About heartbreak, grief and finding love

The author of Singapore's longest-running personal column shares what it's been like writing those articles for 22 years. Seventy-four of them have been compiled in a new book, now out in stores.

When I started writing a personal column back in 1994, blogging didn't exist, Facebook didn't exist, and neither did Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.

Over 22 years, I used the privilege of the space given to me in The Sunday Times to write about the preoccupations of an ordinary life.

In my case, the life of an unmarried working woman in Singapore at the turn of the 21st century - that is, until I got married at the late age of 46 in 2010 and started talking about married life.

Every other Sunday - give or take Sundays in December when I took a break - I'd write about things like relationships, friendships, career, family and my dogs.

These are the commonplace things of life, but I'd hoped that there was a larger meaning to these personal musings.

By sharing my experiences, I was also reflecting what some other women were going through in their lives, and just as I would come to a resolution about these issues, so might they by reading me - or at least that was my hope.

And so when I was in my 30s, I wrote quite a bit about the tension between being happy that I was single, footloose and fancy-free, and sad at not being special enough for someone to want to marry me.

  • Meet the author

    Sundays With Sumiko by Straits Times Press is available for $29.96 at all leading bookstores.

    There is a meet-the-author session with Sumiko Tan today at 4pm at Popular Bookstore in Nex mall, Serangoon Central.

    Two other sessions will be held on July 28 and Aug 26 at the National Library and Kinokuniya Main Store, Ngee Ann City, respectively.

Many of my pieces were preoccupied with my relationship status because, as a woman in my 30s, I was preoccupied with that.

But there were more practical experiences, too, like what I'd learnt about looking after stroke patients after my father suffered from it, coming to terms with technology that was invading our lives, and what it was like to undergo Lasik in my 40s.

Over the years, I've had my share of people who liked what I wrote. To these readers, thank you.

I've kept most of the snail mail and many of the e-mails I've received from readers.

Like my columns, they capture a certain slice of time.

Among them is a telefax message from a reader on March 31, 1998, who said she enjoyed a piece I did on exercise videotapes.

"Trouble is, ever since reading your article, I have been trying most unsuccessfully to find out where I could buy these tapes, especially the one called Callanetics!" she wrote.

In 1997, a postcard arrived from Beijing. Dated April 16, the reader said he had read my article on being 33 and feeling 17. "It reminded me also of a Bryan Adam's song, 18 Till I Die," he said. "I'm in the same shoes, sharing the same sentiments too."

When I wrote about my first mobile phone in 1998, a Motorola GSM1800 StarTAC 70, the then market development manager of Motorola Singapore wrote to say he'd enjoyed the piece and "thank you for making an excellent choice for your first cellular phone".

He enclosed some "non-returnable marketing samples" - an NiMH StarTac battery and a charger base "for your convenience to have longer talk-time and easy charging".

Over the years, snail mail turned to e-mail, and many of the readers' letters made my day, like one on Jan 20, 2013.

"I have been an avid reader of your column over the past five years," the reader said.

"From reading about your woes in singleness to being married to H, travelling, minor operation for your eye due to contact lenses, your dogs, dieting and even sharing about your craving and love for cornflake cookies (I love that too! and I bake my own cranberry cornflake cookies to sell for CNY...)

"I love the way you write and express yourself and your life. Somehow, I find myself identifying with you in many ways! Or perhaps, what you write sometimes seem to echo my current life!''

I'll always treasure these mail.

I've also had what in today's parlance are known as "haters", who slammed me for writing about what they saw as inane topics and being self-absorbed (but it is a personal column after all?)

I'm often asked if I'm bothered by my critics. My answer is that it comes with the territory of being in a job that puts your name out there. And if you've written for as many years as I have, you're bound to find some people who don't like you.

As a journalist, as in life, you take the good with the bad.

Another question I get a lot of is what my family feels about the columns. Over the years, my parents, niece and nephew have been grist for my column, and in the last seven years, my husband too.

I suppose they don't mind too much because no one has strenuously made a case not to be featured.

