Drawing from childhood memories

On a visit to Singapore, US-based product manager Ailian Gan was inspired to sketch and write about her years growing up in the country where she was born

When product manager Ailian Gan visited Singapore early last year - her first trip back to her birth country in three years - it sent her on a whirlwind trip down memory lane.

The 34-year-old, who has lived in the United States for a decade, says: "I started asking my father about my family's history and I was told so many fascinating stories. At the same time, Singapore was about to celebrate her 50th year of independence, Lee Kuan Yew had recently passed away and I was about to become a permanent resident in the US.

"I found myself fascinated by history, memory and nostalgia. I wanted to tell my Singaporean story."

And tell it she did. Every day, for 100 days, she would sketch out and write about a childhood memory from her years growing up in Singapore.

Ms Gan, now a US permanent resident working at tech start-up BloomReach, uploaded these charming mini-stories - from making bak zhang (rice dumplings) at home to playing zero point and five stones - on Facebook and Instagram.

Now, she is compiling them into a hardcover book, titled 100 Days Of Childhood Memories, and has taken to Kickstarter so those interested can support the book and get copies of their own.

"Because it's my - and my family's - memories, I care a lot about how I wanted the book to look and feel, so self-publishing is the right path for me," she says. "I can tell you that self-publishing is no walk in the park. At this point, getting the book published has been more work than creating the original 100 days."

She launched her Kickstarter project on Sept 20 and hit the $1,000 target that she set in a day. With just days left to go till the end date on Tuesday, the amount pledged has climbed past $2,500.

A project listed on Kickstarter can go ahead once the target pledge amount set by the project starter is met. Each of Ms Gan's backers will receive a hardcover copy of the compilation.

Pledges start from an early bird price of $20 for just the book - but those contributing more can expect extra rewards. Those contributing $130 or more, for example, get a drawing based on photographs they send her. One wanted a drawing as a gift for her mother, who is battling cancer.

Ms Gan says: "I felt incredibly honoured to be asked to do that. I also get excited when I hear that the project has inspired people to call their parents or start creative projects of their own.

"A friend shared my project with her father, who was inspired to start drawing again. He has been making one drawing a week of some historical memory of Singapore and he annotates them with explanations."

Her childhood was spent mostly in Singapore, except for the three years her family lived in New Jersey because of her father's job.

After finishing junior college here, she moved to the US to study economics and public policy at Duke University.

She worked in Singapore for a year after graduating and, in 2006, moved back to the US. She has lived in New York, Philadelphia and now, the San Francisco Bay Area.

"I don't know whether the project made me miss Singapore more, but the experience made me feel more Singaporean. It made me feel more connected to home, to the people and places I come from," she says.

"As a Singaporean living abroad, when we talk to non-Singaporeans, our country often gets abstracted into things such as 'clean and green city' or 'great food' or 'is it true you can't have chewing gum?'."

"It was gratifying to tell my personal stories, especially stories about my family, and tell myself that this is my Singaporean story."

One of her memories, titled Climb, is about a rocky staircase at the end of Leicester Road, the street she grew up on in Potong Pasir. These were the steps Ms Gan used to clamber up to get to kindergarten and her cousins would climb to get to Saint Andrew's School.

"And, my father and uncles took the same stairs to get to St Andrew's as well," she says.

"So you could say this rickety staircase has been a part of my family's education across generations. But because it was so plain and the walk to school was so routine, no one bothered to take a photograph of it."

Over the decades, the old bungalow houses in Leicester Road were torn down, with gleaming condominiums taking their places.

Ms Gan had assumed the staircase too would be a distant memory - until she dropped by Leicester Road late last year.

"The street feels different now that it's all condos. But, at the very end of the street, sandwiched between a concrete wall on the bottom and an old fence on top, that staircase is still there," she says.

"Wow. I write about this staircase story in the epilogue of my book and I describe the feeling of seeing that staircase as 'like travelling through history and getting to go home again'."

When she wanted to clarify certain memories, she would call or WhatsApp her father in Singapore, who would reveal tidbits of family lore she had never heard before: that he lived in a shophouse when he was young or that her grandfather, who moved from China to Singapore, was one of the authors of the Gan Clan Association's original constitution.

One of her favourite discoveries, she recounts with glee, had to do with a memory she shared on Day 100.

Her father would recount how his primary school teacher - war heroine Elizabeth Choy - would make skinny students like him drink milk. Gan had always imagined him gulping down milk from a packet.

"I was wrong. When I asked my father for details, he said it was 'a small tin cup of milk scooped up from a pail'," she says. "Historical fact that was better than my fiction."

In her day job, Ms Gan, who is in a relationship, constantly runs from one meeting to the next and makes decisions on technical problems, so working on this project was a welcome chance to "shift from a heavily analytical mode to an artistic mode".

"I think the trick to a great side project is to find something that you really love and just want to have exist. This thing is not going to make me rich or famous," she says.

"All it is, is this great expression of love. Love for these memories, love for my family and love for where I come from."

•Go to kickstarter.com/projects/ailian/100-days-of-childhood-memories-the-book to support the book.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline Drawing from childhood memories. Subscribe