Mr David Wong, Singaporean millionaire, has just published new book about his childhood in Singapore. We managed to talk with him, about the book, about Singapore and about his childhood:
A. Dąbkowski: What is your memoir all about?
D. Wong: It is more about the various fine and decent people who have touched and illuminated my life rather than about my own life. The first volume, ADRIFT: My Childhood in Colonial Singapore, is about growing up under foreign occupation and escaping from the traumas of war. The second volume, Hong Kong Fiascos: A Struggle for Survival, is about how hard it is to make a reasonable living under foreign occupation without compromises with principles. Sometime, a person can only resist a foreign occupation by collaborating with it.
I expect the memoir to run into five volumes in all — if I live long enough to finish writing them. I am now working on the third volume.
A. Dąbkowski: Why have you decided to write the memoirs?
D. Wong: It has been said that history is always written by the victors. But I have always been on the losing side. Perhaps some Polish people will understand what I mean when they remember that in 1939 the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov described Poland as “the ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty”.
Memoirs also tend to be written by famous and successful people. The world hardly ever hears of what the unknown and unsuccessful people feel. I aim to change that because I belong among the unknown and unsuccessful and I have had the privilege of having many decorated heroes generously offering me their friendship and their help.
That is really the more important reason I am writing my memoir. It is to record how fine and decent they have been though on the surface they appeared to be living only ordinary lives, doing their jobs, looking after their families and offering helping hands to others. They almost never get registered in history books because they do not make wild promises like politicians; or sell bad mortgages like bankers; or trick people into buying dubious products for quick profits. I want to alert readers to the existence of such good people, because the future of our world depends on them speaking out and holding incompetent and corrupt governments to account.
A. Dąbkowski: Did you feel good or regretful in writing about the past?
D. Wong: I feel hopeful because I think there are very many more good people in the world than bad ones, although it seems at the moment that power is generally resting in the hands of the least desirable types. Another hopeful sign is that ordinary citizens are increasingly getting together to form civic groups to put public pressure on the holders of power or to undertake tasks which governments are failing miserably to perform. That seems to me to be an entirely positive, healthy and democratic development.
A. Dąbkowski: Did you find it easy or hard to write about the past? At the age of 86, you must find you have a lot of ground to cover. Did you have to spend a lot of time on research?
D. Wong: I have been fortunate in having a fairly good memory. You must remember that I am not trying to write an academic thesis full of impressive footnotes. I am writing about human beings whom I have great affection for. I have done things with them and they have illuminated my life in various ways. So not much research is required to recall those things. The most difficult part has been to find the right words so that what I write will be fair, understandable and balanced.
A. Dąbkowski: How would you compare the changes that have occurred in the world during your lifetime, particularly in places you have been to when you were young?
D. Wong: That is a very difficult question for me to answer because I have been a rolling stone for so much of my life. I was born in Hong Kong but spent my infant years in China. Then I was taken to Singapore to live with my grandparents when my parents divorced but I soon had to flee to Australia because of the Japanese invasion. From there I went back to China and Hong Kong and then went to study in America, Britain and Holland. I am now living in Malaysia because I want the solitude and quiet to write. So it is very difficult to compare places past and present.
Some places I have spent time in I have never had the chance to re-visit. For example, I spent more than four years in Perth in Western Australia as a refugee and I left in 1946. I have always want to return to see how the town has changed over the last 70 years. But I never had a chance to do so.
There are also many places that I never want to go back to, not because I did not like them but because they have enchanted me too much. This is particularly true of some places in China. I had visited many celebrated scenic sights and wonderful towns. The life I had encountered in those places had been relaxed and uncomplicated when I was there, the people were unsophisticated and friendly, and the air was fresh and unpolluted. But once the country began opening up and embarked on the road to industrialization, I could see the quality of life rapidly deteriorating. Motor cars began jamming the streets and belching fumes, tourist traps were going up everywhere and people were becoming more materialistic. So about 30 years ago, I deliberately stayed away from China. I could not bear to have my old memories despoiled by increasingly uglier realities. I wanted to retain my old memories and my old dreams.
A. Dąbkowski: But China has made enormous economic progress in the last 30 years and has lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. Are you critical of that development?
D. Wong: I am all for the elimination of poverty, anywhere on earth. But economic and material progress without moral and ethical progress is very dangerous. It can lead to hubris and conflicts in people as well as in nations. This is true not only of China but of every country on earth and it has to be carefully watched.
It is true that there is much to be satisfied about in our world over the last 30 years but there is also much to be depressed about. In my view, our world is appallingly governed. There is an increasing exercise of naked power but without real leadership in the world.
Just look at the big picture: Seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we have been unable to rid our world of atomic weapons. Climate change is ruining the environment and damaging the health of people by the day and all governments can do is to argue about trifling details. The disparity in wealth which fuels poverty is becoming more extreme and governments are impotent to do anything about it for fear of the big money boys. We are in the 21st century and there are countless millions still trying to survive on less than one dollar a day. Countless millions more have no clean water to drink and children are still left without adequate education, food and health care. I can go on but that should be enough to shame every thinking person.
A. Dąbkowski: Does that mean you are pessimistic about the future?
D. Wong: No. We have to keep hope alive or else what is there to live for. If ordinary people can pull together and make their feelings known, I am confident we can create a better world. The important thing is that each of us must do our part and take the future of our children and grandchildren into their own hands. The important thing is not take the easy option of leaving matters in the hands of unreliable politicians.
About the Author:
David T. K. Wong was born in Hong Kong and received his early education in China, Singapore and Australia. He has degrees in political science and journalism from Stanford University in America and a post-graduate diploma in public administration from the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague. Later, he also became a Fellow in Economics at Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford.
He worked as a journalist in Hong Kong, London and Singapore for a number of years before joining the Administrative Service of the Hong Kong Government. After retirement from public service, he became the Managing Director of an international trading firm for eight years before emigrating to London to embark upon a writing career.
He has published four collections of short stories and two novels. His short stories, some of which have earned him a number of awards, have appeared in various magazines in the United States, Great Britain, Hong Kong and other Asian countries.
Many of his stories have been broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in Britain, RTHK in Hong Kong and other stations in Ireland, Holland, Belgium and elsewhere. A number of his short stories have appeared in anthologies.
He is now resident in Malaysia where he is currently working on a multi-volume family memoir, of which this is the first volume.
He is the founder of the annual David T. K. Wong Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The Fellowship awards £26,000 to a successful candidate to write a serious work of fiction set in the Far East.
Buy „Adrift: My Childhood in Colonial Singapore” by David T. K Wong: