Winner, 1995 Singapore Literature Prize

Every character in From The Belly Of The Carp  is associated with the Singapore River from Raffles to the present.  Coolies, boat-builders, rickshaw-pullers and punkah-wallahs gradually become businessmen, bar-owners, gardeners and tourists as times change.  

Some characters are famous, but most are the ordinary men and women who loved and laboured to make Singapore what it is.  But history usually deals with  famous people – politicians, generals, kings.  I wanted to concentrate on the ordinary men and women (not that anyone can be described as ordinary!) whose efforts and experience, dreams and determination, have made our country what it is.  

I wanted to give these anonymous people a voice and let them share with you what it meant to be living and loving, working and worrying, winning and losing by the banks of the Singapore River.

The poems in From The Belly Of The Carp were written to be staged (see theatre reviews), or at least spoken aloud. Each poem is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker tells us something of their life. Finding a distinct way for each person to speak was one of the challenges of writing the book.  For this reason, I avoided adopting too ‘poetic’ a voice; this may be a strength or weakness, according to your taste!

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Chaucerian at its best.

Its world is marvellously peopled.

Its vitality and vigour are celebratory….

The book’s idiom is unmistakably Singaporean.

Asad Latif, Straits Times 19/10/96

Enter the belly of the carp

REVIEW by Cherylin Tay,   Jan 29, 2002

There is more to history than the dry facts and dates you find in textbooks. And Belly of the Carp does what few textbooks do: bring history to life.

Belly of the Carp will lead you on a magical journey through a small slice of Singapore's short but vibrant history, gaining an insight into the lives and loves of our forefathers who toiled by the banks of the Singapore River. Be prepared to be spellbound from the minute you step into the theatre amid the unmistakable sound of waves splashing against the shore

Based on the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize winning book of the same name and directed by its author, Roger Jenkins, the language used in Belly of the Carp is so lovely, yet powerful that you can almost taste the tangy smell of salt water in the air, or picture yourself right in the thick of action on the banks of the River.

However, while the dialogue itself is amazing, it is the six veteran actors - Lim Yu Beng, Karen Tan, Wendy Kweh, Tony Quek, Catherine Sng and Gene Sha Rudyn - who make the whole play come alive with their exuberance.

They are constantly in motion, moving like quicksilver through a host of different characters, much like the hustle and bustle of the Singapore River would have been in those days. You are swept along in a whirlwind of joy and optimism, sorrow and pain as the long-forgotten stories of the remarkable people who were left out of the history books are finally given the attention they deserve.

Some of the most memorable characters include Quek's nightsoil collector whose very pragmatic outlook on the status of men and their faeces had the audience in stitches, and the long-suffering punkah-wallah (cloth fan operator) played by the diminutive but endearing Gene Sha Rudyn, whose comical expressions as he pulled the punkah according to the whims and fancies of his European mistress are nothing short of hilarious.

From familiar European characters like Raffles and Farquhar to different sinkhehs (newcomers) with their own success stories or tragic ends, to three generation households where the old clashes with the new, the play progresses through a spectrum of years, culminating in the redeveloped, clean beauty that is the Singapore River stretch today.

The tales are full of a gamut of emotions ranging from laughter to anger, bitterness and resignation. Some tales are lighthearted and endearing while others portray the darker side of life dealt a cruel blow by the hand of Fate.

That is what makes Belly of the Carp so amazing. You are transported back in time, if just for a little while, to see and appreciate the hardships that we will never understand, to learn about our roots and the people who came and paved the way for us to become the modern, technology-driven society we are now.

To sit in the DBS Arts Centre theatre on Merbau Road, only a stone's throw away from the Singapore River, in all its renovated finery, while taking in scenes that take place in the very area where you now sit, there is also a sense of poignancy as the old is juxtaposed against the new. This is a play that will make you laugh, cry and will leave you clamouring for more. It will also make you think about your own family and where you came from.