Looking Back to the Future

Prof James Warren is one of the giants of the field of Singapore history, but he doesn’t receive as much attention from the non-academic world as he should because he works on subaltern history, history from below, the history of people who are often forgotten and overlooked even in their own time. Prof Warren is famous for two books in particular: Ah Ku and Karayuki-San, a history of prostitution in Singapore from 1870-1940; and Rickshaw Coolie, a history of rickshaw drivers. Rickshaw Coolie is a real history of the people, which is why Warren subtitled the book “A people’s history of Singapore 1880-1940.” In this speech, delivered in January 2019 at the National Library of Singapore, he reflects on a long career working on Singapore and raises some issues for discussion about the future of Singapore historical study.


Looking Back to the Future: Some Reflections on Researching and Writing an Urban Social History of Singapore


I want to begin by thanking the History Department, NUS, for supporting Dr. Fiona Williamson’s panel, ‘Looking back and looking forward: The shape of Singapore’s social and urban history’. I would also like to thank Professor Brenda Yeoh for agreeing to chair this panel.

As envisioned by Dr. Wiliamson, I will attempt to share some insights based on my life and work, and raise some issues for discussion concerning Singapore’s social and urban history.

I start this discussion from the premise that historians generally have had a pathological disinclination to want to talk about the relationship between their life and work, and the source of their practise, namely their ideas and methods.

Ludmilla Jordanova notes in her important book, History in Practise, that the moral commitments of historians and the nature of their values need to be made explicit, whenever possible. She stresses that historians, precisely because of their professional obligations, must be able to explain to the public the processes through which their historical research and judgements are reached[1].

Biographical Aspect

I want to begin by first looking back before turning to the topic of researching and writing about Singapore’s history in the future.

The origin of my work on Singapore began in personal experience rather than with books and formal training. In a very real sense, my interest in studying about Singapore society and history both from interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives, started at the edge.

My introduction to Southeast Asia was based on witnessing the traumatic experience of adjustment of a maritime nomadic people to a sedentary way of life – a pariah people who, socially and politically, were at the edge, on the margin of society and history[2].

One of the important lessons I drew from that late 1960’s Peace Corps experience and my subsequent research about their adjustments to a sedentary way of life is that in certain societies, at particular moments in time, the most important factor in assessing the scope and rate of change is the rise or decline in population.

The connection, albeit implicit, between this earlier research and the Singapore work was a concern to initiate a major project on the role and reproduction of labour in a colonial urban context. At the start of 1976, I wanted to undertake comparative work on Manila, Jakarta and Singapore in the 19th – 20th centuries. I soon abandoned the idea, however, after making trips to the archives in Jakarta and Manila, as the source materials were too fragmented to attempt such a comparison.

Nevertheless, I was still interested in exploring in what circumstances, and in what ways were social structures in a given society affected by the impact of particular processes and events, like migration, calamity, the character of labour, and the nature of work and specific occupations, under colonial rule in an urban context.

The books on the rickshaw pullers and prostitutes, were conceptually inspired in part by Manuel Castell’s work on the ways in which politics, markets and technology could transform cities and the social and political disposition of public life[3].

I feel 1978 was a crucial year in my life. It was then that I first encountered the Coroners Records for Singapore, which led me to seriously consider bringing other ordinary people’s past stories and visions to life[4].

The Singapore books, Rickshaw Coolie and Ah Ku and Karayuki-San, first imagined through the lens of this unique source, enabled me to explore the unsettling effects and provocative insights of the sojourner as human subject and agent rather than as victim or object of pity per se[5].

The books thus reflected on more conventional responses to the history writing of Singapore, from the standpoint of near invisible subjects, and the absence of the voices of ‘peoples without history’ in the writing of Singapore’s local, regional and global history, and imagined how we might respond otherwise.

It seemed to me there was a more general question of real neglect. Many social scientists and historians then were ‘grazing’ on documents in archives to support studies of agrarian reform, the green revolution and the social history of rural unrest and change. There was then as now, a felt need also for studies of cities under colonial rule. Histories that would be wider and encompass a range of human activities and be as much concerned with the narrative of event as with the analysis of structures and institutions.

