As Peik Lin’s car approached the porte cochere of Tyersall Park, Nicholas Young bounded down the front steps. “I was worried you’d gotten lost,” he said, opening the car door.
“We did get a bit lost, actually,” Rachel replied.
“For some strange reason, your grandmother’s house didn’t show up on my GPS,” said Peik Lin, who prided herself on knowing every street in Singapore.
Rachel got out of the car and stared up at the majestic facade before her. “Am I really late?”
“No, it’s OK,” Nick said. “Peik Lin—thanks so much for giving Rachel a lift.”
“Of course,” Peik Lin murmured, rather stunned by her surroundings. She paused, thinking Nick might invite her in for a drink, but no invitation seemed forthcoming. Finally she said as nonchalantly as possible, “This is quite a place—is it your grandmother’s?”
“Yes,” Nick replied.
“Has she lived here a long time?” Peik Lin asked, craning to get a better look.
“Since she was a young girl.”
What Peik Lin really wanted to ask was, Who on earth is your grandmother? “Well, you two have a great time,” she said instead, winking at Rachel and mouthing Call me later. Rachel gave her friend a quick smile.
Nick turned to Rachel, looking a little sheepish. “I hope it’s OK . . . but it’s not just the family. My grandmother decided to have a small party at the last minute because her tan hua flowers are going to bloom tonight.”
“She’s throwing a party because some flowers are in bloom?” Rachel asked.
“Well, these are very rare. They bloom only about once every decade, and only at night. The whole thing lasts just a few hours. It’s quite something.”
“Sounds cool, but now I’m feeling really underdressed,” Rachel said, eyeing the fleet of limousines lining the driveway. She was wearing a sleeveless, chocolate-colored linen dress, a pair of low-heeled sandals, and the only expensive piece of jewelry she owned—Mikimoto pearl studs that her mother had given her when she got her doctorate.
“Not at all—you look absolutely perfect,” Nick replied.
As they entered the house, Rachel was transfixed for a few moments by the intricate black, blue, and coral mosaic tile pattern on the floor of what appeared to be a large foyer. Then, to her amazement, a tall, spindly Indian man standing next to a table clustered with pots of enormous white-and-purple phalaenopsis orchids bowed ceremoniously to her.
“Everyone’s upstairs in the living room,” Nick said, leading Rachel toward a carved-stone staircase. She saw something out of the corner of her eye and let out a quick gasp. By the side of the staircase lurked a huge tiger, mouth open in a ferocious growl.
“It looks so real!” Rachel said.
“It was real,” Nick said. “It’s a native Singaporean tiger. They used to roam this area. My great-grandfather shot it when it ran into the house and hid under the billiard table, or so the story goes.”
“Poor guy,” Rachel said.
“It used to scare the hell out of me when I was little. I never dared go near the foyer at night,” Nick said.
“You grew up here?” Rachel asked in surprise.
“Yes, until I was about seven.”
“You never told me you lived in a palace.”
“This isn’t a palace. It’s just a big house.”
“Nick, where I come from, this is a palace,” Rachel said, gazing up at the cast-iron-and-glass cupola soaring above them. The murmur of party chatter and piano keys wafted down. As they entered the drawing room, Rachel felt momentarily giddy, as if she had been transported back in time to the grand lounge of a twenties ocean liner, en route from Venice to Istanbul, perhaps.
The “living room,” as Nick so modestly called it, was a gallery that ran along the entire northern end of the house, with Art Deco divans, wicker club chairs, and ottomans casually grouped into intimate seating areas. A row of tall plantation doors opened onto a veranda, inviting a view of verdant parklands and the scent of night-blooming jasmine into the room. At the far end of the room a young man in a tuxedo played on a Bösendorfer grand piano. Rachel longed to study every exquisite detail: the exotic potted palms in massive Qianlong dragon jardinieres, the lacquered teak surfaces, the silver-and-lapis-lazuli-filigreed walls. The glamorous guests, she couldn’t help noticing, appeared completely at ease lounging on the shantung silk ottomans while a retinue of white-gloved servants circulated with trays of cocktails.
“Here comes my cousin Astrid’s mother,” Nick muttered. A stately-
looking lady approached them, wagging a finger at Nick.
“Nicky, you naughty boy, why didn’t you tell us you were back?” The woman spoke in a clipped English accent straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. Rachel couldn’t help but notice how her tightly permed black hair fittingly resembled the Queen of England’s.
“So sorry, I thought you and Uncle Harry would be in London at this time of the year. Dai gu cheh, this is my girlfriend, Rachel Chu. Rachel, this is my auntie Felicity Leong.”
