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Tiger, tiger, burning bright

Singapore's social work doyenne Ann Wee, who was born in the Year of the Tiger, looks back on 66 years of life here in her debut book

A TIGER REMEMBERS: THE WAY WE WERE IN SINGAPORE

By Ann Wee

Ridge Books Singapore, paperback/130 pages/ $18 a copy with GST or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 959.5705 WEE

When English social anthropologist Ann Wilcox stopped over in Penang en route to Singapore in May 1950, friends of her Singaporean husband-to-be, Harry Lee Wee, offered her leong fun, a cooling drink with squiggles of black grass jelly floating about in it.

"I thought they were tadpoles, I was worried! But I will try anything," recalls Wee, 90, in an interview at her Nassim Hill apartment.

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS


  • 1 What values from bygone Singapore should everyone live by in future?

    2 How should you behave if you want to be effective and respected?

    3 What are the best ways to learn about, and from, other cultures?

    4 How perilous might it be to be ignorant or, worse, incurious, about others?

    5 What are the roots of villages and clan associations here?

There were more cultural shocks to come. When she showed her prospective mother-in-law, who was Peranakan, the lovely pale blue linen suit she planned to be married in, the latter exclaimed: "Oh, no, pale blue is for mourning."

After the wedding, Wee decided to pierce her ears so she could wear her many wedding gifts of earrings. But her father-in-law, a doctor, declined to do the piercing, saying "doctors make a mess" of such things.

Which was why she wound up on a kerb in Arab Street, where a jeweller there rubbed her earlobes with ginger.

"It was the upper end of Arab Street, where no visitors went. Seeing a little ang moh sitting there having her ears pierced really was street theatre."

As she recalls in her witty, sharply written and winning memoir, A Tiger Remembers, in those days, diamonds were not only a girl's best friend, but also a measure of her social worth, and so anyone content with costume jewellery - such as women in Britain - was frowned on for "a wild waste of money".

After such hiccups, she drank deep of society here as a pioneering social worker, helping the needy in the slums of Chinatown - including once finding shelter for a woman in bloodied clothes. By 1970, she was advising the Juvenile Court on how best to protect children in danger.

She has captured acutely all her observations of bygone Singapore "that are not in the history books" in 17 short, handy chapters.

In scope and feel, her recollections are as evocative as those in Singaporean Ruth Ho's 1975 book, Rainbow Round My Shoulder.

Wee, an alumna of the London School of Economics, notes that, as her late professor Raymond Firth advised, "theories die, but good descriptions of social lives remain valuable".


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. Ann Wee has, with her debut book at the age of 90, plugged a big gap in historical accounts of Singapore by giving readers insights into how fraught yet inclusive communities here were after World War II and before Singapore achieved First World status. Hers is a world in which Hindu families rejoiced at welcoming a Chinese baby into their fold as the baby had no caste; where 42 per cent of those eligible for marriage were men, as they struggled to save enough to settle down; and where villages were built around dialect groups.

  • Meet a tiger on Dec 28

  • Nonagenarian Ann Wee, the doyenne of social work education here, will grace The Big Read Meet from 6.30pm on Dec 28 in The Possibility Room, Level 5 National Library Board headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Wee was born in 1926, the Year of the Fire Tiger in the Chinese zodiac. Born Ann Wilcox in the tiny English town of Corbridge, she is now a Singaporean and has lived here for the past 66 years.

    She will be with senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to take readers' questions on her first book, A Tiger Remembers: The Way We Were In Singapore.

    Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary2/e/the-big-read-meet-38655257

2. She has written this book with pre-university students in mind, but it is really required reading for anyone who is keen to learn about the social faultlines in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1980s and why the nation is such an economic, social and political miracle.

3. Besides providing a bibliography for those keen on delving deeper into seminal sociology and social work studies, she sometimes flags in her narrative recommended reads in her discipline, which makes this memoir a useful sourcebook for anyone examining the Singapore angle on the subject.

THE BAD

1. Wee says her publishers advised her to make her writing style "lightweight" so her book would appeal to even the busiest reader, and that she would achieve that by including vignettes from her private life. But as her natural style is unalloyed and scholarly, the melding of her professional and personal views is often schizophrenic for readers. For instance, see the contrast in the writing styles in these two excerpts.

The first is more academic: "Confucian restraint in love and affection in family life has often been interpreted by casual Western observers as a sign of coldness... Adherence to (Westerners' hugging) model (of body contact) in seeking to understand Chinese family life can mean that one may miss the indicators of caring and warmth well understood within Chinese culture."

The second is more chatty: "For me, a quarter cup (of strong tea) topped up with water became marginally drinkable... My daily trips round to the kettle were always accompanied by jeers at my lily-livered failure to appreciate the good things of life."

THE IFFY

1. Those new to Wee's many indelible contributions may find her use of the phrase "lumpen proletariat" perplexing for one whose life's work was among the downtrodden in society, and her remarks on the body odour and bitchiness of working-class folk are just as off-key, as they suggest that she considered herself above their station.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Tiger, tiger, burning bright'. Print Edition | Subscribe