I: Why Singapore? The View from Below Perspective

History has largely been written from the top down; it has been an account of the victors, the kings, the rich and, above all, of the articulate. “But of the common run of human beings” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois, “and particularly of the half or wholly submerged working group, the world has saved all too little of authentic record and tried to forget or ignore even the little saved.”[6]

Should the character and condition of Singapore’s labouring masses – past and present – play a minor role in the historiography of the nation and the national imagery? Must they? The answer to the first question at least, seems clear: the most conservative standards of evidence and proof require that Singapore historiography include a history of the inarticulate.

EP Thomson in his majestic Making of the English Working Class, first identified not only the general problem of reconstructing the lives and circumstance of ordinary workers like rickshaw pullers and prostitutes.[7] He also grasped the absolute necessity of attempting to understand people in the past, as far as the historian is able to do so, in light of their own experience. Here, it is important to stress too, that historians like Gerda Lerner, and, myself in the context of Singapore’s history, have fought against formal recognition of the impression that ordinary women have not had a significant past; a reality and subject not worth recording.[8]

To raise questions about the values and attributes which historians have often brought to their interpretation of Singapore’s past unmistakably tells us about the methods by which that history has been studied and written. Gerda Lerner and Joan Kelly-Gadol have provided an illuminating set of insights about historians’ conceptual tools being invested with power to exclude women, being geared towards revealing more about male experience rather than human experience writ large[9]. Both Rickshaw Coolieand Ah Ku and Karayuki-San raised a key issue that will continue to confront historians of Singapore in the coming decades, “what would Singapore history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women and ordered by the values they define?” Specifically, gender has to be finally established as a category of historical and social analysis of the same order as class and ethnicity (race) in the future shaping and consideration of the Singapore past.

This perspective from below had an immediate appeal to historians like myself anxious to broaden the boundaries of our discipline, to open up new areas of research, and, above all, to explore the historical experiences of those Asian men and women whose existence has either so often been ignored, taken for granted or merely mentioned in passing in the mainstream history.

But the significance of the history from below approach goes deeper than merely providing historians like myself with an opportunity to show we can be imaginative and innovatory. It also provides a means for restoring their history to social groups who may have thought they lost it, or who were unaware that their autonomous history existed. (Question of empathy, humility and access).

Initially, I planned to write a history of colonial Singapore about the people of the lower stratum, that would include all sorts of occupations- along the river, on the docks, in the factories and the countryside. But I soon realised this project was too ambitious to handle properly in a single volume. Shortly afterwards, while studying some historical photographs of Singapore, it suddenly struck me to concentrate my efforts on attempting to write a history of the rickshaw coolies. The image of the rickshaw puller was captured in nearly every photo I looked at in 1978. However, their ubiquitous presence in the historical record had been either ignored or inadvertently missed by most others. By researching the wide range of experience of working people like rickshaw pullers and prostitutes, I felt basic changes in Singapore society, colonial policy and practise, and the lives of Chinese immigrants and their ties with China, could be revealed.

I took up the challenge to go in search of the stories of those who largely remained nameless and unrecognised in most histories of Singapore: the ‘little people’ of your grandparents and great grandparents’ generations. Between the 1880s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese sojourners from the impoverished, strife-torn, famine-prone provinces of southeastern China came to Singapore in search of good fortune. Most of these men were either single or had left their families behind. Many died in the new land, often succumbing to disease, the ravages of work, or opium, as they ran between the shafts of a rickshaw, heaved coal in the belly of a steamer, or unloaded the commodities of an empire at dockside. However, despite the physical hardship and grinding poverty, many managed to send money back to their families as they had promised when old ties mattered. More importantly for Singapore, many others including thousands of women put down roots and raised families in a crucially important period of the city’s history.

At that time, Singapore’s Chinatowns were still congested, dirty and disease-ridden and centres of gambling, prostitution and crime. Kreta Ayer was depicted in government commissioned reports as a congestion of rooming houses, of unmarked laneways where rickshaw pullers smoked opium and lay with Chinese and Japanese prostitutes. But it was still hard to also see the emerging contrasting truth, that there were among these migrant bachelors, some upstanding families living there, that would survive the Great Depression and the Second World War to help redefine what constitutes the historical mainstream in Singapore now.

The perennial problem facing the historian has always been achieving a balance in the historical record. Frequently, this record is written by the empowered (such as colonial authorities). As such, their attentions are, naturally enough, laden with their own preconceptions, social bias and self-interest. Their accounts have often been employed to provide a “contrast” and sometimes justification for a particular policy or attitude.

The history of the “other” – the marginalised or “little people” as I have noted is too often lost, overlooked or never recorded. It may be an oral tradition which has been lost in cultural assimilation or integration, their structures may be temporary and their material culture may be used and reused until it is worn away, literally disappears leaving little for the historian.

The further back historians go in seeking to reconstruct the lives of the lower orders in Singapore and elsewhere, the more restricted the range of sources at their disposal. Women, and the economically marginal, seldom deposit documents and records of the past, or in the places, traditionally attractive to historians. When documents have been found in the form of diaries and letters there is a sense of singularity about them, especially where women are concerned in Singapore. That these diaries, memoirs and letters of the privileged frequently served to deny or transform the far less pleasant realities of life in colonial Singapore certainly appears to be the case when they are read in juxtaposition with a source like the Coroner’s Records and newspaper accounts. They present another kind of colonial experience in Singapore through the eyes of less well-placed women.

The photographer and artist Chia Aik Beng has recently written, “After reading Warren’s book, I was overwhelmed by the fact that these karayuki-sans have been forgotten, erased from history. These questions lingered in my mind: “Why are we not told?” “What happened to them after World War II?” These questions led Aik Beng on a journey of self discovery to want to know more about these women and the ‘little Japan’ that existed in the heart of Singapore , which disappeared after the Second World War.[10]

Hence, under such circumstances, it is possible that historians may well continue the practise of writing ordinary women out of Singapore’s history by acting like ‘professional magicians’, making women disappear before our very eyes. It was critical that I listen to the voices of those labouring classes who struggled for the right to exist on the streets of Singapore. So that their voices would be heard, their stories told, and aspects of their culture could survive.

The historical memory of Singaporean society is constituted not of one single strand, but rather of a tangled skein. There is a dominant memory, carefully and selectively recorded for posterity of the articulate and powerful, and there are the alternative memories of the past based upon the testimony of the “under-classes, the under-privileged, and the defeated”- the history and traditions of the “little people”.

These subordinate, or subaltern memories are a gift of equal importance for the current and future generations who will take up that history and traditions that reveals what is essential about the human condition, which might otherwise might not be told, and shape it to their own needs as Singapore’s future unfolds.

What I wanted to create was a social history of the rickshaw coolies and prostitutes times based on the experiences of ordinary individuals living and working in Singapore, while also paying careful attention to the larger historical influences and economic forces – the institutions, processes and interactions – which determined their fates.

Such an approach to writing the history of Singapore enables the historian to confront fundamental questions about the nature of migration, colonial urbanism, and the labouring classes, and trace how and why a tidewater colonial-port city like Singapore developed, but from the bottom up rather than the top down.

But how does one manage to research and write a people’s history? Are there new sources to be tapped, or new ways of using more traditional ones?

Singapore. Initial Encounter: archive and sources

I first went to Singapore in 1978 and subsequently made six more annual trips in relation to the research for Rickshaw Coolie. During the course of these visits, I saw Singapore rapidly transformed from abject post-war colonial neglect to the state of economic pre-eminence it now holds in the region and world.

Much of the work on the Singapore project was done with colonial office records, unpublished papers and interviews. At all times and in all places, the lower one goes in the social system, the poorer becomes the documentation. The only sectors of the lower classes about which anything more than an impressionistic account has been kept are invariably persecuted minorities, criminals, the destitute and the infirm. Police dossiers, judicial records, the registers of charitable institutions and hospitals often supply much of the information on such sectors, especially in societies with a long tradition of heavy bureaucratic and police control, like Singapore in the early 20th century.

However, in the store room of the Subordinate Court Building, Havelock Road, I made an extraordinary discovery. When I first stepped into the crowded basement of the Singapore Coroner’s Court in 1978, I little imagined I was embarking on an odyssey, which would eventually touch the hearts and minds of many in Singapore.

When the door was unlocked for me, after several months of fruitless searching, I gained entry to a collection of several hundred unclassified volumes stacked more than a metre high against a wall. I started to dig and there was just about everything I could have imagined. Coroners’ Inquests, Coroners’ Views, suicide notes, drafts of letters, even recipes and household bills. Without stopping to rest, I pored through the cases and files for the entire day and was introduced to the beginning of an enormous cast of ordinary men and women.

