Born in 1921 to a long-established Singapore Eurasian family, F.A.C. “Jock” Oehlers lived through many of the island state’s pre- and postindependence landmark events. His memoir, That’s How It Goes: Autobiography of a Singapore Eurasian, adds an extra layer of richness to its diverse social and cultural mosaic.
A post-war graduate of Singapore’s King Edward VII College of Medicine, Oehlers enjoyed a distinguished career as an oral surgeon and medical academic. He and his wife Ursula retired in the late 1980s to Perth, Australia. Much like Hong Kong’s Eurasian population, whose evolution, role in the colonial hierarchy and eventual dispersal they closely parallel, Singapore’s once-prominent “white but not quite” community has mostly vanished from contemporary life in the city state.
Communal differences from the past in Singapore have been celebrated in recent years as an essential component of what makes the place unique and gives it an advantage over its more culturally homogeneous neighbours. This trend contrasts sharply with Hong Kong in the past decade, where the movement towards Chinese cultural and linguistic chauvinism has advanced almost without comment.
Oehlers’ extended family lived in a sizeable bungalow named Oehlers Lodge, set in extensive grounds at Tanah Merah on the northeast coast of Singapore and the pre-war pattern of life there is lovingly described. The book is rich with fascinating personal details; vignettes of everyday life are richly documented. Eurasian food customs, in particular an Asian influenced method of using western-style meat and vegetable left-overs, have recently enjoyed a renaissance in specialist Singapore restaurants.
Other wealthy Eurasians lived in neighbouring districts, such as Katong. For their community and its Hong Kong counterpart, life in the former British colonies differed little: elite education, sports and pastimes were similar and club memberships, alumni associations and community “in groups” clearly played an important role, for Oehlers and many contemporaries.
The Oehlers lived for much of the war in a remote settlement established by the Japanese for the Eurasian community in Bahau, in what was then neighbouring Malaya. Oehlers’ book offers personal observations of the “Bahau Catholic Colony” experience. The often-traumatic loyalty choices that leading Eurasian community figures made at the time have been well documented. The difference here between Hong Kong and Singapore is stark: in Singapore, some public discussion of wartime collaboration has been attempted in recent years. In Hong Kong, where the issue was swept under the rug after the war, this topic still hovers above and within certain prominent local families.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Review of That's How It Goes in South China Morning Post
That's How It Goes was reviewed by the South China Morning Post on May 31, 2009. Unfortunately, the review does not appear to be easily accessible on the internet. So, the review in its entirety is attached here: