Sunday 15 December 2013

The Mango Princess

Teaching women staying at the shelter of HOME, a Singaporean charity that supports foreign domestic workers in trouble with their employers, is an extremely inspiring job. It is amazing to see what my students can teach me. 

Meet Maribel (not her real name), from the Philippines. The first time I met her was during my story writing class. She sat in a corner, quiet between chatting classmates, hunched over her papers. On all the questions of my writing exercise she gave the same answer. The first thing she saw when she woke up in her bunk bed at the shelter? She wouldn’t know, she only felt sadness for missing her son. What breakfast looked and tasted like? She wouldn’t know, she only felt sadness for missing her son. Her most and least favourite activity? She wouldn’t know, she only felt sadness for missing her son.
Not sure how to cheer her up, I gave Maribel a clean sheet and said: ‘Ok. Then write about your son for me.’ 

Not much later Maribel had filled the entire page with stories about how she picked the eight-year-old boy up from school, and took him to the market. They would indulge in their favourite fruit: mango. Maribel told about all his favourite foods she would cook for him, which were her favourites too, and the games they would play.
Impressed, I told her how great her writing was. ‘You just showed me how much you care about your son, without once using the word love.’

The week after, Maribel joined the ‘Dreams’ class, where girls are encouraged to think about their future in a positive way. Whilst looking at the future, I learned more about Maribel’s history. She came from a very poor family, but had married a man whose parents were the owners of a mango farm, and quite affluent. Maribel’s in-laws had always looked down on their peasant daughter-in-law, straining the relationship with her husband. The light of her life was her son, and she focussed all her love on him. Her dream was to plant a mango tree, together with her son, in her own garden. This class, Maribel was much less shy, and smiled regularly.

Another week and another writing class later we met again in the Dreams class. During the introductions I marvelled at how Maribel had changed. She was now always the first to answer any question, stimulating others to join as well.
The exercise of the day was to name a person you admired. It could be a famous person, a neighbour, or someone in the family. It should be someone you would like to be, if only for a day. Maribel was the first to write the name of who she wanted to be on her paper, and showed it proudly to the others. She had named Cinderella. The other girls nodded approvingly. But Maribel was not looking to be rescued by Prince Charming. 

Maribel told us how her life had been like that of Cinderella. Her own mother had died young, and her rich in-laws had never treated her much better than they would a servant. She wished for the strength of Cinderella, because Cinderella never lost hope. Cinderella found love and happiness in small things. And she always stayed friendly and kind, despite her hardships. Maribel hoped she could be just like that. 

Maribel is still staying in the HOME shelter, waiting for the Ministry of Manpower to solve her case, so she can go home and plant that mango tree with her son. Maribel is not waiting for Prince Charming. She will make her own happy end. 

Sunday 8 December 2013

I believe!

It does not cease to amaze me how big my kids are getting. My eldest recently turned six. This had to be celebrated in style with a football (yes football, I refuse to say soccer) party, where thirteen six-year-old boys (no girls allowed) turned our green lawn into a mudslide. A few days later, Tijm lost his first tooth.

It had been wobbly for a few days, and during more football on our mud field with a friend, he came running and screaming. I thought the worst, but these were cheers of joy. Proudly, I was shown the enamel evidence that had come out while Tijm was heading a ball in the goal.

Later that day we discussed the tooth fairy, and that Tijm should leave his tooth under the pillow, so he could receive a shiny coin for his piggy bank. Tijm looked up at me, incredibly. He shook his head. ‘No, mama, I don’t believe in the tooth fairy. That is just weird.’

A few weeks earlier we had had a similar conversation, where the subject of Santa Claus was raised.
‘Mama,’ he had said. ‘Father Christmas does not exist, does he? Not in Singapore.’
I was dumbfounded, freaking out in silence. What do you reply a five year old?

‘Off course he does,’ I started. ‘Don’t you remember seeing him last year, at the shopping centre? You even shook his hand?’
Tijm pondered, unconvinced. He shook his head. ‘I don’t believe it.’
We talked some more, but I could not convince my headstrong boy.
‘But what about Sinterklaas?’ I finally asked, heart pounding. I had not expected this to happen for a few more years.

Tijm looked back defiantly. ‘Sinterklaas?’ he said, as if that was a completely different matter. ‘No, Sinterklaas is real. Off course he is.’
With a mama-can-be-sooo-stupid look on his face he walked away, ending the conversation, leaving me relieved and confused at the same time.

Dealing with magical creatures like Santa Claus, his Dutch cousin and precursor Sinterklaas, the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny (or Easter Hare, in my country) is difficult enough for any parent of a precocious child, but doing so in a multicultural community like Singapore means walking an even tighter rope. Why does Sinterklaas only deliver his present to Dutch kids, where Santa Claus seems less selective and hands them out freely, yet not to everyone? Does he visit the Chinese kids? What about the Malays? The expats, the French, Italians, German, American, Australian and British, everyone cherishes their own traditions, yet does not hesitate to borrow freely from others what seems nice as well. The resulting melting pot is great fun, but can confuse even the most keen-to-believe kid.

On the other side there is the home country, which gets closer and closer each year on TV and internet. How can we see Sinterklaas arrive in the Netherlands, having travelled for months to get there from Spain on his steamship, and then see him arrive in Singapore only a week later? How can he visit schools and parties on all continents, does he go back and forth by warp zones?

