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Singaporean Children’s Picture Books about Singapore!

Books to read for Singapore National Day

National Day is just around the corner – and for most of us, this year it is likely to be a quiet weekend at home.  So, perhaps you may consider celebrating with some books by Singaporean authors on topics which make our Singapore unique.

Growing up outside of Singapore means that I’m largely unfamiliar with the local ‘book scene’ here, and also many of the pieces of history which have made Singapore what it is today.  We don’t have relatives here who can pass down the stories, so finding beautiful picture books which are locally written about traditional Singapore is a delight – as it means our whole family can learn together.   This past week we’ve been busy reading about the coolies, majies and the Samui women of the not-so-distance past, along with festive foods.

In the country where I grew up, the National Children’s Book Council used to bring children and books together each year for a Book Week Celebration.  This annual event is now well into its 75th year of existence, whereby all primary schools and libraries spend one glorious week celebrating local children’s authors and illustrators.   Classroom teachers, librarians and bookshops would create colourful displays, run competitions, and tell stories to highlight all the new local books which had been published in that year, and students would have parades dressed as characters from their favourite books.   I wish National Children’s Book Week existed in Singapore.   In its absence, we’ve had our own mini celebration of local authors in the lead up to Singapore’s National Day, and done some cooking related to these fascinating locally authored Singaporean picture books.

This blog piece will cover three series which were recommended to us by Lin Xin from My Story Treasury – one of our favourite independent bookstores in Singapore specialising in Chinese titles for Children.  Reading these books was a big endeavour for our family – being locally produced, none of the books were Luka compliant (meaning we had no audio listening option) and all of the books were fully in Chinese without English translation.  But, the joy of learning about yesteryears and traditions of Singapore made this a fully worthwhile exercise.

The three series of book covered in this review are:

Set One: 狮城往事绘本系列 – on heritage occupations

Set Two: 新加坡华族传统食品 – on heritage dishes

Set Three: 大家来过节 – on local festivals in Singapore

Set One:  狮城往事绘本系列
(Lion City Past Story Series)

Author/Illustrator:  Patrick Yee
Country of original publication:  Singapore
Language: Simplified Chinese
~ Pages per book: 30 – 40
~ Lines per page: 2 – 7

~ Books in series: 3
~Pinyin: Yes
~ Audio available: No
~Available in Singapore NLB: Yes
Target age range: 5 – 12

These three books truly give an insight into Singapore of yesteryears and pay tribute to those who enabled Singapore to be what it is today – with a look at heritage occupations of coolies, red headscarves, and majies.  Such jobs formed the backbone of Singapore’s labour force for most of last century.   Each book tells a story of diligence, loyalty and perseverance.

Patrick Yee has written/illustrated more than 100 books!  Gosh I think I’m falling in love with his gorgeous illustrations.  How great it would be to have one framed on our wall.  The rich bright colours and intricate attention to detail reminds me a lot of the mural art done around Singapore by Yip Yew Chong, seen at Tiong Bahru Markets and the Botanical Gardens, among other places.  Suffice to say, this set of books recommended to us by My Story Treasury are visually beautiful.

《妈姐的金鱼灯笼》 Majie and Her Goldfish lantern

Although our society no longer has 妈姐 (majies = sister mothers), most children will know that foreign domestic workers are very much part of our society today.  This book tells the story of a Chinese maid who travelled across the oceans to work in Singapore as a “majie” for wealthy families.

This tale follows a young Chinese girl who boards a ship bound for Singapore, in the hope of a better life.  She is placed to work at a grand house in Joo Chiat Road, Katong.  One of the opening pages has a lovely colourful scene when she alights from the boat, and her first sight is a group of ethnically diverse people at a market and she comments “So this is Nanyang”.  She looks after a young boy from diapers until he is old enough to go to the UK for further studies, upon which she returns back to China.  Her heart is torn, and she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore.  Her village had changed so much; it’s unrecognisable.

