Image credit: Epigram Books.

Peeking Behind the Veils and Margins of History

Books transport us to a different realm when we allow them to. This rings true especially when writers seek to draw us into a time past, where elements that would normally be entrenched in history are brought to life with a clever injection of fictional prose. 

Enter “The Punkhawala and the Prostitute”, the latest masterpiece from Wesley Leon Aroozoo that centers around the story of two migrant workers against the backdrop of a harsh and demanding 1800s Singapore. By bringing readers to as close an authentic recreation of the time as possible, we are transported into the lives of Gobin and Oseki, where they must experience pain and loss while clinging onto the hope to survive amidst unforgiving conditions. 

As skilled with a brush as he is with a pen.

We rarely have a glimpse into the lives of those that are sidelined by history. Gobind and Oseki represent a largely unheard and unseen demographic of their time. This unique perspective into the lives of diasporic migrants receives even less attention in modern times as we are more obsessed with lofty imaginings of the progress that more affluent forefathers had brought to early Singapore. 

I leave the rest of this poignant tale for readers to explore, as we move on to share a rare glimpse into the creative mind behind the novel. We had the rare opportunity to have an interview with the author, Wesley himself. 

The Singaporean-Eurasian author started writing and filmmaking at an early age and found himself not only pursuing it as a passion but also finding success academically. This penchant for writing and filmmaking enabled him to harness the creative space in writing to bring the worlds of his characters to life.  

Interview with Wesley Leon Aroozoo

Yang: Thank you for allowing us this chance to sit down with you. Could we get to know more about your background and how you started writing?

Wesley: Well, I started my creative writing earlier on with my previous books “Bedok Reservoir” and “I Want to Go Home”, I spent my tertiary education years in NTU studying fine arts and I am a practicing filmmaker. 

Wesley takes pride in his collection of legacy video game consoles. 

Yang: Are there elements that are shared between your current novel and those that you have written previously?

Wesley: Well generally I do notice that there are similarities between the different works I have produced, most of my works deal with the idea and the concept of ‘hope’.

Yang: Tell me a bit more about Gobin and Oseki. The focus of the narrative is an extremely personal journey that demands a lot of these characters, do they triumph in the end? 

Wesley: I would say no, the key shift is when they begin to accept and embrace their circumstances. The characters must deal with the near impossibility of being able to return home. Likewise in my previous work “, I Want to Go Home”, Yasuo must deal with the impossibility of bringing his wife home. They must find ways to deal with the pain and loss. 

The novel is one of the finalist entries for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Yang: What was the inspiration to write “The Punkhawala and the Prostitute”?

Wesley: I spent a few weeks reading poetry in Lasalle, and I picked up a book regarding early Singapore history and chanced upon a bit of information on early settlers including the Karayukis and the Punkhawala and I found out it was interesting that these professions were not previously mentioned in any great detail in Singaporean history texts.

Yang: Is early Japanese and migrant influence in Singapore’s history something that you want to bring attention to?

Wesley: Definitely, it seems that Singapore only has a better grasp on Japanese influence in Singapore post-World War 2. So, I found it interesting to write a story featuring this lesser-known community that actually used to operate quite openly in the Bugis area along with other early settlers. I am always interested in uncovering older historical elements that played a role and had a presence in different parts of Singapore. 

Wesley and Moyashi strike a pose for the camera.

Yang: Growing up in Singapore in the 1980s, what do you think are the differences between growing up then and now?

Wesley: Just the other day I was playing Just Dance with my niece who is 5 years old, and now she’s so connected to the internet, and looking back at my time I only remember listening to pop music on the radio. I think it’s a bit concerning if kids are too connected but otherwise, they have a lot more access to opportunities and information than we used to.

Yang: So back to your previous work “Bedok Reservoir”, which was written to reflect a time of great cultural transition in modern Singapore. Do you think that exposure to social media is something concerning?

Wesley: Well it’s not surprising, every generation faces different exposure and challenges, but I think this difference now is that this might have greater consequences on future generations because everything is so fast-paced and connected. 

Yang: In this latest book, you’re bringing a Japanese character into the backdrop of early Singapore, why was the attention given to cover a community that is marginalized in history?

Wesley: I think any country only shows the more popular portions of their early history, and I found that it was interesting that Singapore’s history doesn’t have much information about the Karayukis in early Singapore. I also like to let my works have a message behind them, so rather than just being entertaining, I also wanted to create works that mirror the struggles and challenges of real-world difficulties and incorporate a deeper message and nuance into my works. 

Yang: Should we pay more attention to local authors? Do you see more Singaporeans paying more attention to local productions?

Wesley: I think it’s good to raise awareness of local works, I think there is a rising shift to consume local works but it’s still challenging because film costs so much to produce and it’s difficult for local productions to match international production. But I do notice that there is more local text and books being more widely accessible to Singaporeans from local authors these days.

Esther: What were some of the interesting things that you learned about Karayukis in Singapore?

Wesley: I think it was interesting to learn that they used to operate and live in the Bugis and Bras Basah area, and they used to have a ‘little Japan’ for a time. But information about this Japanese community has often been overshadowed by the events of World War 2. 

We thank Wesley greatly for his invaluable sharing with Akadot TV!

Esther: What do you hope that Akadot Readers can take away from your Book?

Wesley: I hope that fans can find a new appreciation for an interesting part of history about the Japanese and other communities that used to have a greater presence and actually are a significant part of our shared history. I think reading the book allows us to understand a portion of the sacrifice that early migrants faced, and if we don’t remember it, then these elements will be forgotten. We should appreciate that these communities also played a big part to build early Singapore. 

We hope that Akadot readers and fans have had an engaging time reading about our short interview with Wesley. If you’d like to win a signed copy of “The Punkhawala and the Prostitute” follow Akadot TV on Facebook or Instagram and drop us a DM telling us what kind of content you’d like to see on Akadot TV! 

About the author

Regular Singaporean salaryman by day and avid social commentator by night. A big fan of standup comedy and anime when I’m not walking around finding interesting nooks and crannies hidden in the Lion City. Also eating food, a lot of food.