From these humble beginnings has arisen a plethora of Singaporean–produced written and dramatic works which explore aspects of the lives of coolies and prostitutes in colonial Singapore based on Rickshaw Coolie and Ah Ku and Karayuki-San. I want to return to the impact that both books had in artistic and literary circles shortly.

The project for me was to shape a conceptual and analytical approach for writing the past and future relations and history of Singapore, based upon links between large scale processes and micro-dynamic experiences, occurring in Singapore and in rural China and Japan in the years between 1879 and 1940. And the historical projects still remain there for you now to frame and tease out similar inextricable links between the life of the city-state and particular rural areas of South Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia and the PRC. The narrative ought to move between these areas of Asia as it sets out its evidence on the long-term forces and structures, which determine individual actions and everyday life.

In earlier publications, I noted the challenge facing social historians of modern Asia is to discover the right combination of sources to establish a more comprehensive interpretation of the past. However, the chronic problem facing the social historian is the uneven nature of the source material available for certain people, places, and periods. How can one create a detailed historical reconstruction and measure change if the documents as instruments of measurement are scarce, non- existent, or themselves changing?

I am always looking for data that can be selected or constructed by reason of comparability, whereby the historical fact, a traffic accident, homicide or suicide, can be transformed into the historians’ raw material – time. This fundamental operation for writing the urban history of Singapore constitutes what the French scholars of the Annales School called ‘serial history’. This approach offers the advantage of substituting for the elusive “event”- process. But in working outward and upward to discern patterns and trends, questions are invariably raised about the transactions of everyday lives and the ‘event’, or situation[11].

II Sources

A. The Knot

The Coroners records had the advantage of presenting such ‘events’ that could be explored from more than just one point of view, and, from a variety of perspectives. Obviously, there was a great deal there that could be learned from this sea of colonial inquests and inquiries, and, that is still the case now, concerning the historiographical significance of the current Coroners Court records for writing the future history of Singapore. “It was when life was framed in death that the picture was really hung up” observed Henry James[12].

Let me now turn to the “event”. In the “event” or what is usually called the “situation” or, a moment of truth, is a developed notion of historical conjuncture. A notion of an individual or a group of individuals – rickshaw pullers, Japanese prostitutes, Bangladesh construction workers or Filipino maids, caught up in a situation which could ruin or make them. What Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes in the Oak and Calf a Memoir, as a “knot”. Derived from the mathematical concept “nodal point”, the knot, he wrote “suggests a point in history when the complex and interrelated issues of the time find their sharpest focus and where the essential (and I would add otherwise frequently hidden) forces of the historical process are revealed”[13]. The knot or “event” is the point of crisis, the moment of truth, in which the lineaments of an individual life, or of the society at large are laid bare.

In Singapore, as elsewhere in Asia, such knots or events were common place, and remain so today. Some of the “events” buried in the Coroner’s Inquest were like a litmus test, revealing the otherwise hidden dynamic and structures of a city and society at a particular moment in time. The reality was often bleak and laced with irony, as within the “event” often laid bare was the “broken down” matter of life. Historians will find that certain details and moments of such “events”, and their entangled lives, often tinged with irony, will remain unknowable. Consequently, an urban history from below that one can recover and write is based only on innumerable fragments of past lives.

A major lesson for confronting this difficulty is that history does not work to pre-determined goals, nor does it muster all individuals and their perspectives into harmony so one is driven back to a view of human activity as a confused and complex groping towards ends which vary, conflict and to a large extent remain undefined. The task of the social historian of Singapore is to grasp that complexity. The conventional wisdom of social history, however, must recognise such lacunae or great silences, as well as areas where the historian holds no more than a thin and drivelled tissue in the hand.

I want to finish here by simply stating that the “events” or “knots” in both volumes yield important stories about the relationship between structure and agency that provided truths about the nature of coolies and prostitutes work and their worlds, and enabled me to “waken the ghosts” of Smith street and Bugis street and breathe life into the discipline of history.

III On Method

A. Prosopography

Let me now turn briefly to matters of method. It seems clear that we can strengthen our hand in attempting to write about ordinary men and women in Singapore’s urban history through prosopography, or the method of collective biography, taking whenever possible the total life span of the individuals as the unit of investigation.

