Keeping Memories

Keeping Memories: Preserving Our Past Through Pictures and Stories by Lily Tan is a 61-page book measuring 12cm (4.5in) x 17cm (7.5in) which I found because it had fallen off a shelf of many thick books. This Singapore Album is a project organised by the National Museum of Singapore and Landmark Books with the support from nexus and copyrighted by The Government of Singapore and published in 2007. Lily Tan, who passed away in 2014 at age 70, had been with the National Archives of Singapore for 33 years and was Director for 22 years from 1979.

The book contains 59 photographs and stories from families and friends from all walks of life, including homemakers, students, retirees, civil servants, professionals like an architect and an engineer, artists and media veterans, authors, office workers, National Servicemen and entrepreneurs.

The three photographs that interest me the most are

  • A wedding photo of E. W. Barker, best remembered as Minister of Law (1964-1988) for drafting the Proclamation of Singapore in 1965, announcing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia (as I was in the same piano class with his youngest daughter Gillian);
  • A photograph of relatives of Lloyd Oscar Charles Schooling (I wondered if they’re any relation to the Olympic swimmer Joseph Issac);
  • A photograph that former Chinese TV news presenter Chua Foo Yong shared (I remember her fondly as she kept me glued to the news every night for umpteen years).

These photographs bring back memories, and memories are precious things. It is also about the sharing, bonding and building of a nation.

Memories of a Nonya

Memories of a Nonya by Queeny Chang (1896-1986) was first published in 1981 and reissued in 2016 so I don’t know how I could have missed it before.

The memoir was written in 1976 when Queeny was 80 years old. It’s a marvel that she could recall the many details of the events and persons important to her, especially her childhood, the early part of her marriage and the source of her inspirations. (The last 60 years of her life, at the time of writing, was summarised in a three-page Epilogue.)

The five areas elaborated on (and accompanied by a treasure trove of photographs) are

  • Her happy childhood in a mixture of cultures, religions and beliefs, especially among the elite in Penang;
  • Her arranged marriage for which she was unprepared and had mixed feelings;
  • Her meeting with Lee Kong Chian and his influence;
  • The business ventures with her husband and her life in Medan;
  • Her father’s death and the impact on her.

Between the pages is a wealth of information about the Chinese in Medan, North Sumatra, Penang and Singapore. However, she never explained how her surname became Chang, since her father’s surname is Tjong and her husband’s surname is Lim. I can only guess that she had the spelling changed at some point according to the Chinese character 张 as she mentioned that her dialect group is khek.

The Lost Girls of Paris

The Lost Girl of Paris by Pam Jenoff is a historical novel set in England/France/US about three women and a ring of female spies during the Second World War.

Inspired by true events, the concept is excellent. The reader learns about the sacrifices and contributions of these unsung heroes. It is a story about friendship, love and tenacity.

I think a movie adaptation of this novel would be interesting.

Dead Rich

I borrowed Dead Rich because I was curious about the author, Louise Fennell. I read that she had been surrounded by the rich and famous for more than two decades through her own career in fashion and involvement in the jewellery business of her husband Theo, known as ‘the king of bling’ and ‘jeweller to the stars’. I wanted to know what her novels are like.

Dead Rich is about a ridiculously rich and famous family appropriately named Spender. In their exquisite houses is a dark reality: they are isolated and hemmed in, trapped by their fame. They live a privileged and high profile lifestyle with an army of employees – domestic help, PAs, personal trainers, stylists, hair and make up artists, drivers, security teams, managers, agents, publicists – but are always lonely. They end up cheating, abusing drugs and making use of everyone around them.

This lifestyle is shattered when tragedy strikes, tearing apart the fragile fabric of their existence and sending them spinning out of control. A murder and a mystery keep the tale entertaining.

The Glittering Art of Falling Apart

The Glittering Art of Falling Apart by Ilana Fox caught my attention because of its unusual title. The blurb did not reveal much and I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I’m pleasantly surprised by how gripping and moving it is.

The split timelines tell two different and intriguing stories that are intertwined, from the 1980’s Soho scene in London to the present day. There is a fascinating mix of drama, romance, history, the forgotten splendor of a crumbling mansion, secrets, family, relationships, drug abuse, love and loss.

The characters are believable, and their secrets and life choices interesting to read about. There are so many twists and turns that the novel reads like an emotional rollercoaster of happiness, sadness and shock.

Cats

Cats, the movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical would appeal to those who love musicals, those who love Sir Webber’s music and those who know T. S. Eliot’s poems, particularly his poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939).

The story centres on a tribe of Jellicle cats, and is an escapist fantasy. The dialogues – mostly sung, sometimes spoken – are clear, poetic, intense and meaningful. (“Do you ever get nervous? No. It’s just practice and practice and practice. That’s all.“; “Cats are very much like you.“; “A cat is not a dog.”; “Don’t speak till you’re spoken to.”; “This is this and that is that.”; “All I wanted is to be wanted.”) Allegorically, it is about how we spend our days and how much we use each other; there are messages of kindness and cruelty, good and bad, and our mortality.

