READING SPECIAL

10 personalities on books that changed their lives

The Sunday Times asks 10 newsmakers about books that made an impact on them

BJORN SHEN, 34

Chef and owner of restaurants Artichoke and Bird Bird

AU PIED DE COCHON : THE ALBUM

By Martin Picard

Douglas & McIntyre/ Paperback/ 192 pages/ Currently unavailable online

I first read this book in 2010 when I was trying to find my own personality as a chef.

I was always a rebellious kind of guy, but all the famous chefs who had written cookbooks seemed to take a very formal approach to food - think pretty plates, smart dining rooms and happy-looking people.

As much as I enjoyed those books, I never connected with a cookbook until I read Au Pied De Cochon (loosely translated from French to mean the foot of a pig).

Written by Martin Picard, the owner of Montreal's innovative restaurant of the same name, it was the first rebellious, rock 'n' roll cookbook that I had come across.

It contained gory cartoon images and ridiculous recipes such as foie gras poutine and "duck in a can". The kicker was the last page which featured a picture of Picard sitting on a toilet bowl, with his pants down around his ankles.

I was hypnotised by that book.

Reading and learning about his success as a chef and entrepreneur despite his crass mannerisms made me let go of a few shackles that were holding back my own personality. It has made me unapologetic about certain aspects of my branding and learn that unwavering resolve is crucial to building a strong, unique brand.

Back in 2010, I was too afraid to come out guns blazing because I was too concerned about what people would think. But Picard's self-assured ways helped unleash my own full personality as a chef and restaurant owner, in all its crude and imperfect glory.


JENNIE CHUA, in her 70s

Chairman Alexandra Health Systems

THE CASTLE OF ADVENTURE

By Enid Blyton

Pan Macmillan/ Paperback/ 272 pages/ $8.76 (online price)/ Bookdepository.com

When I first started going to school aged five, I was enrolled by my parents at the Chinese-medium school, Nanyang Kindergarten.

But later, when they saw the merits of having an English education, I was transferred to Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS), aged eight.

At SCGS, I did very well in Mathematics and was allowed to skip a year. But little did my teachers know, I was nearly illiterate when it came to reading and writing in English.

My first two years at SCGS passed in a blur, with me half guessing what was happening in class.

Still, even as a child, I resolved to improve my English and set out to pick out the thickest book I could find from the collection of storybooks the class had to share.

That thick hardcover book was The Castle Of Adventure by Enid Blyton, a book I slowly but meticulously deciphered from cover to cover.

For me, completing that one book ended my "illiterate" status and, in many ways, sparked a love of reading. I went on to devour books such as The Secret Seven and Famous Five series.

Getting a chance to experience the magic of storytelling so early on helped me escape the economic hardships I was experiencing at the time, if only for a while.

I consider discovering The Castle Of Adventure a milestone in my life. After all, that one book is perhaps why I still read a book every night before bed, nearly 60 years on.


DR NOORASHIKIN ABDUL RAHMAN, 45

Polytechnic lecturer and president of migrant workers advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too

A FREE MAN : A TRUE STORY OF LIFE AND DEATH IN DELHI

By Aman Sethi

Random House/ Paperback/ 238 pages/ US$14.03/ Amazon.com

I read this non-fiction account of the struggles of manual labourers in New Delhi, India, early last year when I visited my friend who was working there.

I can draw many parallels between the characters in the book and the migrant workers with whom I interact.

The author is let down many times by a painter named Mohammed Ashraf whom he tries to help. Yet he doesn't judge Ashraf and continues to reach out to him.

This taught me not to judge migrant workers by the choices they make, even if I cannot understand why they do what they do. Their circumstances leave them caught between a rock and a hard place and they continue to make what we see as bad decisions.

Ashraf wants to be a free man - the title of the book. Even with the odds stacked against him, he wants to be free to make his own choices and refuses the lifelines thrown to him.

In the same way, I go through a lot to help some of the workers, especially if I know they have a good case. However, I find that they sometimes do not want to fight for their rights. They say: "No, no, it's okay. I just want to get on with my life."

The book helps me reflect on and make sense of the way these workers think.

I am also motivated to continue to help others. The workers' stories show me that the world is cruel and unfair and unequal, and there is a lot that we can do to change that.


QUEK LING KIONG, 49

Resident conductor of Singapore Chinese Orchestra and music director of Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra

FU LEI JIA SHU (HOME LETTERS BY FU LEI)

By Fu Lei

San lian shu dia/ $19.99/ Paperback / 332 pages/ Amazon.com and available for borrowing from the Bishan Public Library

I borrowed this book from the National Library in 1989.

