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

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. Continue reading

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New Release: 17A Keong Saik Road by Charmaine Leung

image003For 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.

Continue reading