This is a beautiful work of art – every nuance, note and movement has a purpose: the music is breathtaking, the choreography and movements phenomenal, and the sets and visuals stunning.

The story of Cats may seem plotless and weird, but watching it is a wonderful experience. A verse in one of the most well-known songs, Memory goes like this: “Midnight, not a sound from the pavement/ Has the moon lost her memory?/ She is smiling alone/ In the lamplight, the withered leaves collect at my feet/ And the wind begins to moan”; and Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night has a stanza thus: “Twelve o’clock./ Along the reaches of the street/ Held in lunar synthesis,/ Whispering lunar incantations/ Dissolve the floors of memory” – there are many more brilliant examples such as this.

Cats is definitely watching again.

The Lives Before Us

On the cover of The Lives Before Us by Juliet Conlin:

Two women. A world at war. Can they survive the Shanghai ghetto?”

Mesmerising and compelling

Then I read in the author’s notes that her research for this novel took her to traveling 5,000 miles, learning Mandarin and personally interviewing Shanghai Ghetto survivors and reading countless real-life testimonies, diaries, essays and history books on the subject.

I plunged into the book and came up for breath only sporadically and reluctantly. The wonderful pace and structure of the novel made it really interesting, powerful, compelling and fascinating.

Around the time of World War II, two very different Jewish women met on the ship to Shanghai from Berlin. They each have different challenges but are tied together by history and fate. Their lives are entwined with that of a young boy from Shanghai.

Through these three main characters, the story explores issues like survival, prejudice, starvation, poverty, decadence, disease, brutality, hardships, friendships, love, kindness, despair, dreams and hopes.

Am astounding tale of overcoming setbacks and enduring strength vividly told.

Once Upon a Time in the East

Once Upon a Time in the East by Guo Xiaolu caught my attention because it is not very often that I find English books by a Chinese author that has been hailed as a modern day Wild Swans. I became totally absorbed in the interesting and compelling memoir and stayed up all night to finish it, sacrificing precious sleep.

The author’s story of growing up has to be savoured by the individual over 314 pages, but certain topics deserve special mention:

  • The one-child policy in China
  • The murder of baby girls
  • Sexual and physical abuse
  • Communism
  • Immense corruption
  • Cultural Revolution
  • Hardships
  • Loneliness
  • Difficulties adjusting to new cultural, linguistic and social norms
  • The psychological impact of events on one’s personality and perception of the world
  • Artistic freedom vs creativity
  • The underground art scene
  • The philosophy of love
  • The power of the mind
  • The role of silence
  • Frustration
  • Depression

The book also reveals secrets and relationships. A good read. I shall be on the lookout for more books by Guo.

The Red Chamber

I have never read Cao Xueqin’s lengthy Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, because with more than 400 characters and intricate plots within plots over 2,500 pages, I know I would never persevere. Thus I thought Pauline Chen’s retelling of the story in The Red Chamber, a compact 480-page version with only about 40 characters, would be more palatable.

Set in Beijing in the 18th century, the novel gives a panoramic view of the cultural and social life in this time in Chinese history. These include convoluted family politics: the ups and downs in the lives of a rich aristocratic family.

The story is told through three unforgettable women (Lin Daiyu, her cousin Baochai and her uncle’s wife Xifeng) trapped by class, time and circumstances: their friendships and relationships, their lives, loves, secrets, lies, jealousies, anger, fights, betrayals, affairs and misunderstandings against a backdrop of imperial intrigue and maneuvering.

Added to these is of course the very well-known love triangle of Baochai, Daiyu and their male cousin Baoyu.

A complex and multi-layered story!

Death of a Perm Sec

I borrowed Death of a Perm Sec as soon as I spotted it simply because the author’s name is vaguely familiar. When I read the praise for it on the back cover, I decided to turn to the page About the Author. That was when I realised I first heard of Wong more than thirty years ago, when I read about her detention in the national newspaper. (In 1987, she was detained by the Internal Security Department for allegedly taking part in a Marxist conspiracy against the government.)

The great opening line of this intriguing story kept me engrossed till the end in one sitting. A top civil servant is found dead, and it appears to be a suicide; but upon investigation, the family discovers there may be far more sinister circumstances behind his death. It seems to be a “premeditated accident” and involves a “faceless, voiceless and omnipresent captor“.

The allusion to historical events, with name-changing of prominent figures, bears resemblances to characters that are instantly recognisable and relatable, and raises a lot of questions about politics and governance.

Politicians have more skeletons in their cupboards than political speeches.

The details and descriptions, especially of a political prisoner’s time at the Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) and the investigations, are realistic and bleak. (For example, I saw from the windows of my home the Gurkhas guarding the front gate at Wong Chin Yoke Road, next to the car park of the housing quarters of senior police officers. I assume the investigations and the innards of the WRDC must be as described by the author as she has first hand experience.)

A gripping and bold novel about the dark heart of power politics.