One Small Voice: Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Published on 29 September 2015

Heritage or fiction, stories are about identity and voice, says writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow.

I inadvertently became a ‘heritage writer’ almost 10 years ago, when I took up a freelance job with the National Museum of Singapore. I spent nine months doing interviews, as well as research in the museum, library and archives. What struck me was how all these wonderful stories had been documented by academics, people writing memoirs, oral histories in the National Archives — really moving and unexpected stories about Singapore over the past 200 years and more — and I had never come across them before, even though I had grown up here.

I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about our past? Why were these stories not part of mainstream Singapore culture? Why had they not become the stories we naturally tell each other as Singaporeans?

That’s when I started writing. With Mark Ravinder Frost, I co-authored Singapore: A Biography, weaving the people’s histories from the museum into book form. I’ve gone on to do lots of other book and exhibition projects. Last year, I developed an exhibition, Balik Pulau: Stories of Singapore’s Islands, which brought long overdue attention to our offshore islands. We recovered personal or community stories through interviews and old-fashioned digging in the archives. It was a history exhibition, but also about our geography and natural environment, and what kind of ‘island state’ we want to be.

I’ve also written a history of Capitol Theatre that should be out in print soon. The stories the theatre’s walls could tell! Vaudeville performances in the pre-war years, ice shows in the 1950s, Cliff Richard being mobbed in the 1960s, and all the baby boomers who had ice-cream dates at Magnolia Milk Bar.

At heart I’m a writer first — I’m always in search of a good story. In recent years I’ve also started writing fiction. In a way, writing about real life gave me the confidence to write about imagined lives. We need to tell more of our own stories, both historical and fictional. Historical, because there are many gaps in our history, and many difficult or traumatic situations that haven’t been properly documented or researched. I’m interested not only in what happened, but also in what people think happened. How we remember, why we remember certain things and not others. What are the things we are not comfortable remembering, and why it might be important to recover those memories.

Fiction is important too, perhaps more important, because through fiction, we can imagine new possibilities, as writers or as readers. People always ask if my short stories and the novel I’m working on are historical, if they’re set in historical periods. My fiction is contemporary; it’s set in present-day Singapore. There are lots of unnoticed but intriguing stories around us today. We just have to move away from the stereotypes and challenge ourselves to see the ‘ordinary’ people on the sidelines who also have rich and fascinating experiences to share.

We can interview them, if we are history researchers, or if we are fiction writers, we can start to imagine who they are and what they might be experiencing. The more we explore the many different ‘Singapores’ that exist, the more we will better understand who we are, and become more confident with our own identity and voice.

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow is the co-author of Singapore: A Biography (2009), which received a gold prize at the Asia Pacific Publishers Association Awards 2010. She has curated exhibitions for the National Museum of Singapore, and was content director for the museum’s 2015 revamp of the Singapore History Gallery. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014 and selected for The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories (2013). She is currently working on her first novel with funding from the National Arts Council.

Scroll Up