On Cataloging the Past

Me, circa 1990.

Me, circa 1987.

Back in the 1960s, my grandmother would push her small wooden cart down the streets of Singapore, calling out to passers-by to try her laska – fat yellow noodles coated in rich spicy coconut milk. My father said that his mother’s laska was one of the best he had ever tasted. Yet, despite how delicious it was, each bowl only earned my grandmother a few cents and she had struggled to make ends meet.

Given how poor my grandparents were and the conditions my parents grew up in, it is not surprising that my parents were not great fans of the arts. Painting, writing and singing were thought to be a pursuit of the rich and my parents discouraged me from taking them seriously. It didn’t help that at that time, the government had largely emphasized on commerce and sciences as key drivers of the economy. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and engineers were the occupations that would secure your future. Writers, designers and musicians were not.

In secondary school, my parents wanted me to study science. I wanted to study literature. We compromised and I did both subjects. When I graduated, they saw that I had zero affinity with Chemistry and Physics and urged me to do business. I wanted to write stories. Again, we compromised and I graduated with a degree in journalism — a career that came with at least a paycheck.

This disinclination toward the arts, however, was not to say that the older generation were devoid of creativity. My mother often reminisced how supple and juicy her late mother’s handmade fish balls were. My grandmother would meticulously debone the fish, smack the meat incessantly with her hands and then painstakingly roll each thumb-sized flesh into a ball and cook them in soup. Sometimes, she would form them into rectangular shapes and fry them as fish cakes. I only eat fish balls because they are easy to get in any supermarket. To make them from scratch is simply too much work. I couldn’t understand why she would spend effort doing that. Isn’t it much simpler to just steam the fish whole? When questioned, my mother paused for a while before simply replying, “She did it so that we won’t be bored eating the same thing every day.”

When I heard that, I had newfound respect for my grandmother. This was a woman who had to go to the market before the crack of dawn, help her husband sell fish, return home, clean the house and look after over ten children. Yet she found the time and interest to roll fish meat into bouncy balls! She was definitely an artist in her own right. I wondered where her passions could have taken her if only she had the resources to pursue them.

In that sense, I consider myself lucky to be born after my parents, at a time when my country is finally taking a broader step in cultivating the arts. More schools and companies have been set up to shape artists, playwrights and athletes in the last ten years compared to my parents’ generation. I find that comforting because this means that the younger generation will have more opportunities and outlets to express themselves. But more importantly, this also means that there is now more ways to catalog our past. As a writer, I am fascinated with the details of my family and often find myself referring to the ways my grandparents and parents had led their lives in my stories; details on how they had made the most of what little they had. It is such anecdotes that define my culture and I find it difficult to separate them from my writing, and count it a privilege to be able to recuperate some of this history back into my work.