A Baba Boyhood by William Gwee Thian Hock


I chanced upon this book when I was researching on my childhood home at Cuppage Road. I was amazed that someone had actually lived there and written about it. The author lived in a rented house at 27, Cuppage Road in 1930s. In the chapter, he described the chicken seller from Orchard Market, whom I am almost certain is my maternal great-parents. My 90 year-old grandmother is vague about her childhood memories, so she can’t tell me much.

The Peranakan culture is unique to South East Asia, with its own costumes, language and cuisines. At the turn of the century, men from China arrived to SE Asia and married the local women, giving rise to a blend of culture and offspring known as Baba (male) and Nonya (female).

The author’s narratives of his childhood prior to the Japanese occupation of Singapore to the end of the occupation is fascinating coming from the view of a young boy, who remained carefree and happy, albeit intermittently shocked by the brutality of the Japanese soldiers he had encountered. It’s difficult to relate the meek and polite Japanese I see today to those described in the book, where they had no qualms about slapping women. It was also educational for me to read about Sook Ching massacre, where young men were rounded up and killed, which I had never studied in school, unlike my children.

Interestingly, he described the beheading by the Japanese, which was hung in bridges as a warning for crimes. Perhaps that explained the rumours I heard when I was in primary school, that beheaded heads were needed because they were building Sheares Bridge.

We shared many similar childhood experiences, despite being two decades apart. Grandma forbade us to buy from street hawkers and I never knew why. The reason she gave were that they are toxic. But William provided a better explanation – they were unhygienic and dysentery is a common illness then.

Unlike other Peranakan books that I have, which are mainly cookbooks, this book hardly mentions about food. What was new was the Malay opera troupes that were popular with the Nonyas. It is a pity that Malay operas is now extinct in Singapore, and perhaps in Malaysia and Indonesia as well.

My visits to Bukit Brown Cemetery had acquainted me with a few prominent Babas who are buried there. Most are highly educated and worked for the British during the Colonial period. This book makes the history more complete.

As Singapore celebrates SG50, this is the best time to read this very easy book and learn more about our country before independence.


About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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