Over 22 years, I have written more than 400 columns. Seventy-four have been chosen for this book with help from the book's editor, Janice Heng.

We divided them into three periods - the Nineties, Noughties and Now. They were selected based on how popular they were at the time, and how meaningful they were to me.

In the years since I began writing, social media has become the norm and we now live in a world awash in self-absorption.

Never before have people documented their lives as we do now, and anyone can do so on Facebook, blogs, forums, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest.

Is there still a role for the personal column in this Facebook-driven world of short attention spans where everyone is a chronicler of his own life?

I like to think there is.

A personal column is more than stream of consciousness musings. You need an idea, an emotion, a desire to convey something, all fitted into a structure that has a beginning, middle and end.

Like a well-told short story, a well-crafted column has the ability to make you laugh, cry, nod your head in agreement, and break your heart,

Of the 74 columns in the book, I hope a few have achieved that.

Here are excerpts from some.

Twitter @STsumikotan



1. Singlehood was one of the themes I found myself returning to over the years. This was one of the early ones:



Sumiko Tan with her parents and elder sister in a picture taken in 1966. Over the years, her family, such as her parents and niece and nephew, have been grist for her column.

Driving along Grange Road towards Ngee Ann City one day, my heart hiccupped.

On the other side of the road was a car which bore the licence plate of a former boyfriend. But the vehicle whizzed by too fast for me to see if it was indeed him inside.

Although that relationship ended on a bad note (he jilted me) many, many moons ago when I was barely 21, leaving me tear-soaked and seeped with sadness for a long, long time, the sighting brought back a rush of memories, which were mostly bitter. Luckily, I soon reached the shopping mall. It's wonderful how bright lights and the prospect of spending money can cheer one up.

What a low-life that guy was and what a lucky escape I had had, I told myself, zapping him from my mind as I entered the On Pedder shop where an enticing array of open-toed sandals awaited me.

Love. Can it really be eternal?

The poet Robert Graves describes love as "a universal migraine", "a bright stain on the vision/blotting out reason".

If that were so, I must by now be quite blind and without reason, for I have been in love not a few times.

It is, after all, a thrilling sensation, with all the cliches about it ringing true.

When you're in love, you see the world with new eyes.

Everything feels almost unbearably light, and life can never be more right. Everyday concerns - the mortgage, job insecurities, family problems - seem so irrelevant.

What matters is being with the object of your affection - that hot rush of anticipation as you wait for him, the warmth that engulfs you when you are finally together, the smugness in knowing you are loved.

Can there be a nicer feeling than that?

2. Another column on singlehood:



Whenever we went downhill, he would have to adjust himself and would slide down the seat. I could feel the gap between his body and mine - an emptiness, almost, a sort of loss - and I'd make a desperate grab for his waist. Then when the road levelled up, he would inch himself back up the seat and I could feel his body again. I felt safe once more.''

SUMIKO TAN, on how she realised she could trust her life to her future husband.


Being single allows you to be selfish. But if this is a selfishness that is not mean or harmful to others, then it is a delicious sensation. But it is this precise lack of commitment to someone else that brings on an occasional twitch of dissatisfaction. Being single, there is a lack of a centre in my life, an absence of a solid goal to work towards.''

SUMIKO TAN, in a 1999 column on singlehood.

Thirty-five is the age single women start becoming preoccupied - well, those with time on their hands, anyway - with their impending old-maid status.

After all, the period between 35 and 40 must surely be their last window for marriage. Once you hit the Big Four O, chances of finding a mate are well-nigh zero and you had better accept that as your fate and make the best of it.

Is being single really that bad? Stereotypes would certainly imply so, and there are two common myths about "old maids".

The first is the Pathetic Spinster, so brilliantly captured in Anita Brookner's books.

The Pathetic Spinster is bony, pale, delicate and neat. She has scrupulous ways and an old-fashioned, virginal air. She toils away in a boring job, returning home to tend to ageing parents or to an empty nest. She is to be pitied.

