Many people have asked me about my personal journey as an author and speaker.
They want to know how I managed to conduct research while holding down a full-time job; complete my manuscripts; apply for grants and funding; self-publish (and, now, publish with mainstream publishers); market and distribute the books; plan my speaking and engagement events; overcome the odds; and so on.
This is my story…
When I was still in school, I was interested in streets named after members of my family, such as Seah Street, Eu Chin Street, Liang Seah Street, and Peck Seah Street.
My father would occasionally talk passionately about the prominent pioneers we were descended from. I always thought it would be interesting to know more about them. Who were these people, what did they achieve, and what were their stories?
But like most Singaporean youth, I did nothing much to pursue those interests back then.
Like most students, I went to school, did co-curricular activities, and pursued my interests then. Like many other boys, I played football occasionally and computer games like Red Alert frequently.
And, when I was a youth, even if I was interested in history, it was mostly in international and European history (especially in secondary school and Junior College).
Fortunately, I had an awe-inspiring history teacher in Junior College who taught me—among other things—about the French Revolution, the 1848 Revolutions, the Russian Revolutions (both of them), the two World Wars, and the Cold War. (Come to think of it, most of what I learnt in history was about revolutions and wars…)
But the most important thing is that she ignited (or reignited!) in me the love of learning about the past and what it meant for the present. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Later, a few years into university, a few events unfolded, one after another. Slowly, but surely, these interconnected events raised my interest in finding out more about my ancestors and other pioneers in Singapore.
First, I read a Southeast Asian studies module, where we had to write an essay on a topic relating to Southeast Asia—and so, I wrote about my childhood interests! In my short paper, I briefly described how my ancestor Seah Eu Chin and his family were an integral part of the Southeast Asian maritime trade, what their identity could have been, and how they contributed to Singapore.
As the paper was well-received by the Teaching Assistant, I was motivated enough to begin writing portions of what eventually became the original manuscript which eventually became my first book, Seah Eu Chin: His Life & Times.
Writing was interrupted by my Master’s degree in Economic History at the London School of Economics in 2010, but amazingly—and this is absolutely true—the inspiration to write about the Peranakan middleman traders and the Chinese secret societies during the colonial period between 1819 and 1867 came to me in a dream. (The dream visited me at night, and not during classes, I hasten to add.)
And in my Master’s thesis, I wrote about the Straits Chinese pioneers and focused some of the discussion on my ancestors.
When I came back to Singapore to start work, writing took a backseat. For a while, local history and my passion to write were put on hold, KIV-ed, placed in cold storage.
And then it happened.
In September 2011, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced a plan to construct a new road parallel to Lornie Road, cutting through part of Bukit Brown Cemetery. Before that very moment, like most Singaporeans, I didn’t know Bukit Brown even existed.
This announcement changed everything.
Fearing that the rich history of Bukit Brown would be lost to future generations, some Singaporeans banded together to protest this development. They wanted the cemetery preserved and protected from the road-building project.
(In fact, despite the fact that Seah Eu Chin’s tomb, located in Grave Hill, was not affected by the LTA’s plans, in 2014, another descendant with a similar name, Sean Seah, was reportedly motivated enough to approach the National Heritage Board with plans to save our ancestor’s tomb from the risk of redevelopment, which Bukit Brown faced.)
I followed this whole saga with interest. It really spurred me on to start writing my family’s history seriously. And so I did.
For me, this was the turning point where I decided: this is important, and I must stand up and be counted. And I thought to myself: if I cannot write my ancestor’s story, his life’s achievements and contributions to Singapore could be lost, possibly forever.
As the Greek poet Pindar rightly said, “Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”
People thought I was crazy, wasting my time on a fool’s errand. (Nobody reads local history, they said. There is no interest in Singapore’s history, they said. Don’t waste your time, they said. Sometimes when I look back, I am amazed at how far I have come and how many odds I have overcome.)
In 2012, when I had started writing in earnest, something even more amazing happened. In November 2012, two tombstone hunters, brothers Charles and Raymond Goh, found Seah Eu Chin’s tomb at Grave Hill, near Bukit Brown. It once was lost, but now was found.
The exciting story of the tomb’s discovery made me even more motivated to delve deeper into history, heritage, and identity issues. To me, one useful way of preserving our history is through documenting it in writing.
Fortuitously, while I was talking to staff from the National Heritage Board about my first book, Seah Eu Chin: His Life & Times, a conversation with Dr John Kwok eventually led to the idea of writing a second book on Seah Liang Seah, Seah Eu Chin’s most prominent and powerful son. As there was a possibility that people would be interested in reading about the achievements of another member of my larger, extended family, I dove into the task of expanding upon my manuscript.
There’s actually a lot more to say about how I overcame the odds and challenges to eventually get my books published and distributed; how I applied for the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Participation Grant; how I commissioned the images that grace the covers; how I planned, organised, and executed many events at a wide range of venues; how I overcame the naysayers, critics, and sceptics, and much more.
Perhaps I can contribute my thinking on these topics in future. If you are interested, please contact me to let me know what you would like to learn about and I could write about my experiences to help you get a better sense. If there is interest in such a book, please write to me about what you would like to find out more about, and I will see how I can make it a reality in future. Perhaps my writing journey could be more interesting than the books themselves. (Although, my products are naturally amazing… right?)
But right now, my main message is this:
I hope my books on Seah Eu Chin, Seah Liang Seah, and the Straits Chinese contemporaries of their times can enrich the Singapore Story (or Singapore Stories, for that matter) and contribute to a sense that we have our own local history. Singapore has a rich, fascinating, and valuable history, if we only knew where to look.
I also hope my books can preserve the memory of my illustrious ancestors—at the very least, more people will be aware of the real life people behind Seah Street, Eu Chin Street, Liang Seah Street, and Peck Seah Street.
And if the books can inspire readers to find their roots, or explore their heritage or the history of Singapore, I would have more than achieved my aim.
Over the next few years, my aim is to be able to continue writing local history. Simple, accessible, and readable history. Right now, my writing is not where I want it to be. I am making some progress, but there’s lot of room to grow. I have made many mistakes (still do!) but I live and learn. Fall down seven times, get up eight. Get rejected today, come bouncing back tomorrow.
(In fact, looking back, I am deeply, deeply grateful for the kind people who supported my “beta” version of Seah Eu Chin: His Life & Times (2017), as it was very primitive. Because I managed to get the first book sold and distributed, I could move on to having a second edition of the first book (2019), and a second book, Leader and Legislator—Seah Liang Seah (2019). Without community support, local history writers cannot thrive and prosper, so thank you for your support. In fact, thank you for reading this.)
Right now, I am working on a simple history of Aukang and Punggol (not modern-day Hougang, but the one of my father’s childhood). It’s largely focused on Teochews in Singapore, like my first two books. It carries stories about the Teochew Catholics in Singapore. Hopefully, this upcoming book will help to deepen appreciation of our local history and stories, by painting a portrait of this place that meant so much to my father.
But eventually I hope to be able to expand way beyond my family’s history, and Teochew and Straits Chinese themes—which remain important and significant of course—and cover more of what makes Singapore unique and special.
By knowing where we come from, and who we are, I believe we have a good chance of remaining rooted, centred, and united as one people as we move forward into the future. That is my personal wish for my fellow Singaporeans.
Shawn Seah Li Song, 16 April 2019 (updated 17 April 2020)
Copyright © 2019 by Shawn Seah