Thicker than water

Book review, from Singapore – Sharon Ismail’s What Sallamah Didn’t Know (2007) tells the heartwarming story of a girl growing up in a kampung (Malay for village) with the people she knew as her family, but later finds out that some things are not what they seem. Painting scenes of life in Singapore from a bygone era vivid in largely monotone palettes, Khairudin Saharom places his illustrations at a comfortable yet accessible distance, rousing both nostalgia and imagination.

The story begins in the night. A sleepy newborn girl bundled in white cloth is given away to a Malay family. We are told that other families in the village had seen this before, and that the receiving family would magically have a new member the next morning.

This new member is named Sallamah.

Sallamah grows up with her siblings in a Malay family. She has a kind elder sister, Muna, who always looks out for her, and a mischievous elder brother Dollah who always picks on her.

At the age of twelve, Singaporeans get their identity cards, or ICs. As a child, I remember this year of my life well – preparing for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), a centralized entrance exam for entry into secondary education, that big BCG vaccination needle, finally seeing the last of someone in class, having to part with best friends, and the customary rite of getting my IC, my official photo ID with information based on my birth certificate.

For Sallamah, this rite of passage throws her into confusion – she receives the card of a Chinese girl with an unfamiliar address. Dazed and lost, she stumbles into a game of marbles that Dollah was on the verge of winning, and he says something that strikes deep into her heart. Unable to sleep that night, she overhears her parents talk about not telling the children know.

She turns to her elder sister, who reveals her memories of that night many years ago. Sallamah then realizes that her siblings, and some other children around her, did not really look like their parents either. What she knew and saw was that they lived together, played together, fought with each other, laughed and cried, like children, like family.

Touched by this simple truth that draws on the joys of having family and family life, Sallamah’s story also reminded me that we do not need blood ties to share such moments together.

Adults choose who to marry, to become family. Blood ties are created with offspring. Those lineages continue with children bringing together two formerly separate families, but children have neither the choice of which family to grow up in or of who to have as siblings or parents. That is where, I believe, lies the roots of parents’ responsibility to their children, and how they fulfill that is a journey the family takes together. Simply taking the blood out from the equation does not change it; blood ties are not essential, it is, essentially, a choice.

For Sallamah, her Chinese birth parents chose to give her away, because they had too many mouths to feed, and she was a girl, after all. Because they found this kind Malay couple in a far-off village, Sallamah was able to grow up in the shelter and guidance of her loving parents, the comfort and company of a gentle elder sister, and a place among bickering siblings, the only family she ever knew.

In relation to adoption, in Japan, I hear of a movement to help working parents look out for children, to build a caring community to help nurture the country’s next generation while parents work. The idea is comforting but also worrying because of the inkling that it might fester misguided thoughts of letting parents stay at work and leaving their children to others in the community. Perhaps what it does is to propose an actual, proper safety net, one that Kore-eda’s Shoplifters seemed to promise, but a public movement telling people to do so would have raised some alarm bells. It certainly made me think of social pressure, norms and morals.

Sallamah also prompted thought of how I spend time with my closest and dearest in my busy life. It paints the home as a safe harbour to return to, for company, sympathy, relaxation and a good recharge after a long day’s toils. For this working parent, this is a seemingly insurmountable goal , and at the moment more of an occasional, fleeting hurrah than any hint of a permanent sanctuary. Home is proving to be a marathon, an extended work-in-progress that might just be its own end product some day.

Littered with snippets of Singapore’s past that still ring relevant today, Sallamah has also started filling a gaping gap of images of old Singapore in a growing collection. Surely, their place on my shelves will grow, hopefully as quickly as the country’s urban landscape changes.


Title: What Sallamah Didn’t Know
by Sharon Ismail, with illustrations by Khairudin Saharom
Publisher: Candid Kids, 2007
Malay, simplified Chinese, and Tamil language editions launched 2015 under the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.

(I had the pleasure of hearing Sharon Ismail speak at AFCC 2018 about writing for multicultural readers, where she mentioned this book and the myth of blood being thicker than water, which led to the title of this post. This review is based on a reading of the Chinese edition of the book.)

Summer past – Ninja special exhibit

Event, Tokyo – The Japanese summer didn’t stop my team from trekking almost 20 minutes under the scorching sun to Miraikan, National Museum of Science and Innovation, from Fune-no-kagaku-kan station on one fine, cloudless summer afternoon.

Besides the IDFes (short for idol festival) packed with adults, mostly men, lining up to jump and gyrate in unison at the performances of possibly the next big thing after AKB, families were resting outside the Miraikan, having some shaved ice doused in colourful syrup, soft-served ice cream, and whatever that was available cold just outside the cool indoor Ninja exhibition.

Some Pokemon event was also going on nearby, so the station was full of people going to or returning from some event. Giveaways of foldable cardboard Pokemon caps to kids provided scarce cover, while those handy fans offered some welcome breeze during our 20-minute trial of running from shade to shade. Telecom Center station would have been half the walk, but this journey warmed us right up for some Ninja training in the mild air-conditioning.

