau concentration camp in Malaysia. Her family was forced to grow all their own food, and they almost starved to death. I'm sure that's why my mother is the way she is now. She makes her cook save money by buying the discounted, three-day-old bread from the supermarket, but she'll spend $30,000 on plastic surgery for her pet fish. It's completely irrational.”
Astrid looked out onto the view of the peaceful cove below the terrace. “Scientists talk about how we inherit health issues from our parents through our genes, but we also inherit this entire lineage of fear and painâgenerations of it. I can acknowledge whenever my mother is reacting out of this fear, but the most powerful thing I've realized is that
I'm not responsible for her pain
. I won't make her fears mine any longer and I don't want to pass them on to my son!”
Charlie stared at Astrid, pondering her words. “I like everything you're saying, but I gotta askâ
who are you
? It's like you're speaking in a whole new language.”
Astrid smiled enigmatically. “I have to confess, I've been here for the past five weeks but I haven't been here alone. When I left Singapore, I went to Paris first and saw my friend GrÃ©goire. He told me about a friend of his who was living in Palawan. That's really why I came here. I had no intention of being anywhere near AsiaâI was on my way to Morocco, to a place I know in the Atlas Mountains. But GrÃ©goire really encouraged me to see his friend.”
“Who is this person?”
“Her name is Simone-Christine de Ayala.”
“Is she related to Pedro Paulo and Evangeline in Hong Kong?”
“Turns out they are cousinsâit's a big family. Anyway, I'm not quite sure how to describe her. Some people call her an energy worker or a healer. To me she's just a very wise soul, and she has a beautiful home on a neighboring island. We've met up almost every day since I got here and had these amazing talks. She's led me through these guided meditations that have led to some incredible breakthroughs.”
“Like what?” Charlie asked, suddenly getting worried that Astrid was under the influence of some quack guru.
“Well, the biggest one is realizing that I've lived my entire life trying to anticipate the fears of my parentsâtrying to be that perfect daughter at all costs, never putting a wrong foot forward, never speaking to the press. And look where that's gotten me? By trying to hide behind that faÃ§ade of perfection, by trying to always keep my personal life and my relationships so goddamn private, I've actually done far more damage than if I'd just lived my life the way I wanted to in the first place!”
Charlie nodded, a little relieved. “I couldn't agree more, actually. To me, it's always seemed like you've lived your whole life in the shadows. You're so much smarter and more talented than anyone's ever given you credit for, and I've always thought you were in the perfect position to be doing so much more.”
“Do you know how many things I've wanted to do that have been shot down by my parents? When I graduated from college and got that great job offer from Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, they told me to come home. Then they wouldn't let me start my own fashion businessâit was just too common for them. Then when I wanted to work for certain very
causes, like the horrific problem of human trafficking and child prostitution in Southeast Asia, they wouldn't hear of it. The only acceptable thing for Astrid Leong to do is serve on the board of certain well-vetted institutions, and even those had to be on one of the super-private committees, nothing that would put me in the public eye. It's like my family has lived for generations so frightened of their own wealth, of the fact that someone might accuse us of being rich, of being vulgar and showy. To me, it's our wealth that puts us in the fortunate position of being able to do an enormous amount of good in the world, not hide from the world!”
Charlie clapped his hands excitedly. “So come back, Astrid. Come back with me and we can do this together. I know you were in a completely different head space when you wrote me that letter, so I'm going to forget you ever wrote it. I want us to be together. I want you to be my wife, to live your life and be exactly the woman you want to be.”
Astrid looked away for a moment, staring up at the beautiful white villa gleaming in the sun. “It's not that simpleâ¦I don't know if I'm ready to return yet. I think I need to repair myself for a while longer before I can face the world I left behind.”
“Astrid! The world you left behind has changed so much. Can I please tell you what's been happening? I think it will help,” Charlie pleaded.
Astrid took a deep breath. “Okay, tell me what you want to tell me.”
“Well first of all, Isabel is out of her coma, and it looks like she's on her way to a great recovery. She's suffered quite a bit of memory loss, and she has no clue what happened to her that night, but she's going to be okay.”
“Thank God,” Astrid muttered, closing her eyes.
“The other big thing that you need to know is that Michael has signed your divorce papers with no contest.”
“What?” Astrid sat up in her chair, completely shocked. “How did this happen?”
“Well, it's quite a tangled story, but let's start with the leaked video. It turns out that Isabel was the one who had the video first, not Michael. She had us under surveillance all along. The paparazzi tailing us in India, the video of us in my bedroom, that was all her doing.”
Astrid shook her head in disbelief. “How did she do all this?”
Charlie smiled. “You're never going to believe it. You know that raggy old stuffed giraffe that Delphine has?”
“Yes! The one she can't sleep without every night?”
“It was a gift from Isabel, and it turns out there was a very sophisticated camera and recording device implanted inside.”
“Oh my Godâ¦”
“Delphine would drag the damn stuffed animal with her between both houses, so Isabel always knew my every move. And she got the footage of us completely by accident, because Delphine had slept in my room the night before you came over and left the giraffe on the chest at the foot of my bed.”
“No wonder the footage was shot from such a weird angle!” Astrid said with a little laugh. “But how in the world did she get this sophisticated nanny cam made?”
“Michael helped her. They were in cahoots all along. It came out after Isabel's suicide attempt, and the police got involved investigating the source of the video clip on her phone.”
Astrid shook her head sadly. “So they ganged upâ¦the two bitter ex-spouses.”
“Yep. But their little partnership is also the silver lining in all this. I flew to Singapore a few weeks ago and had a nice long chat with Michael. I told him he could withdraw the lawsuit, sign the divorce papers, and go on enjoying his life as a billionaire bachelor, or he could do the following: First, he could go to jail for aiding and abetting Isabel in her illegal surveillance. Second, he could go to jail for extortion, since he stupidly sent you the video with that text message demanding $5 billion. And third, he could go to jail for being linked to the malicious leak of the video. By the time the Singapore court system is done with all the charges that I would bring against him, he could very well spend the rest of his life in Changi Prison, or worse, he could be extradited to Hong Kong and then sent to a prison camp in Northeast China, near the Russian border, where guys that look as pretty as he does end up having a very