Felicity nodded at Rachel, boldly scanning her up and down.
“So nice to meet you,” Rachel said, unsettled by her hawklike gaze.
“Is Astrid here yet?” Nick asked.
“Aiyah, you know that girl is always late!” At that moment, his aunt noticed an elderly Indian woman in a gold-and-peacock-blue sari being helped up the stairs. “Dear Mrs. Singh, when did you get back from Udaipur?” she screeched, pouncing on the woman as Nick guided Rachel out of the way.
“Who is that lady?” Rachel asked.
“That’s Mrs. Singh, a family friend who used to live down the street. She’s the daughter of a maharaja and was great friends with Nehru. I’ll introduce you later, when my aunt isn’t breathing down our necks.”
“Her sari is absolutely stunning,” Rachel remarked, gazing at the elaborate gold stitching.
“I hear she flies all her saris back to New Delhi to be specially cleaned,” Nick said as he tried to escort Rachel toward the bar, unwittingly steering her into the path of a very posh-looking middle-aged couple. The man had a pompadour of Brylcreemed black hair while his wife wore a classic gold-buttoned red-and-white Chanel suit.
“Uncle Dickie, Auntie Nancy, meet my girlfriend, Rachel Chu,” Nick said. “Rachel, this is my uncle and his wife, from the T’sien side of the family.”
“Ah, Rachel, I’ve met your grandfather in Taipei . . . Chu Yang Chung, isn’t it?” Uncle Dickie asked.
“Er . . . actually, no. My family isn’t from Taipei,” Rachel stammered.
“Oh. Where are they from, then?”
“Guangdong originally, and nowadays California.”
Uncle Dickie looked a bit taken aback, while his well-coiffed wife grasped his arm tightly and continued. “Oh, we know California very well. Northern California, actually.”
“Yes, that’s where I’m from,” Rachel replied politely.
“Ah, well then, you must know the Gettys? Ann is a great friend of mine,” Nancy effused.
“Um, are you referring to the Getty Oil family?”
“Is there any other?” Nancy asked.
“Rachel’s from Cupertino, not San Francisco, Auntie Nancy. And that’s why I need to introduce her to Francis Leong over there, who I hear is going to Stanford this fall,” Nick cut in, quickly moving Rachel along. The next half hour was a blur of nonstop greetings, as Rachel was introduced to aunties and uncles and cousins, the distinguished though diminutive Thai ambassador, and the sultan of some unpronounceable Malay state, along with his two wives in bejeweled head scarves.
One woman seemed to command the attention of the room. She was very slim and aristocratic-looking with snow-white hair and ramrod-straight posture, dressed in a long white silk cheongsam. Most of the guests orbited around her, paying tribute, and when she at last came toward them, Rachel noticed Nick’s resemblance to her. Rachel decided to greet her in Mandarin, but before Nick could make proper introductions, she bowed her head nervously and said, “It is such a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for inviting me to your beautiful home.”
The woman looked at her quizzically and replied slowly in Mandarin, “It is a pleasure to meet you, too, but you are mistaken; this is not my house.”
“Rachel, this is my great-aunt Rosemary,” Nick explained hurriedly.
“And you’ll have to forgive me, my Mandarin is really quite rusty,” Great-Aunt Rosemary added in a Vanessa Redgrave English.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Rachel said, her cheeks flushing bright red. She could feel all eyes in the room upon her, amused by her faux pas.
“No need to apologize.” Great-Aunt Rosemary smiled graciously. “Nick has told me quite a bit about you, and I was so looking forward to meeting you.”
Nick put his arm around Rachel and said, “Here, come meet my grandmother.” They walked across the room, and on the sofa closest to the veranda sat an older woman dressed simply in a rose-colored silk blouse and tailored cream trousers, her steel-gray hair held in place by an ivory headband. Standing behind her were two ladies in immaculate matching gowns of iridescent silk.
Nick addressed his grandmother in Cantonese. “Ah ma, I’d like you to meet my friend Rachel Chu, from America.”
“So nice to meet you!” Rachel blurted, forgetting her Mandarin.
Nick’s grandmother peered up at Rachel. “Thank you for coming,” she replied haltingly, in English, before turning to resume her conversation with a woman at her side. The two ladies swathed in silk stared inscrutably at Rachel.
“Let’s get some punch,” Nick said, directing Rachel toward a table dominated by a huge Venetian glass punch bowl.
“That had to be the most awkward moment of my life,” Rachel whispered.
“Nonsense. She was just in the middle of another conversation,” Nick said.
