I remember watching Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s 2004 documentary Born into Brothels in my visual ethnography class in university; and it was life-changing to see the world from the perspectives of the children of Kolkata’s prostitutes. In Singapore, our red light districts don’t exactly permit children free reign of the neighbourhood, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. The Keong Saik Road we know today is a vibrant street lined with upscale restaurants and bars – a vastly different type of neighbourhood in which 17A Keong Saik Road’s author Charmaine Leung spent her childhood and formative years in. We chat with her ahead of her gig at Singapore Writer’s Festival to find out more:

Hi Charmaine, can you tell us a little about yourself and the premise of the book for those who haven’t read 17A Keong Saik Road

Having lived in Hong Kong for close to fifteen years, returning to a ‘new Singapore’ brought back many memories of the Singapore I had left behind. 17A Keong Saik Road is my first book and recounts my growing-up years on Keong Saik Road as the daughter of a brothel operator in the 1970s when it was a prominent red-light precinct.

Keong Saik Road in the early 2000s. Image courtesy of Charmaine Leung

It mustn’t have been easy to start the book from the time of your mother’s childhood. What was the writing process like and how long did it take? 

It was indeed not easy! There was a lot of unspoken family shame. Starting the book from my mother’s childhood gave me an opportunity to reflect and ‘live’ the pain my mother had to endure from a young age. It made me feel empathy for her, putting myself in her shoes, and less focused on just the pain of my own growing up years.

Overall, the writing process was daunting for a first-time writer. It took me about three years to complete this book – from the moment I started to write till the book was published in May 2017. In the process, I had to overcome the insecurities of fearing that the book would not be engaging enough, or that my writing was not good enough. At one point, when I felt stuck and could not continue, I made a trip to Hong Kong – another familiar environment that is close to my heart- to see if I could find more inspiration. That helped!

Was there anything edited out of the book? Did you wish you had included it? 

There wasn’t anything edited out of the book. On the contrary, during the editing process, I added more information that I did not initially plan to put in.

What was the hardest chapter to write in 17A Keong Saik Road?

The chapter featuring the quarrel I had with my mother was one of the hardest to write. The words we had hurled at each other were cruel, and painful to relive, but they showed the depth of hurt we had both felt. It was also very difficult to write about the last years of my nanny’s (Fei) life. I have always felt guilty that I did not give her more time when she was alive, especially in her last years when she was extremely lonely.

Your mother’s choice of profession was due to circumstances, but was there any possibility that you would have taken over the brothel?

Now, that would have been very interesting! But, no, I don’t think so. My mother’s brothel was not doing well in the early 1980s, and given the decreasing popularity of Keong Saik as a brothel district, it would not have lasted till I was old enough to take over.

You grew up in the neighbourhood with the dai gu liongs (prostitutes). Did you have much interaction with them beyond Mary, whom you mentioned in the book?

As I was a young child growing up in Keong Saik Road, I did not have much meaningful interaction with the dai gu liongs beyond saying hello and being patted on my head by them. Their back stories were mostly told to me by people I spoke with later. There were many sad stories about these working ladies, and I chose to talk about Mary’s story because it especially touched me.

If you could talk with your 10-year old self, when you were living on Keong Saik Road and started becoming cognizant to all the comings and goings of the red-light district, what would you say?

“Beware of the loitering dirty old men, but enjoy the catwalk by the pretty ladies!”

Any advice for new writers who want to publish in Singapore?

Keep writing and don’t stop believing in yourself. The environment is much more embracing now, and there are a lot more opportunities for the voice of emerging writers with a good story to be heard.

Would you consider writing another book?

Yes, I definitely would! This journey has been most rewarding for me. Besides the liberation I felt from reconciliation with a past that I had found hard to share in my younger days, the embracing feedback from readers and the conversations sparked by the various themes in the book were most encouraging. It made me realise that writing 17A Keong Saik Road have actually enabled interesting and stimulating conversations to take place. It was not something I had imagined would happen when I first started working on this project.

17A Keong Saik Road in the early 2000s. Image courtesy of Charmaine Leung

Why do you think people should read 17A Keong Saik Road, and what do you hope that people will take away from your book?

I hope 17A Keong Saik Road brings forth the message of the universality of love. Regardless of whether it is between mother and child, friends with similar fates, or just among strangers who have been brought together because of circumstances, where and when there is love, people have the capacity to expand themselves and give their very best despite hardship. It is love that makes people resilient and have hope to move forward in the face of great difficulties.

17A Keong Saik Road also has another message – no matter how difficult our circumstances may be, if we adjust our perspectives, we might find something positive to work towards. We should always look for this perspective instead of just focusing on the bleakness of a difficult situation. It is less about how much better and fuller life could get, but more about embracing the life we already have to make the most out of it.

Charmaine Leung is a Singaporean writer who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years. She first became passionate about the literary arts while working as a theatre manager in Jubilee Hall in the 1990s. Her writing focuses on human relationships, and the dynamics in these relationships brought about by change. When she is not writing, Charmaine is a curious traveller who enjoys capturing landscapes and communities through photography. 17A Keong Saik Road, a creative non-fiction work, is her first published book.

Charmaine Leung images courtesy of Edwin Koo.