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Thursday 11 July 2019

Guest Post: Weng Wai Chan's Chinatown Memories

It’s Singapore in 1940, war is just around the corner—but twelve-year-old Lizard doesn’t know that. He lives in Chinatown above a tailor’s shop, surviving on his wits and hustling for odd jobs.

When he steals a small teak box containing a Japanese code book from a Raffles Hotel suite, he finds himself in a dangerous world of wartime espionage. Lizard doesn’t know who to trust. How is the mysterious book inside the box connected to his friend Lili, a girl full of secrets and fighting skills? Can he trust her, or will she betray him in the end?

Lizard’s Tale is about a boy who lives in a small cubicle above a tailor’s shop in Singapore’s Chinatown, just before the Japanese invasion of WWII.

Savor Weng Wai's fascinating memories of the Kim Wah Tailor Shop, the inspiration behind her debut middle grade fiction, Lizard's Tales.

The shop house where Lizard lives is based on Kim Wah Tailor in Tanjong Pagar Road, Chinatown, where my father grew up in the 1940s in Singapore. His family of eight lived in one room. It was a tough start to life: my father’s father smoked opium, his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen, and he lost an older brother in the Japanese occupation.

‘It was lousy,’ my father would say about Chinatown. ‘I studied hard to get out of there.’

Once when he was little, he spotted a coin in the monsoon drain outside. His mother forbade him to climb into the drain, but he retrieved that coin anyway. Perhaps drain climbing is hereditary. When I was seven, we lived in Serangoon Gardens, with a rambutan tree in our front garden and huge monsoon drains along the quiet suburban road outside, uncovered except for the concrete driveways that roofed them at regular intervals. My neighbour Sylvie and I clambered down under the driveway—no mothers were consulted—and spent a happy afternoon in the large, not-too-smelly drain, dry but for a trickle in the bottom; it was a nicer, cleaner drain than the one Lizard hides in to escape a spy.

The original tailor's shop
My family visited the tailor shop house often. By the 1970s, only my eldest uncle’s family of four lived there, on the ground floor—the overcrowded cubicles above the shop had gone as people and disease moved out and prosperity and sanitation moved in. The shop was in front. Once through the swinging saloon doors at the back, you were in the family home. Directly to your left, there was no wall, only a small concrete courtyard, open to the sky. The family/dining area was to the right, with bedrooms and a kitchen area beyond.

The back door was unusual because it had some holes in it.

‘What are these holes?’ my brother and sister and I asked.

‘Bullet holes,’ the adults would say, ‘from the Japanese time.’

We asked how the bullets got there but my father didn’t know. How frustrating for us, awaiting a tale of adventure about ‘the Japanese time’, as the occupation was always called.

My father was seven years old when war arrived in Singapore. The bombs fell on Chinatown in the early hours on the 8th December 1941. His family rushed to shelter in the concrete building of the tobacco factory two doors down. Luckily, their shop house never suffered any bomb damage.

For the family, the saddest thing about the war was the loss of my father’s second-eldest brother, who went out one day wearing his ARP (Air Raid Precautions) badge and never came home.

After the initial horrors of the fighting and Sook Ching massacre, things mostly quietened down. The shop closed as they weren’t allowed to use their stock of cloth. However, Japanese soldiers came in when they needed their uniform mended.

One soldier came regularly, bringing a pocketful of rice or a sweet potato in payment, because the Japanese-printed currency, known as banana money, was considered useless. He was a farmer in civilian life and made friends with my uncle, who became fluent in Japanese. After the war, my uncle and aunt visited him in Japan.

I was born after the war, long after the Japanese had left. My memories are of peaceful things. Our first house was an airy bungalow, with geckos on the ceilings. Once my mother called me to see something. On the floor was a lizard’s tail, still twitching. I’m sure she didn’t mean to give me a life-long lizard phobia.

I attended St Margaret’s Primary, a girls’ school in Sophia Road. Everyone spoke English. All the Chinese girls also spoke a dialect—mine was Cantonese—and we all learned Mandarin.

Neither my father nor I have any youthful memories of Raffles Hotel. It was two miles and a reality away from the Kim Wah Tailor shop. Researching the hotel for the setting of Lizard’s Tale was fascinating. It was bombed only once. Then the Japanese officers moved in for the rest of the war, retaining managing proprietor Martyrose Arathoon to run it.

Lizard’s antagonist is based on a real photographer at Raffles Hotel. A Mr Nakajima had run the hotel photography studio for years. People were surprised when he turned up as a lieutenant colonel in the Imperial Japanese Army; he was said to be a serving intelligence officer. Before the war, he also took photographs for the Straits Times and the British naval base—excellent cover for a spy.

Another spy was the controversial Shinozaki Mamoru, who was jailed for pre-war espionage but ended up saving many local people during the war.

Tanaka’s Emporium is based on Echigoya, a textiles shop in Middle Road. Even in black and white photos, it is elegant and beautiful. In the scene from Lizard’s Tale where children swarm the place, I couldn’t bear to let even one fictional glass pane get broken or imaginary silk be sullied.

The British espionage organisation Maximum Operations Enterprise is based on the real life Special Operations Executive. One of SOE’s nicknames was the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Many ingenious devices were invented in their ‘dirty tricks department’, including concealed knives and night binoculars. There is no evidence that they ever trained children.

Weng Wai Chan was born and grew up in Singapore. She now lives in Auckland with her husband and three children. Lizard’s Tale is her first book. 

Lizard’s Tale is an action-packed adventure for middle-grade readers, set in a British colony in Asia as the Japanese invasion of Singapore looms.

Keep an eye out for our KBR review of this exciting new novel, coming 18 July 2019!