RhymeAndReason - ALiterarySeries

A Nonya writes her way home

In all my years living in England, a little corner of my heart remained forever S'porean

People who go on extended holidays often say that it's good to get back home.

If, like me, you've been away from home for more than 30 years, nestled in the countryside of England, coming back to Singapore is both a delight and a shock. One definitely needs to readjust, to the inclement humidity and the constant whine of traffic. Singapore has become a different country, no longer made up of the sprawling rural areas of kampungs with attap houses that I knew.

I went in search of my family home in Potong Pasir and encountered a Housing Board estate, the kampung long gone. The mock-Tudor houses at the top of the hill which we used to call Atas Bukit, where the English families used to live, still exist, and they gave me a directional bearing of where my family home would have been. It is probably in the location of a bit of tarmac in a carpark now!

I do miss England's seasonal delights and vistas of open countryside. But I know I won't go back there to live. As our eminent songwriter Dick Lee says: This is home, truly!

No matter what one might say, or moan and groan about one's birth country, it is still intrinsically home. Some people have been known to say that those who stayed abroad are quitters.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Absolute rubbish! All the time I lived in England, I carried Singapore in my heart and blood. When I gave any literary talk or talked about my Peranakan heritage, cookery or Singapore, I would turn up in my sarong kebaya, complete with my kasut manek(Peranakan beaded slippers). Quite a challenge in winter! I had to wear body warmers underneath my voile kebaya and stockings underneath my sarong to keep my legs from turning blue.

I would be wrapped in a thick sheepskin coat with furry boots till I got to the venue, then I would slip unnoticed into the loo to divest myself of the winter garb and appear to the audience in my sarong kebaya and embroidered manek shoes, smiling as if I were warm as toast.

When you live in a predominantly white area, with the only Asians running the fish-and-chips shop, restaurant or newsagent, your identity becomes of prime importance. I had the feeling that though I could happily assimilate into the country, I needed to keep my own culture and heritage alive. Nobody reading my books can say I left Singapore behind, even though I was geographically a few thousand physical miles away.

Singapore is in all my major writings, both fiction and non-fiction. All the characters in my books are Singaporeans except for one Englishman in a story I wrote that was shortlisted for the United Kingdom's prestigious Ian St James Awards. But in the story, even the English character's late wife was Malay.

  • JOSEPHINE CHIA

    Peranakan Josephine Chia is proud of her heritage. She was born and grew up in Singapore, then went to live in the United Kingdom before returning home in 2012.

    She writes both fiction and non-fiction and has published nine books internationally. Her short stories are published in anthologies in the UK, United States, Malaysia and Singapore.

    Her book, Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life In Potong Pasir 1955 To 1965, won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for Non-Fiction.

    Josephine is a creative writing mentor for the National Arts Council's writing programmes.

    THREE NOTABLE WORKS

    Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong, Life In Potong Pasir 1955 To 1965

    Won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2014. The memoir was published by Marshall Cavendish Asia, in 2013.

    This collection of non-fiction stories is about Josephine's childhood, village and neighbours. The book charts an exciting decade of Singapore's social and political history.

    Frog Under A Coconut Shell

    Memoir. Published by Marshall Cavendish Asia. 2002, 2010

    Katak Dalam Tempurong

    Bahasa Indonesian translation of Frog Under A Coconut Shell

    Serambi Ilmu Semesta. Indonesia. 2014.

    Josephine's mother was herself uneducated but fought for Josephine to be educated. She sold nasi lemak to put Josephine through school. This book honours her and also charts her emotional decline into Alzheimer's.

    When A Flower Dies

    Novel. Published by Ethos Books. 2015

    This is Josephine's novel of love, loss and flowers. Pansy, a Peranakan woman, has to deal with the death of her beloved husband. Pansy's memories of him take us back to 1950s Singapore during the East Coast reclamation and how this affected her family.

    •For more information, visit www.josephinechia.com

I wrote a Singapore cookery book for readers in the UK, adjusting the recipes to use ingredients that can be found locally so that British residents can cook rendang, laksa and mee goreng in the days before Prima or other food manufacturers' ready-made sauces. The Singapore student population in UK knew me for my bottled sambal!

Home is not just a place. It is that warm something you carry in your heart.

Yes, it was a joy for me to live in England, to soak up the English literary heritage and to meet prominent UK writers, and to rub shoulders with the ghosts of literary greats.

I lived in the same village as Alfred Lord Tennyson in Haslemere, next door to Godalming where Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World; then became neighbours to Arthur Conan Doyle's spirit in Hindhead and George Bernard Shaw in Grayshott, and Jane Austen in Chawton.

In the last 10 years, I lived on the south coast in West Sussex, facing France, near the former homes of George Orwell, H. G. Wells, William Blake, Virginia Woolf and Rudyard Kipling, just to name a few. I travelled to visit the homes of George Eliot, Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Samuel Johnson and many others. As a then-aspiring writer, it was magical to be in a land where my heroes breathed and wrote.

As a child back in Singapore, I was lucky that my mother sold nasi lemak so that I could go to school, as education was not an option for kampung girls in my time. I was more than lucky to be taught literature in school which fired my imagination and made me want to be a writer.

I believe that good literature catches the pulse and soul of a nation and its people. Literature feeds the heart and expands one's consciousness, freeing one from societal constraints and limitations. I nursed my dream for years, believing it was preposterous for a kampung girl to aspire to be a writer. I was a closet writer until finally, at 30, I gathered enough courage to send my short story out to Singa, which was the literary journal of Singapore (now defunct). My stories were published by Singa in 1981, 1983 and 1984. But I still dared not call myself a writer.

My lucky break came when I was named one of the 12 winners of the UK Ian St James Awards in 1992. It injected a modicum of confidence in me. I was the only Asian among the 12 winners, and the first Singaporean. My story, Tropical Fever, was published in a leather-bound anthology called Blood, Sweat & Tears by Harper Collins UK. This opened the doors of the publishing world for me. My manuscripts were gradually being picked up and published.

I am 65 now. I know how hard and long the journey has been to become a writer. So even before I returned to Singapore to live, I offered my services as a Creative Writing workshop facilitator and mentor to the Ministry of Education's Creative Arts Programme, to nurture teenage would-be writers.

This is my passion now. Besides my own writing, I want to help other writers, as I had been helped by generous writers in the UK. I am also now a mentor in the National Arts Council's (NAC's) Mentor Access Programme for adult aspiring writers.

The arts and literary scene here has changed so much from when I first started writing. Now the ground is fertile for inchoate writers, ripe with literary possibilities. We need to nurture the love for stories and story-telling. Literature needs to be reinstated in the school curriculum. Without ardent readers, there won't be the hoped-for potential Booker Prize Winner writer.

Fortunately, the NAC, National Books Development Council of Singapore and the National Library Board are promoting reading, courses for writing, overseas exposure for local authors, and financial grants to help ease the monetary pressure for someone to write.

My book, Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life In Potong Pasir 1955 To 1965, was written with the help of NAC's Arts Creation Fund. The book went on to win the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for Non-Fiction.

For a nearly not-schooled kampung girl to win this prestigious prize is reflective not just of my ability but of the country's admirable policy of meritocracy. We do not have to be curtailed by our social circumstances or means. People like me who were brought up in colonial Singapore and in poverty-riddled villages blossomed in line with the success and prosperity of this nation.

We are eternally grateful and will always call this place, Home.

I am, indeed, Home. Truly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'A Nonya writes her way home'. Print Edition | Subscribe