In the 1950s, the street boys of Singapore caught and bet on their wrestling spiders, gaining not only money but also power and prestige as they won. Backgrounded against age-old vices, superstitions, urban legends, as well as a dangerous world of youth gangs and a tumultuous period in Singapore’s history, Spider Boys is a moving and sensual story that draws the reader into turning its pages as if by a beguiling, hypnotic force, alternating arousing and repelling him. First published by Penguin, New Zealand, in 1995, Spider Boys has been re-edited to not only retain the flavour of colloquial Singapore English in the dialogues, but also improve the accessibility of the novel for all readers by rendering the narrative into grammatical Standard English.
Impressively confident in tone, Cher's arresting first novel details the lives of street urchins and petty criminals in the Singapore of the 1950s. The depradations of the WWII Japanese occupation are alluded to only in passing, but the lawlessness and rebelliousness that shadow these characters are its direct result. Spider boys capture and train small wrestling spiders to compete in matches for substantial stakes. Teenaged Kwang is the boys' leader, fiercely and exclusively dedicated to his spiders, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Kim, with the ``always ready to laugh eyes.'' Kwang, who adheres to a strict moral code even when engaged in criminal or vengeful activities, is the rival of Chai, a less sterling character, and is preyed upon by Smiling Yeow, a murderous criminal whose plans to use the boys in larger gambling operations signals an end to their comparatively innocent lives. The action builds to thrilling descriptions of the ``Spider Olympic Games.'' What follows is an anticlimax capped by a hasty denouement. But this is a small flaw in a notable debut in which Cher mines the abbreviated, hard-edged local street slang to yield prose of stunning emotional impact. The narrative moves among its characters in quick cuts, but the exposures go remarkably deep nonetheless, revealing this exotic milieu as the universal world of any child growing into adulthood.