Sunday, September 20, 2009

10 quick questions: Mark asks, Yu-Mei answers

1. Why did you take on a job as a researcher with the National Museum of Singapore project?

Because it was the most interesting job offer I had at the time. One of my friends calls me an 'accidental historian' as a result. It's a catchy label and the 'accidental' part is true, but I wouldn't call myself a historian. More a writer who appreciates history, a good story and a confluence of the two.

2. Why the sudden interest everywhere in Singapore history? Is it media-led or a genuine popular interest?

A lot of the current interest seems to be in the post-war period and Singapore's initial years of independence. A whole generation is getting nostalgic, I think – specifically, the generation that was told in the 1960s and 1970s that certain things had to go in the name of progress and development. Now that generation is reaching retirement age, maybe starting to think about their choices, their experiences and their legacy. There is a profound sense of loss in some quarters, or a feeling of urgency to claim or "reclaim" the recent past before all the actors pass away. Plus the fact that our physical landscape keeps changing – the recent accelerated developments in the Marina Bay area and Orchard Road, to say nothing of the constant "upgrading" of HDB estates – is a relentless reminder of how quickly and thoroughly things can be erased or replaced.

So some of the interest is in nostalgia, and some of it is in history. And this interest in digging up or rehabilitating the past has its spillover effects. I think more people now are curious about the past, where Singapore "came" from, and some want to question or hear alternatives to the official narrative. And on the official side, government money is flowing into museums and the "heritage" sector.

3. Of all the personalities featured in Singapore: A Biography who would you invite for dinner and why?
4. What would you talk about?

Oooh, tough one. Right off the bat I'd say Munshi Abdullah, who was Raffles's scribe. He was impressively multilingual – in Malay, Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and English – and very curious about what the colonials were bringing into his world. I imagine he'd be a sparkling raconteur and I'd love to buttonhole him and find out if he really thought the British were all that.

If I could have a second guest, I'd sneak in Constance Goh, the charismatic and tireless family planning pioneer from the post-war period. If she had the chutzpah in the 1950s to convince an English supplier to halve the price of contraceptives for her family planning clinics, I'm sure she'd waltz in to dinner with even more incredible stories. Also, I'd be very curious to hear her response to Singapore's population policies of today.

5. Singapore appears (to a non-Singaporean like me) to be a highly status-conscious place. What is your response to people who say 'Hey, you are not a PhD! How can you write my nation's history?'

I think there are different types of books that can be written about a nation's history. Singapore: A Biography tells one kind of story – reviving eyewitness accounts, piecing together interesting and complementary experiences, revealing some of the different faces of Singapore over the centuries. You could say I write for a reader such as myself: a non-specialist who's nonetheless curious about history and interested to unravel some of the complexities behind it.

6. Who would win in a historical smack-down between Yamashita and Lee Kuan Yew (and why)?

Yamashita would press Lee Kuan Yew into a corner, kiromoni sakuren-style, at which point Lee might seem outmatched, outgunned – but wait, the British referee calls a time-out, or rather, summarily dismisses from the ring those armies standing to the left of Yamashita. Now Yamashita is the one outnumbered, and Lee charges back with his party, pummelling Yamashita with a renewed, unfaltering one-two rhythm (the radio commentator seems to be on his side, too). Yamashita falls hard and loud. The round – and match – go to Lee.

7. One of our reviewers said we seemed to have a lot of fun writing this book. What was your favourite part?

I'm big on social history, so I liked writing about aspects of Singapore life that let me step away from the political and the economic, to take a peek at people's inner lives. Moments like recreating from James Warren's books the daily 19th-century routine of rickshaw coolies or karayuki-san (a euphemism for Japanese prostitutes), or looking at contending notions of education for girls in the early 20th century. I suppose you could say my favourite part is putting the people back into the history.

8. Imagine you had to pitch this book to a Hollywood executive.

It's a historical epic, retold Paris, Je T'aime-style, but with much more action-packed sequences. Imagine nine vignettes, with nine different directors, each dramatising the story of a particularly vivid eyewitness to Singapore's history. There's the magic realism of the 14th-century Sejarah Melayu world, the rough-and-tumble derring-do of the 19th-century port-city, the fierce frontline action of World War II and the sly political manoeuvrings of the post-war era. Our protagonists will run the gamut from swashbuckling colonials and intrepid pirates, to baby-faced soldiers and ingenious women from all levels of society. Nine surprising stories, and they all happen to take place on one small island called Singapore.

9. What are you going to do next?

I'm going to continue doing some travel writing, which is great for gaining some perspective on what's going on in Singapore, but from outside Singapore. I also have a couple of non-fiction and fiction ideas at the back of my head, which I'll need a bit of time to disentangle and prioritise.

10. Please explain your surname (family name).

My surname Balasingamchow (or, in its original formulation, Balasingam-Chow) combines names from my father's Sri Lankan heritage and my mother's Cantonese one. My parents, it appears, were prescient about what would be useful in the Internet age: a readily Google-able name.

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