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Mar 10, 2019

Son of Singapore

Son of Singapore by Tan Kok Seng is an autobiography covering the early years of a Singaporean's life in our country's early years.

Set against Singapore's push towards self-governance, it tells the story of a Teochew farm boy who becomes a coolie at the Orchard Road market.  He also befriends a group of Chinese dialect-speaking Caucasians who frequently beyond his humble roots.

Excerpt with courtesy of on this blog to share.

Working as a coolie

In my first two weeks I began to be familiar with Singapore street names.  At the end of the second week, I had to go to a house in Goodwood Park to collect the usual order form.  In that house, the amah was Cantonese.

Each day, it was she who gave me the order, and she usually had it ready, written by her employer's wife.  Today, however, the amah wanted something in addition, but because she was speaking (or so I thought) in Cantonese, I couldn't understand her properly.  All I could hear was, "Yat ko towkay." (One whole boss).

This didn't make sense, but evidently she wanted to see my boss.  So I cycled quickly back to the stall.

"Towkay! Towkay!" I cried.  "That house in Goodwood Park with the very big and dangerous dog.  The amah's calling for you to go there.  She says she wants one whole boss."

The towkay, fearing something was wrong and that he might lose a customer, went off to the place at once.  There, having mustered his courage to face the dog (it was a ferocious Alsatian), he asked the amah what she wanted.

"My coolie told me you wanted me," he said.

The amah looked mystified.  "No, I didn't ask for you," she replied.  "I only asked your coolie to add to the order 10 cents' worth of bean sprouts.  Your coolie said, 'All right', and I thought he would bring them.  I didn't want you to come."

Bean sprouts in Hokkien are called tow gay, and though I didn't realise it she had been trying to speak to me in Hokkien.  But no knowing how to say '10 cents' in that dialect, she had said it in Cantonese - yat kok - which sounded to me like yat ko (one whole).  But how was I to know that in that short sentence she was using two completely different dialects?

When the boss came back to the market, however, he was seething with rage.  He turned on his wife.  "That stupid boy of yours!" - this was me - "he's worse than useless!"  And he explained to his wife what the amah really wanted.

"She wants 10 cents of tow gay," he said angrily, "not 10 cents of towkay!" (10 cents of the boss!  It was getting worse and worse.)

To his increased fury, the fat Madam was convulsed with laughter, and I, standing behind her husband, nearly laughed too, only he suddenly switched round at me.

"You've caused me one hell of a lot of work and trouble!" he shouted in a bid to assert his authority.  "With one foot I could kick you out.  D'you know that?"

But the fat Madam was the deciding factor in such matters, and she said to me, "Next time listen carefully and don't make mistakes again.  Anything you don't understand, ask the amah to say it again till you're sure what it is."

"All right," I murmured quietly, and went back to brushing carrots.  I was glad she had not scolded me this time.  And of course it had to happen at that house with the frightful dog.

The end of the month came, and I proudly received my salary of 30 dollars. 

Worked 6.5 days a week, for S$30 a month

Sunday afternoon was my only free time each week, and on the Sunday after getting my pay, I went back home, and even more proudly handed my mother 20 dollars.

Because I slept and had my meals in the boss's house, which was in a side street close to the market, I needed only 10 dollars for myself for pocket money.

I worked six-and-a-half days a week, and the hours were long, 6am to 10 or 11pm each day except Sunday, when I finished around 1.30pm.

In those days, I was young, but even so I found the work very tiring.  By the end of each day, I was all out.  I would have a wash and go straight to bed, where I slept like a pig till someone shook me awake the next morning.

But I felt it was a happy and lucky time for me, to have such a job as this, to train me to be strong and tough.

I doubt if many boys of 15 today would think in the same way as I did then.

Today, they would think I was being driven like an ox or a horse, worked all day and knowing nothing.

But youngsters in Singapore at that time were not so clever as they are today; their thinking was slower and simpler.  Nor did they demand, or expect, so much.

Part of a lion dance troupe

On the first day of the New Year, we students set out early in the morning in two trucks to visit the homes of the monastery's benefactors.

There were about 60 of us, all dressed similarly in white vests and baggy black trousers of very light material (excellent for dynamic movement) tied at the ankle with puttees.

Eight of us were experts at manipulating the lion in the lion dance, taking it in turns, two at a time, one the head, the others held the monastery flags and banners, and engaged in demonstrations of the monastery's martial arts.

Our first stop was in Katong, at the home of the chairman of the White Flower Oil Company, who was one of the monastery's staunches supporters.

There we spent three-quarters of an hour in the hugh forecourt of his house, while he and his family watched from the upper balcony.

