Great books that capture Singapore's heritage and history
This box set collects five unforgettable out-of-print novels by five of Singapore's best writers.
Andrew Koh's Glass Cathedral is a sensitive depiction of homosexuality in conservative Singapore has become a landmark in local literature. This novella was part of a small wave of gay- and lesbian-themed drama and fiction that appeared in Singapore during the early 1990s.
Lloyd Fernando's Scorpion Orchid follows the lives of four young men – a Malay, a Eurasian, a Chinese and a Tamil—against a backdrop of racial violence and political factions struggling for dominance. Excerpts from classical Malay and colonial English sources appear throughout the narrative, illuminating the roots and significance of this period in history.
In Robert Yeo's The Adventures of Holden Heng, the not-so-lucky-in-love protagonist of this comic realist novel documents social currents transforming the Lion City. Described as the "most Singaporean of Singapore writers", Robert Yeo presents an immensely entertaining story of a typical Singaporean man’s escapades with three very different women. Will he ever find true love?
With The Immolation, Goh Poh Seng takes on larger-than-life themes in his most ambitious novel, which is set in post-war Vietnam. He gives his take on issues of national identity, war, and self-discovery has contemporary relevance not just to Asian readers, but an international audience.
Stella Kon’s The Scholar and the Dragon immerses the reader in the Singapore of the 1910s, where overseas Chinese people fought for the revolution to bring down the Qing Dynasty. Stella's tale is spell-binding, with turns and twists, and has the feel of an epic movie.
SON OF SINGAPORE by Tan Kok Seng. Few books have made an impact on our cultural landscape like this one. Now, author Tan Kok Seng was not a big-time politician, nor a grassroots leader nor a TV or pop star.
He was a limo chauffeur (today’s equivalent would be perhaps, a private-hire driver) who started keeping a journal of his life, with the intention to leave it for his children. However, when his employer read what Kok Seng had written, he encouraged Kok Seng to get his journal entries translated into English and published as a book, which resulted in Son of Singapore.
The book recalls Kok Seng’s life journey, growing up on a farm in Singapore through the war years, leaving school as a teen, working as a coolie to help support his family, and finally leaving Singapore to become a driver for a diplomat. Told in a simple, easygoing style, this book is a literary time capsule, offering the reader a dive into what life was like in the post-war years.
After Son of Singapore was first published in 1972, it received rave reviews and catapulted Kok Seng from obscurity into the nation’s consciousness – he was even voted Man of the Year. The book was used as a school literature text for a time, too. More importantly, it also paved the way for book publishing in Singapore and showed that stories about Singapore were well worth reading. Kok Seng went on to write two more memoirs, Man of Malaysia and Eye On The World, and one novel, The Three Sisters of Sze.
CONFRONTATION by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. This novel is the English translation of award-winning author Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s acclaimed Malay novel, Batas Langit, which is set after the traumatic incidents of World War II and the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.
In Confrontation, the villagers of Kampung Pak Buyung do not have many material goods but they are content with their simple lives. However, looming on the horizon are political upheaval, race riots, gang wars and an inevitable Konfrontasi (Malay for "confrontation") with Indonesia. The question is, will they make it through unscathed?
Mohamed Latiff’s intriguing tale of life in 1960s Singapore is seen through the eyes of a young village boy, Adi, who witnesses the monumental changes sweeping the country.
Although Mohamed Latiff caught the writing bug when he was in school – writing his first story at age 16 when he was studying at Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School – he later became an educator until 1999, when he focused on writing full-time. He is best known for his literary works – both in poetry and prose – about the struggles of the Malay community in post-independence Singapore.
More than that, Mohamed Latiff breathes rarefied air: he is the only person to win the Singapore Literature Prize three times, the SEA Write Award, and be awarded the Cultural Medallion (Singapore’s highest arts honour).
ADRIFT by David TK Wong. No, this isn’t the story of that makan place at Marina Bay Sands. Rather, Adrift tells of the “wonder years” of businessman David TK Wong and his family.
David was actually born in Hong Kong and spent his early years with his mother in Canton after his parents separated. But in 1935, six-year-old David was taken by his grandmother to live at Blair Road in Singapore, where his father lived. He was introduced to a land of migrants in a colonial world, and had to quickly learn to ingratiate himself – or simply ignore – members of a family and country he never knew.
“Blair Road was a short street sapped by equatorial sunshine into a sleepy indolence. Its construction had begun shortly after the turn of the twentieth century and it stands today as a monument to the limited imagination of property developers and architects of that era. As a consequence, two-storeyed terrace houses eyed each other across a heat-soaked belt of asphalt, with many structures displaying mismatched features drawn from traditional Chinese designs and more recent strokes of Art Deco boldness. Yet, the end result was not without charm,” he wrote of his residence in Singapore.
Similarly, Adrift is filled with anecdotes and remembrances that may initially seem incongruous to life in Singapore today (such as living with the complicated extended families of his polygamous grandfather and father). Nevertheless, it still offers a charming glimpse into the unique journey of a young man in the twilight of colonialism, searching for where he belongs.
********THE WAYANG AT EIGHT MILESTONE by Gregory Nalpon. Associate Professor Richard Angus Whitehead, an educator at the National Institute of Education-Nanyang Technological University, said Gregory Nalpon's short story ("The Rose and the Silver Key") so moved him that he resolved to learn more about the author.
