Synergy of Humanity and the Multiplicity of Conflict

I am mesmerised by this image of a red cliff face and a row of women, backs bent, ferrying baskets trudging up a fenced mountain path. I see steam billowing from below joining the plumes of clouds at the mountain top. The women are all dressed alike—forming a line of uniformed white and brown dots—and there seems to be a leader, a lone woman sans basket at the top; she stands apart from the line. The incription describing the photo says, “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in Yunnan.”

Once upon a time, I used to live on a tropical island. I grew up thinking that its people have always lived harmoniously. I am too young to know about the racial tension and riots that took place there in the mid-1960s. When I was growing up, nobody talked about these riots. When I was growing up, my friends were Malays, Indians, Eurasians. When I was growing up, we recited a pledge that goes like this: 

“We, the citizens of Singapore,

pledge ourselves as one united people,

regardless of race, language or religion,

to build a democratic society

based on justice and equality

so as to achieve happiness, prosperity

and progress for our nation.”

I was proud to recite this, proud that a little island-nation made up of a hotchpotch of diverse people are living together harmoniously. I was proud to be who I am, I’m still proud, and so were my multi-ethnic friends, who are still proud of their identities too. I was, above all, proud that my little nation home was peaceful. 

But a recent spate of events that occurred on this little island in the tropics have led to much conflict in this multi-ethnic nation-state. These events put this pledge, the National Pledge, into question. These events filled me with consternation and rage, forcing me to re-examine (once more) my sentiments towards my identity and to Singapore.

The events led to me feeling conflicted about my position as a former citizen: Chinese-Singaporean, privileged, educated and upper middle-class. I was conflicted because I heard a Chinese man on video telling an Indian-Filipino man that he is ‘disturbing’ the race because he is “preying on a Chinese girl”, the Chinese girl being the Indian man’s date. The video spanned over 5 minutes of air time and was watched over 3,000 times since it was uploaded on Sunday (June 6). Such in-your-face racism is the first I’ve witnessed coming out of Singapore, I’ll be honest. If you’ll bear with me: the last time I lived again in Singapore was between 2013 to 2020. And as a privileged, somewhat wealthy and educated woman, who speaks English well, I was not subject to such vitriol. It’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in Singapore. Racism always has. Casual racism has always existed; it  is very prevalent there. Motherhood statements like ‘Malays are lazy’, ‘Indians are smelly’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ are very much part of the national narrative. I have heard all these growing up in Singapore. My husband is ‘Ang Moh’, a European or ‘red hair’, even though he is from one of the Med countries. And you know what? ‘Chinese are greedy’, ‘Chinese always talk about money’ are real statements too. Then, there are other casual statements such as ‘Mix-raced girls are pretty’, ‘Eurasian kids are good looking’, and by Eurasian, the average Singaporean almost always means half-Asian, half-European because the racial category of ‘Eurasian’ means something else—Anglo-Indian. These statements were usually kept within individual communities because there was an unspoken agreement amongst its multi-ethnic citizenry that if these statements were vocalised, they would foment the already existing racial divide in the country and highlight the racial hierarchy within the society. 

Why the conflict and the rage? I am shocked that this man can so blatantly disturb a young man and his date in public by calling the young man, Mr Dave Parkash, aged 23, a ‘racist’ because he and his half-Chinese/half-Thai girlfriend are from ‘different races’. 

It is absolutely gobsmacking that this Chinese expounder of such Nazi race relations theories could be a lecturer at one of Singapore’s higher education institutions. And that he could have been passing down his limited and yes, supremacist ideas of race to his students. And doing so for many years, before he exposed himself publicly by calling himself a racist too and saying these “quite unacceptable” and “very worrying” things. [quoting Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.]

I am mad because this man is not all that much older than me. And that his generation of ethnic Chinese, someone of the diaspora, where China hasn’t been the ‘Motherland’ for centuries, could behave this way. I am outraged because as a Peranakan-Chinese, I was always made to identify Chinese, and in a convoluted but unassociated way, made to choose Chinese (like this racist man) over being anything else, and especially over simply being Singaporean. 

And, what I’m most angry about is that most Chinese Singaporeans would cry out ‘racism’ ASAP when they leave Singapore and are suddenly not the dominant race anymore, but would hesitate to recognise that they can be racist too…in their own country.

Race, as we know, is a social construct, next to gender. The taxonomy of race is a colonial construct. And, unfortunately, post-colonial nations bear this legacy, which has served its independent governments equally well—maintain the status quo, uphold the dominant race. The Chinese race is dominant in Singapore. The indigenous Malay race is dominant in Malaysia and Indonesia. And racial tensions have co-existed next to racial harmony in these nations and the region since time immemorial. 

In the UK, where I live and have lived since 1992, anyone other than White is ‘Other’. White supremacists are real here and more vocal because they often spout Nazi-like theories and expound racist comments on social media. One just has to google a man named Laurence Fox for some vitriolic entertainment. But entertainment NOT. Fox’s white supremacist ideology and comments are far from entertaining. They are hurtful, damaging, and absolutely abhorrent. 

Here in the UK, I am not privileged. And I am proud not to be. Since the Pandemic, hatred for and towards East Asians and Southeast Asians has increased. I have lived with this everyday since returning to England in 2020. But I don’t live in fear. I live to challenge this. 

My children are Eurasians: half-Asian/half-European. They identify strongly with their dual heritage. They are examples of the rapidly increasing diversity in this world. And their children will be more multi hyphenated than them. The UK 2001/2011 census shows that “the number of dual heritage children up to four years old rose from 116,000 in 2001, to 220,000 in 2011.” [Source] And these statistics are old. In London, over 45% of the demographics is mixed-race.

My husband is European. Today, he would be very unwelcome in Singapore, judging from what some White expat friends living there are saying regarding the treatment of expats (somehow mainly targeted at the white expat community). Apparently, expats are stealing jobs and getting preferential treatment, and they’re racist too. Likewise, he is also very much unwelcome in the UK because…Brexit. And seen through the same lens by Brexit-voting English — here to steal their jobs.

The topic of racism is an uncomfortable subject to raise and discuss. But we need to sit with that discomfort and talk about it to our children. Being an ostrich about it doesn’t help to change the status quo. Singaporeans need to tell their children that casual and blanket statements like ‘Indians are smelly’ or ‘Malays are lazy’, even ‘Chinese are greedy’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ must be questioned and critically discussed. Schools have to take up the challenge to do this too because what good is there if students only pass exams and pass them well, but live in denial that they could be racist because their elders – grandparents, parents, and teachers – continue to be casually racist without being confronted and challenged. 

Here’s a true story:

My husband was having lunch one day. He was just biting into his roti paratha dunked in mutton curry when a Singaporean-Chinese male colleague said, “You like Indian food?” [surprised that a Med European could]. After my husband had answered in the affirmative, the Chinese man continued, “I’ll let you finish first and then tell you why I don’t eat Indian food.” [like he was being considerate]. All eager to share why he doesn’t eat Indian food, the man watched as the hubs gulped down his last bite of roti and then proceeded immediately to tell him a story about how ‘dirty’ Indians are, how ‘they are not clean and wipe their hands on their sarongs’ and ‘how they use the same hands to [fill in the blanks here] and then serve food.’ According to the male Chinese colleague, when he was a young lad, his uncle had told him this and showed him the dirty hand prints made of curry, pointing out to him that this is why ‘Indian people are dirty’. 

The hubs was not only upset, he was aghast that this Chinese man is a colleague, someone who works in and for a multi-national corporation that is all about diversity and inclusion, and yes, a degree holder. 

And most of all, what disturbed the hubs was that this Chinese colleague felt he could disclose such blatantly racist remarks to him because being of the privileged race, he saw himself as “equal” to a White man and therefore conversely, the White man would agree with his sentiments and, you’ve got it—pat his back in approval. 

This, my friend, is racism at its most real and most high. Racism at its most dangerous–internalised and verbalised.

So, when Singaporeans say that racism doesn’t exist or that they are a multi-ethnic and a harmonious society and SO racism cannot exist, please think again. 

