I first met Josephine Chia, when she gave a lecture for the Friends of the Museums about living in a Singaporean kampong (village) in the 1950s. It was a tough gig. The audience was packed with middle-aged, middle-class high brow expat women but Josephine’s charisma, charm and humility had us eating out of the palm of her hand. An unforgettable hour ended with a sing-a-long and I’m now delighted to have her as my next guest. So I encourage you to sit back for the next five minutes and enjoy being wrapped in the warmth of her writing.
” I love the tropical rain. Being out in the open, being touched by it, is like Mandi Hutan, Malay for Forest Bathing. Malay is my first language. Peranakans like myself speak a patois of Malay and Chinese, our heritage and culture, a unique marriage of both.
When I was growing up in colonial Singapore, we had huge tracts of wild fields with tall grass called lallang, and rain forests all around us. It was magical to walk through the forest to be bathed by the positive energy and healing properties of nature. I was, and still am, a devout tree-hugger, pulling its vitality and strength through my energy centres; to be injected with aliveness by it. If I woke up early, before the sun blazed with vigour into the sky, I got a bigger prize. The soft dew and water droplets dripped from the canopy of leaves to caress my face and bare arms with unconditional love.
Even when the monsoonal rain thrusted its fat fingers through our attap-thatched roof and poured down into our meagre house, I loved the rhythmic sound it made when we placed empty buckets and kerosene tins underneath to catch its flow. Each monsoon season, we had to secure tables and chairs, pile up belongings on their tops as the Kallang River burst its banks and flooded our kampong, village. Despite the crisis and danger, my seven siblings and myself created make-shift fishing rods to snare the fish that escaped from the river and village ponds, or the eels from our muddy monsoon drains, for our meals.
Our mother, whom we addressed as Mak, had an amazing trick of turning eels, wild frogs and even road-kill into gastronomic dishes. She always dressed in our traditional sarong kebaya, a long-sleeved, embroidered blouse or kebaya, with a batik sarong. Her beauty was not just physical, it was ethereal. For someone who had fallen from such luxury and wealth in Malacca, she navigated the dire circumstances of our kampong life with such grace. She never moaned about the communal bathroom and toilet, the lack of a tap in our house or her charcoal stove; or that we had to eat by candlelight or a carbide lamp. Her positive spirit touched many lives in the village; and mine, most of all.
Without her, I’d still be ignorant, uneducated.
At seven, when I could not read the squiggles on a MILO tin, I had wept copiously at my stupidity. I begged to be sent to school. But my father deemed that girls were not worth educating as we would belong to our husband’s family when we marry. Besides, there wasn’t enough money. Luckily, for my elder brothers, the St Andrews Mission School on a hill next to our village opened doors for them.
Fortunately for me, Mak had an insight that if I was educated, I would not be coerced to marry as she had been, or compelled to live with an abusive husband as she had to. She was married at seventeen and bore a child every other year till she gave birth to my last sibling, a boy, when she was forty. In all, she must had had sixteen pregnancies but infant mortality and the Japanese war, claimed her children and left her with us eight. It broke her heart when one son had to be given away to buy food. This was a woman who played the piano and violin in her father’s house and sprawling country estate. One of my books, in honour of her, was Frog Under A Coconut Shell. The non-fiction book tells about her life and the circumstances that radically transported her to a sentence of poverty.
My mother gave me the treasured gift of education.
My father said he’d whip her, if she used any house-keeping allowance to send me to school. With no education herself, all she could do was focused on what she knew. She cooked well so she made the most delicious nasi lemak, fragrant coconut rice, with its spicy condiments, wrapped in fresh banana leaf to sell. To prove that I was willingly to work to go to school, I had to hawk the pyramids of green in a rattan basket to trishaw-riders taking a break in the local coffee shop. This was still insufficient to buy the school-books, uniform and my first pair of shoes. So, she persuaded the English families living at Atas Bukit, On Top of (the) Hill, to let her wash their clothes to ease the load of their lived-in servants. I helped Mak to draw water from the well whilst she scrubbed on her wooden washboard.
I fell in love with the English language when I encountered it and have been in love since. Now that I could make out that squiggles were actually words; instead of salvaging just food from the English families’ rubbish bins, I also scavenged for their comics and Enid Blyton books.
Our evenings in the kampong were spent outdoors before electricity and television transformed our lives. Neighbours chatted, recited poems, told stories, sang and danced. It was gotong royong, community spirit, at its best. That was when I knew I love stories. I nursed a secret dream to become a writer.
Insecure, I married Alpha Males but they transmuted into jailers. Twelve years with the first, who gave me two sons. Twenty years with the second who gave me England. I sought healing from the nightingale’s song, the English Oak, the wild sea, coastal sand dunes and the South Downs. I Forest Bathed in Bluebell Woods.
It was England and generous writer-friends who helped nurtured my writing. In 1992, I was the first Singaporean to be one of the twelve finalists for the UK Ian St James Awards. My short story, Tropical Fever, was published in an anthology by Harper Collins. It was my first big literary break.
Both sons married girls in Singapore. When the grandchildren were born, I knew that I had to return to my native country to see them grow up. After more than thirty years in England, I left to go home in 2012.
Seeing that Singapore has changed dramatically after independence, and the type of village I had lived in was all demolished, I decided to write about it. I want young Singaporeans to know how far our nation has travelled, from Third World country to First World. This book, Kampong Spirit/Gotong Royong; Life in Potong Pasir, won the Singapore Literature Prize, in 2014.
I wished that Mak could have been there to see me receive the prize.”
Since then, Josephine has written extensively and her most recent book, Big Tree in a Small Pot‘ won Singapore’s best middle grade/young adult title at last year’s book awards.
All of Josephine’s books are available here.
Thank you Josephine for your contribution. It has been a pleasure to have you on the blog.
There will now be a short break from the guest series so on 17th July, I’ll be back to share my thoughts and reflections before introducing you to my next guest, Jon Hardy, who will give his thoughtful insights into moving onto a new career later in life.