Indian labourers, Japanese sex workers: Tales of Singapore's forgotten immigrants

A Japanese sex worker forms half the title of Wesley Leon Aroozoo's debut novel, The Punkhawala And The Prostitute. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS

SINGAPORE - The stories of Singapore's early immigrants are widely told, as any child here who has sat through a social studies class will attest.

But there are some figures who remain at the margins, or even absent, from that narrative. The Indian convicts, for example, transported here to serve out their sentences through hard labour. Or the karayuki-san, Japanese sex workers in late 19th-century Singapore - many of whom were trafficked.

"I was clueless that we once had Japanese prostitutes in Singapore," says film-maker Wesley Leon Aroozoo, 37, who chanced upon a mention of the karayuki-san in the history section of the library.

The more he read, the more he felt the need to write about them. "If I did not, they might eventually be forgotten over time."

A karayuki forms half the title of his debut novel, The Punkhawala And The Prostitute.

Oseki, 15, sails to 1870s Singapore for an arranged marriage, but winds up sold into prostitution. She crosses paths with Gobind, a deaf convict-turned-punkhawala - a servant who manually operates a punkha, or fan - whose British master is obsessed with hunting a man-eating tiger, Rimau Satan.

It was part of a bumper crop of debut novels from last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize shortlist which deal with the lesser-known stories of Singapore's early immigrants.

Others include Meihan Boey's historical fantasy The Formidable Miss Cassidy, which co-won the prize, and Kopi, Puffs And Dreams by Pallavi Gopinath Aney, which follows two immigrants from Kerala, India, in the 1900s.

Gopinath Aney, 41, a partner at law firm Allen & Overy, was born in Delhi and moved to Singapore for work when she was 25.

Her protagonists, Puthu and Krishnan, meet aboard a ship bound for Malaya, where they end up working on a colonial plantation. Krishnan, born into poverty, is content with his job as a cook, but Puthu - intelligent and good with figures - has greater ambitions.

After a disaster at the plantation, they open a restaurant in Singapore selling curry puffs and kopi (coffee), which becomes a success over the next two decades. Krishnan marries out of passion but comes to regret it, while Puthu ignores for years the betrothal he abandoned in Kerala.

Gopinath Aney, who juggles her legal career with writing on Sundays, found a fair amount of academic research on early South Asian immigrants to Singapore, but less in the fiction sphere.

Kopi, Puffs And Dreams by Pallavi Gopinath Aney follows two immigrants from Kerala, India, in the 1900s. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS

"I wanted to tell the story of their lives - what they had left behind, their ambition, the cost at which they succeeded and their loves and loss. I wasn't looking to create either heroes or victims, just to capture the city of hope and possibility that was Singapore in that era and what a melting pot it must have been."

She adds: "I think at the core of immigration, there remain the same hard truths, irrespective of the time period - a desire to put down roots, to surround yourself with friends like family, to eventually build a family and a life and to be accepted and assimilated."

Aroozoo, a Lasalle College of the Arts lecturer, seeks to shine a spotlight on immigrants whose stories may diverge from the national narrative of achieving better lives through resilience.

"There can be more diversity and empathy for those who either met with sadder circumstances or could not extricate themselves from their past," he says, adding that such stories still exist in the present.

"I wish to bridge this gap and acknowledge that there were exploited people with dark stories that are part of our history."

Another absence he seeks to highlight in his novel is that of the tigers of Singapore's forests. Once feared predators, they were wiped out by hunters by 1930.

Aroozoo started his novel in 2017 and did not plan for it to be published just before the Year of the Tiger.

"Perhaps this year, we can take a moment to remember the vibrant wildlife Singapore once had and be mindful to conserve what we have left, so that we don't lose more."

The Punkhawala And The Prostitute and Kopi, Puffs And Dreams (both $26.64) are available at Books Kinokuniya

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