But most of all, let’s consider this: ”Love is love. Love has no race, love has no religion. You and I should be able to love whoever we wanna love. Let’s not become like this man in the video.” – Mr Dave Parkash.

And mull over this: “To this man who may end up watching this, I hope you learn to stop being a racist and let us all live in harmony.” – Mr Dave Parkash

Mr Parkash’s words echo photographer Eng Chung Tong’s: “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos.” 

If there is anything important to learn from this spate of events, it is that the nation must come together to talk about this and to never let this happen again. Otherwise, chaos would follow suit. Lest the island-nation forgets, the 1964 and 1969 race riots weren’t all that far away behind us. 

‘Synergy of Humanity’ by Eng Chung Tong, Malaysia, Shortlist, Open, Culture (Open competition), 2019 Sony World Photography Awards, “A humanity view of one of the minorities tribes in Yunnan going about their daily working life. Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in yunnan.”

The Storyteller’s Tool Kit

Where do I get my ideas from? 

Here, There and Everywhere. 

Random image of tentacles taken at Pompeii

Welcome story geniuses. I thought I’d write a post about the storyteller’s tool kit. Like most toolkits, you’ll see that my toolbox is filled with the usual tools. You know, the common ones like inspiration, structure, research, tech. I add a couple of personal ones in there too like music, movies, and people. 

#Tool 1 Inspiration

As you know, all stories come from an idea. Yes, just the one. This one idea can fragment into many. Think of a lightbulb with dozens of light rays spreading out across a dark room. Imagine a mosiac art work, the whole made up of  splintered ceramic or stone pieces, and if you isolate one section, there is another story there. What about a kaleidoscope and as you turn the dial, the fratal changes into another pattern. 

But as a writer, you mustn’t forget your central idea for that story you’re writing at the moment. 

So, I am working on a YA novel, my first. I was inspired by a central idea of the master and servant relationship. I wanted to explore this through the lens of an indentured servant. 

#Tool 2 Research

It all started with my curiosity about how societies treated their help. From that broad question, I narrowed it down to a culture and heritage I know well: I wanted to explore an oppressive system that originated in China, where poor girls were sold to wealthy families as servants. 

Indentured servitude is not uncommon as there are many forms of slavery as well as different notions of perceived freedom. Indentured servants have existed in Southeast Asia for the longest time in various forms and guises. In particular, I wanted to find out more about mui tsai or young girls working in the homes of wealthy Straits Chinese or Peranakan-Chinese. Then, this got me thinking about migrant workers and their plight, which led me down the rabbit hole of finding out as much as I could about the migrant worker situation around the world. 

My mind was going full speed everywhere but to nowhere. So, I reigned myself in. What is my central idea?—the master and servant relationship. What was my focus?—indentured servitude. 

#Tool 3 Setting 

Since all stories have to take place somewhere—real or imagined—I picked British Malaya because I know this landmass far better than Hong Kong or China. I am a Peranakan-Chinese because my ancestors braved monsoon winds and sailed across the South China Sea to Malaya, so what better place to start from than examining the cultural history and lives of the Straits Chinese, my ancestors? 

But Malaya was connected to the Empire, with its headquarters located on an island situated between the the  North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. 

My mind was going places again. But hang on, I need to focus. So I returned again to Malaya, in particular Singapore, country of my birth. 

#Tool 4 Structure

All stories have a structure. This Aristotelian idea is an ideal and as storytellers we must let structure guide us. There’s a beginning, middle and an end to every story—always. 

My novel starts media res—in the middle. Funny how the middle became my beginning, hey? I only came to this decision after redrafting the initial structure and I can tell you, it wasn’t funny because I had to rewrite almost 10,000 words of the original manuscript. This consisted of my making a developmental change and then rewriting the parts to fit in with the change. Mind you, developmental editing is what editors do for authors all the time. So I switched a couple of parts around, rewrote some bits, and the story took another shape of its own. 