It's an exchange of letters between a father, Fu Lei, and his son, Fu Cong, from 1954 to 1966. Fu Lei is a well-known scholar, writer and French translator.

When I first read the book, I had just finished national service and was thinking about the next step to take in my life.

I was inspired and moved by how Fu Lei shares with his son - who became a famous pianist - about music, art and his life philosophies.

My parents are neither musically nor artistically inclined and, in their time, they felt that it was most important for me to get a job, become independent and support the family.

Everyone thought I was crazy when I decided to study music.

But in the book, Fu Lei shares with his son that one does not need to accomplish huge things in order to serve society. As long as we are sharing whatever we know wherever we are, we are contributing to the country.

That statement gave me the motivation and drive to do what I am doing now.

Another quote that has deeply influenced me says that a person is considered great only when he or she helps others. One should pursue knowledge to help others, and not for self-glorification.

This is one of my mottos. I continually upgrade my skills and learn new things so that I can share these things with everyone.

There are so many quotes that resonate with me that I borrowed the book countless times, so that I could write down all the quotes I like.

I finally bought my own copy of the book in 1997 from a bookstore in China, when I was studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

I have since bought many copies of the book and given them to my students.

I hope the book will inspire them as much as it has inspired me.


MASTURA AHMAD, 49

Actress

TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE: AN OLD MAN, A YOUNG MAN, AND LIFE'S GREATEST LESSON

By Mitch Albom

Little, Brown Book Group/ Paperback/ 224 pages/ $18.95 (online price)/Books Kinokuniya

Some time in 2003 when I was feeling depressed as there were few jobs for me, I took up reading, hoping to calm my nerves.

It was a nice, not-so-thick book based on the author's relationship with his professor. He has kept a promise made 16 years ago to meet his professor after he graduated.

A memorable quote which I can recall is: "So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning."

Basically, do not be selfish. Do not think only about yourself and then life will be more fulfilling.

Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do. Accept the past as past, without denying it or discarding it. Learn to forgive yourself and to forgive others. Do not assume that it is too late to get involved.

I used to be hard on my first son. I had high expectations and coupled with peer pressure from other mothers, I demanded a lot of him. This affected him badly until his teenage years.

Because of the book, I changed the way I relate to him and he soon opened up to me. We have a better relationship now.

In dealing with people, I do not judge them unnecessarily. I look for the positive side of everyone as all humans have limitations, physically and mentally. I am much happier now.


STEFANIE SUN, 37

Singer

THE LIFE- CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP: THE JAPANESE ART OF DECLUTTERING AND ORGANIZING

By Marie Kondo

Ten Speed Press/ Hardback/ 213 pages/ $29.60 (online price)/Books Kinokuniya

I read it a year ago when one of my girlfriends was talking about how this book was very popular. I found the author quirky and her ideas interesting.

One rather silly anecdote was on how to keep your socks. One would usually roll them up and then turn one inside out, but actually the socks do not like it. I mean, can you imagine somebody flipping you out from your mouth and then wrapping your whole head with it? So it makes sense to just put them together in a pair and then roll them up neatly.

Marie Kondo talked a lot about sparking joy - things that do not spark joy should not be in your life. I believe in energy, that you should surround yourself with people who lift you up and, after reading the book, I realised that things can also bring you down or lift you up.

I have read the book three times and enjoyed it for different reasons each time.

The first time was because she is so quirky. The second was when I actually started clearing out some stuff and de-cluttering my life using Kondo's methods. The third time was just for the pleasure of reading it again.

Beyond just managing your things, I think it is important to know when enough is enough and having more does not actually mean that you have more. Material possessions do not fill up your life in other aspects.

I would not say the book is life-changing, but it has altered my perception about owning things.


K. RAJAGOPAL, 51

Film-maker

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

By Harper Lee

Grand Central Publishing/ Paperback/ 384 pages/ $16.61 (online price)/Popular

It was my O-level literature textbook in school. I had to read it many times for examinations, but I enjoyed reading it each time.

I was one of the few Indians in my class and we were young and perhaps immature. I was sometimes confronted and placed in difficult situations by the majority, made fun of for being dark-skinned, or teased about the way I spoke or smelled. Most of the time, it was in jest, but sometimes, it did affect me or made me feel insecure.

In Mockingbird, the adult world of racial discrimination, social injustice and hypocrisy is seen through the eyes of a young girl called Scout and I was enlightened by how she comes to terms with it. I think in some ways, this story has influenced my first feature film, A Yellow Bird, which is about a man who has been released from prison. 