The Bitter Spinster, on the other hand, doesn't wear her singlehood on her sleeve. She bristles at suggestions that she would be better off married (who needs men?) and makes a big show of how full her single life is. But we all know that in her heart, she's as bitter as a lemon. She is to be avoided.

Spinsters, these stereotypes go, are unhappy because they are unmarried and hence unloved. But how accurate are these portraits?...

There are many pros to being single, and I have not reached the stage when I would exchange them wholeheartedly for a ring on my finger. When it comes to the crunch, I'm afraid I have not dared to take the plunge.

The chief advantage is freedom. Even if you are committed to someone, you aren't legally bound to him until you are married.

You are still a unit unto yourself, beholden to no one else. You don't have to share your possessions if you don't want to; you don't have to consult another person on how to spend your time; you don't have to compromise if you are not so inclined; you don't have to put up with in-laws or family gatherings. You can mind your own business.

Put differently, being single allows you to be selfish. But if this is a selfishness that is not mean or harmful to others, then it is a delicious sensation.

But it is this precise lack of commitment to someone else that brings on an occasional twitch of dissatisfaction.

Being single, there is a lack of a centre in my life, an absence of a solid goal to work towards.

Just as you don't allow yourself to be accountable to anyone, no one is answerable to you. There is a sense that you don't really matter, and that were you to disappear, no one would mourn for you because you had not been generous enough to give yourself to him.


3. I had a conflicted relationship with my dad. I loved him but was also often angry and exasperated with him and I felt guilty about that. But his last few years with us were good, even though he was ill. Writing the columns and then re-reading them for this book helped me resolve those issues.


My father is dead.

It happened on April 25 at 10.25pm. He was 70 and had been ill for six years.

It's been 12 days and I'm all right, mostly. But sometimes, the loss hits me and I am awash with what I call my Sunday dusk feeling.

I used to get it only on Sundays, during the 10 minutes or so before daylight fades and households turn on their lights, when the world is at peace and quite beautiful, really.

The sky is streaked with yellow and pink, a slight breeze blows, birds are flying home and silhouettes are forming around me. The neighbourhood settles down, kids are hauled inside and the smell of dinner wafts through the air.

I've always hated this period. It never fails to bring on an ache, to make me feel anxious. Even when I'm not alone, I've to fight the dread that dusks on Sundays bring. I'll exercise or watch TV, any activity that generates noise. But I can't escape the cloak of loneliness that comes looking for me.

It's strange how I never got this sensation on other days.

Perhaps, for me, Sundays signify not the start of a new week but the end of one, and with that, the unsettling sense of so many tasks left undone.

Now that my father is gone, I get this feeling so often. Mostly, it is filled with regrets. Regrets for him, for the moments of sadness in his life, and regrets for myself, for not having been a better daughter.

I try to shake out of this gloom by rationalising that we all must die and, being older, my father would naturally die first. Everyone's father will one day die, so why make such a fuss about mine? Why inflict his death on others by writing a column about it?

But his last years did teach me some lessons about life - and death - and so I thought it appropriate to dwell on them, if you could bear with me.


4. This became known as my prawn-peeling column and one of the columns that got me a lot of mail. Women liked it - men, not so much.


"I'm so tired of Singapore women," a male friend lamented the other day.

"Why can't they stop arguing? And must they always ask so many questions?"

The way he sees it, Singapore women - especially those who are well educated - have become "hard".

They should learn to be more feminine, more accommodating and, yes, less career-driven, he said. If they are career-minded, they should choose mates who are not, so that the men can play house-husbands. But then, career women obviously don't want losers.

"Two highly stressed spouses can't add up to a peaceful home, with children well brought up," he said.

My friend is a Singaporean in his early 50s. Although he has had his fair share of girlfriends - mostly Singaporean - he has never married.

Recently, he began dating women from China. Clearly, they have made a big, and positive, impression on him.

One, in particular, is not only young, but also "stunning", gentle-mannered and plays a mean guzheng.

She can not only read the Chinese calligraphy scrolls in his apartment, but also provide the context and stories behind the poems, whereas we Singapore girls burst into giggles trying to decipher the scrawls. And she's not a university graduate.