“So this is Nanyang”

I had previously heard about “sister mas” from some work colleagues, as they were common in Singapore from World War II through to 1970s.  I never knew though that these women have to take a vow to neither marry nor have their own children. We coincidentally read this book on the same day which we finished watching the original ‘Sound of Music’ musical DVD, so one of my children asked if these nannies were the same as the nuns.  The black-and-white uniform of the majies helped play into this step of logic.  I had to say to my daughter that yes, both nuns and these traditional nannies were women who often give up everything – including their own families – and put all their heart into work they do for others.  In a way, so do many domestic workers today. 

The detail within the illustrations in this book are something to marvel at – the tiles in the house; marble coffee tables; a baby bouncer.  All gorgeous!  

《辛苦了红头巾》The Story of Red Headscarf

Red Headscarves (‘hong tou jin’)  is a reference to the Samsui women who came to Singapore from peasant families to work as unskilled construction workers from early 1930s to 1970s.   Most of them wore iconic headdresses, folded from red cloth, which protected them from the tropical sun, and apparently also kept them safer in the workplace (being a busy construction site). 

The story tells the tale of a farmer’s daughter from Guangdong, who lived in hardship with her family of seven.  One year when the harvest was particularly bad, and her father was unable to marry her to a rich man in the local village, she is sent to Singapore on a crowded boat to work.   With neither money nor clothes, she lives in a shabby Chinatown shophouse, and becomes a construction worker.  It’s painful back-breaking work:  carrying cements, bricks, water, and sand, to earn money to send to her family back home.   But before she can begin, she learns to fold her red headscarf, which is hoped to drive away evil spirits.

Two pages from 辛苦了红头巾

The pictures are bright and beautiful, with the painted brush stroked evident in many of them.  Reading about the challenging lives of the red headscarves, creates another good conversation piece to discuss the migrant construction builders of today.   We can see that the things which we may take for granted – like our homes and sidewalks – were all built literally through the sweat and blood of these migrants.   It also sends a message that construction is not just a job for males, which is another question my girls repeatedly ask whenever we go past a construction site.

《辛苦了,苦力叔叔》The Story of Coolie

92 year old Uncle Lee recounts to his grandson his journey from Fujian province to Singapore, inspired by a photo on the wall.  This old man, like many others, had come to Singapore as a young lad to escape the poverty of China.

The reader is taken back in time, as the old man describes the Singapore he grew up in:  a crowded shared dormitory, long days spent at the wharfs doing manual labour, little sleep or food, and earning a pittance.  His only belongings were red bed sheets and clothing.  These foreign labourers, known as coolies, kept spirits high – despite missing their hometown and family.  Again, one may find some parallels here to Singapore’s current foreign labourers, which at least in our house has been another common topic over the last few months.

From working as a coolie, Uncle Lee ends up marrying a local bride and having 7 kids of his own and moving into an HDB.   Perhaps this is also the untold story of many of the old uncles we walk past every day on the way to school? 

Set Two:  新加坡华族传统食品 (Singapore Chinese Traditional Food)

Author:  Lin Wenpei
Country of original publication:  Singapore
Language: Simplified Chinese
~ Pages per book: 20
~ Lines per page: 5-9

~ Books in series: 8
~Pinyin: Yes
~ Audio available: No
~Available in Singapore NLB: Yes
Target age range: 4 – 8

Singaporean author Lin Wenpei has written a series of eight cute picture books about food in local Chinese celebrations.   The main characters of the picture books are a courageous sister and a playful brother, who attempt to help their families to prepare festive foods. 

Through cartoon style pictures, each book introduces a new food – you sheng (fish sashimi salad), zongzi (rice dumplings), moon cakes, glutinous rice balls, egg rolls, wanton dumplings, steamed rice cakes and fried spring rolls.  Each of these being iconic Chinese foods, traditionally prepared at home to celebrate particular festivals. Being authored in Singapore, the traditions referenced in this book are those that are celebrated in Singapore (and Malaysia) – for example, lou hei is very specific to South East Asia, and is unheard in mainland China!  The illustrations are equally local, and easy to relate to – certainly no one dressed up in warm wintery clothes for Chinese New Year!

In each of the books, the playful sibling duo learn about the different traditions through preparing ingredients, and make some cute blunders along the way, (like the younger brother’s attempt to wash the dumpling leaves with soap and water when making zongzi!).  There are also some Chinese puns, like with the sister says 姜丝 (jiangsi/ginger slices) but the brother mishears 僵尸 (jiangshi/zombie).    

