Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei

“”A schoolgirl—Siu-Man—has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window to the pavement below. Siu-Man is an orphan and the librarian older sister who’s been raising her refuses to believe there was no foul play—nothing seemed amiss. She contacts a man known only as N.—a hacker, and an expert in cybersecurity and manipulating human behavior. But can Nga-Yee interest him sufficiently to take her case, and can she afford it if he says yes?

What follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, especially an online gossip platform, where someone has been slandering Siu-Man. The novel is also populated by a man harassing girls on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social dramas; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N.’s neighborhood of Sai Wan. In the end it all comes together to tell us who caused Siu-Man’s death and why, and to ask, in a world where online and offline dialogue has increasingly forgotten about the real people on the other end, what the proper punishment is.”” Unquote Link

This is one of the best novels I’ve read recently. “Your sister killed herself.” – That’s the first sentence on Chapter One which got me hooked to the end of the almost 500 pages novel. 2 things strike me as I read the novel – Hong Kong society and the cyber world. I could not help comparing them to Singapore as we are both very similar.

Just like Hong Kong, we are tiny city states with high density population on an island. Their flats are small and tiny. Their trains are fully packed during peak hours. Things there are so expensive and getting more and more expensive with the commoners struggling to make ends meet. Their wages are so low that they have to take on extra jobs to earn extra money so that they could save up for their children’s university education etc.

The secondary 2 schoolgirl Sui-Man lost her parents due to poverty. Her father died in an industrial accident due to over work. The long hours of working caused him to lose focus and got killed when the forklift he was driving dived into the sea. The mother had to work so hard that she virtually worked herself to death. This young school girl had only her elder sister to look after her. The latter also had to work extra hard to pay her school fees, save for her university education in few years’ time and also to meet the escalating costs of daily living. It seemed that her wages could not keep up with the ever rising costs of living.

If only her parents and elder sister were earning good income, Sui-Man would not have committed suicide. I think poverty is one of the reasons why she committed suicide. On the surface, the contributing factor is that she was bullied in cyberspace and she had no one to turn to. Her elder sister was too busy making a living to keep them surviving.

“I asked you how much pocket money your sister got,” said N placidly. “That’s when I knew that you might be close to your sister, but you had no idea what she was thinking.” “Huh?”
“You gave her three hundred a week. After subtracting MTR fare and lunch money, that’s hardly enough for a secondary school student to live on these days. You know how much prices have gone up in the last few years. Twenty-odd dollars used to buy you a decent boxed lunch, but these days thirty isn’t e enough for a plain bowl of noodles. You think your sister liked having sandwiches for lunch every day? She was just choosing the cheapest option. Where do you think she got the spare cash to have coffee with Kwok-Tai and Lily?”
“Siu-Man was never materialistic like that! She’d never starve herself just to afford a fancy phone or-”
“Who said fancy anything? I’m talking about ordinary social life. If her friends wanted to hang out, then even if money was tight, she’d have to save up enough to go along rather than pouring cold water on their plans. Isn’t that what people do?”
“If she’d asked for more pocket money, I’d have given it to her!”
“Your sister wasn’t just worried about keeping up with her friends, she also knew the family’s finances were tight-that’s why she didn’t ask.” There was a hint of mockery in his voice. “You know what your family went through-and you’d better believe your sister was aware of it too, even at her age. She saw how much you and your mother suffered—and that’s why she was so insistent that she didn’t want to hold anyone back. But you didn’t see what she was going through. You thought every- thing was just fine.”

The need to make a living had caused Nga-Yee to forget about something even more important. Earning money was a means to an end: to support the household and let her family live happily. But capitalist society lulls us into believing our wages are a goal in themselves, turning us into slaves of money. We forget that as crucial as money may be, there are even more important things that we can’t afford to lose. Unquote

The next theme in the novel is about cyberspace and the internet. The author is able to explain all about cyber security, cyber crime, internet footprints, hacking into personal information etc etc in extremely clear and simple ways. By reading this novel, one would realise the internet having tremendous power to destroy and ruin our life. The main protagonist known only as ‘N” is a computer expert, hacker who was engaged by the elder sister to find out why Sui-Man took her own life.

“Guess how I did that?”

“You’re controlling her tablet!
“Nope.”N pointed at the PISCES FREE WIFI sign on the counter. “I’m controlling the Wi-Fi network she’s connected to.” “Huh?”
“This is known as a man-in-the-middle attack, or MITM for short. Hacking techniques are actually simple. Just a sort of third-rate magic trick. But because there’s a layer of science over the top, people think it’s complex.” N glanced over at the woman with the laptop. “I got my phone to pretend to be Pisces Free WiFi. My signal was stronger than the shop’s router, so her tablet jumped to my network. At the same time, I connect ed to the real Pisces Free WiFi, turning myself into an invisible go-between. Do you know what your computer does when you surf to a web page?”
Nga-Yee shook her head.
“To put it as simply as I can, when you type in an address, your computer sends out a request to the remote server, which sends the right words and images to your computer. And it’s the Wi-Fi network that makes the connection between them. It’s like when you’re at the library and someone wants to borrow a Harry Potter book. They ask for it at the counter, and you get it from the shelf for them. You’re the Wi-Fi in that scenario.”
This analogy made sense to Nga-Yee – after all, that’s what she did all day long. (Nga-Yee is a librarian)
“What I’ve just done is to put on a librarian badge and set up a fake counter by the entrance. Customers think I’m the real thing, so they ask me for the Harry Potter book. I take off my badge, go to the real counter, and ask you for the book. You give it to me, and I pass it on. Neither you nor the borrower would notice that anything was wrong.” “But you’ve found out that this person wanted a Harry Potter book.” Unquote

Second Sister is Chan Ho-Kei’s second novel. I enjoyed tremendously reading his first novel – The Borrowed. My fren Dr Mike introduced him to me. He also gave me both books. Even though the novels are originally written in Chinese by the Hong Kong novelist, I would rate it on par if not better than some of the world’s best crime fiction. I’m amazed that Hong Kong – similar in almost everything to us could produce such an outstanding thriller writer whilst we had none. However, I take solace that both of Chan Ho-Kei’s novels are translated into English by an overseas based Singaporean. Link

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About Gintai_昇泰

I'm a Chinese Singaporean living in the Eastern part of Singapore. I tweet on current affairs & inspirational quotes. I blog on issues or events if they interest me. I write for pleasure. I also write mainly for my family and friends.
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