Charmaine Leung on how writing helped her re-connect with her past — Singapore Lit Prize feature

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

Next on our list, we're thrilled to have Charmaine Leung, author of 17A Keong Saik Road. Find out about her love for Marmite as a beverage and why she wants to continue writing about the stories of Ma Je.

Hear Charmaine read her favourite excerpt from 17A Keong Saik Road.


"The cause of sadness in my life was always my unhealed memories of the past. It is in learning to forgive and accept my past—my identity as a madame’s daughter, the lack of normality in my life, my inadequacies—that I could unfetter its hold on me, and begin to see what a unique and blessed life I have had. I had the opportunity to witness what most could not see, and experience what most could not imagine. Utopia was really in how I chose to perceive life, it did not exist in a tangible form. Even if my so-called utopia had been achieved, the fulfilment would be fleeting, because I would always dream up another paradise to go after. It would be a never-ending pursuit of something I probably already possessed, but did not appreciate. The utopia that I craved had always been in my own hands—something I could enjoy if I had chosen to seize it. The essence was not in how much fuller life could be, but in how I embraced the life that I already had." —17A Keong Saik Road


Tell us more about this excerpt! Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it?

This is one of my favourite excerpts from the book because it is essentially a reflection of my own journey of growth. It’s a reminder to myself that we are only limited by the capacity of our own minds. It is through acknowledging and coming to terms with the shackles that we place on ourselves that we can set ourselves free to explore life—I remember feeling enlightened and liberated as I penned those words.

Have you always known that you would write your memoir or was there a particular moment that made you go, “Yes, I need to write this book!”?

I’ve always wanted to keep a record of the stories that took place in the family—a collection of interesting incidents for us to be aware that we had such unique encounters. But I did not particularly think I was going to write a memoir, or even publish it. It was when I shared some of these stories with my best friend that she encouraged me to write a book.

There are very intimate and vivid details of your childhood and the Keong Saik area in 17A Keong Saik Road! Did these recollections come to you easily as you were writing your book?

I started journaling since I was a teenager. As I was preparing to write 17A Keong Saik Road, I read through all the journals that I had accumulated. That helped me to re-connect with a lot of the past as well as my feelings. I also had several conversations with Je Je and the Yim Hong character in the book and these provided more details as well as context for the book.

What do you think readers have found most exciting or unexpected after reading your story?

I think what surprised many is that these stories happened in very recent history. Some of the stories happened as recent as thirty to forty years ago, and yet now, we see a totally different Keong Saik Road and Singapore.

If your book were to be paired with any beverage, what would it be?

Haha, I would say Marmite. Unlike most people who consider Marmite an additive to food, it’s first and foremost, a beverage to me. In a way, like the blackish colour of Marmite, most may first see the dark side to the stories in the book, but if you give it a chance and savour the Marmite drink, you’ll discover that it’s yummy and has lots of vitamin B too! Similarly, I hope the book will help to surface many of the untold stories and lesser known tales of old Singapore that our generation of today may not otherwise be exposed to.

Lastly, any plans for a new book and if so, what would it be about?

I hope to keep writing, and perhaps work on the stories of the Ma Je that I’d the privilege of encountering and growing up with in my life. There’s not a lot of English writing on this group of immigrants who came to Singapore in the 1930s. Besides having a grandmother who was a Ma Je, the resilience and toughness of this group of women have always fascinated me and I’d like to explore a bit deeper their lives and motivations.

17A Keong Saik Road is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here