By Natalie Tan (23A01B)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
After his parents’ death, former pro-wrestler Zeke Oliveira returns to Macau from America and spends his days running their restaurant by the beach, purposeless but for cooking good food.
When someone rigs Zeke’s best friend’s car to explode, killing him right outside his restaurant, Zeke throws himself headlong into hunting down his murderers through the alleyways and hotel rooms of the city, eventually stumbling upon an organ harvesting conspiracy that threatens both his life and his understanding of his own cultural identity.
From the beginning, what immediately stands out is the realistic characterisation of the protagonist. Deeply flawed, he aimlessly barrels through life clinging to two things: his glory days as a pro-wrestler before his knee gave out, and the Mar Azul (Blue Sea), his parent’s restaurant. This is why, when his best friend is murdered, he lets himself be completely overcome by the case, seizing it as the only part of his life worth holding onto.
The first time we meet him, he’s waking up severely hungover in a hotel room that moonlights as a high-end brothel, and is revealed to solicit the listening ears of prostitutes—but only to tell them about how much he misses his wife, who refused to move back to Macau with him and instead stayed in California to be an extremely successful doctor.
Within the first twenty pages, he recites self-help affirmations from a CD in his car radio, gets into a fight with a taxi driver, and forgets to buy brandy for the Mar Azul. While he has an undeniable passion for cooking, it becomes readily apparent that Zeke, with his scattered memory and distinct distaste for capitalism, isn’t cut out for the day-to-day running of a restaurant.
“I was six years old when I first realised that the people in the Mar Azul paid money for their food. I’d thought […] it was just what Mae and Pai did, open our house to feed people in one endless party. […] At that moment, I saw in a flash the give-and-take that underpinned—and now undermined—my joyful, carefree life.”
The good news: once his best friend is murdered and Zeke embarks on his stubborn quest for justice, there’s not much restaurant running to be had. Throughout the novel, he goes from downright pitiful to a guy who, quite simply, is trying his best—and that endears him an unexpected amount to the reader.
Setting-wise, Sherwood captures the distinctive sights and sounds of Macau with a masterful familiarity: casinos, hotels, and countless restaurants are described in loving detail. A former Portuguese colony, both Macau’s rich culture and cuisine leap off the pages of this book, and are practically characters in their own right.
The biggest testament to this is how it never comes off pretentious or flaunting the research that Sherwood has put in: rather, as Zeke leads us into frog porridge shops, temples, and even across the water to Hong Kong, it feels as if an old friend is showing you around their home.
Moreover, the title is by no means misleading—the book contains several recipes for classic Macanese food such as galinha, caldo verde, and chu pa bao. They contribute to a richer, more immersive atmosphere: as Zeke prepares minchi, a dish that has Cantonese, English, and Japanese heritage, for his restaurant’s patrons, he seamlessly weaves the history of the Japanese in Macau into the recipe he narrates to us.
Other times, the recipes come in moments that are almost comical: near the end of the book, in the second before someone shoots (!) him, Zeke declares that no Macanese cookbook would be complete without a recipe for (Portuguese) egg tarts—which we’re immediately treated to.
But the central conflict in the book revolves around two questions: what is Macau, and what does it really mean to be Macanese? When Jaime Salvador, the head of a Macanese triad family, speaks to Zeke, he laments how modern Macau has lost both its culture and its people:
“Pelota [a ball sport of Basque origin] was good for Macau, but we lost it too soon […] this city doesn’t need another casino. […] There are more Macanese in California than there are here. In Macau, how many are we (the true Macanese crioulo)? How many?”
Similarly, Zeke misses the “old Macau” like an open wound—saudade (a melancholy yearning for what’s absent), he calls it. His quest for justice leads him to discover the undercurrents of corruption running through Macau, which forces him to face uncomfortable realisations about the place he’s called home.
And not only has his homeland changed—potentially for the worse—Zeke is also unsure of where he belongs in this new Macau.
“I had thought I knew this place, but this strange sensation creeped in, like I wasn’t in the same street anymore, or even the same city […] Macau was a foreign land.”
Admittedly, the book is not without its flaws. Around the midpoint of the book, his best friend’s death feels as if it’s faded into the background and is no longer the main driving force behind Zeke’s actions. Zeke seems almost at times to stumble from one plot point to another, driven on only by a dogged and one-dimensional desire for justice.
However, it also becomes apparent very early on that Zeke has gotten himself tangled up in a plot far bigger than he initially perceived it to be—his first encounter with his friend’s potential murderers is a shootout across a hotel swimming pool, and it just gets worse from there.
As he gets closer and closer to the truth, we realise that he is completely out of his depth, attempting to uncover secrets that both the government and the military want to stay buried. As such, having such a mulish protagonist actually does work out for the story.
Ultimately, The Macanese Pro-Wrestler’s Cookbook contains enough action to keep readers hooked as well as an unexpectedly tender examination of cultural identity. It will evoke in anyone a bittersweet longing for home—wherever that may be—and also explores how you can love a city, and still need to let it go.