Public can stream National Archives' oral interviews from own computers

Oral history specialist Denise Ng (right) interviewing Mr Ronnie Poon Beng Choon, Singapore Press Holdings' vice-president, commercial sales, and English editor of racing publication Victory Trail. He was being interviewed on the history of print med
Oral history specialist Denise Ng (right) interviewing Mr Ronnie Poon Beng Choon, Singapore Press Holdings' vice-president, commercial sales, and English editor of racing publication Victory Trail. He was being interviewed on the history of print media in Singapore.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Performing at fairs across Singapore, the late glove puppeteer Lee Chye Ee was much sought after for his craft in the 1960s and 70s.

The public will soon be able to hear the life story of Mr Lee - who died in 1991 - in his own words. This is made possible by a revamped online portal to be launched by the National Archives of Singapore's (NAS) Oral History Centre in the coming months.

For the first time in three decades, users will be able to stream more than 3,000 oral history interviews via the portal, instead of having to make a trip down to the NAS' reading room at Canning Rise.

These clips will be uploaded in phases over the next two years. The revamped portal is part of the NAS' "overall efforts" to make its collections more accessible to the public. Researchers and history students are expected to be heavy users of the portal.

Its other collections include public records, audio-visual recordings, maps, building plans and photographs.

NAS has been collecting oral history interviews since 1979. Some 20,000 hours of recordings have been amassed so far, covering subjects such as the Japanese occupation, vanishing trades, political history and the medical sector.

The centre's deputy director, Ms Julia Chee, said she hopes the revamp will foster greater interest in Singapore's oral heritage and "encourage more people to capture their personal and community memories".

"We want to make it easier for more people to discover interesting and intimate accounts of Singapore's past through the personal stories collected by the Oral History Centre," said Ms Chee.

The portal will also come with enhanced search options such as voice-to-text technology that scans audio clips for keywords, and a time-stamping feature that will guide users to relevant segments of the clip.

The presentation of information has also been improved, and users will be able to view the synopsis, interview details and transcript of each clip from a single window.

The portal is being developed in-house by staff of the Oral History Centre, together with the National Library Board's (NLB) technology team. NAS is part of NLB.

Researchers who have tested its prototype welcome the changes.

"It has been a long time coming. Students and historians doing papers on Singapore's history will now have an easier time accessing the archives from different parts of the world," said writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, 39, who is working on a book on Capitol Theatre, which was gazetted for conservation in 2007.

"The new search functions also mean that we no longer have to plough through reels of interviews to get the details to paint a portrait of a person who has passed away or a place that has been demolished," she said.

The centre will be making improvements to the portal, pending feedback from a survey it is now conducting, said Ms Chee.

She added that the oral history database is also increasingly being tapped by the public sector and creative industries for various heritage projects, such as video documentaries of a company's history, for instance.

The Singapore Heritage Society said it welcomes any attempts "to make empirical information available to researchers and the public".

"We hope that such an exercise to improve accessibility can be extended to the remaining collections housed in the archives," said its honorary secretary, Dr Yeo Kang Shua.

The revamped portal has already earned a fan. Retiree Yeo Hock Yew, 65, a heritage enthusiast who has tried out the portal's prototype, said tuning in to some of the audio clips helped rekindle his memories of growing up in Queenstown.

"The clip I listened to stirred a lot of memories. DJ Brian Richmond, also a Queenstown resident, shared about his life in the neighbourhood, and I found that his story had many links to mine, such as the same sarabat tea stall at Strathmore Avenue that we both frequented."


THESE are some of the audio clips the public will be able to listen to when the revamped portal of the National Archives of Singapore's Oral History Centre is launched in the coming months. The portal will be accessible on

  • Mary Hee, midwife

Midwife Mary Hee was born in 1937. She worked at Kandang Kerbau Hospital from 1961 to 1999. She played an active role in educating mothers on domiciliary care and family planning. The Oral History Centre conducted the interview in 1999 as part of its project on medical services in Singapore:

"My first delivery was near Tampines. The patient was very poor... It was an attap house, a zinc house, but no cement on it... Just an oil lamp, it was so dark, you can't even see anything clearly... I delivered the patient in the night.

"Then, in the morning... I found centipedes on the nappies. I told the mother, I said, 'Please keep your things clean, otherwise your baby will be bitten to death'."

  • Chan Cheng Yean, Sook Ching massacre survivor

Sook Ching massacre survivor Chan Cheng Yean was born in 1918 in Malacca.

He joined Malacca's Volunteer Corps in 1936, and was sent to Singapore to help defend the island in December 1941.

The interview of the late Mr Chan was conducted in 1983 as part of the centre's project on the Japanese occupation in Singapore:

"There were 90 of us, and they divided us into three trenches. We were tied, our hands behind the backs… They pushed us down to the trench and they asked us to stand... The order came, and then they just shoot… I was hit on my knee. So, when the first man dropped dead, I followed him. I just fell in on the top.

"Then, the third man covered me on the top again. I controlled my breath, I did not make any movement of body so that there was no sign of anyone alive… I heard the footsteps (of soldiers) moving away, further and further, further and further."

  • Lee Chye Ee, puppeteer

Glove puppeteer Lee Chye Ee was born in 1919 in China. Mr Lee started out as an apprentice to a puppet master in China at the age of 14.

He came to Singapore in 1947, and performed during festivals at fairs and Taoist rituals.

He was adept at playing many musical instruments, and was highly sought after during the heyday of his art form. Mr Lee died in 1991.

His interview, which was conducted in 1988, is part of the centre's project on vanishing trades.

Here, he shares some of the challenging aspects of glove puppetry: "If the script was about a group of people who could walk on the roof and walk up walls, then the puppets had to jump from the ground to the top of the roof. We had to make the performance look good."