Prosopography is the exploration of the common background characteristics of a group of people, for example rickshaw pullers, prostitutes, construction workers, gardeners or domestic servants, by means of a collective study of their lives. The purpose of prosopography, wrote Laurence Stone, “is to make sense of political actions, to help explain ideological or cultural change, to identify social reality, and to describe and analyse with precision the structure of society and the degree and nature of the movements within it”[14].

Through this technique and others developed in the Annales school in France, historians have been able to restore the common man and woman to history, community and nation. Here we are concerned with not only small group dynamics but also with what we can call the mass school; large numbers of people about whom little or nothing very detailed are be known since they have little or no written testimony.

This technique compelled me to pay close attention to the disparate experiences, values and motives of a comparatively small group of rickshaw coolies and prostitutes in diverse contexts and sequence of experience in Singapore, in order to piece together the pattern and meaning of their lives for the majority of rickshaw men and Ah Ku and Karayuki-San.

Collective biography is critical in creating a non-institutional thematic framework for the urban social history of Singapore today, focussing on men and women at work, demonstrating an interdependence and sense of liminality between Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, the PRC and Singapore, encompassing the stories of those who largely remain nameless and unrecognised in most present histories: the ‘little people’ of your grand parents and great grandparents generation, from the impoverished famine prone, strife torn provinces of south-eastern China and India. Today, as in the past, despite the physical hardship and grinding poverty, they manage to send money back to their parents or families in Bangladesh, Java, and in the Philippines. What I am suggesting is that in a new urban history of Singapore these ‘little people’ – the Filipino maid, Javanese cook, Bangladesh labourer, the PRC hostess, and local factory worker, should all be visibly present, as part of the changing urban environment and story of Singapore today.

B. Micro History

The task is clear. If historians, social analysts or public citizens are to research and write about ordinary men and women in Singapore, past and present, they must first fashion an approach that integrates experience, with the techniques of micro-history and prosopography.

Micro history as a practise is essentially based on the reduction of the scale of observation, or analysis. The unifying principle of all micro-historical research is the belief that point-blank observation will reveal factors previously unobserved. Phenomena previously considered sufficiently understood also assume completely new meanings by altering the scale of observation[15].

A new urban history of Singapore should begin by insistently linking the big events in the Asian region to the lives of the ‘little people’ in Singapore; tracing traditional patterns of work and family in neighbouring rural societies torn apart by national disasters, ethnic conflict, shifts in the global economy, and industrialisation, define who they are, move on to their experience as labourers, maids, factory hands, and sex workers as migrants in present day Singapore, focussing upon their working conditions during a critical period in Singapore’s development.

Here the mingled lives and occupations of these ordinary men and women serve as lesser known turning points to chart the pace of Singapore’s development and the speed of a new century by reconciling ‘social forces with individual passions’ and aspirations.

As in my earlier work on Singapore, I hope future historians, geographers and social anthropologists will delve in unusual depth into the micro-worlds of Singapore’s labouring communities, at the same time illuminating broader macro-societal issues in both Singapore and the region, specifically involving large segments of contemporary Singapore society, and the meaning of progress and modernity.

IV Response – General

Singapore’s response to Rickshaw Coolie and Ah Ku and Karayuki-San ,and, the cultural-historical re-evaluation, came primarily from the theatre world and a young educated emergent middle class coming to grips with their grandparents history and heritage. They generally poured their energies and talents into a revisionist history of Singapore through theatre, dance and music.

People reacted strongly to both books, especially those living and working beyond the boundaries of the academy. The range of responses from readers were remarkable as the books sent a soul searching shiver down the spine of Singapore society. They received widespread coverage in the newspapers, especially Rickshaw Coolie in the Chinese press.

Elsewhere, as a historian, I have recounted how I first met Kuo Pao Kun in a coffee shop in Pagoda Street who immediately wanted to know why I had written Rickshaw Coolie. There was an avalanche of ‘why’ questions. The atmosphere was electric. There was also an intuitive sense of recognition of being in the presence of a kindred spirit. I realised that this person was going to have a deep significance in my life and I knew that from the very first moments of my initial encounter with Kuo Pao Kun, Singapore’s leading dramatist, cultural worker, teacher and pioneering founder of the Practise Performing Arts School, the Theatre Practise and the Substation.

