“The magic and mystery of the East in general has long inspired such greats as Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and others. Singapore’s position as a port city and trading hub meant all kinds of people from many places were always coming and going, giving it an outward-looking focus against a steamy tropical backdrop,” Jane says.
Maybe it’s the heat. Or all those palm trees. Could be Singapore’s spicy multicultural stew, its colonial past, its immigration story, or those traumatic WWII years and the Japanese occupation. There have been more books written about Singapore than you may realize, both fiction and non-fiction, by a sea of writers coming at it from many different perspectives — Chinese, Peranakan, Malay, Indian, Asian-American, British, Australian and so on.
It’s easy to get lost in the pages of these stories, epic tales, memoirs, and catalogues of old (and new) Singapore through the prism of war, hardship, love, triumph, and everyday life.
A number of novels have been set in WWII-era Singapore, historical fiction including The Singapore Grip by J. G. Farrell (1978) and Tanamera by Noel Barber (1995). Boyd Anderson’s Amber Road (2013) is another in this genre of mid-century war novels set in Singapore with an overlay of intense family drama. A Different Sky (2010) by Meira Chand is a worthwhile read with a similar plot line and the requisite interracial love story — it’s packed with historically precise detail and crescendos towards the Japanese occupation of Singapore and the post-war campaign for independence.
Going back further, author Dawn Farnham’s The Straits Quartet is a sequence of four steamy novels set in 19th-century Singapore with all the ambient trappings of that era — triads, piracy, opium, illicit love — commingled with issues of race and culture. The first of the four is called The Red Thread: A Chinese Tale of Love and Fate in 1830s Singapore (2007). A Crowd of Twisted Things (2013) is Farnham’s latest; it’s a mystery set in 1950s Singapore as the Maria Hertogh custody case unfolded and the ensuing riots raged.
A fascinating nonfiction account of 19th-century Singapore can be found in the pages of Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles: And the Golden Opportunity (2012), a biography about the visionary albeit sometimes controversial Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore.
Tangentially, there are excellent works of gripping nonfiction that deal with the WWII POW experience in Southeast Asia as well as in Singapore, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013) and You'll Die in Singapore: The True Account of One of the Most Amazing POW Escapes in WWII by Charles McCormac (2015). Meanwhile, through dug-up artifacts and letters, battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper’s Tigers in the Park (2016) details life in Adam Park during WWII, where fierce fighting took place and where POWs were later held.
Memoirs are another evocative type with their strong personal voice pushing the story forward, such as Josephine Chia’s two books about Singapore’s old kampong days and subsequent building of HDB public housing to replace the rustic village dwellings. Her Kampong Spirit, Gotong Royong Life in Potong Pasir 1955 to 1965 (2013) won the Singapore Literary Prize, and she just launched a sequel, Goodbye My Kampong, Potong Pasir 1966 to 1975 (2018). Join Josephine for a tour tracing her Kampong days on 17 May, 2018.
Another homegrown writer is Catherine Lim. Her two short story collections — Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore (1978) and Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories (1980) — are still widely read and appreciated for their insightful commentary about male chauvinism and gender roles.
“There has been such a pace of change here in Singapore, that many writers have been inspired by the desire to chronicle the past as well as the ever changing present,” says Jane.
Meanwhile, other novels have focused on the seedy side Singapore, including one set in 1970s Singapore, Saint Jack by Paul Theroux (1972). The story is set in the days when prostitution and shady characters were an obvious part of the country’s gauzy fabric. A seminal book in Singapore’s literary journey is Christine Suchen Lim’s Fistful of Colours (1992), which was the first book to receive the Singapore Literature Prize. Through the eyes of a young teacher, it muses over the hopes and struggles of Singapore’s immigrant populace.
Then of course there is the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2013), which sounds like a racy beach read (and it is), but is also a fascinating and realistic look at how Singapore’s super rich really do live. Approaching what it means to live in Singapore in a very different way, Justin Ker’s short stories in The Space Between the Raindrops (2014), are imaginative and off-beat vignettes set in everyday places like car parks and HDBs.
The funniest of them all is no doubt British Expat Neil Humphrey’s Notes From an Even Smaller Island (2001), and other similar titles, where he melds humour with keen observations of Singapore’s eccentricities. He pokes fun at Singapore’s quirky cast of characters and its many rules, while also revealing his love and admiration for the Singapore story. His books have been bestsellers.
If Jane were to write a book, she says it would be called, One Degree of Separation — “given how multicultural Singapore is, and that I lived here as a child, for me that title would work on many levels,” Jane says.
Indeed, there is much to learn about Singapore through the books scribed by those who have lived here and been inspired here. Dig deep and lose yourself in the pages of the Singapore story. For a look at Jane's SG Tours literary-themed tours and events, such as author meet and greets, click here.