“Who were those two elegant women in matching silk dresses standing like statues behind her?” Rachel asked.
“Her lady’s maids. They never leave her side. They’re from Thailand and were trained to serve in the royal court.”
“Is this a common thing in Singapore? Importing royal maids from Thailand?” Rachel asked incredulously.
“I don’t believe so. This service was a special lifetime gift to my grandmother.”
“A gift? From whom?”
“The King of Thailand.”
“Oh,” Rachel said. She took the glass of punch from Nick and noticed that the fine etching on the Venetian glassware perfectly matched the intricate fretwork pattern on the ceiling. She leaned against the back of a sofa for support.There was so much for her to take in. Who knew that Nick’s family would turn out to be so grand? And why hadn’t he prepared her better?
Rachel felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to see Nick’s cousin, Astrid Leong, holding a sleepy toddler. “Astrid!” she cried, delighted to see a friendly face. Astrid was wearing the chicest outfit Rachel had ever seen—an embroidered Alexis Mabille white peasant blouse, pearl-gray Lanvin cigarette pants, and a fantastical pair of bejeweled earrings, very Millicent Rogers. So this was Astrid in her natural habitat.
“Hello, hello!” Astrid said cheerily. “Cassian, say hi to Auntie Rachel.” The child stared at Rachel, then buried his head into his mother’s shoulder. “So,” she continued, “how are you finding Singapore so far? Having a good time?”
“A great time! Although tonight’s been a bit . . . overwhelming.”
“I can only imagine,” Astrid said with a knowing glint in her eye.
A melodious peal rang out. An elderly woman in a white cheongsam top and black silk trousers was playing a small silver xylophone by the stairs.
“Ah, the dinner gong,” Astrid said. “Come, let’s eat.”
The crowd began to make a beeline for the stairs, passing the woman with the xylophone. As they approached her, Nick gave the woman a big bear hug and exchanged a few words in Cantonese. “This is Ling Cheh, the woman who pretty much raised me from birth,” he explained. “She has been with our family since 1948.”
“Wah, nay gor nuay pang yau gum laeng, ah! Faai di git fun!” Ling Cheh commented, grasping Rachel’s hand gently. Nick grinned, blushing a little. Astrid quickly translated: “Ling Cheh just teased Nick about how pretty his lady friend is.” Then she whispered to Rachel, “She also ordered him to marry you soon!” Rachel laughed.
A buffet supper had been set up in the conservatory, an elliptical-shaped room with frescoed walls of Chinese mountainscapes. Three enormous tables gleamed with silver chafing dishes, one offering Thai delicacies, another Malaysian cuisine, and the last classic Chinese dishes. Rachel came upon a tray of exotic-looking golden wafers folded into little top hats. “What in the world are these?” she wondered aloud.
“That’s kueh pie tee, a nyonya dish. Little tarts filled with jicama, carrots, and shrimp. Try one,” a voice behind her said. Rachel looked around and saw a dapper man in a white linen suit. He bowed in a courtly manner and introduced himself. “We’ve never properly met. I’m Oliver T’sien, Nick’s cousin.” Yet another Chinese relative with a British accent, but his sounded even plummier than the rest.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Rachel——”
“Yes, I know. Rachel Chu, of Cupertino, Palo Alto, Chicago, and Manhattan. You see, your reputation precedes you.”
“Does it?” Rachel asked, trying not to sound too surprised.
“Don’t you know how much the tongues have been wagging since you’ve arrived?” he said mischievously.
“I had no clue,” Rachel said a little uneasily. Walking out onto the terrace, she noticed the lady in the Chanel suit and her husband looking toward her expectantly.
Oliver grabbed her plate from her hand and walked it over to a table at the far end of the terrace.
“Why are you avoiding them?” Rachel asked.
“I’m not. I’m helping you avoid them. You can thank me later.”
“Why?” Rachel pressed on.
“Well, first of all, they are insufferable name-droppers, always going on about their latest cruise on so-and-so’s yacht, and second, they aren’t exactly on your team.”
“I didn’t realize I was on any team.”
“Like it or not, you are, and they are here tonight to spy for the opposition.”
“Yes. They mean to pick you apart and serve you up as an amuse-bouche the next time they’re invited to dinner.”
This Oliver seemed like a character straight out of an Oscar Wilde play. He looked to be in his mid-30s, with short, meticulously combed hair and small round tortoiseshell glasses that only accentuated his longish face. “So how exactly are you related to Nick?” Rachel asked, changing the subject.
“Nick’s grandfather James Young and my grandmother Rosemary T’sien are brother and sister.”
