Ann Wee remembers the way we were
It's a little square photograph, a black-and-white of a family standing by what looks like a self-built home. On the back of the book, the photo is credited to the author's personal collection, and identified as having been taken at Holland Road in 1955.
It looks nothing like the Holland Road on which I travelled to and from school during my childhood in the 1990s and early 2000s. Juxtaposing the photo on the cover of Ann Wee's A Tiger Remembers: The Way We Were in Singapore with the bustling traffic, expensive bungalows and posh condominiums of today simply emphasises how much Singapore has transformed within a single lifetime.
Some of the favourite stories of my childhood came not from picture books or cartoons, but from the memories of the elders who raised me. I'd listen to my grandfather's escapades as the boy menace of Everitt Road, or my nanny's exaggerated tale of finding snakes taking advantage of the (relative) safety of drawers in the bedroom. My grandmother would tell me, over and over again, of how they'd been unable to bring my mother's childhood pet chickens with them when moving into their first HDB flat; they'd quietly slaughtered the unfortunate fowl and made chicken rice that night, but told my mother the two chickens had moved to my nanny's kampung for a better life. (My nanny would tell this story again at a family dinner after I'd graduated from university, only to discover that it was the first time my mum had heard about what really happened to her pet birds all those years ago.)
In the big scheme of things, these stories seem silly and insignificant. When considering the broad sweep of history and its themes of conquest, colonialism, politics, struggle and development, my granddad's account of imitating Errol Flynn with swords made out of rattan cane and the lids of Milo tins seems trivial. But these narratives, no matter how small, are part of our history, our families, and who we are. The way we were in Singapore.
It's tales and incidents such as these that veteran social worker Ann Wee tries to set down in her book. From the way Singapore's early migrant workers lived to the Singaporean Chinese woman's pragmatic attitude towards purchasing gold jewellery in the 1950s, Wee reflects upon the cultural exchanges and moments of learning she'd encountered in her journey from England to Singapore. The result is a book full of glimpses of a Singapore a person of my generation never had to the chance to experience.
Wee relates each experience with humour and care; her interest in and love of people, relationships and communities shines through, even decades after actual events. It's an enviable attitude, an inspiration and reminder to all of us to always keep ourselves open and eager to learn from others.
If anything, the book is too full of glimpses; each chapter covers an aspect of life in Singapore (and a little in England) as observed or experienced by Wee, and essentially stands on its own. You poke your head in and out of a variety of Singaporean lives as Wee recounts this or that. There's plenty to learn in every account, but I found myself hoping for a little more of a narrative, something to tie the diverse, disparate stories into a whole.
That Singapore wasn't a mere fishing village at the time of independence is something that needs to be emphasised again and again, but this doesn't need to come at the expense of remembering how much the island's changed in a relatively short period of time. We've gained plenty from this transformation, but we've lost much too. And not just in terms of nature and architecture, but also in terms of customs, culture and habits, ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of living. Forgetting this shared history would be a great loss, leaving a gaping hole in our cultural memory as Singaporeans.
Thank goodness for Ann Wee, the tiger with a long memory.