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For the first time, Keong Saik Road’s history goes beyond “notorious red-light district” as Charmaine Leung retells the forgotten stories of the area through the memories of her mother and herself.
By weaving each other’s memories of growing up and living on Keong Saik Road, Charmaine charts the development and life of the area from the 1930s to 1980s. Her mother grew up serving the needs of a Keong Saik business entertainment house in the 1930s, and eventually became the madame of the brothel at 17A Keong Saik Road in the 1970s by circumstance.
“There were a lot more than just brothels: there was a strong community spirit, a variety of businesses from a Chinese calligraphy shop to an Indian provision shop, various festivals celebrated by the different communities who lived there, and also, heart-warming stories of resilience of the women,” says Charmaine.
Charmaine’s relationships and encounters with marginalised women like the Ma Je, Pei Pa Zai, and Dai Gu Liong gave her an insight to their way of life and the hardships that they had endured: a Ma Je who travelled from Guangdong with her toddler to seek a new life when she was accused as a jinx and disowned by her husband’s family after he died in a mine; a Pei Pa Zai who held her head high despite having to make a living entertaining men through singing and conversation; a Dai Gu Liong who escaped the bondage of a triad’s prostitution ring to work in the brothels of Keong Saik where she could at least dictate her services and earn money on her own terms.
“Despite their difficulties, the women of Keong Saik did not lose their ability to believe and hope. They made the best of who they were and what they had to strive for a better future, I truly admire that spirit of theirs,” Charmaine adds.
Not only tracing the transformation of the Keong Saik area from the 1930s to the present, her memoir unveils her mother’s journey as a young girl put up for sale to becoming the madame of the brothel at 17A Keong Saik Road in the 1970s, as well as her personal struggles with shame and identity of growing up in a red-light district.
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By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
First of all, it is because I love reading. When I was still a kid, we had a lack of books, so I thought about writing my own stories. More than this, we as humans tend to record everything because our memories are limited. We write our experiences, our knowledge, our ideas, our stories, etc. I am just part of it.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My latest book Beauty Is a Wound (Annie Tucker) was published last year ( and in India by Speaking Tiger). As I’ve already published four novels, I think it’s time for me to take a break for a while. I don’t want my act of writing to be kind of mechanical. I want to recreate my appetite, to be hungry again. So, nowadays I only read books, meet people, travel here and there, and maybe do something that has no relation with literature at all like gardening.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Since I love a lot of genre novels (horror, martial art, crime fiction, sci-fi), my writings usually are full of these elements. I believe that literature should open as wide as it can be to all possibilities and perspectives.
Who are your favorite authors?
Indonesian writers, I can mention Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo and Abdullah Harahap. International writers, some of them are Knut Hamsun, Cervantes, Merman Melville, William Faulkner, Kawabata, Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass. The list will be longer than this.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Writing a movie script. The writing itself is just a bridge between our idea (writer’s, director’s) and the movie. I provide raw material to be interpreted by the director, actors, photographers, etc. In the end, we watch the movie, not read the script.