Rebecca Kenneison’s Playing for Malaya (NUS Press, 2011) is a beautifully written memoir of the experiences of a Eurasian family, and by extension the Eurasian community in Malaya, before and during the Second World War. The story itself goes forward elliptically, driven in part by Kenneison’s own experiences of, later in life, of connecting with an extended family whose memory her father, as a migrant to England, had struggled so hard to erase. This element of the narrative doesn’t make it easy to read at first, yet I think it ultimately gives it more power. We move, like Rebecca herself, into a family history in which names gradually begin to acquire histories. These different family histories that intertwine in the memoir are tangled, with many branches, but there are always the three family trees at the beginning of the memoir to rescue a reader when a character who has not been mentioned for thirty or forty pages ambles back into view.
On feature I like very much in the book is the blending of historical research, material drawn from interviews, and storytelling. It’s a work of history, but the memoir form makes in engaging as a narrative. The book starts with a wonderful moment – Rebecca, in England, discovering the history of a Eurasian family past that her father has actively suppressed. There’s a scene in which she stands in front of a mirror, in early middle age, having just discovered this past, trying unsuccessfully to see how a racial history is somehow written on her body, her freckled arms: up to this moment, she has thought of herself as white. There are also other moments when a Eurasian relative might pass as white, or Indian, depending on political exigencies, or when authorities draw arbitrary lines of race that bisect the family. The book hints at both the artificiality of race but also its very real social existence: its very powerful in describing colonial racism directed towards Eurasians, but also internalized racism within the community. It’s interesting, in the context of our class, to think about how the history of a particular community, told in an artful way, can defamiliarise elements of a social world we take for granted in Singapore today: in Playing for Malaya “race” is called into question.
At the same time, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the book at times, perhaps because of the influence of other perspectives from contemporary Singapore: renewed concerns about social inequality, and an impatience with “top-down” interpretation. Its focus on regaining a sense of community and celebrating that community’s survival means that wealth and class privilege, for instance, isn’t really addressed. Kenneison’s Eurasian houses are all full of silent, loyal servants, while in reality issues of privilege in colonial society would surely have resulted in tensions. On one level, Kenneison is very keen to attempt to write the Eurasian community back into Southeast Asian history by emphasizing its shared suffering with other communities during the Japanese occupation. Yet an attempt to show through mortality percentages that the Eurasian community suffered as much as the Chinese during the Japanese period doesn’t erase class and social differences. Kenneison’s defence of the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as saving lives in Southeast Asia, while I think worth hearing as a specific representation of community feeling, is tied in the book to a conservative politics rejecting the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s. The memoir is thus weakest for me when the book tries to hard to interpret history in a explicit, heavy-handed way to make a specific argument: it’s stronger when it lets storytelling make a series of more powerful if diffuse implicit suggestions.
How’s this book relevant to Singaporean readers today? For me, not simply as a document of heritage or history, still less as some kind of warm and fuzzy celebration of cultural hybridity. What it did for me was to promote a reflection on privilege, and how challenging it is for all of us who occupy various positions of privilege to acknowledge them fully, and to then attempt to undo them. Playing for Malaya gets far enough for me along this road, partly because of the strength of the writing to unsettle a reader, at times perhaps even more than its author might have intended.