Thursday 24 March 2022

Wesley Leon Aroozoo Shares His Inspiration for "The Punkhawala and the Prostitute"

As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors” and with that the stories and documentations of the forgotten or lesser regarded in history are usually limited or unknown. As a Singaporean storyteller intrigued with early Singapore history, I am passionate in uncovering these forgotten stories and sharing them. One of the forgotten stories that inspired me greatly belonged to the Karayuki-sans (Japanese prostitutes) who played a part in shaping the history in 1800’s Singapore. 


I came across bits of information about the Karayuki-sans as I naturally gravitated towards the history section of the library. I was surprised that I had no idea that we once had Japanese prostitutes in Singapore. I began to realise that the stories in our textbooks in school only covered one side of our history, in particular, stories about British Masters and philanthropists, their worldview and success stories, but not the lesser-known ones like the Karayuki-sans, who are seemingly marginalized or maybe even shied away from. Another fascinating role from early Singapore history that captivated me was that of the Punkhawala, a servant who manually pulls a ceiling fan for their masters. The role of the Punkhawala is usually carried out by an Indian servant or even an Indian convict labourer who is serving his sentence in Singapore which was a penal colony back then. I chanced upon a very brief mention of this labour intensive role and was intrigued by what could possibly be on the servants’ mind while pulling the manual fan all day. 


As I read more about the Karayuki-sans and the Punkhawala, the stronger I felt the need to share more about them. If I did not, they might eventually be forgotten over time. This is how the characters of Oseki the Karayuki-san and Gobind the Punkhawala in the novel ‘The Punkhawala and the Prostitute’ was conceived. Other than being factual about Singapore history, I also have a responsibility towards these characters. I dedicated a whole year for research on journal articles, old photographs, history books, documentaries, movies and even old audio clips on topics ranging from Singapore trades, landmarks, tiger-hunting, Hindu beliefs, Indian flora and fauna to Japanese folklores, customs and more! As the stories of Karayuki-sans and Indian labour convicts in Singapore were not extensive, I had to grab onto anything I could get a hold of. I also reached out to friends in Japan who directed me to important research materials about the Karayuki-sans. After 3 years, I finally completed the novel and it was a finalist in the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2021.


I hope readers are not only entertained with the novel but learn an important piece of Singapore’s early history. Contrary to our history textbooks in school, we are not just about successful immigrant stories. On one hand, the immigrant success stories of better lives through resilience is inspiring and hopeful, but there can be more diversity and empathy for those like the Karayuki-sans and Punkhawala’s who either met with sadder circumstances or could not extricate themselves from their past. We can care for them and do better as a community. Hence, I actually wish to bridge this gap, and acknowledge that there are people exploited, with dark stories that are part of our history. 


For readers in Singapore who are interested to find out more about the lives Oseki and Gobind led in the novel, they can look forward to an upcoming Artist Walk ‘Tracing the Footsteps of Oseki and Gobind’ by The Substation in 2022. The Artist Walk is a guided and interactive walk around central Singapore through familiar places, where participants will keep an eye out for evidence of the past that is still around as they uncover where the Karayuki-sans and Indian Convicts once lived their harsh lives. Together with me, participants will have a chance to celebrate them as part of our young but very diverse history and gain insights into how I translate Singapore's history into an art form. See you there! 



Busan International Film Festival Mecenat Award and Epigram Books Fiction Prize Nominee, Wesley Leon Aroozoo is a multi-disciplinary artist with 13 Little Pictures and an educator at LASALLE College of the Arts. His creative works span across the literary arts, film, television, and theatre. His debut novel Bedok Reservoir (Math Paper Press, 2012) was translated to the stage and performed at the Goodman Arts Centre. The feature documentary, companion to his second bilingual non-fiction novel I Want to Go Home (Math Paper Press, 2017), had its World Premiere at the Busan International Film Festival. I Want to Go Home was also adapted as a multi-sensory exhibit at the Light to Nights Festival 2021. 


NB: The Punkhawalla and the Prostitute is available for purchase at Kinokuniya, Times, Epigram Bookshop and all available outlets at local prices.