"His stories sound so vivid and so linked to life and everyday people in Singapore. He seemed to be able to ... represent and describe people of all different groups in an equal way. You’ve got Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, and they’re all mingled," he explained.
However, many of Gregory's works were thought lost. Born in 1938, the writer had lived in Changi and studied at St. Joseph’s Institution. He later became a journalist, a radio deejay and a union representative. These assorted vocations took him from Singapore to Malaysia, Thailand and Australia.
Gregory wrote movie scripts, short stories and essays, one of which ("The Rose and the Silver Key") became part of the GCE O-Level Literature texts. He decided to publish his stories in 1975. However, a mere three years later, Gregory passed away. He was only 40.
It was Prof Whitehead who gathered 16 short stories, 11 essays, and a selection of sketches of life in coffee shops, hawker stalls and samshu shops. The result is The Wayang at Eight Milestone.
"For me, it’s quite important to discover writers like Nalpon because if you don’t, you’re only going to have a partial picture of the Singapore story. What we really should be talking about is the multiplicity of personal Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian and Other Singapore stories," said Prof Whitehead.
If you want a book with insightful snapshots of life in Singapore circa the 1960s and 1970s, The Wayang at Eight Milestone is the one for you.
STATE OF EMERGENCY by Jeremy Tiang. Award-winning author Jeremy Tiang's debut novel has been described as "epic in scope, yet so intimate in its depiction of the characters".
State Of Emergency, which won the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize, took Jeremy seven years to write. It follows the fortunes of a Singaporean family that gets caught up repeatedly in political intrigue over the years, including the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, Operation Spectrum in 1987 and the long-drawn guerilla war of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960. "I kept wondering what it must be like to have endured such a momentous event," said Jeremy. "When you look around Singapore now, it's very polished and unruffled – but as with MacDonald House (the site of a terrorist bomb attack), that hides a lot of turbulence below the surface. I wanted to dig for what there was below the historical narrative."
Jeremy researched his novel by reading books and watching films by and about the people involved in those incidents. He also conducted interviews and visited various places, including the National Archives at Kew in London, Semenyih New Village in Malaysia and Friendship Village 2 in Betong, Thailand, to gain more knowledge of the British colonial era.
State of Emergency is told from the perspectives of six different characters, beginning with the marriage of an English-educated civil servant and a Chinese-educated activist, who disagree on the path Singapore should take.
"I wanted to anchor the story in specific details, like what people would eat for breakfast, to convey what it felt like to be in those places at those times," he says. "We know historically that one point of view prevailed and Singapore became a certain way, and nobody can say it was for better or worse. But I wanted to show that at one point, it really was up for grabs."
DURIANS ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Wong Yoon Wah. Speaking of Jeremy Tiang, this collection of essays is the result of his translations of the works of author Wong Yoon Wah. Durians Are Not the Only Fruit is a mix of memoir, essay and nature writing, and Yoon Wah evokes the beauty and seduction of the tropical rainforest and rubber plantations of his childhood in Malaya.
Along the way, we gain fascinating insights: how thunder tea rice acquired its name; how early settlers used the rain tree to tell time; how the behaviour of ants can tell us when a monsoon is about to arrive. Both personal and informative, Yoon Wah’s compelling essays deal with his reminiscences of Malaya during the Emergency (1948–60), and are filled with period details of his youth – such as an explanation of rubber trees, imported from Brazil, and how they're the only plant to turn yellow and lose its leaves in our tropical climate; or a vignette where a young Yoon Wah raids untended rambutan trees because British colonial officials have removed the owners, whom they suspected to be sympathetic to the Communist guerrillas.
Then there is the poignant essay, “Cast from Paradise”, which sees how Yoon Wah, now an ageing urbanite, is struck by fear at the thought of spending a night in the same jungle environment in which lived all those years ago.
It's a delightful experience diving into his world, compare it to the concrete jungle we now live in, if only to look for echoes of the past in our present. A writer, poet and scholar specialising in comparative and post-colonial Chinese literature; Yoon Wah was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1986.
NOT BORN IN SINGAPORE by Tng Ying Hui. In this insightful tome, author Tng Ying Hui pays tribute to 50 people who weren’t, as the title implies, born in Singapore, but nevertheless shaped Singapore’s landscape – in a figurative and literal sense – when they made the Lion City their home, leaving an indelible mark in modern Singapore (so, no, Raffles is not included).
Whether it was introducing cultural icons such as the “Singapore Girl” – the nickname given to the flight crew of the then-fledgeling Singapore Airlines; or buildings such as the popular retail spot Mustafa Centre, their contributions to our cultural consciousness have lasted decades.
Not Born in Singapore sheds light on the likes of Mustaq Ahmad, Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, Ian Batey, Choo Hoey, Aleksandar Duric, Professor T. H. Elliott, Feng Tianwei, Jing Junhong, Dr Tsutomu Kanai, Kuo Pao Kun, Christine Laimer, Brother Joseph McNally, Ronald Susilo, Tan Swie Hian, Tan Sri Frank Tsao Wen- King, Mary Turnbull, Ann Wee, Professor Jackie Y. Ying and many more.
In the age of tribalism and nativism, it's perhaps a timely reminder of how much of a melting pot Singapore really is – and how our community of many can become one.
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