Passing on heartfelt stories of Singapore to the youths of today through modern means of Internet blogging.
His blog post on the Bukit Ho Swee fire was handpicked by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong out of 30,000 others and was showcased in last year’s National Day Rally .
“There was a dark billowing smoke in the sky, the smell was toxic. People were shouting fire, fire, screaming, shouting. My mother and I ran as fast as we could to flee away from the burnt houses. There was a stampede, the older and weaker people were carried by younger and stronger ones. I noticed my neighbour’s daughter knelt down on the ground to pray, staring at a darkened sky of smoke. They ended up in Kim Seng School. The school compound was crowded with thousands of fire victims, police, military personnel, doctors, nurses and helpers. Tents were erected for registration of fire victims, cooking utensils to cook on the spot and supply meals. There was also milk powder for babies. My family visited the fire site and saw the shocking scene of the aftermath of the fire the following day. Within a week my family was allocated a HDB two-room flat at Margaret Drive.” Quoted from the Prime Minister’s rally speech.
“Life is a series of events – it continues at different stages, where your hardship gets you,” says blogger Mr James Seah, 50 years after the Bukit Ho Swee fire. His gaze lingered across the room, transfixed in space as memories came alive again.
The topic unmistakably close to his heart is the Bukit Ho Swee Fire incident in 1961 – he was a survivor of the inferno, which wiped out an entire village and sparked the development of public housing by the Housing Development Board (HDB).
“I read what he said and I looked up some footage and some photos of the events, and it brings back to life, a very traumatic moment this young man” said PM Lee in the 2011 National Day Rally.
At 63 years old and retired, Mr James Seah is far from being outdated. Calling himself a “recycled teenager”, he is not afraid to take on technology at his age. He created a blog called “Blog to Express” fire years ago, a form of nostalgia blogging that writes about Singapore history through his memories and perspective. Some of his blog topics include the Great Great World, School Excursions in the 1950 and Tributes to the Samsui women of Singapore. Mr Seah would include many black and white photographs of the past and colour them with description in the captions.
“What to happen to our lives in future…was it the end of the world?” This is not a scene from the movie…its a photo shot from real life during the Bukit Ho Swee fire.
“A black and white photo of the fire in the background and a mother with her bag of belongings with a crying child beside her is a powerful image. I could imagine I was around the child’s age at that time. Memories like that can help to foster a greater social consciousness among the young today,” wrote a commentor, nicknamed “Lim”, on his Bukit Ho Swee blogpost.
“Dropping by at his blog, I found that he shared the same passion as I did – sharing experiences of growing up in our respective hometowns. He was a very knowledgeable blogger and a good photographer too. He was very passionate about sharing with the younger generation,” said Ms Frances, a regular reader of Blog to Express.
Mr Seah is no stranger to technology. Having worked as a Finance Supervisor at the HDB for 28 years, he used to take time in between to volunteer in community centres, teaching the elderly how to use computers.
“It was very difficult to attract the interest of Senior Citizens. How do we excite them?” Mr Seah remarked. Later on, he realised that by taking a photo of the classroom and posing the group picture on Phlog, a social media site. Lessons seem to come alive and became more interactive for the elderly.
This is a “live” demonstration of wireless real-time blog update of the photo taken for the course participants who completed the 3-session basic module after they have received their certificates.
After the photo was uploaded to the blogsite, they then viewed it on the Internet in the classroom.
Apart from his blogging lifestyle, Mr Seah keeps a fulfilling schedule on his watch. He’s an ambassador for Memory Corps, which is part of a project called Singapore Memory Project (SMP) that is launched by Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). As an ambassador, he is committed in seeking valuable stories and memories about Singapore that contribute towards capturing and unfolding the Singapore Story. This includes recruiting people like the youths, who have memories that they would like to blog about, and he offers training to them through courses. He has also appeared in Okto programmes such as “Foodage” to share his experiences about Bukit Ho Swee.
All these would not have happened if not for a Saturday when Mr Seah woke up and was seized by the fear of forgetting.
“What if I wake up one day and can’t remember anything? It happened to friends around me, what if I was to be next?” He asks, touching and shaking his clean-shaven head at the thought of it.
That day he decided to keep his memories preserved through blogging, lest he forgets. As simple as that, the nostalgic blogger came about.
As social media sites like Facebook and Blogspot have become “diaries” among the youths of today, Mr Seah emphasises that it needs to be done with a purpose.
“When I was young, I wrote a diary because my teacher told me so. We write all these nonsense that we don’t understand in the end. When I reached in secondary school, I realised that all I’ve written were nothing important,” explains Mr Seah.
Mr Seah hopes that his blog will spur on the youths to blog about nostalgia as well as collect memories for the future generation. With the prevalence of social media usage today, people can connect to their grandparents’ generation through the exchange of stories. It sparks and fuels Mr Seah’s passion to preserve Singapore history as he gets a chance to spread the message that “transformation for Singapore isn’t a sudden thing”, so that the youths can appreciate Singapore for what it is today.
“What memories can our children relate to? We may be too busy to see these experiences now. But over the years, we begin to realise those things are now treasured memories,” Mr Seah remarked, smiling with youth and vigour, which belies his age.’
James Seah’s story first appeared here
Words and photographs by Lee Ker Yuan, unless otherwise stated.