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.)

Engaging fact-based fiction close to home


Comic/Graphic novel review, from Tokyo, about Singapore – Sonny Liew’s “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” (Epigram Books, 2015; Pantheon Books, 2016) created a stir with news of a S$8,000 grant being withdrawn on the day before the book’s Singapore launch in May 2015. Despite some reviews online suggesting some reasons, it was still quite a shocking turn of events.

Having earmarked it since then, I finally got my hands on a copy directly from the local publisher online almost two years on.

Sparingly bonded, each time I reread it, I flip each page with utmost care, each turn creaking on the spine, threatening to pull the book apart. The stories inked into the pages though come through vibrantly.

Charlie Chan is a comics artist who lived through the post-war history of this island nation, which was famously propelled from third world to first in half a century, maybe less. In the course of that time, the world saw the rise of Lee Kwan Yew, known widely as the nation’s founding father, and left behind some other people and forces that inevitably helped shape the path of its young history.

The author blends his visibly apparent illustrations among Charlie’s and other historical snippets, positioning Charlie and the facts closer to the past, while assuming a modern day tone himself to explain things to present day readers. Charlie’s repertoire across several comic genres in a single book is also refreshingly entertaining.

Well, this multi-layering is all the master storyteller’s work, a work of fact-based fiction that clinched six nominations and won three Eisner awards. Coupled with the withdrawn grant, the attention drew more reviews on the story and artwork, yet I felt many missed the bit that I enjoyed most – reading a work that touched very close to home.

I particularly liked how Malaysia or Malaya played a part almost throughout the book’s narrative, especially Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer. That is simply due to cultural, geography and political ties – Singapore is just across the 1-km Causeway, and became independent in 1965 just two years after merging to form Malaysia. It is even more natural considering the fact that the author himself was born in Malaysia, and moved across the straits at 5.

As a child, I remember classmates who commuted daily across the Causeway. They were always at school before me, and would sometimes talk among themselves about who came in earliest that day. They had a much better command of the Chinese language than I did then, and probably do still.

This somehow ties in with the way Charlie attempts to highlight, at numerous points, the fluctuating fortunes of the Chinese-educated population, tying in historical movements and incidents like the student riots and the Communist threat. Having studied at a Chinese school left me wondering why that part of history, learned mostly by ear, was scarcely mentioned in class. Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention, perhaps blinded by all that glitter in the race for survival through affluence. (Rereading that last sentence revealed the many fallacies of my juvenile thoughts.)

Littered with factual episodes to present different takes on history, including an alternative reality where the late Lim Chin Siong becomes Singapore’s Prime Minister, this 320-page graphic novel weaves fact with fiction to create a series of engaging fact-based anecdotes.

Having etched its place in Singapore’s art history at a time when the nation is gradually opening up to artistic pursuit, the book will undoubtedly also have sown the seeds for a deeper look into the nation’s, and the region’s, historical narrative.

It has certainly reminded me of the possibilities fiction offers in shining a light on the many untold stories lying under the surface of historical fact.

 

Title: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Author: Sonny Liew
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2015Pantheon Books, 2016
(available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Winner of 2017 Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design

Other accolades listed on publisher websites.

Parenting or not in Web 2.0


Book review, from Singapore to Tokyo – Pinch, drag, flick, tap. Slick moves mastered to deal with life to the tune of each new generation of smart devices. Buzz, flicker, ring, flash. An endless deluge of noise, light, vibes, and activity that demands our attention at every other moment, as if we did not have enough to deal with already.
Sometimes our devices bring new and refreshing updates, but more often just rejigged posts. At other times we’re creating something for everyone else in this age of user-generated content. And if you’ve got a kid craving for attention, then you’ll have trouble focusing on either. But we are in control, aren’t we? Or are we slaves of our own making?
Smart devices are so much a part of our lives today that misplacing one brings isolation from the connected world, the IoT. Well, in real life, we only have 24 hours a day to focus our limited energy on only so much. And if the touchscreen is taking our eyes off other things that should really matter, like your own kid, then obviously there lies a problem.