Books by Tan Kok Seng

Tan Kok Seng had only a primary education but that did not stop him from writing.  Kok Seng, whose books have been selling well, wrote about his life as a farmer, labourer, grocery delivery boy and a chauffeur.  Besides enjoying a wide readership in Singapore, the Japanese version of his first book, Son of Singapore, is reported to be selling well in Japan, too. 

Kok Seng wrote about the lack of local writers in New Nation on 28 October, 1972:

"One of the reasons so few of our people read books is that very few books are written for us, except school textbooks.  Reading books for pleasure begins with reading about people who might be ourselves, written by one of us.

In all the countries with big readerships.  Britain, US, Japan, France etc., nine-tenth of the time the people are reading books written about themselves, by their own nationals.

This is something we lack and which I believe we need.

One of the reasons why I, a former market coolie, wrote Son of Singapore was in the hope that it would encourage others, regardless of their social position, to write about themselves.

The wonderful send-off which New Nation gave to my book has done more than anything else to stimulate this possibility.

To date, every letter I have received from members of the public in Singapore and Malaysia has asked for a sequel.  This of course is personally satisfying.

But much more important, in my view, is the need it reflects for books about ourselves.

 Labourer Made Good

This is the Times Arts profile in The Straits Times on 28 February, 1982.

Tan Kok Seng is now 45, his boyish good look just faintly lined around the eyes.

His only literary endeavour at the moment, he tells me, is the refinement of his original Chinese-language text for his autobiographical trilogy, so that it can at last be published in Chinese, the language it was really written in - after that, he would like to try a children's story, he says.

When he does write again, he may find himself in a bit of a creative quandary:  Much of his charm so far has resided in his wide-eyed simplicity, the wonder of a poor little country boy moving into the big city and the even wide-world, for the first time.

Although writing in English remains a problem for him, he is no longer that country boy.  He is mature and well-travelled.  It will be interesting to see how he writes in future.

For the time being, however, most of his energy is channelled into a new business.  He represents Ming Fung Co of Hongkong in Singapore, marketing Chinese glazed tile products imported from China.

Those sinuous dragons chasing the celestial pearl, which grace temple roofs, and the snaring lion-dogs guarding towkays' homes, are among the wares he sells.

Yet Kok Seng's work remains very much a quiet force in the world of Singapore writing.

For one thing, he himself is understandably proud of the fact that some of his books figure on the Ministry of Education's recommended textbooks list for lower secondary pupils here.

Kok Seng has risen from the grassroots of Singapore society.

He has not been unduly influenced by the outside world.  As he himself stoutly declares, "I am not easily influenced by anyone."

Here is a rarity for someone emerging from so traditional a Chinese background - a true individualist.

There really have not been many to match Kok Seng since his debut, in terms of his humble origins.

One might have expected that his delivery boy-to-author story would inspire countless others of his kind - coolies, clerks and peons - to put pen to paper too.  But, alas, it seems this is not to be.

Perhaps one reason is that Kok Seng has moved away from his original environment, to cross the "culture barrier" and move completely from his natural language-stream, Chinese, into English.

Introduction by Don Bosco

As you read Son of Singapore, at one point you'll find Kok Seng reassuring himself that "Heaven will never impede anyone on the upward path".

One might also observe that "Heaven will never impede anyone with a worthy story to tell".

In Kok Seng's case, he had only studied up to Primary Six in a Chinese school.  Throughout his growing-up years, he could barely mumble a few words of English.  And his early work experience could be summarised in two words: coolie, driver.  So then, with all the odds seemingly against him, how did this acclaimed book, this literary legend, come to be?

Kok Seng told Don Bosco this story:

He was working in Hong Kong as a driver for the British diplomat Austin Coates (also sometimes more affectionately called "Kai Tze" in this book).  Coates had regular assignments all over Europe, and it was part of Kok Seng's duties to go along.  All that he saw stirred him to spend his evenings writing down anecdotes about his life and recording his philosophical musings, thinking he would share these with his son and daughter when they were older.

Kok Seng started out writing in Chinese, scribbling away in the evenings, and his diligence caught the attention of his employer. To summarise things: Coates decided to lend his young friend a hand and together they translated Kok Seng's journal into English, working in the evenings to shape the material into the compelling narrative that would eventually be published as Son of Singapore.

In his preface to the original edition of Son of Singapore, Kok Seng mentions: "It is somehow difficult for an Asian to expose himself and his inner workings in public."

In this case, he had originally intended to write only for his own children.  But heaven - and Austin Coates - decided otherwise.  And with the success that came swiftly, Kok Seng's inner workings indeed ended up being exposed in public, studied in schools and lauded in the media.

Son of Singapore tells a coming-of-age story about a youngster who in hindsight seemed almost destined to be a writer or poet.

