Words that heal: from shame to advocacy

Words that heal: from shame to advocacy

Words have the power to build or tear someone down and author Charmaine Leung knows this first hand. Her world crumbled the night before her first day of primary school, when her mother warned her not to tell anyone where she lived.

Her mother’s words, puzzling at first, would later cause her to feel a deep sense of shame later about growing up in a red-light district in the 1970s, as the daughter of a brothel-operator. But those words also set her off on a long, personal journey of growth, as she sought to reconcile with the questions, pain and insecurities that the words provoked in her.

The result of that journey is her 2017 memoir, 17A Keong Saik Road, titled after the address of her childhood and a record of her formative years there. It also points to the twists and positive turnarounds in her life.

Once filled with shame about her origin story, she is now eager to speak out loud and share it with others. The memoir is also testament to a seemingly impossible dream come true for someone who grew up speaking and thinking in only Cantonese.

Leung will be sharing more about 17A Keong Saik Road and the books that brought her through her pain at Deep Cut: The Books That Saved My Life on 20 April. The event will be held at Littered with Books. The A List catches up with her ahead of the sharing session to dig a little deeper into what makes her tick.

What were some books that shaped your world growing up?
I grew up in a family that didn’t encourage reading, so I only started picking up books when I was almost 13. I read a lot of fiction and found myself gravitating towards books that had an Asian theme.

One example was Wild Swan by Jung Chang, a story about three generations of females in a family in China. The book had a big influence on me because it mirrors the story of my own life. Reading it opened up my world and took me to places I never would have thought possible as a girl who felt trapped within the confines of Keong Saik.

What did writing the book 17A Keong Saik Road do for you?
Telling the story of my childhood has allowed me to process a lot of emotions like shame and the sense of abandonment, and I came to a realisation that a lot of my pain was birthed out of unhealed memories and my relationship with my mother.

The journey of recounting and documenting the past has healed me and given me closure to that chapter of my life. In fact, it also helped me cope with returning to Singapore after spending 15 years in Hong Kong. When I first came back, I felt like a stranger in my own country, but the encouraging feedback I received after people read my book made me feel a sense of belonging. Instead of shame, I became proud of my heritage and started to appreciate the precinct. I even began collaborating with the Singapore Heritage Board to give tours around Keong Saik Road.

What is one message that you hope readers can take away from your story?
Life has so much to give – both the good and bad, and every experience makes you richer. The perspective we choose determines how we lead our lives. We often don’t realise that the Utopia we crave and constantly chase after is already ours and in our hands. It is not about trying to have a fuller life, but embracing the life that I already have.

The responses have been edited and condensed. Details about Deep Cut: The Books That Saved My Life here
You may purchase a copy of 17A Keong Saik Road here

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