『ママのスマホになりたい』, “Mama no sumaho ni naritai” (literally, “I want to become mummy’s smartphone”) illustrates just this, drawing on a real essay by a Singaporean primary school boy, in which he professed that his wish was to become a smartphone (article at allsingaporestuff.com).

With Nobumi’s trademark cartoony characters, the simple, childishly spiteful exchanges between 3-year-old son and mother portrays the struggle for a parent-child relationship in an era of push feeds and other intermittent attention grabbers. The boy loses numerous creatively laid skirmishes, including a cardboard kingdom where smartphones are not allowed, before finally reconnecting with his mother.
A self-confessed guilty party, it is less my smartphone, but the daily struggle with the clock that leaves me wanting more play-and-bond time. Living with devices involves rules, balance, and understanding, something this book could maybe help parents and their children reach together. Then again with future generations set to bypass PCs and dive straight into mobile and wearable devices, and interacting through them, who knows whether this book be read the same way by the end of the next decade.
Kids grow up quickly, faster than the next app upgrade. We can uninstall updates on a whim but we can’t just reboot our lives, so I’ll be sure to catch myself on my smartphone at home, and my kids before they are ready to leave the roost!
Title: 『ママのスマホになりたい』 (Mama no sumaho ni naritai) by Nobumi
Publisher: Tokyo, WAVE Publishers, 2016

Scoring Fs at AFCC 2016


Event, Singapore – Down for my first AFCC ever, I noticed a few Fs along the way. Here’s a quick run through!

IMG_20160703_000104Festival – Truly a festival of children’s content with books, music, songs and games for children, and those wannabe grown-up ones like me.

Focused – Japan was the Country of Focus in SJ50 year, which brings me to…

Fortunate – How else could I have had a look in? (Well, it was very much thanks to SCBWI Japan.)

Fun-filled – Totally enjoyed every bit, from tending the Japan Booth, helping the rehearsals for Japan Night in a dimly lit SEA Aquarium, keeping time for a marathon storytelling hour, to attending some very insightful sessions.

Fascinating – Very often so, as I was captivated by the performances and range of stories that were on display.

Flashy – How else to describe an underwater launch of bilingual picture books? Maybe splashy?

Favourite – An oft heard question, but I just couldn’t find a Japanese picture book or illustrator that I could pin down as a favourite. I found that I like many of them for their different stories, styles and colours!

Fruitful – Learned much about presenting, displaying, sharing, reading and creating content for children.

Frank – A brief, serious mention that kamishibai, picture card storytelling theatre, was once used for war propaganda. Frankly and plainly put, well-received with appreciative nods.

and finally,

Forward-looking – Covering recent trends in YA literature in Japan, the closing session of the event also looked to a future that promises to welcome greater colour, depth and diversity in Japanese content.

So a quick tally makes it 10 Fs in all, and there’s room for probably a few more.

Dad book for dad


Book review, from Singapore to Tokyo – On a short trip to Singapore, I visited a familiar independent bookstore in Tiong Bahru, Woods in the Books. Every time I visit, I find something new. This time was no different.

My latest find was hidden between several other Epigram books. Something had spurred me to scour that selection, when a title caught my eye – “Don’t Be Sorry, Dad!”.

We clicked. I was sorry for leaving my kids and wife back home to venture out alone for purely selfish reasons. I wanted to do something worthwhile for them, bring them something that they would enjoy. A picture book was perfect. But what story did this one tell?

The cover shows a girl and her father seated on a bench in some park. Nothing extraordinary, or was it? Was it the title? I had to open the book to learn more.

When I did, I saw a young girl enjoying the company of her dad, who couldn’t walk but always gave her so many other things. Whether at the beach, the park, on a sunny day, or a rainy one, the father would always apologize for being poor company, but the little one kept repeating the title, or something similar, and showed him why it didn’t just not matter, but how she really liked spending their time together.

It was simple, inspiring, more like liberating. Often, I feel more than a few judgmental gazes around me when my kids start misbehaving on our many adventures beyond our front door. However, fathers are not usually represented with their children in Japanese media, but many can be seen playing, caring, watching over their children.