Think of structure as a squiggly line that moves up to a point of climax and drops again and ends at the point of resolution which leads us to what is known as the denouement. That’s French for the final outcome and it’s a literary term used by industry wigs to show off their prowess. Literary theory and criticism aside, we need to remember that all journeys must come to an end and it’s no different for stories. But where is the end? Most would consider the end as the part whre the hero of the journey finds what they were looking for or found the answer to their quest/search. Now, solving the problem (resolution) in the story is not the same as the outcome, denouement, of the story. The denouement can end in a catastrophe (think Wuthering Heights) or it can end happily ever after (think Cinderalla). 

To get structure in order, I needed to think of a sequence of events that will move my story forward. I had to know that this happaned first, then this happened next, then that happened after, so on and so forth, until I come to the end of my tale. 

The best way to see your sequence of events is to write them out. Illustrators do a storyboard. There’s nothing stopping those who can’t draw from doing the same. You can use stick figures, if you want. 

But all story structures or shapes are based on the central idea: the Main Character’s journey in the book. 

#Tool 5 Tech and the Muse

Technology is a great tool for any writer. I use a MacBook and organise my writing into files. Some people swear by Scrivener. I haven’t dabbled there yet because it requires that I learn how to use the tool. But I’ve been told that once you’ve learnt to, it’s no sweat. 

But the best tool of all is YOU. As a writer you’ve just got to turn up. Here is a previous post on what my day looks like. As I write for a living and not always fun stuff, I am forced to turn up. My favourite author said this, ‘turn up, turn up, turn up and the muse will turn up too.” She is none other than Isabel Allende. 

For extra help on inspiration, structure, setting and research, I turn to Netflix fo plot, characterisation and the 3-Act Structure. I just watched Pieces of A Woman. It’s not for everyone, I will say. But it was superb acting and I was thoroughly convinced that the main character was really giving birth. I wanted to see how the script writer had used the 3-Act Structure to plot her story. And, I tell you what, it’s there—the beginning, middle, end, with everything in a writer’s took kit thrown in—inciting incident, sub-plots, small crises, big crises, the crisis—resolution, and outcome. 

Music makes its way into my daily routine too when I’m feeling the blues and get stuck on a plot point. My latest is listening to covers by Carly Rose (Sonenclar)

And last but not least: People. My favourite people is my family. So I turn to them for sustenance. 

What the World Needs Now is…

Today, I recieved a text from my GP informing me to make an appointment for my vaccination. Just this morning, a concerned friend living in Portsmouth had texted to ask when I was getting mine. Another friend who lives in Paris texted to say that she and her husband have had theirs. And my elderly neighbours emailed to say that they’ve been vaccinated and can’t wait to be free. 

Frankly, I have been rather non-chalant about the vaccinations, wasn’t in a hurry to get one because my turn will come with it comes. I am not at risk, don’t work in essential services, and am a WFH writer and editor. All safety boxes checked with a thick green tick. So why did I feel elated that I will be getting my first shot on Thurday morning? I am suddenly seeing a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel. 

This is my fourth lockdown. I think. The family and I were locked down in Singapore from April 7th to May 4th. While we were still being locked down, the lockdown, named circuit breaker, was further extended until June 1st by the Singapore government. So we had some freedom before the girls and I left for London in July. We met up with some friends, said goodbye to family, and flew out of Changi early July, jubilant that a new chapter of our lives would begin again. This is one of the many perks of being a family constantly expatriating. Or is it? 

Moving countries during a pandemic is harrowing. Stuff you can tell your grandkids about later because pandemics are life changing and hit you when you least expect them. After a claustrophobic 14-hour flight in a not that empty cabin, we arrived to a London that had no checks despite the Home Office asking all passengers to fill in a COVID location form. We breezed through customs. 

The city in July of 2020 was beginning to open up. Singapore, too, had by then come out of their circuit breakers and phasing out of their lockdown one strong step by one strong step at a time.  The air was crisp with hope in London as the UK prepared for the summer. The mood was buoyant like it is now. We were buoyant too because optimism is infectious. But we still wore our masks outside the house and in the shops just because old habits die hard; mask-wearing was still not mandatory in the shops then. I received some accusatory glances and many Londoners generously made room for me on the pavement and supermarket aisles. One lady told me to step away from her and I didn’t think anything of it other than that it was her freedom to demand for social distancing. The supermarket was a rather small one and I am a good citizen, so I stepped aside and let her get on with it. We were allowed to go out for essentials while we quarantined. The girls and I took our 14-day quarantine seriously because it is serious stuff. We were staying at an Airbnb then and I left the apartment every other day to do our grocery shopping at the Marks & Spencers across the street. Once, I got tutted at for moving a man’s trolley out of the way to get a punnet of tomatoes. I had asked him to excuse me but he was hard of hearing so I gestured an excuse me and moved his trolley to make room for other people and myself. It was only tomatoes, no big deal, I know. So, I said thank you from behind my mask to a pair of raised eyebrows. 

