I stepped into the auditorium of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and felt a little out of place. Mum had sent me an email two days earlier about Claire Chiang’s new autobiography “张齐娥登陆记”. I thought then that it would be interesting to turn up at the book launch to hear what one of Singapore’s most active civil activists had to say. Standing in a sea of people whom I could only instinctively describe as “decidedly Chinese”, I felt a little out of my comfort zone.
Like many others of my generation, we were brought up by English-speaking parents. Learning the Chinese language was a daily travail that plagued our educational journey. Looking back at how I struggled to pass the language year after year in school, it would only be logical to assume that I’d grow to hate my mother-tongue. It was only after spending many years in a bilingual church that I’ve come to fear the Chinese language less.
But this night would give me pause. As I stood alone in the crowd, conversations streamed about me in extremely fluent Mandarin. I found a seat in a corner, sat myself down and pretended to have an engaging conversation with my mobile phone.
It might have been the fengshui of that particular corner in the auditorium - a group of English-speaking folks sat around me. Paul Rozario from the Arts House introduced himself and sat beside me.
The event began. Speaker after speaker went on stage, delivering their speeches in Mandarin. They recounted their relationships with Claire, the person she was, and the amazing life she led.
What was fascinating was that I found myself translating the speeches to Paul. It just came so naturally. I wasn’t about to let someone sit through an entire event without enjoying these testimonies of Claire’s younger days, or the accounts of Claire’s children. As I translated I found myself enthralled by the beauty of the Chinese language when wielded fluently. Trying to retain that beauty while translating, while no mean feat, was a challenge I intellectually relished.
Paul’s appreciation of the intricate Chinese expressions (however callously mutilated by my substandard translating) touched my heart — this is the Singapore I want my children to inherit. A place where we can be proud of our ethnic identities, express them openly and share them freely with others. A place where we can have access to the richness of other cultures and be made better through the appreciation of the unique and the realisation of the common.
As I walked home after the event, it dawned on me that while I was translating cross-culturally, Claire’s speech and her book was an effort to communicate the values of her generation to mine; showing us that attributes like truth, virtue and beauty are timeless, and that more of us ought to be protecting these treasures against an increasingly mercenary and selfish mindset.