The stay-at-home housewife has an untouchable position in picture books. Today, we see some men do this job, but don’t get to read much about them. Even less so if it were about something so basic as a father-child relationship.

This book clicked. On several levels. The illustrations were soft and pencilled, not flashy. It told a simple story, with similarly simple, warm colours. The message seemed manifold. Acceptance, enjoying time together, appreciating another’s strengths and embracing their weaknesses. This, from the little girl’s perspective.

How can this not be a totally heartening book for all fathers? How often do fathers say sorry, with good reason? How we always hope to put a smile on our children’s faces? How, after reading, can we not think about our own fathers?

Thanks dad!

That would also be the best present I could ever receive from my children.

Title: “Don’t Be Sorry, Dad!” by Nari Hong based on her life

Published: Singapore, Epigram Books, 2016

The little red dot gets a green stamp


From Tokyo, 11 July – Singapore is sometimes referred to as the little red dot, the way the island nation is usually indicated on the world map. The red dot now has acquired a new greenish tinge after gaining a green international stamp of recognition on 4 July. As recently as early 2012, the island nation had yet to ratify the UNESCO convention, but three years on, it has joined the list of cities that are home to a world heritage site.

The Singapore Botanical Gardens does not immediately strike me as even a national heritage, much less the world’s. A vast stretch of tropical green on the outskirts of Orchard Road, the garden city’s prime shopping district, the lack of foliage over its open areas can sometimes be forbidding in the perennial equatorial heat. Add the threat of marauding mosquito squadrons and the park becomes the abode of those ready to brave the conditions in search of free public space that offers the tranquil of nature in a concrete jungle. Many come prepared, glazed with the necessary repellants and armed with tools to beat the heat.

Foggy memories of a handful of visits often bring to mind tourists and expats with children in tow quietly admiring the lush vegetation, contrasted by school excursions in sweltering heat and chatty children rushing past the weeping willow and towering trees along the path. On weekends, the open grounds are often dotted by families and gatherings of foreign workers camped out on the slopes facing the Symphony Stage, sometimes treated to an evening of live relaxing music under the stars.

A public park is the image that first comes to mind. Not especially accessible and not a very generous selection of urban comforts. A landmark that’s been there since who knows when, is another. Today, it faces a high-profile local rival in the Gardens by the Bay. The heritage Gardens are immediately recognizable but it lacked depth in the collective memory, so it was no surprise that the government agencies sought to raise public awareness in a hark back to the years when the nation was known as “campaign country”.

The campaigns would have benefited public support and national pride, but the treasures and the park’s natural gems uncovered by the people closest to the nomination dossier remain unapparent to the broader citizenry. A race through the history of the national landmark on the Internet left many gray areas. Contrast this with a recently re-aired NHK documentary on an ongoing 150-year experiment that is the manmade forest around the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Well-documented and persuasively written, as a viewer I witnessed the experiment, shared the vision and eventually found myself living the dream of creating a self-sustaining forest in urban Tokyo. Singapore’s national media would do well to consider a careful trek through the Garden’s archives and staff to uncover the paths to secrets and stories surrounding the country’s latest global landmark.

The Gardens itself faces many challenges, in presenting its past, living the present and building for the future. Will the ground’s history become plain to visiting eyes? Will people recognize the trees that are more than a century old? Hitachi’s iconic centurion raintree, a species indigenous to the region, draws thousands of Japanese tourists to the Moanalua Gardens in Honolulu every year. How will it ensure that it links with the population and creates new common memory? Will the Gardens grow as an institution for botanic research in tie-ups with local and regional bodies? Budding green thumbs like myself would be looking for some home gardening tips, or practical herb use or cooking courses from a herbarium with big ambitions. A current course covers local plants and their use in Malay food, a promising connection to regional culture and society. The economic gardens could hold hints from the past for the way forward. I, for one, will expect more when its new online registration portal is up and running.

The Gardens probably recognize the work lined up ahead to turn Singapore “from a garden city into a city in a garden”, and it would definitely help to provide more accessible outreach and practical programs, link the people closer to nature and create more space for tired city eyes and souls. This green stamp of approval must give it the impetus and receive the support it deserves.