Kok Seng's earliest memories were of the Japanese Occupation during World War II, a time filled with dread and fear.  He vividly describes how a desperate young boy brought shame to his family by sneaking into another neighbour's house to eat a bowl of rice.  Kok Seng recognised this as a big lesson in the human condition:  "When someone becomes crazed with hunger, he dares to do mad things."

From here on, Kok Seng developed a quiet pride in being able to think for himself.  He started valuing wisdom and pithy communication; he was suspicious of misguided aphorisms:

The older generation used to say more children meant more prosperity.  In fact, it was not so.  Fewer children were easier to finance.  There was more likely to be enough to go round.  Yet, somehow, the older generation, despite having themselves experienced the hardships of being born into large families, could never grasp this idea.

And when Kok Seng left school at a young age to help his father as a farmer, he became determined to ask even more difficult questions about life and its secret workings:

In the world there were, I knew, many things I did not understand.  I hoped one day to be able to learn more.

But books I had left behind me forever.  Now my only hope was to learn from human society itself.  The only university I would ever go to was the university of the world.

Like many other writers, Kok Seng learnt to live as a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by confusing customs and conflicting loyalties.  As a child in his own home, growing up on a farm, he had problems with the superstitions and expectations of his other family members.  In his early working as a coolie, he learnt to observe with detachment the differences between the rich and poor, the politics at work, and the gulf between appearance and reality.

In his personal life, too, he came to socialise with a surprising candid group of Europeans who defied his assumptions about race and language and friendship.  These "Red Hairs", as he called them, mixed freely with people from all walks of life.  They spoke English as well as Cantonese, Hokkien and Shanghainese, all fluently.  Kok Seng felt challenged.  These foreigners had mastered his language.  He had to learn theirs too!  But how?

Slowly, through courage and determination, Kok Seng came to realise:  when a man is on an upward path, heaven will not impede.

It's good that Kok Seng's upward path was lined with many comic moments.  Or this book would not be half as entertaining.  If you don't mind a short preview, here's one of his anecdotes about the life of a Chinese farmer in those days:

My father was carrying two baskets of ducks to the Sixth Mile market when he was arrested and taken to the police station, ducks and all.  He had no idea why.

His only language being Teochew, he had to wait a long time in custody until a Teochew interpreter could be found.  He was then told that the reason for his arrest was that the ducks were tied by their legs.  It seems this was a case of cruelty to animals.  Ducks, he was informed, must be carried with their legs free, like human beings.

"How would you like to be tied up that way?" the non-Teochew speaking inspector asked.  "You deserve to be fined by being tied up the same way yourself."

My father replied, "How can ducks and human beings be treated the same?  Ducks are sold for human beings to eat."

The inspector turned to the interpreter, "Remind him he's in the police station.  He can't talk like that here.  Tell him his ducks are confiscated.  Any more trouble from him, next time he'll go to prison."

So my father's ducks were confiscated by the police and were never seen again.

As Kok Seng tells it, those were indeed strange time to be a son of Singapore.


Although at a disadvantage because of his problem with the English language, Kok Seng easily wins over the people he meets, and doubtless his readers too, with his boyish charm, exuberance and frankness.  "I really enjoy writing," he confessed.

Born in 1939 into a large family which subsisted on farming, Kok Seng received only the minimum of formal education.  English lessons in school held for him a decided horror.

"How I hated English lessons," he recalls, chuckling.  His favourite recourse was to plead a stomach-ache and make off to the loo, there to remain, rueful but unbudging, until the lesson was mercifully over.

He started work as a labourer at a vegetable stall in Orchard Road Market when he turned 14. 

His inability to speak or understand English landed him in many amusing scrapes; but for a time the resolutions Kok Seng made to better himself remained resolutions.

Kok Seng reached a turning-point in his young life when he was befriended by three Europeans who spoke the Chinese dialects with a fluency that impressed him.

He began to ask himself:  "How is it there are all these foreigners speaking our language, yet I cannot speak one of theirs?"

When he became driver to diplomat Austin Coates in Kuala Lumpur, Kok Seng doggedly set to work on his feeble command of English.  Winking mischieveously, Kok Seng relates:  "I got myself two beautiful teachers of English.  I took them along with me wherever I went."  He still has them today - an English-Chinese dictionary and a Chinese-English one.

It is not difficult to figure out the appeal of Kok Seng's works thus far.  His candid, sometimes shrewd observations coupled with a lively and unpretentious narrative style make for a refreshing detour from the beaten path.

Tan's advice for young writer is:  "Never to put off by bad criticism."

Young writers might perhaps draw a deeper and more lasting inspiration from the life and spirit of the man himself.



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