My mother ran a brothel in Singapore: Interview with ’17A Keong Saik Road’ author Charmaine Leung

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Charmaine Leung, memoir writer

Charmaine Leung, memoir writer

“17A Keong Saik Road is a memoir of my childhood growing up in the red-light district, Keong Saik Road, in Singapore, where my mother ran a brothel. I wrote this as an attempt to come to terms with my ignoble identity of being the daughter of a brothel operator—I wanted to be rid of the shame that I had felt growing up, and embrace the past that made me the person I am today.”

by Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Writing is first and foremost a form of expression for me. I started journaling when I was a teenager—it was my way of airing the rumbling thoughts in my mind. As I grew up, the daily journals became monthly journals, and they eventually dwindled down to annual entries. Now, I just put down interesting thoughts as and when they come into my mind, it has become a lot easier with technology and easy access to apps for me to store these thoughts quickly. I’ve come to realise the spontaneous thoughts of the moment would become lost if I waited for a dedicated time to put them down, and I don’t want to lose them.

I write also because I have stories to tell. In addition to having an unusual childhood growing up in a red-light district in Chinatown in Singapore, and being surrounded by people who had interesting life experiences, I am a curious observer who enjoys putting down my observations in words. I believe everyone has a unique story.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I have just published my first book, a creative non-fiction work titled 17A Keong Saik Road. It is a memoir of my childhood growing up in the red-light district, Keong Saik Road, in Singapore, where my mother ran a brothel. I wrote this as an attempt to come to terms with my ignoble identity of being the daughter of a brothel operator—I wanted to be rid of the shame that I had felt growing up, and embrace the past that made me the person I am today.

I also wanted to share a part of Singapore history that is not commonly known, and give a voice to the things, and the people, who may have long been forgotten, or left unknown in the past.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I can’t say I know what my writing aesthetic is. I try to write simply. I do know I love how words can be used beautifully to express so many layers of emotions and feelings. I often jot down beautiful words, phrases or sentences used in speeches and books that I come across so that I can look at them again later and be inspired.

Who are your favourite authors?

My favourite authors include Jung Chang who wrote Wild Swans, and Amy Tan who wrote, among others, The Joy Luck Club. I love reading about how resilient people overcome their odds and face challenges in life. I also like very much the works of Mitch Albom and Alain de Botton which never fail to make me ponder about life and living.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

The most challenging piece of writing I’ve attempted has to be 17A Keong Saik Road. Being a first-time author, I had to overcome the insecurities of fearing that the book would not be engaging enough, or my writing was not good enough. Then, there was the emotional barriers I needed to get through—my entire childhood and adolescence were shrouded in shame, and writing the book meant I had to relive a lot of my past. It was quite a rollercoaster of emotions for me.

What’s your idea of bliss?

My idea of bliss is travelling to off-the-beaten tracks around the world to explore the landscapes and communities of these lesser-known places. I enjoy very much capturing these experiences through photography, but increasingly, I find myself languishing in the vastness of what is before me, just absorbing the experience simply by being present, and letting the sights, sounds and smells wash over me.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Any form of unkindness upsets me. The world would be a much better place if people were kinder to each other, to the things around them and to themselves. Perhaps it is the fast-paced societies we live in today, everyone is so engrossed with their lives that they forget to consider the importance of slowing down; taking time to appreciate the people and things around them; and practising empathy.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

Having three months to read would be such a luxury! I would bring books written by my favourite authors, and books that will broaden my horizon to help me improve my writing.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

The three most important things I would take with me would be my elderly mother, and my two cats. I am a pragmatic person, if I still have time left, I would like to salvage all important documents, so I don’t have to waste time applying for them later.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Live life, laugh lots, love deep.

Charmaine is a Singaporean writer who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years. She first became passionate about the literary arts while working as a theatre manager in the 1990s. Her writing focuses on human relationships, and the dynamics in these relationships brought about by change. When she is not writing, Charmaine is a curious observer who enjoys capturing landscapes and communities through photography. 17A Keong Saik Road, a creative non-fiction work, is her first published book. For more information, visit www.17Akeongsaikroad.com.

 

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

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