Once inside the exhibition hall, visitors became apprentices and were introduced to the various types of training that would ensure one left the hall trained as a “certified” ninja. From controlled breathing to stealth walking, jumping over a knee-high sunflower, throwing a rubber shuriken, differentiating smells, hearing for objects and information, and learning tidbits about nature, one would learn how to train mind and body, and be sensitive to changes in the environment.

The ninja, the eyes and ears of their masters, prevented unnecessary conflict and often gained priceless inside information. They were not merely masters of disguise, infiltration, and survival. Trained to hone their senses to identify the time of day, direction, tell the weather, see through a disguise, they made themselves very useful. Found across Japan during the feudal era, the Iga and Koga Ninja, in present day Mie prefecture, were the most well-known.

Not delving too deeply into any single aspect, trainees would pass the final in-house test and gain that coveted novice ninja “certificate”. But once outside the training hall, a firm jolt back to reality awaited and the real test would begin. Freshies would have to resist the temptation to acquire further training in the souvenir shop. Alas, I yielded, to the yen for further knowledge into these famous ancient warriors.

Special Exhibition: The NINJA – Who were they?
From Jul 7, 2016 – Oct 10, 2016

AnimeJapan 2015

The crowd awaits

Where’s the crowd?

Tokyo, 22 March – Sun shining, temperatures poised to hit the twenties, and the occasional cloud in the sky set the stage for a perfect day out. Japan’s largest anime exhibition, AnimeJapan 2015, beckoned at Tokyo Big Sight at Ariake in the Tokyo bay area. The crowd streamed steadily from Kokusaitenjijo seimon mae station toward the iconic exhibition hall. Greeted by a poster signboard that directed the stream off to the walkway that seemed to wrap round the building, regular visitors were taken to a parking lot behind, while some privileged few, probably press or event sponsors, passed through open covered transparent walkways. The crowd seemed happy to create a line, with only a few voices to guide them at random intervals. All the way, there was excited chatter about characters, stories and upcoming titles that were supposedly unveiled a few days earlier.

That's some costume

That’s some costume

This was the anime crowd – a mixed bag of mid-20s to 40s, maybe even 50s, presumably either studying or employed. Some brought along family and were allowed in through a separate side route that took the kids away from the main crowd. They sauntered unhindered past the larger part of the anime following that quickly filled 2 separate parking lots, which together easily spanned a football pitch. The waiting areas were fenced in and dissected by a road, yet the crowd did not feel the least penned in or dampened. The cool weather and light breeze made the 20-minute walk and subsequent 40-minute wait a time to quickly catch up on topics and highlights for the day. Who would have thought that the cosplayer’s area would be within literally touching distance as we moved closer to the entrance to the exhibition hall? Press and excited fans busily worked their shutters, training their devices on others dressed in full costume. While others seemed adamant to revel in their skin, one did not leave any exposed. Such was the dedication to detail, an expression of extreme affinity comprehensible only as fandom. Not a cloud in the sky, there was no reason to stay outside when everyone else was raring to catch whatever awaited within.

The well-trained approach shot

The shutterbug’s approach shot

Two large halls split exhibitors, which were production studios, publishers, gaming companies and anime schools. Broadly familiar characters like Detective Conan and Pikachu floated above the booths below, echoing their elevated status in the industry. The floor was littered with dressed up girls, often the target of eager shutterbugs, dealing out freebies and pamphlets while similarly costumed fans strolled purposefully past to their mecca.

All too familiar faces galore

All too familiar faces galore

Besides the icons overhead, the uninitiated would find little difficulty in recognizing some familiar faces. Doraemon is celebrating its 35th year, while Dragon Ball had Frieza and Goku posing with fans for a new movie and Sailor Moon sat quietly in the same section of the hall. Cowboy Beebop placards peered over passerbys and Gundam teased fans with a three screen 270 degree enclosure of the upcoming movie trailer.

A stunning rendition of the entrance building

A stunning rendition of the entrance building

The Yoyogi Animation Gakuin booth left a largely different impression. Two artisans were at work that day, one sculpting clay figurines and the other painting. Both performers were screened in their mini live studios in monitors above as onlookers stayed peeled on the creative work in action. The brushwork piece from the day before was a stunning rendition of the iconic entrance building overcome by nature. Next door was the charity auction area where visitors could choose to donate and bid for the right to be drawn next to their favourite character or purchase limited edition memorabilia.

Soft clay mashables

Soft clay mashables

The subdued side of things

Enter the subdued family side of things

In contrast to the frenzy and excitement was an unusually subdued section across the hall. The view from this side into the family exhibit area left me confounded. Kids were usually the most easily heard by miles, yet the atmosphere in that section was non-existent to say the least. Booths were sparsely spaced, the few participant families littering the booths made the area even seem distinctly more vast. Primary school children and below were non-paying fans, but the contrast that day was embarrassingly obvious. The tables were turned, the targeted segment was clear.

Moving on to the next hall, the Japan Animators Exhibition showcased projects that attempted to push the limits of anime as a storytelling genre. Eyes were glued to a frantic man and bug story unfolding in an apartment interweaved with the bug taking on the form of screaming girl. Bizarre but wildly entertaining. It summed up the event for the uninitiated, with a few question marks hanging over using the event to cultivate the next generation of anime fans and would-be creators and storytellers. For that, the industry is well-equipped with other channels.