Saturday 17 December 2022

The Forgotten Promise, guest post by Paula Greenlees

UK-based Paula Greenlees lived in Singapore during the late 1980s. She fell in love with Southeast Asia and tried to travel as much as possible around the region and beyond - travelling down a crocodile infested river in Australia with a baby is something she won’t forget! 

Her second novel, The Forgotten Promise, is told through the points of view of two Eurasian women, Ella and Noor. Ella, is evacuated to England, a country that is alien and hostile to her.

Malaya, 1920: Ella and Noor make a promise in the shadows of the jungle. A promise that life won't let them easily keep. Malaya, 1941: Ella is running her late father's tin mine in the Kledang hills, while Noor works as her cook. When the war that felt so far away suddenly arrives on their doorstep, Ella is torn from her family. Her daughter Grace is left in Noor's care as Japanese soldiers seize the mine. Ella is forced to make an impossible choice that takes her to England, thousands of miles from home. She is desperate to be reunited with her loved ones. But will the life she returns to be anything like the life she left behind?

Here, Paula discusses how family memories, history, and the experience of living in Singapore inspired her novels…

My husband’s job has taken me to various places, including Singapore where we were based for three years, as well as to the Chicago, Germany and then to San Francisco. However, I loved living in Southeast Asia and living there left me with a love of travel and interest in cultures previously unknown to me.  It was while living in Singapore that the idea for writing novels based in the area developed, and the images of Singapore and memories I had formed stayed with me over many years.

The crumbling buildings and the modern high-rises popping up almost overnight seemed to be a metaphor for the social diversity and change in Singapore at that time. However, as a young mother living there, my focus was mainly on looking after a young child. My in-laws visited shortly after my daughter was born, having also visited family in Hong Kong. My father-in-law had been stationed in Southeast Asia, and my  mother-in-law had lived in Singapore just after World War Two (WW2). Our conversations led to the Singapore they had known, and I wondered what it must have been like as a post-war colonial wife or mother living miles away from the familiarity of home. Unlike now, there was no easy contact - no email or FaceTime to keep in touch with family back home, while phone calls were out of question and letters took weeks to get to you.  Despite the gloss and glamour of colonial living, women were frequently stuck in unhappy marriages, often unable to follow careers or have the independence to divorce if things went wrong – which they often did. Curious about how life might have been at the time and interested in the end of colonialism and the development of modern Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, I wanted to know more about the political and social changes. I wanted to find a series of events that highlighted the shift from colonialism to independence and in my research, I discovered the very sad story of Maria Hertzog.

Maria was a young Dutch girl who was adopted by a Malaysian family during the Japanese occupation of Malaya for her own safe keeping, but when the occupation ended, her Dutch family tried to get her back claiming she hadn’t been adopted but given in care to the Malay woman who now claimed to be her mother. The legal arguments went back and forth and eventually the case ended at the Supreme Court who ruled in her Dutch parents' favour, claiming the adoption wasn’t legal.  Locals argued that if the situation had been the other way around, the girl would have stayed with her European family, the outcome would be very different. Maria was forcibly dragged away from her adoptive mother and taken back to the Netherlands, never to see her Malaya family again.

The case was followed by the world’s press and when the ruling was made, furious riots erupted across Singapore, with crowds demanding justice.  The protests lead to days of civil unrest in Singapore, along with curfews and military intervention. They were the worst riots that Singapore has known and became known as the race riots because of what was seen as the racial prejudice of the Supreme Court at a time when Singapore was disaffected by colonial rule and demanding more local representation in government.

I was shocked by this story and couldn’t let it go. It seemed to me to encapsulate all the change, as well as the social and political unrest in Singapore, during the end of the colonial era.  A changing Singapore and her journey to independence, as well the development of my main protagonist, a young mother on the cusp of her own journey, was a story I needed to tell, and which you can discover in Journey to Paradise, which was published both as an eBook and a paperback in 2021.

The Forgotten Promise in some ways precedes Journey to Paradise. It follows the story of two women whose lives are uprooted after the Japanese occupation of Malaya. I felt it was important to give voice to what happened in Malaya during WW2, something that is often overshadowed in Western WW2 literature by European events. I wanted to give the narrative as much authenticity as possible and my research led to me the fascinating BBC Living Voices archives with harrowing first-hand accounts and documents from local survivors’ stories. Combined with this, I was captivated by the stories of evacuees who had to flee both Malaya and Singapore and who ended up in countries they didn’t know, such as Australia or Europe, along with the sense of displacement they felt, their courage in the face of not knowing what had happened to the loved ones they been separated from at home. There were many social and political undercurrents at the time: the rise of communism in China, the desire to break off the suffocating shackles of colonialism, yet the need to side with the British until Malaya was free of Japanese occupation. There were many guerrilla attacks both before and during the occupation, foreshadowing the political changes that eventually led to Malaya becoming Malaysia at Independence, followed by Singapore’s independence from Malaysia. 

I would say that my writing is set on the cusp of change. I like to dig into a variety of issues, and my main protagonist is, in many ways, a metaphor for the events surrounding her at that time. It isn’t always an easy journey, but in the end, success comes her way. My work also focuses on the themes of marriage, motherhood, displacement, race, inequality, isolation, grief, friendship, education, politics and self-discovery all peppered with social, political and military history, which I believe covers a rich and intriguing part of the history of Singapore and the Malay Peninsular at the time.

Details: The Forgotten Promise is published by Penguin (UK). It is already available as an eBook and will be released as a paperback on December 29th. Priced in local currencies.