Time passed quickly that morning. We talked about origins, survival and endurance. Hour after hour, we spoke of stories of the past and particular worlds that we had never entirely left behind. Throughout history, in diasporic communities the elderly told stories to the young. Storytelling is a way of understanding and passing down cultural and community values, and, a sense of the past, especially for migrants in a new place, and those unfortunate enough to be living in a time of trouble. As the exchange unfolded, it was apparent to me that we both had a passion for storytelling inherited from our diasporic forebears.

Pao Kun taught an entire generation of directors and playwrights to be proponents of devised theatre in which they did research and improvisation with a cast before writing a script. There was recognition by the public through this new form of social and historical analysis that Kuo and his protégés, particularly Ong Keng Sen, were not only dealing with conscious open memory, but the whole area of historical memory which sometimes was either truncated or totally suppressed.

In this genre, Kuo wrote and produced ‘My Grandfather in the Cellar’ based on Rickshaw Coolie. While, in 1995, Ong’s TheatreWorks Singapore produced a major Opera-docu-drama based on Ah Ku and Karayuki-san. The production, with a cast of 24, was staged outdoors at the base of Fort Canning Hill for three weeks and an audience of over one thousand each evening learned about an aspect of their history that was seemingly entirely new to them.

Several years later, in 1997, another very exciting TheatreWorks project, Work Horse Afloat, which was also inspired by Rickshaw Coolie, juxtaposed the circumstances and situations of the rickshaw coolies at the turn of the century with that of the current Indian migrant workers in Singapore. A piece of collaborative theatre, Workhorse Afloat, was conceived and directed by Ong Keng Sen, featuring guest-film maker, Wu Wenguang, an award winning documentary film maker from Beijing, working together with Singapore’s award winning short film maker, K. Rajagopal.

Much of Ong’s earlier work, one of Singapore’s most creative directors, often concerned the potential power of a collection of past voices fused together and reconstructed in time- their time and our time, while living in the present moment. One of the major themes highlighted in his productions and my books is the interconnectedness of the modern world. If the 19th century was Hans Kohn’s age of Nationalism, the time of your grandparents and parents in the 20th century was the era of internationalism, what Vaclav Havel called a ‘single interconnected civilisation’[16]. In Ong’s plays and the pages of my books the world had changed. Here, ordinary men and women move abroad and live in distant regions. Family debts in Kwangtung and Amakusa island are paid off by women and young girls serving as labourers, domestic servants and prostitutes in Singapore.

I have learned because of the immediacy of theatre and its wider reach, historians should consider collaborating with theatre practitioners and literary figures as another means to communicate the results of their dialogue with the past.

The Future

Now, I want to look briefly at some recent attempts to write the urban history of Singapore from the bottom up. Has much changed in Singapore since the days of the rickshaw pullers and Karayuki-San? What is the relationship between ourselves, when either defined in national , ethnic or other collective terms, and, the history of the processes of development ,and ,the meaning of ‘becoming modern’ at the start of the 21st century, in Singapore.

Li Li Chung, introducing Chia Aik Beng’s photographic project documenting the Bugis Street area when it was Little Japan from the 1890s -1940s, notes Singapore today still has unaccompanied low-cost male labour, as well as prostitutes from neighbouring countries and red light areas like Geylang.

However, the nationalities are different now, temporary workers from South Asia and China and women from Southeast Asia and China. She writes:

Today Geylang is more than a red light district. Its food, Buddist amulets, fortune telling, durians! Yet, so few of us Singaporeans know or think about these ‘foreign’ men and women, especially those ‘invisible’ to us, much less even acknowledge their contributions to Singapore’s economic success – then and now[17].

Similarly, Wena Poon, the Singapore born Harvard educated international lawyer and award winning novelist, remembered when she was little playing inside Shaw Towers where her father worked in an office building constructed on the ‘ghostly remains’ of the Japanese red light district where the Karayuki-San and rickshaw pullers daily pursued their occupations. Like Li Li Chung and Chia Aik Beng, Wena Poon emphatically states that all ghosts of the past, however, were not buried. In her small novel, The Great Impresario Oguri, inspired by Ah Ku and Karayuki-San, she notes Singapore is still a ‘bustling port’, the Clapham junction of the Eastern Seas, located in the heart of Southeast Asia, in a region in which young girls are still regularly sold for sex[18].