Finally, there is the most pressing question for Tijm: is all the fun over now Sinterklaas has been so generous on December 5th, or will Santa Claus bring more presents on the 25th?

Time will tell, and for now, for me, there is only one answer: to believe. To keep believing in the magic of childhood, which exist everywhere.

Wishing everyone a very merry Christmas, wherever you are, whatever you believe, and however you choose to celebrate!

Monday 2 December 2013

A house with a history

I always like a place with a bit of history. Shining marble, or slabs of steel and concrete do not excite me much. I prefer old things, coloured with the patina of time, the cracks and scars telling their stories. With our current house, it seems I got a bit more than I bargained for.

The so-called 'Black and White' houses of Singapore, in one which we live, were build in colonial times by the British government. I had heard rumours that, emptied of their white inhabitants, they were used in World War II to house Prisoners of War. But I did not know the details. One day, felled with flu, I lay in my bed, reading a novel about a lady interned in a Japanese camp in Sumatra. My flustered mind started reeling, imagining myself lying just here, in that same spot, on a much less comfortable bed - on the floor even- struck by malaria, the Japanese on duty marching past the window. A European ‘expat wife’ like myself, in those days, would have been the enemy of Japan, and therefore, would have to be locked up. 

Sketch of Sime Road Camp by artist unknown (taken from

A few days later, with a much clearer mind, I remembered my feverish dream. The thought of it would not leave me alone, and I planned to find out the truth about my house. Were women like me really imprisoned here during the war? I had read that civilians had been send to Changi prison, completely on the other side of the island.

My search for the history of the house led me to Jon Cooper, a British historian who works for the Changi Museum in Singapore. He has been doing a lot of work on the Adam area, first by investigating the battle of Adam Park, just across the motorway. And more recently, Jon and his team have started exploring our own little drive. Emails and phone calls were exchanged, and one evening last week Jon came by to share the history of Adam Drive with all our neighbours. The reason I had not been able to find out more myself, was that the name of the street had been changed. During the war, this area was known as the ‘Sime Road Camp’. 

Overview of Sime Road Camp, drawn by internee (given to me by Jon Cooper)

The led up to the war in Singapore was chaotic. Most people believed Singapore was like a fort that the Japanese would never take. Defences were aimed at the sea in the south, but the Japanese took an unexpected route: overland, through the dense jungles of Malaysia in the north. 

Before the Japanese invasion, the British Army and Royal Air Force decided they needed to centralise their control, and they started to build new headquarters on Sime Road. The road that I can see behind our back garden, from the very desk I am typing on. They also started building new houses to house the military. But the Japanese arrived before these were finished, and only concrete platforms and drains had been realised. General Percival and his staff had to abandon their new headquarters, and retreat to Fort Canning.

Initially, like I had rightly heard, both western Prisoners or War and civilians were interned in Changi Prison, on the East coast of Singapore. The Japanese took up their headquarters on Sime Road, in the same ‘Green House’ on the hill, the outbuildings of which can be seen from the back of our garden. Later, both British and Australian Prisoners of War were moved to Sime Road. They were set to work in McRitchie reservoir, building a Shinto Shrine commemorating Japanese casualties during the campaign. They were housed in huts they built from wood and attap, on the concrete platforms the British had build. Later again, these prisoners were sent to Siam and Burma, to work on the railroad. 

In the last years of the war, Changi prison became full to the brim. Now civilian internees were moved to the fresh air and greens hills of Sime Road. More wooden huts were built, on the existing platforms and around. It was a large camp, part of it now covered by the motorway. Only one area remained intact, where after the war new, stone houses were built on the platforms, again for the military. This is the area we now call Adam Drive. It is one of these houses in which we now live.

And what had this area been in the Sime Road camp? The women’s camp! So my dream had not been that far from the truth. Maybe not in my current stone house, but in a wooden one on the same spot I was laying, white women like myself had been interned during the war. From the map Jon gave me, a copy of which you can see below, it seems likely our house is in the place of hut number 10. 

Painting by Leslie Cole, showing the inside of a Sime Road hut with women and children

 At the end of the war, the Sime Road camp housed over four thousand people, including around a thousand women and a couple of hundred children, and was like a town in itself. There was a hospital, a farm area, church, carpentry, school, and even a pub called the Flying Dutchman. 

To find out more about life in the camp, I read the ‘Diary of a girl in Changi’, by Sheila Allen, who stayed in both Changi Prison and Sime Road camp. Having read much about the life in Japanese camps in Indonesia, I am impressed at the relatively good circumstances in these camps. There was electricity, and hot running water. The women busy themselves with organising concerts, school, Christmas parties, and other activities to keep them busy. They are separated from they husbands by barbed wire, but still, babies are born, showing some contact must have been possible. Still, life was extremely hard and uncertain, food rations were very low, and many people died of malnutrition and disease. 

Map of Sime Road Camp (made by Jane Booker Nielsen of the Changi Museum, oct 2013)

When we now walk around Adam Drive we see it with different eyes. Our mind will erase the trees, which look century-old, but of which we now know they are much younger, as the area was open and grassy then. Everywhere we try to recognise camp pictures and settings of stories. We mentally erase stone houses and plant wooden huts in their place. We picture the farm at the spot where my kids like to play on the swings. We search for entrances to the mysterious tunnels. We plot the image of the Flying Dutchman pub over the carport that is now in it’s place. The work of Jon and his team is on going, and they have found some new researchers in us. Who knows, what we will unravel?