My kids love all 8 of these books.  We’ve previously borrowed a few of them from the library (and I even reviewed one for Dragon Boat Festival).  When I learnt that My Story Treasury were adding these into their list of books, I was sure this was something we’d want to have permanently in our collection.

We enjoyed learning that the first step in making spring rolls it to pour mung beans into the teapot.  It was equally eye-opening to learn that spring rolls are called that, because, well, they’re eaten traditionally at the start of Spring! We also enjoy the fact that the characters share plenty of laughs and ear-to-ear smiles through their family cooking adventures.

If I had one complaint – I wish they had a simple kids’ recipe at the back!  They do have some photographs of the steps, but a real recipe would be wonderful! 

Read the book, and then give it a try yourself as a family.  As the author says in her forward, “I hope that every child can enjoy a childhood filled with memories of making traditional dishes”. 

Books in the series:

《  (一)今天我们捞鱼生》Today we prepare fish sashimi salad
《(二)今天我们包粽子》Today we make rice dumplings
《(三)今天我们做月饼》Today we make mooncakes
《(四)今天我们搓汤圆》Today we make rice balls
《(五)今天我们做鸡蛋卷》Today we make egg rolls
《(六)今天我们包水饺》Today we make dumplings
《(七)今天我们蒸年糕》Today we steam rice cakes
《(八)今天我们炸春卷》Today we fry spring rolls

Set Three: 大家来过节 (Let’s Celebrate – Singaporean Festivals and Customs)

Author:  Fu Chong
Country of original publication:  Singapore
Language: Simplified Chinese
~ Pages per book: 42 – 80
~ Lines per page: 7- 21

~ Books in series: 3
~Pinyin: No
~ Audio available: No
~Available in NLB: No
Target age range: Upwards of 5 (with an adult)

A locally produced series of books details traditional festival and customs celebrated by the different ethnic groups in Singapore.  The set of three 大家来过节 books have been lovingly authored and illustrated by Frank Fu, who is both a talented artist and curious school teacher, making the perfect combination for a series like this. 

The books detail traditional festival and customs celebrated by the different ethnic groups in Singapore – the first (and longest) volume covers Chinese, the second Malay, and the third volume Indian.  They celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Singapore and explain the traditions and festivals in a relatively simple matter-of-fact manner.  It is a lot text – they’re more of a ‘reference book’ pe se but peppered with detailed illustrations which are easy to relate to. 

大家来过节 manages to answer a list of questions which my kids have asked me – like why do we hold two oranges at Chinese New Year? Why do our Malay neighbours all wear matching colour clothes during Eid al-Fitr? Why is Little India decorated with peacocks?

The books have simple pictures and explanations to cover most aspects of festivals celebrated in Singapore.    I feel this series is a wonderful way for a child (and their family) to better understand the three main ethnicities which make up Singapore, as we lead up to National Day Celebrations.

Each book is cleverly put together, with aspects that would really appeal to a child who likes their facts and figures – for example, the Table of Contents looks like a Calendar, and there is a glossary at the back.  Each illustration is dated, so a child who enjoys numbers may like flipping through to understand which was the earliest picture drawn, and it gives an insight into how long it took the author to create all the doodles across the sets.

I’ve done a more detailed review of the second book 《大家来过节 2》新加坡马来族传统节日与习俗 , which covers Malay traditions previously, which you can find here.

Books in the series:

《大家来过节 1》 新加坡华族传统节日与习俗 Let’s Celebrate! Singaporean Chinese Festivals and Customs
《大家来过节 2》新加坡马来族传统节日与习俗 Let’s Celebrate! Singaporean Malay Festivals and Customs
《大家来过节 3》新加坡印度族传统节日与习俗 Let’s Celebrate! Singaporean Indian Festivals and Customs

Where to buy in Singapore?

Each of these titles was generously given to us by My Story Treasury, and are stocked on their website.   Remember to use my discount code “lahlahbanana10” at check-out to receive 10% price reduction!

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