Can we still talk about the past- present relationship in the same way, utilizing the same historical approaches and methodologies to describe and analyse these current trajectories of the development and modernizing process in Singapore?

Traditional periodization concerning progress and development can provide a pattern and meaning for the most important structural changes taking place in the society, but what counts is the explicit analysis of the relationship between each change, each development, for its impact on ordinary women, as well as men, irrespective of whether they come from different cultural or political traditions, but especially because they are inextricably round up as product and fate with the process of Singapore ‘becoming modern’.

Young Singaporean novelist, dramatists, biographers, and historians, particularly oral historians, want to embrace the city’s little known history – past and present – of ordinary people as the small heroes they often are – even if its confronting, and ask where do I find more information about this. They have already assembled some fundamental assessments of the national character of urban Singapore. Their plays, short stories, novels, essays and artwork are rich in local character, celebration and criticism. I believe they have been involved in an extremely important episode in the cultural and political history of their times, namely, the creation of new theatrical, literary and artistic social projects and voices , in order to encourage deeper investigation and complex thinking about the transformation of historical understanding and historical memory in Singapore.

VI On Being a Historian

In this talk I have attempted, albeit briefly, to identify specific areas in which history from below forces us to reconsider some of our basic assumptions about the structure and methodology of the traditional history of Singapore. The historian, Manning Clark, tells us, to possess a vision that can allow one to write and teach about the things that really matter. ‘He musn’t sneer, he musn’t mock’. The historian has to write with a belief that his vision will stir up a response in the audience. Clark goes on ‘it is like an actor on a revolving stage. He has a brief time in which to recite his work. He’s got to hold the audience’[19]. He or she must also hope that they have used their time on the stage well because there are additional audiences to be addressed, especially when attempting to find a place in the narrative for the ‘little people’. If we fail as historians to engage the broader audience while talking only to ourselves, then novelists, dramatists, photographers and artists will deliver the future urban history of Singapore to the wider public and rightly influence the way people create historical memory and meaning.


[1] Ludmilla Jordonava, History in Practice (London: Arnold, 2000),p.171.

[2] See James Warren, Pirates ,Prostitutes and Pullers: Explorations in the Ethno-and Social History of Southeast Asia (Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 2008) pp. 1-2; and The North Borneo Chartered Company’s Administration of the Bajau, 1878-1909 (Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1971)

[3] Manuel Castells, The Urban Question : A Marxist Approach (London: Edward Arnold, 1979)

[4] James Francis Warren, ‘A Strong Stomach and Flawed Material Towards the Making of a Trilogy, Singapore, 1870-1940’, Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.33, No.2 (1995), pp.245-264.

[5] James Francis Warren, Rickshaw Coolie a People’s History of Singapore 1880-1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003); Ah Ku and Karayuki-san Prostitution in Singapore 1870-1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003)

[6] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Preface’ in Herbert Aptheker (ed.), A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States ( New York: Citadel Press, 1951)

[7] E.P. Thompson,The Making of the English Working Class ( London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963)

[8] Gerda Lerner, ‘Placing Women in History: a 1975 Perspective’, in B. A. Carroll ( ed.) Liberating Women’s History (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1976), pp.357-67.

[9] J Kelly- Gadol, ‘The Social Relations of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol.2 , No.4 (1976), pp.809-824.

[10] Chia Aik Beng, Mute Thoughts about Forgotten History in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2017), pp.13-14.

[11] Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution:The Annales School 1929-1989 ( Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990)

[12] Henry James , Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1881)

[13] Stuart Macintrye, Making History: R.M. Crawford Manning Clark Geoffrey Blainey (Fitzroy: Mc Phee Gribble, 1985), p. 14.

[14] Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p.46.

[15] Giovanni Levi, ‘on Microhistory’ in Peter Burke ( ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), pp. 93-113.

[16] Vaclav Havel, ’The Need for Transcedence in the Postmodern World’, Speech delivered in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1994.

[17] Li Li Chung, ‘Word from the Wart’ in Chia Aik Beng, Mute Thoughts about Forgotten History in Singapore, p.6.

[18] Wena Poon, The Great Impresario Oguri: A Story of Colonial Singapore (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2018)

[19] Stuart Macintrye, Making History: R.M. Crawford Manning Clark Geoffrey Blainey,pp. 66-67.

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