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  • Writer's pictureGwen Lee

Rhyming the Singaporean Psyche

Most of us have read the rhyme Little Miss Muffet but how many of us have tasted—or even seen—the curds and whey that she was tucking into? And what about pulling a plum out of a Christmas pie like Little Jack Horner did, or paying a penny for a hot cross bun? The last I checked, a hot cross bun at BreadTalk costs S$1.30; at Shangri La Hotel it goes up to $2.50. A penny or two these days would probably get you little more than a crumb.

Nursery rhymes have been around for centuries and there is a good reason why. They serve as great introductions to develop language skills in young children. With plenty of alliteration and word play to stimulate those growing brain cells, nursery rhymes not only build a child's vocabulary, but also develop rhythm and boost auditory memory—an important pre-reading skill.

I am a great advocate of nursery rhymes, having started my daughter on them since she was just a six months old. I still remember the amazement I felt when four months later, she would voluntarily put her palm to her head every time we came to the page when Jack fell down the hill. Nobody taught her to do that but somehow, the combination of words and drawings came together magically to teach her the concepts of cause and effect, pain, and most importantly, empathy. However, when she turned two and was able to talk, I ran into trouble. As a modern mom whose First Aid kit is stocked with plasters and antibiotic cream, how could I explain to a toddler why Jack ran to Old Dame Dob, who then proceeded to patch his “nob” with “vinegar and brown paper”?

That was when I came up with the idea There Was a Peranakan Woman Who Lives in a Shoe—a book of modernised nursery rhymes for Singaporeans. Like many in my generation and before, I grew up on a diet of English books written for Western kids by Western authors like Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene. To my young mind, the only children who got to do interesting things were blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids who were either super sleuths or lived in cottages with dancing fairies and sprites in their gardens. It was little wonder that I thought scones and clotted cream were luxury items that would bring me to culinary heaven, should I—as a humble kid raised on kaya roti and a patch of terrazzo flooring in my HDB flat to dance on—even have the good fortune of sinking my teeth into. As much as I loved those books—and still do—I could not relate fully to them. They were written for another time, another world, and in celebration of another culture. As a mother and a writer, I would like my daughter to benefit from an alternative voice in literature.

By reinventing original rhymes with instantly recognisable icons like Lau Pa Sat and festivals such as Deepavali and Mid-Autumn, my book There Was a Peranakan Woman Who Lives in a Shoe puts together a collection of humorous rhymes that Singaporeans of all ages can enjoy and most importantly, relate to.

Research shows that children read better and read more when they have access to culturally relevant books. According to the Cultural Relevance Rubric created by David and Yvonne Freeman and published in English Language Learners: The Essential Guide (Scholastic, 2007), such books need to provide characters, settings, and experiences that the young reader can connect to. This is important because books are a crucial tool for children to understand and make sense of their surroundings. While stories in foreign settings stir the imagination, it is through local stories that children can extrapolate their reading by discussing and comparing fictitious characters and events with their own families and experiences.

I will admit that I am still a fan of scones and clotted cream; after all one’s childhood cravings tend to stay for life. But what I really appreciate now, after having spent more than a decade in the West, is the sticky richness of a Nonya rice dumpling bundled and steamed in fragrant pandan leaves. Although Singapore is a young country, we have plenty to be proud of. Isn’t it time we improve our children’s literacy by celebrating our own heritage and culture?

This article was first published in POPCLUB magazine in August 2014.

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