The idea of being the Other is something I explored in the film and is also a theme in the book.

Memorable lines from Mockingbird include what Scout's father lawyer Atticus Finch says: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." 

He also says: "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."


CHRIS LEE, 46

Founder and creative director of design agency Asylum

FACING THE OTHER WAY: THE STORY OF 4AD

By Martin Aston The Friday Project / Hardback/ 650 pages/ $37.08 (online price)/Bookdepository.com

British independent record label 4AD is the single most important entity that has shaped the last 25 years of my life. The beautiful covers of these records show me how design can be used to describe something as abstract as sound. I have always felt that I could hear the music just by looking at the packaging.

Through the record label, I became more visually aware of the things around me every day and sought to find beauty in the ordinary.

I read this book about the label, written by music journalist Martin Aston, in 2014. I was browsing in Rough Trade Records in London and I could not believe my eyes when I saw it. I had been waiting for a long time for someone to write this.

The label's enigmatic founder Ivo Watts-Russell inspires me. He had a vision and he made things happen. He is quoted in the book as saying "For a while, we participated in something pure and unique. Those records will vibrate long after I've ceased to do so."

Similarly, as a designer, I believe in building a legacy. I hope that what I do will be around long after I am gone. I also trust my intuition and gut, not focus groups.

The book also talks about Watts-Russell's battle with depression. Although the label became increasingly successful, he grew unhappy with the direction it was taking.

It came to a point where he just upped and left for the New Mexico desert and became a recluse.

His experiences have led me to constantly ask myself: "What is success? What is it that I want from my work and out of this life?"


XIAOHAN, 42

Lyricist and author

THE ALCHEMIST

By Paulo Coelho

HarperCollins/ Paperback/ 208 pages/ $14.40 (online price)/ Books Kinokuniya

I read it first around 1999 and it was after one of those discouraging days in the research laboratory. I was about three years into my PhD in virology and things were not going well. I was even contemplating giving up my postgraduate studies.

I was waiting for my then-fiance in Holland Village and got bored looking at furniture, so I went into a second-hand bookstore.

I saw a book titled The Alchemist, in the Fiction section. It stood out, as the rest of the books had words like "Love", "Lust", "Affair", "Kiss". It had long descriptions of Egypt, and desert storms, and crystals, all of which I was not that interested in back then. I was almost ready to close the book when a paragraph containing the following line came into sight:

"When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realise his dream."

It resonated strongly with me and at that time. I realised that my desire for success in my research topic was not strong enough and that was why the experiments did not work.

I went back to the laboratory and declared to my mentor that I was not interested in the topic I was given and asked if I could choose to do another. It was not easy for me for I was worried that I might offend him. But to my pleasant surprise, he gladly agreed.

And true enough, as I was interested in the new topic, everything went smoothly and we managed to publish a good paper in less than a year and I was even given the green light to start writing my thesis.

I've lost the paperback that I bought in Holland Village for $6. But I have a PDF version in my laptop and I read it whenever I need advice.

To some readers, The Alchemist is just a storybook but, to me, it is my personal self-help book.


ONG KENG SEN, 52

Artistic director of Theatreworks

SANDAKAN BROTHEL NO.8: JOURNEY INTO THE HISTORY OF LOWER-CLASS JAPANESE WOMEN

By Tomoko Yamazaki

Taylor & Francis Inc/Paperback/ 264 pages/ $63.51 (online price)/Bookdepository.com

I heard about this book when I was in New York doing my master's in 1995 and commissioned a classmate to help translate it from its original Japanese text to English.

The book, written by Tomoko Yamazaki, was officially translated in 1999 and traces the lives of Japanese prostitutes who were abducted and taken to North Borneo during the 1860s to the 1920s.

I remember reading this book for the first time with tears streaming down my face because the emotion expressed in it was so visceral and hit so close to home.

In it, Yamazaki expresses her own confusion while telling the stories of these women - often questioning whether she was invading their privacy or inadvertently perpetuating their abuse by recounting their stories.

The confusion and guilt she felt resonated with me deeply, given that the challenge of telling stories ethically and responsibly is at the heart of my work as an author and theatre practitioner.

It has been many years since I first read it, but I still thumb through the book occasionally and can still feel the emotion in her words.

It is a book that has left a mark on me and it continues to remind me of my own culpability when trying to tell a story. That struggle and thought process continue to influence the work I do and will always impact the way I work.

More Reading Special stories here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'A book that changed my life...'. Print Edition | Subscribe