Erwin Chan is the author of Zac Lee and the Legend of Yamashita’s Gold, a fast-paced teenage novel that whirlwinds after Zac Lee and his friends in their quest to discover valuable loot left over from the Japanese occupation before their enemies do. Aside from being an absorbing page-turner, the novel also brings Zac and his friends to a number of little-known locations in Singapore while uncovering the surprising flotsam and jetsam of Singaporean history.
We speak to Erwin Chan about his favourite “nooks and crannies” in Singapore, the mysteries of the lives of Singaporean lighthouse-keepers, and how there’s “more to Singapore than shopping centres and what you read in your history textbooks.”
How did you become interested in Singaporean heritage and history, and what inspired you to write this novel?
Erwin: I’m a Singaporean, born and bred, currently working in the oil and gas industry after starting as an energy journalist. My dad used to drive us around on weekends, going to places in Singapore that no one ever went — or at least among my friends – it was always some obscure beach or some tiny countryside road like the ones in Jalan Kayu when the area was still relatively undeveloped. My love for exploring old, hidden places started as I was curious why these places existed. My dad used to be the same as a kid, taking a boat out to Seletar Island and camping with friends on a whim.
So I’ve always known about these places which I thought were little gems but no one else seemed to know or care about them. It became a bit of a pent-up thing over the years and one day it all finally clicked. I’ve always wanted to write a book and this seemed like the perfect outlet to give kids today a different perspective about “boring” Singapore, as some of them call it, and also to capture some of my childhood experiences for when I’m old and grey.
Zac Lee and the Legend of Yamashita’s Gold features an exciting hunt for hidden Japanese loot through a great number of historically notable Singaporean places. These include St. Joseph’s Church, the Thieves Market, and Changi Prison, amongst others. Do these locations hold special personal memories for you?
Growing up in the East, some of the locations in the book like Siglap and Changi are places where I feel most at home in. It’s my happy place. I would like to think I know most of the nooks and crannies of these places. I used to ride around on my bike to explore these areas as a kid and got a kick from serendipitously finding places like Changi Prison out of the blue, with all its history and stories, just kilometers away where I lived.
Others like Thieves Market I always imaged as some Indiana Jones-type Marrakech market. The entire area looks slightly cramped now but it seemed much bigger and rowdier when I was a kid. I can only imagine how it was like back in the day when you could actually find stolen loot at the market.
One of the characters in the book is Uncle Rosman, a lighthouse-keeper for the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse. He lives on the Southern Islands of Singapore—a place that few Singaporeans have ventured. Did you meet a lighthouse-keeper in real-life while writing this book? What are their lives really like?
I’ve always been fascinated with lighthouses and the men who break their backs caring for them but never had the good fortune to meet one so Uncle Rosman is entirely imagined. Newspapers, however, seem to share my fascination with these weather-beaten lighthouse keepers and have interviewed several over the years. This gave me some idea of their working lives. What they all say is that they work in shifts and spend days on end by themselves, keeping themselves busy during downtime by swimming, cooking, gardening and listening to a crackling radio hoping to catch Singapore or Malaysian stations.
What was it like to conduct research for the book? Did you manage to gain access to some of the more remote spots featured—such as Block 151, which is tucked away in a military compound, and Sultan Shoal, a small offshore island where access is restricted by the Marine Port Authority?
I’ve been to all of the places in the book but Block 151. I remember cycling in the area as a kid, although I could be wrong. It was before Google maps and I didn’t have the luxury of mapping the areas then. The entire area has since been fenced up, even the narrow strip of road running parallel to the area where people used to go to see planes take off.
Fortunately, I had a second encounter when I caught a glimpse of the building during a map planning exercise in the army, but didn’t have time to stop. I made a third attempt recently and snuck into the golf course which fringes the area but couldn’t find any way in, which I guess may have been a good thing on retrospect with all the “No Trespassing” signs plastered along the fence!
How do you feel historical monuments and buildings should be incorporated into a rapidly urbanising Singapore? Is ‘museumizing’ them (for instance, by restoration, restricting entry, adding explanatory signposts and placards) the way to go? Or should they be a more organic and functional part of the Singaporean landscape?
Sadly, we can’t preserve everything. Things will change and the world moves on. Different places hold varying degrees of importance to different people so we can’t possibly conserve every single thing. However, what we did in the early years of our development where we mowed down certain historical buildings was arguably a miscalculation. I think the current debate over Bukit Brown underlines the continuing tension regarding the above. It’s no easy fix but we should always be mindful of losing another 45-year old historical building for a 350-meter long road!
The next question is how we should go about preserving these places. I’ve heard arguments against the gentrification of areas with heritage value, for example, how the UBS Business University taking over the Command House in Kheam Hock Road meant Singaporeans wouldn’t be able to enjoy the location. Others point out that Lau Pa Sat had lost its charm after being converted into a hawker centre. However, the flipside is that the Command House and Lau Pa Sat, in this instance, could have been torn down and redeveloped if no one had come in for them. If we turn everything into museums, no one would come! Not everyone Singaporean is interested in museums but every Singaporean sure likes their “makan”.
You can find Zac Lee and the Legend of Yamashita’s Gold in public libraries with the call numbers English S823A CHA or English CHA. It’s also available in most bookstores for purchase.