Unable to indulge their wanderlust, Singapore authors are writing memoirs about their past journeys – and readers are lapping them up.
by HELMI YUSOF /
June 29, 2021
AROUND THE WORLD IN 68 DAYS
By Koh Buck Song Publisher: Penguin SEA 317 pages
In 2018, veteran writer Koh Buck Song and his wife embarked on a 68-day tour of 13 countries across the world. The itinerary included popular countries such as Japan, Taiwan and Spain, as well as less common destinations such as Oman, Madagascar, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala. The couple returned with so many fond memories that Koh eventually decided to sit down and pen a travel memoir.
“But I didn’t want to write another travel guide,” he says. “I didn’t want to tell people which restaurant to go to on which street corner. Instead, I wanted a book that distilled the quintessential attributes of each of these locations and understand what makes them so special. I wanted to write on the theme of place branding.”
The result is Around The World In 68 Days: Observations Of Life From A Journey Across 13 Countries, a comprehensive 317-page travel memoir that attempts to capture the magic and mystery of every locale by talking to its people, observing its culture and researching its past.
Though Koh finished writing the book in 2019, Covid-19 scuttled plans by publisher Penguin SEA to release it in 2020. So Koh took another look at what he had and decided to rewrite the entire draft from the perspective of the pandemic.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were living in the ‘Golden Era of Travel’ where we could fly or sail to almost anywhere. But that era is over and will take some time to resume. So the book is something of an attempt to recollect my travel insights, in the tranquility of the lockdown.”
The book offers observations on a broad range of peoples and cultures, from the ancient civilisations of Mexico, to the gleaming modernity of Panama and Dubai.
And they are further nuanced by Koh’s deep belief in the Japanese concept of “ichigo ichie”, which translates to means “one life, one moment” – suggesting that every single moment in life, however small it may be, is precious because it happens once and cannot be repeated.
Koh says: “Covid-19 has called a timeout on the life that we once knew. And it’s made ‘ichigo ichie’ even more relevant as we realise the importance of cherishing every moment.” Each chapter is also accompanied by a haiku and haiga by Koh.
Santa Catalina arch in Antigua, Guatemala, one of the countries featured in Koh Buck Song’s book.
In his book, veteran writer Koh Buck Song attempts to capture the magic and mystery of every locale by talking to its people, observing its culture and researching its past.
Clara Chow’s travelogues New Orleans and Caves are laced with ruminations on her own life, as well as the words, stories and observations of other writers.
Co-authors Heidi Sarna and Jerome Lim’s book Secret Singapore lists 130 ”hidden places and treasures” across the country, many of which tell fascinating stories about the history of the island.
NEW ORLEANS CAVES
Both by Clara Chow Publisher: Hermit Press
Last year, Clara Chow self-published a travelogue titled New Orleans. It became a modest hit among readers, briefly charting on Kinokuniya’s bestsellers list.
The travelogue took readers on a trip into the mythical American city. But it was also a trip into Chow’s psyche, as she confronted her long-standing feelings of inadequacy as a writer, wife and mother. Readers identified with her struggles and e-mailed her letters of consolation and gratitude.
Subsequently she decided to write a second travelogue titled Caves, this time recounting her trip to Ipoh, Perak, just before the pandemic hit.
She says: “It was supposed to be a simple trip to a nearby city that I’ve long wanted to visit. I didn’t prepare for it and I didn’t take any notes while I was there – I had never suspected that it would be the last trip I would be going on for a long time.
“So now that we cannot travel, I’m looking back on that brief holiday and savouring all my memories of it, and I’ve written them down in a book.”
Caves is a travel memoir of various places in Ipoh, including its famous Taoist and Buddhist cave temples such as the Perak Cave Temple, Sam Poh Tong Temple and Nam Thean Thong. The text is accompanied by Chow’s own snapshots.
But like Chow’s previous title New Orleans, Caves isn’t just a travelogue. It is laced with ruminations on other writers’ words and insights, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, the myth of Odysseus confronting the cave-dwelling cyclops Polyphemus, and Saramago’s novel The Cave.
It is also a journey into Chow’s interiority, as she ponders – among many other things – her own relevance as an artist after a survey conducted by a Singapore newspaper placed artists as the “least essential” workers in the pandemic.
She says: “I see parallels between my life and the city of Ipoh. Ipoh used to be a thriving place with tin mines and rubber plantations that made people rich.
“But the collapse of tin prices in the 1950s put Ipoh into some kind of a holding pattern. The Ipoh today is very different from the Ipoh it was then.
“In a way, that’s how I view my life under lockdown – that it’s in a holding pattern… But, at the same time, Ipoh tells me that I will be fine. Ipoh moved past its halcyon days, adapted to its slower rhythms and it’s doing just fine.
Secret Singapore was published last month and has sold over 1,000 copies in Singapore, charting as a bestseller in Kinokuniya and Amazon Singapore. The book lists some 130 “hidden places and treasures” across Singapore, many of which tell fascinating stories about the history of the island.
They include Istana Woodneuk, the Fort Imbiah Battery, Fort Canning’s Tombstone Wall. The Tudor Rose at the Art House, the Freemasons’ Hall and many other spots that most Singaporeans don’t know much about or don’t take notice of.
Since the book’s release, its co-authors Heidi Sarna and Jerome Lim have received plenty of e-mails from readers telling them how they’ve been inspired to visit these places in their free time.
Lim, who is a freelance researcher and author of the popular heritage blog The Long And Winding Road, says: “The book has benefitted from the fact that we are all stuck here on this island with nowhere to go. So we’re looking for places to discover or rediscover. And the book has become very handy in this respect.”
Last year, nature enthusiast Brice Li uploaded on social media a beautiful video of the little-seen Clementi Forest. The video went viral and sent thousands of curious Singaporeans into the 85ha forest bounded by Clementi Road, Ulu Pandan Road and King Albert Park.
Lim cites this as another example of how the pandemic has made us more appreciative of Singapore.
“That said, it cannot quite curb our wanderlust. We still yearn to go overseas and see other countries… Look at how quickly plane tickets get snapped up when there’s an announcement of a travel bubble with another country.
“For Singaporeans living in the confines of 728 square kilometres, we’ve become accustomed to travelling out and seeing other places.”
His co-author Sarna is a freelance writer and editor from New York City. She has lived in Singapore for 15 years, but is currently back in the US.
Lim says: “Although the book lists 130 spots that you can visit, there are still many other places on this island to discover.
Even the places in plain sight often yield interesting stories when you dig deep into its history. And sometimes, it’s just a question of seeing things from a different perspective.
“For instance, if you were to camp overnight on Pulau Hantu and look across to Pulau Bukom at Shell’s massive petrochemical complex, you’ll be quite awestruck by its sheer scale and splendour. In the book, we call it ‘The Towers of Lights’.”