Singapore Botanical Gardens
https://www.sbg.org.sg/

Japanese reimport


Who is this masked cat?

Who is this masked cat?

From Tokyo to Singapore, 2 May – This is a tale of a reimport from Japan. It began one fine day in April, when a colleague asked whether I had heard of “The Tiramisu Hero”, since they apparently hailed from Singapore. Flabbergasted at another head-shaking, hand-flapping display of my utter lack of knowledge about developments back home, I held on frantically to the only hot lead – it was wildly popular in Japan.

Dr. Google told me that the traditional Italian dessert was being sold by a Zorro-masked cat on Rakuten, a major e-commerce portal in Japan. It had it’s own page, and a virtual queue of a lengthy 4 months. One post from a satisfied customer said it was simply worth the wait, which he/she almost forgot about, but that was balanced by others saying that they had ordered a month ago and were still waiting, or that they would have preferred if the store provided a delivery date. That’s something customers would expect from online on-demand sales, especially with hotter weather and vacation season coming our way.

Further digging revealed that the store began with an online presence before a real cafe opened in Oct 2013 in Singapore. 3 months later, they began making their rounds in major malls in Japan.

Sir Antonio's playground

Sir Antonio’s playground

I decided to unmask the cat by venturing into its den. I found it right next to the Lions’, by which I mean the spiritual home of the Singapore national football team in Jalan Besar. The Tiramisu Hero cafe stood right across the street. Accompanied by ready eaters, I strolled past the grass porch and the tables set outside to the air-conditioned abode of the cat and its desserts.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the internal deco. A larger-than-life head of Sir Antonio, the name of the cat as I later found out, ladders were everywhere, standing on the ceiling above, lying on it, and one that stood from ceiling to floor. Sir Antonio adorned the entire cafe, flying above, hiding in space, caressing corners, posing in costumes, as he welcomed visitors to his impressively doodled lair. The signature mask and moustache were soon imprinted in the minds of visitors.

Sat down at the table, I checked out the menu. Littered with cute illustrations that teased your imagination of how the dish would be presented, our eyes fed on main course options from fish and chips to fresh pasta and familiar sides like mushroom soup, garlic bread and fries. Standard western fare.

More creamy than chunky, but great garlic side!

More creamy than chunky, great side!

Crispy, juicy fish and chips

Crispy, juicy fish and chips

We ordered a conservative selection of chunky mushroom soup, fish and chips, aglio olio (angelhair pasta) and savoury creamy salmon. Of course, that was rounded off with tiramisu, brownies and mud pies. A brownie came with each set, but for some reason, some were replaced with fluffier fudge-glazed chunks that tasted like carrot cake, which were still yummy but off-menu. The swap was never explained but we paying customers didn’t either, as we half-enjoyed the surprise. The mud pie was plain sinful indulgence.

Plain indulgence

Plain indulgence

The bits of food were solid, not fantastic. The mushroom soup was more creamy than chunky, while the garlic bread on the side was superb, crisp and full of flavour. That said, our selection was especially garlicky. Aglio olio was simply overpowered by the delicious bulb. Accented by bacon bits and other spices, the angelhair simply didn’t figure other than to keep the pieces together. The fish and chips were crisp and juicy, and the expertly done salmon was accompanied by sticks of asparagus. All very nicely presented, but the greens tasted thick and unshaven. Picky eaters would probably have shunned it at first sight.

Buon appetito!

Enjoy it like so… Buon appetito!

Peering from under the covers?

Peering from under the covers?

Finally it was rounded off with the cafe’s namesake dessert. Original or Bailey’s, milo, kaya, durian even. Spoilt for choice and making the mistake of ordering our fixes after the meal, we had to settle for the first two. Served in cute glass bottles with Sir Antonio in various poses, the brown paperbag cover over the tin cap identified the liquid used within. All that just waiting to be opened and a spoon to sink into. Sir Antonio is a true hero of eye and mouth candy.

Aww.... goodbye for now

Goodbye for now

Open 11am-10pm

Budget: Around S$25 per person

Location: Shophouse opposite the hawker center at Jalan Besar Stadium

Seats: About 25 with Sir Antonio inside and another 10 without