Summer is always glorious in a country with more than four wet and damp seasons. Bodies were out in the parks tanning and picnicking, children were running free with the wind in their hair and the sun behind them, and people were generally having a great time despite a pandemic looming over them. I knew that if the English and Brits didn’t start to listen or if the gov didn’t do something quickly, the virus would spread like wild fire. And this freedom would slowly ebb away like the outgoing tide. But what does one listen to when the messages that the gov was sending were mixed and oh so confusing.

Summer raged on and school started in September as per the old normal. Europe was too far away to be affected by a Chinese virus, but the international schools were careful and followed the rules as people were still travelling back to London from everywhere. Then the curve got steeper and by the end of September going into October, Boris Johnson announced the necessity for a circuit breaker. I wonder where they got that idea from. But flight corridors were still allowed and many went on holidays over the Christmas break. Then the numbers went up more and that circuit breaker got extended again after Christmas because a variant from South Africa or was it Brazil had found their way into England. It is only just last week that schools have opened up again. We are in March 2021. It has been a year since the whole world was brought to its knees. 

I am not begging for a vaccine. But I am eager for one because it protects me and my family. Right now, my concerns are only extended to the people I love. And I hope that this is mirrored by the many people who are anti-vaccers, who are suspicious of what medicine can do and have done and continue to do, and those who don’t trust the government. Do it for the people you love. And, if we want borders to open up and for us to travel freely like in the old-normal, then we must do what we need to do in this new-normal. Don’t get me wrong, I am on the side of subversive always. But this time, I am being good. 

Okay, all said and done, human beings are the only beings that can help humanity. And remember, God helps those who help themselves. This is one rule in Christianity that I abide by by every stretch of my imagination. Give me that shot! 

*The author has since received her first shot.

A Day In the Life of a Writer

Well, it’s been a full day’s work again today. Like for most people with regular jobs. Writing is a lonely day job, but it nonetheless takes up a whole day, if you’re a professional writer like me. Writing is my regular job. 

What Does A Typical Day Look Like for Me?

6 am – I am up.

6:30 am – I read and answer my emails with a cup of coffee. 

7:30 am – I start work. My current WIP is a YA novel that I’m in the middle of writing. I decided to change the POV this morning. So, I had to rewrite over 10,000 words of the current MS, changing from 3rd to 1st. 

10:00 am – I jump on a zoom call with my business partner, Debasmita Dasgupta. We discuss a new project—writing a graphic novel together. 

11:00 am – comfort break. I make my second cup of coffee. Have a light snack.

11:15 am – I work on a current project: researching and writing blog posts for an in-house e-zine.

13:15 – lunch break. Today, I reheated some hot and sour soup from the day before. Sometimes, I get an Uber Eats or Deliveroo. 

13:45 – I do some research on another project about therapeutic jurisprudence in family law. This is a ghost-writing project for a legal practice outside the UK.

15:45 – I check into moodle at the Roehampton University and listen to my lectures on the MA Children’s Literature. This week we are learning about Historical Fiction in Children’s Literature. This is my favourite genre. 

17:30 – comfort break

17:45 – reply to emails that have come in during the time I haven’t been checking emails. Make a note of who to reply to ASAP and who to KIV for tomorrow.

18:45 – stop work to cook dinner. Tonight we are having pasta ragù from Nonna Tonda, a pasta and sauce delivery company. My life is made easier because all I do is boil the fresh pasta and reheat the sauce. 

20:00 – if I have the energy, I write for another 1 to 1.5 hours. This is always my own work.