Women from Malaysia, especially those from Sabah and Sarawak, my friend observed, also out-score Singapore women in the feminine/gentleness stakes.

They are also content to be housewives, tending to the kids while their Singaporean husbands work. And when the men come home, these women will not bombard them with 101 questions about their day.

He is not the only Singapore male to make this observation.

Recently, Xiewen, who writes the fortnightly He*Mail column in Life!, spoke of "very attractive Malaysian girls" who would "hold their partners' arms over dinner and feed them. And look so totally contented".

He also related how a friend had this to say of Singapore and Chinese women: "Singapore women are no match for their Chinese counterparts because the latter know how to be feminine without being fawningly subservient, do take care of their male friends' feelings and are not out to put them down as if they need to prove something.

"A Chinese girlfriend will, without asking, peel prawns for you at dinner without even being self-conscious about it. She will not regard it as lowering herself, or pandering to the male chauvinist ego."

And, these men insist, these foreign women are not putting on an act to entrap Singapore men for their money.

The columnist spoke of attractive, financially independent, professional Malaysian, Filipino and Japanese women who know how to pamper their Singaporean male friends.

The column triggered a response from a Singapore male reader who wrote in to Life! complaining about how "local women don't cut it".

He even gave his rating of women in Asia: "Malaysian gals are friendly and down-to-earth. Thai gals have grace and are charming and caring. Filipino gals have talent and are devoted. Indonesian gals are also charming and musically talented. Japanese gals have grace and spunk. Vietnamese gals are also graceful and devoted.

"And Singapore gals? Only look good on the outside because they'd use a tonne of makeup which gets washed off in the rain."

Well, well, well.


5. By the time I was 46, I was reconciled to being single for life - and then I unexpectedly got married. This piece wasn't actually in The Sunday Times but appeared in Life on a Friday.

LOVE @ 130KMH JUNE 25, 2010

He started the engine and we got going.

I didn't dare look up. It was hard to, anyway. The helmet was clamped tight on my face. My cheeks were bunched up like a chipmunk's. I didn't feel particularly attractive.

He went a bit faster.

I squeezed my eyes shut and kept my head low. I could feel the cold eating into my legs. I should have worn thicker tights, I thought.

It was early spring in Wales and still very chilly. The wind forced its way into the sliver of space I'd left open in my helmet. I couldn't breathe otherwise. I'd never realised how claustrophobic it'd feel under a helmet.

I wrapped my arms more tightly around his waist but my fingers - clumsy in thick gloves - couldn't grab him properly.

The minutes passed.

I opened first one eye, then the other, and lifted my head a bit. I peeped to my left and right.

A quarter of an hour went by. I was now sitting straight up on the motorbike and turning my head coolly.

Cars were whizzing past us on the right. Hedges and stone walls loomed dangerously close on the left. But I wasn't scared, not really.

When we reached a bend, our bodies swayed with the machine and dipped low near the tarmac.

I looked at the speedometer. It was inching past 100kmh to 110, 120. I pressed my body closer to his and wrapped my thighs more tightly around him.

Then I noticed something happening. Whenever we went downhill, he would have to adjust himself and would slide down the seat. I could feel the gap between his body and mine - an emptiness, almost, a sort of loss - and I'd make a desperate grab for his waist.

Then when the road levelled up, he would inch himself back up the seat and I could feel his body again. I felt safe once more.

And it was at that point that I realised that, yes, if I could trust my life to him as we zipped up and down the motorways and country roads of Wales on his scary-looking 1,000cc bike, I could trust my life to him.

And so, dear reader, I am doing it at last. Getting, er, married. At the grand old age of 46. Next month. To Hurricane, my crush from junior college with whom I reconnected after 29 years.

Correction note: This story has been edited to provide the correct date for the Meet-the-author session at Kinokuniya Main Store, Ngee Ann City, which will be on Aug 26. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'About heartbreak, grief and finding love'. Print Edition | Subscribe