I was informed two weeks ago that I had been selected to partake in the Mentor Access Programme (MAP) by National Arts Council (NAC). (yeepee!) My mentor is Josephine Chia, a Peranakan writer who writes mainly on her Peranakan culture. I have never read her books as I have a rigid preference on my reading. But in order to know my mentor, I decided to pick up a few of her books and that of other local writers as reference.
This book is an interesting read for a Singaporean. It brings the reader back to pre-independence Singapore, dating from 1955 to 1965, the year Singapore and I was born. She describes her childhood living in a kampong (village).
Life was hard in her village. Her house was an attap house (wooden house with coconut leaves as roof) with no furniture. Toilet was a shared facility in the outhouse with no flushing system. The sewage was collected daily by her neighbour Karim, a talented singer. She was but a girl of 5 when the story started. The chapters as told in individual short stories, trace her life as she grows, with the milestones of Singapore’s historical development thrown in. Her prose flows smoothly and I imagine an aunt narrating her life in an unfamiliar era and environment, yet snippets of what’s going on in Singapore provided a familiar backdrop as I recall my history.
She makes Singapore history come alive by linking the villagers’ lives to that of the political situation in Singapore. The personal feelings of the countrymen as Singapore obtained self-rule from the British, got kicked out of Malaysia and then to independence. Politics aside, there were accounts of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, our first Olympic medalist, setting up of the first TV station and other events.
Life was hard but the children were idyllic, playing games outdoor and running barefoot. Privacy for the parents was non-existence and I am amused to read a 10-year-old girl’s knowledge of her father’s amorous feeling and action towards her mother. Weren’t the kids more innocent then? She writes”I hope Ah Tetia(father) was not getting amorous again! I did not think that Mak could survive another pregnancy. ”
It was interesting to read the origin of the five-foot-way, a unique architectural design found only in Singapore and Malaysia. Five-foot-way was an open corridor under the first floor of a building to shield people from the tropical sun and the onslaught of heavy rain.
I was particularly interested to read the reasons behind creation of the Women’s Charter, a set of laws to protect the role of woman in marital conflicts. Decades later, men are now calling for the abolition of the Women’s Charter.
Reading this book brings a new perspective to my country, how far Singapore has come in almost five decades. The author gives much credit to Lee Kuan Yew and rightly so.