22:00 – reading time – YAY!! I am reading YA novel: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. I am pulled into her fantasy world. 

23:00 or earlier if I start to nod – sleep. 

As my day is filled with words and sentences, I go to sleep dreaming of the different stories and books that occupy my psyche. It’s a great feeling, I’ll be honest. As I am working on world building and characterisation right now, I wake to a character voice in my head. I let that character speak to me in the liminal space between slumber and wakefulness. This morning, it was the Lee household cook, one of the characters in my YA. Her voice is distinct, I feel her presence, I take refuge in her wisdom but I am suspicious of her. She speaks to me in the “I” and nudges me to change my viewpoint of her story from the 3rd. 

Because I work on several projects concurrently, I have to really prioritise where I want to dedicate my writing energy. I keep a notebook of with a to-do list of all my projects and tick them off as I go through the items daily. Today, I worked mostly on the blogging and YA WIP. 

As it’s all in a day’s work, I always reward myself with a glass of something luscious like a good Prosecco on Fridays. Maybe one day, I can have champagne instead. But hey-ho, it’s one day in the life of a professional writer. 

TGIF!!

Year Of Change

Image borrowed from Bristol Old Vic

How to make changes during pandemic and post

I can’t believe that we’re almost at the end of February. It seems like time has flown by under lockdown. The Chinese have just entered the Year of the Ox. And feng shui experts promise a strong year of change.

As England eases up on our uniformed incarceration, the mood is buoyant. Articles galore are being circulated around the globe on how wonderful summer of ’21 is looking. Hang on! We are not there yet, but we can hope as we project into the future; hope for change. There is hope too in the UK publishing world as Bonnier Books reveals their inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. They and the UK are moving and shaking to make changes to include more diverse voices and people in publishing. About time! 

As most of us in the industry who are not White know, the focus hasn’t always been on us. Yes, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, People of Colour writers, have existed for the longest time: there are books written by freed slaves (mostly in the USA) that have been mentioned by Toni Morrison, tomes penned by Chinese philosophers and thinkers (all in Chinese but many have been translated into English), and in the modern world, fiction written in English by greats like Tash Aw, Amy Tan, and Tan Twan Eng, there is still a gap in the market that needs to be filled. Patience is the key to seeing change happen for “meaningful change takes time and doesn’t happen in isolation.” But Perminder Mann, c.e.o. of Bonnier Books says that she and her team are committed to more meaningful and prolonged engagement and collaboration to make change happen. I salute them. 

On the home front: As folks know, I am a committed agent of change. There are many reasons why and the biggest one of all is that CHANGE makes us BETTER people. Why be stuck in antiquity? 

On the writing front: I have been prolific in my writing under pandemic. I know that this hasn’t been easy for many writers who have to deal with WFH, home-schooling kids, and being locked down and in small spaces. Don’t be hard on yourselves—choose self-love. For those of us with half empty nests, the lockdown has kept us busy so that we don’t lose our sanity. So, I wrote and wrote reams and reams. Writing helps me find catharsis. But there are other ways to find release as well. 

On the change front: You don’t have to write new stuff. Revising old stuff is also writing. I revised an old manuscript that had been sitting in my computer drawer for ages. I couldn’t find the mojo to finish it under the first lockdown in Singapore. Under my third lockdown in England, I rescued it from my musty computer drawer and worked on it. I shared it with some writer friends in my community and after they’d given me their feedback, I revised it again. Then I found the courage to submit it to an agent who rejected it. No matter. I am an agent of change. So I changed the story a little bit more and I sent it to another agent. This time I got a ‘I love it’ email, are you up for a chat? Now, I’m working with an agent to make changes in the book market in the UK.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But it won’t happen if you don’t decide to affect change. 

Change happens on several levels and here are three:

  • Choose to change;
  • Vote for change;
  • Make change happen.

Get those pens or ‘puters out and write those stories and be prepared to change them. Then write that query letter and send them out. Here is a list of literary agents in the UK that may like your work. It only takes one. 

Make Change Happen.

I am available for one-to-one consultations and mentoring. I want to help you make that change. Connect with me @evawongnava on Instagram and Twitter. Email me: enquiries@evawongnava.com.