Turn away from displays of chic vintage tote bags and ‘cute’ gem biscuit cushions. These celebrations of a devalued past are given a more genuine reworking in an unassuming piece of children’s literature – through the keen eyes of Handsome Hock and Champion Poh.
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“Out with the old and in with the new,” is fast becoming an ironically archaic cliché. The fanfare of heritage festivals and abandoned railway station flea markets have turned the idiom on its head. Some even drop their subtly-ostentatious hipster-ish façade to outrightly boast of upcoming “Vintage Fairs”.
On one hand, it serves the country very well when these icons of the past bind people together with communal memories. It also does not harm to realize that such a trend has seemingly lessen complaints of Singapore being a country with “no culture and tradition”.
“and once there were children here
careless, wild, free, playing
no one stopped to look, check
as marbles broke, kites flew
strings were cut, teeth smashed
and once, yes, there were children here
laughing, crying, feeling, free
we were those children
we now the adults that cower between the walls.”
Poem by Kirpal Singh, “And Once There Were Children” (2012) on the loss of a rich and free childhood from the past
Yet, this light-hearted neo-traditional consumer trend may have glossed over the complexities and rifts that intertwine with history.
How, then, can we retain our history and culture with astuteness ?
A simple answer is books.
One of them comes in the name of The Very Solid Adventure of Handsome Hock and Champion Poh by Phua San San. Don’t be too quick to dismiss it as a children’s book because of Hock and Poh’s childish antics; Underlying the simple narrative poem are socio-political allusions that open spaces for discussion between young and older readers.
Succinctly structured in rhyming quatrains (verses with 4 lines), the book revolves around a series of apparently random incidents that bring Hock and Poh together during the 1970s. Their snippets of adventures – and misadventures – include watching Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury in an open-air carpark, running away from domestic quarrels, and teaching Singlish to their new ang-moh classmate. In this almost utopic world, Phua infuses light-hearted and comedic narratives to paint these activities of the past.
Phua’s work, however, works on two levels. While younger readers may only read her work from the surface, Phua offers an opening for older readers to relate to her narrative on a deeper level. More astute readers would have recognised and/or remembered these incidents – and their underlying tensions. With the advent of globalisation, international films, like Fist of Fury, were voraciously consumed and superstars like Bruce Lee hero-worshipped.
Nonetheless, economic downturn follows in the shadow of globalisation, as during the 1973 economic depression. When Handsome Hock’s father loses his job, it unsettles his entire family dynamics. Though Hock later reconciles with his family, Phua gives readers a glimpse of the stress and disappointments during this volatile and depressing period.
Phua also manages to make subtle references to the tension between Singlish and Standard English that perpetuates even till today. The “Ah-Lecks” (the clever people from the West, as Hock describes) are highly esteemed by Hock and his classmates. Yet, none of us like a ‘smart ah-leck’ (a common Singlish label of someone who tries to appear smart). Is this part of Phua’s deliberate satirical plan?
This book is one that readers can keep returning to, not merely to laugh at the simple childhood fun of the past, but also shine light on the swirling murkiness of culturally embedded practices.
The question, then, is how far do readers want to venture with this book? Indeed, how responsible should readers be for their reading?
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For more nourishing picture books that introduce young readers to Singapore’s heritage and traditional practices, Farrer Park and There was a Peranakan Woman who Lived in a Shoe are lovely start-off points that adapt nursery rhymes to local contexts.
Farrer Park by Ann Peters
There Was a Peranakan Woman Who Lived in a Shoe by Gwen Lee
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