Capturing Memories of Singapore and Malaysia (Part 1)
By Kiew Li Lian
Memories will vanish if they are not recorded. Fortunately, there are those who do so, piecing together the fragments of memory. The Singapore Writers Festival 2016 panel discussion, titled “Capturing Old Singapore and Malaysia”, invited three writers from Singapore and Malaysia to share their stories from the 1950s and 1960s.
Zhang Hui: Capturing the Fourth Leg of Yesteryears
The panel discussion started off with local veteran writer Zhang Hui, the pen name of Cheong Weng Yat, who revealed his reasons for writing his first novel The Years and Incidents at Shuang Kou Ding First Villagem which captures his childhood memories. The first reason was that he could not locate his alma mater, Dahua Primary School, at the “2014 Exhibition cum Forum on the History of Chinese Schools – A Lasting Legacy” held at Hwa Chong Institution; it was as if his school had vanished without a trace. The second reason was that he could remember the details of his childhood vividly after suffering amnesia for almost nine hours once.
Zhang Hui shared that his novel was an actual portrayal of his childhood during a time when Singapore was going through crisis after crisis. He likened history to a chair with only three legs – incomplete without the fourth leg, which writers were obliged to fix on.
What really moved Zhang Hui was that Professor Lee Yung-ping went in search of his childhood village after reading his book. Sadly, all Lee could find was the few trees that stood where the village used to be.
Ding Yun: Restoring the Missing Piece of History
Though Zhang Hui’s novel ended in the early 1960s, Ding Yun’s Terror Island – based on a historical event on Pulau Senang in 1963 – attempted to restore the silhouette of past events.
Previously a scriptwriter at Television Corporation of Singapore (now Mediacorp), Ding Yun – whose real name is Tan Chun An – wrote local television masterpieces like Good Morning Sir, When Dawn Breaks, and The Price of Peace. He opined that literature must reflect reality, and just like the jigsaw puzzle of historical memories that was always missing a piece in the Singaporean movie Sandcastle, only literature can restore the completeness of accounts of the event while complementing the official records to present a more accurate picture.
The Pulau Senang riot of 12 July 1963 effectively ended the trial of a penal colony without bars and resulted in the deaths of the colony superintendent and his two staff. Surprisingly, Ding Yun was not able to find more information in the official records; it was only because a surviving prison warden wanted Ding Yun to write his experience and contacted Ding Yun through a mutual friend.
How much reality is there in a television drama or a novel? Ding Yun candidly said there were various considerations when producing television dramas but less so when publishing novels. In fact, he joked that the only thing he had to worry about when writing about historical events was to have his passport with him at all times and be ready to flee.
Please look out for Capturing Memories of Singapore and Malaysia (Part 2)
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