“But that would mean that you and Nick are second cousins.”
“Right. But here in Singapore, since extended families abound, we all just say we’re ‘cousins’ to avoid confusion.”
Just then Nick and Astrid appeared. Oliver turned to Astrid and his eyes widened. “Holy Mary Mother of Tilda Swinton, look at those earrings! Wherever did you get them?”
“At Stephen Chia’s . . . they’re VBH,” Astrid said.
“Of course they are. I wouldn’t have thought they were quite your style, but they do look fabulous on you. Hmm . . . you still can surprise me after all these years.”
“You know I try, Ollie, I try.”
“Oliver is the Asian art and antiquities expert for Christie’s in London,” Nick explained to Rachel.
“Yes, the Asian art market is heating up like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I hear that every new Chinese billionaire is trying to get their hands on a Warhol these days,” Nick remarked.
“Well, yes; there are quite a few wannabe Saatchis around, but I’m dealing more with the ones trying to buy back the great antiquities from European and American collectors. For years, hardly anyone in Asia bothered to collect Chinese pieces, not with any real discernment, anyway. Why, even your great-grandfather went mad for Art Deco when he could have snapped up all the imperial treasures coming out of China.”
Just then someone announced, “The tan huas are coming into bloom!” As the guests began to head back in, Nick pulled Rachel aside. “Here, let’s take a shortcut,” he said. Nick led her through a long passage into an enclosed courtyard that was open to the sky. Rachel couldn’t believe her eyes. It was as if they had stumbled onto a secret cloister deep within a Moorish palace. Elaborately carved columns lined the arcades around the perimeter, and a lotus blossom sculpted out of rose quartz protruded from a stone wall, spouting a stream of water. Overhead, hundreds of copper lanterns flickered with candlelight.
Rachel walked to the center of the courtyard. In the middle of a reflecting pool were huge terra-cotta urns that held the painstakingly cultivated tan huas. Rachel had never seen such exotic flowers. The tangled forest of plants grew together into a profusion of large leaves the color of dark jade. Long stems sprouted from the edges of the leaves, curving until they formed huge bulbs. Pale reddish petals curled around them. Oliver stood by the flowers, scrutinizing one of the bulbs closely.
“You know, it’s considered to be very auspicious to witness tan huas blooming in the night,” he said.
Just then Rachel noticed Nick under an arcade chatting intently with a striking woman. “Who is that woman talking to Nick?” Rachel asked.
“Oh, that’s Jacqueline Ling. An old family friend.”
Rachel stared at Jacqueline’s ballerina-like figure, shown to great advantage by the pale yellow halter top and palazzo pants that she wore with a pair of silver stilettos.
“She looks like a movie star,” Rachel commented.
“Yes, doesn’t she? I’ve always thought that Jacqueline looks like a Chinese Catherine Deneuve, only more beautiful.”
“She does look like her!”
“Widowed once, almost married a British marquess, and since then she’s been the companion of a Norwegian tycoon. There’s a story I heard as a child: Jacqueline’s beauty was so legendary that when she visited Hong Kong for the first time in the sixties, her arrival attracted a throng of spectators, as if she were Elizabeth Taylor. All the men were clamoring to propose to her, and fights broke out at the terminal. It made the newspapers, apparently.”
“All because of her beauty.”
“Yes, and her bloodline. She’s the granddaughter of Ling Yin Chao.”
“He was one of Asia’s most revered philanthropists. Built schools all over China. Not that Jacqueline is following in his footsteps, unless you consider her donations in aid of Manolo Blahnik.”
Rachel laughed, as both of them noticed that Jacqueline had one hand on Nick’s arm.
“Don’t worry—she flirts with everyone,” Oliver quipped. “Do you want another piece of juicy gossip?”
“I’m told Nick’s grandmother very much wanted Jacqueline for Nick’s father. But she didn’t succeed.”
“He wasn’t swayed by her looks?”
“Well, he already had another beauty on his hands—Nick’s mother. You haven’t met Auntie Elle yet, have you?”
“No, she went away for the weekend.”
“Hmm, how interesting. She never goes away when Nicholas is in town,” Oliver said, turning around to make sure no one was within earshot before leaning closer in. “I’d tread extra carefully around Eleanor Young if I were you. She maintains a rival court,” he said mysteriously before walking off.
Left alone, Rachel felt unnerved by his warning. She allowed her eyes to close for a moment. Every time a breeze blew, the copper lanterns swayed like hundreds of glowing orbs adrift in a dark ocean. For a moment Rachel felt as if she were floating along with them. She wondered if life with Nick would always be like this.