Literary Notes in Singapore
‘When in Singapore, feed at Raffles.’ It was a good piece of marketing for the hotel by Rudyard Kipling, who came to Singapore after leaving India in 1889. In fact, Kipling spoke of ‘a place called Raffles Hotel, where the food is as excellent as the rooms are bad’.
Raffles has, for more than one hundred years, been fertile writing ground for a number of authors, including Hermann Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and James Michener – and it is in their honour that the Writer’s Bar was named. More than any other writer, Somerset Maugham sought inspiration on several visits to the island beginning in 1921. His short stories of Singaporean colonial life include ‘The Outstation’, ‘Yellow Streak’ and ‘The Casuarina Tree’ (1926). Society was outraged by his portrayal, in The Letter (1927), of the real-life murder of her lover by a rubber planter’s wife.
More recently, the success story that is Singapore could be said to be the vision of one man, the island state’s Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, the grandson of a Hakka coolie from China. His memoirs, The Singapore Story (1998), recount the events leading up to Singapore’s Independence, from British colonial rule through Japanese occupation, Communist insurrection, riots, independence and the struggles that followed.
Prominent contemporary Singaporean novelists include Hwee Hwee Tan, whose Foreign Bodies: A Novel (1999) tells the story of an authoritarian state in which three rootless friends become implicated in the shady dealings of an international soccer gambling syndicate. A very different Singapore is portrayed in Catherine Lim’s The Bondmaid (1997), set in the 1950s. The novel paints a picture of a Singapore far removed from the developed, modern, cosmopolitan society of today and far more entwined with its Chinese roots, traditions and beliefs.