Can you imagine what life in Singapore was like over 75 years ago? A lot more different than we probably think. No plastic at all, no flushing toilets, cars without windscreen wipers or electric headlights, and lalang-covered fields where cows and goats wander. It’s in this setting that our second storybook takes place and we are too excited about it.
Titled “The House on Palmer Road”, it recounts the adventures of Sing, a playful, tree-climbing, 8-year-old girl who lives with her family of in a wooden house in Palmer Road, together with her 9 brothers and sisters. Comprising 15 light-hearted tales, it is set in late 1930s Singapore, when the island was still a British colony, and just before WWII and the Japanese Occupation. In its pages, young readers go on all sorts of adventures with Sing, from frog hunting in the wasteland, to being chased by guard geese in dark godowns, to evenings in the Great World Amusement Park. Often taking place in the sunlit outdoors, it promises to be a playful enjoyable read for youngsters.
But in the background, the world is on the brink of World War II: readers (and Sing) encounter this through distant snatches of conversation and references by the grown-ups about impending war, the advance of the Japanese, the plight of relatives back in China. While all worrying, these are half understood by Sing and both protagonists and readers are focused on the playfulness of the stories without feeling too threatened by what’s happening around the world.
The stories, characters and places in The House on Palmer Road are all real, because they are based on the childhood of co-author Si Hoe S.S., a first time author at 83 years old! The wooden house on Palmer Road, after which the book is titled and where the family of 13 lived, was built by her father, a building contractor. The landscape is vividly detailed based on her also-photographic memory, which we also verified against old maps and photographs and archival material to ensure accuracy.
We had released this book in early February, just before Singapore observed the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore in WWII (15 Feb 1942). This is significant because the story ends when Singapore fell.
What’s particularly unique about this book is it presents pre-war Singapore through the eyes of a local, and a child to boot. There is very little written of this period from a local’s perspective: most accounts of pre-war Singapore have been written by the British colonials then, and many local people of that time — except for the local elite — were not educated enough to do so. So this presents a rarely seen account of Singapore.
Meanwhile, we got a really talented Singaporean artist Lim Anling to provide us lots of charmingly playful illustrations to go along with it. Helping to tell the story are her 58 illustrations which you see a sample of here. She is incidentally also the artist behind our Singapore postage stamp series “Vanishing Trades”. The House on Palmer Road was published with some help from a grant by the National Heritage Board.
It is currently available at the Books Kinokuniya, Books Ahoy, Woods in the Books, localbooks.sg, Closetful of Books, Tango Mango, and at the National Museum of Singapore and Asian Civilisations Museum. Priced at $12 before GST.