Thu, Aug 27, 2009
The Straits Times
Acute observer of life

By Stephanie Yap

As chair of the judges' panel of the National Book Development Council's book awards in 1992, one of the entries Professor Koh Tai Ann received was a hefty tome penned by an unknown author.

And despite the presence of established literary names such as Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim on the shortlist, Prof Koh and her fellow judges were so impressed with The Shrimp People, the debut novel of Rex Shelley, that they awarded it the top prize.

'It was a controversial choice. But we gave it to the work we thought most deserving,' says Prof Koh. 'The Shrimp People was an ambitious novel, on a scale that nobody had tried before. It was remarkable for a first novel and well told. It was also quite a revelation because it was the first substantial novel on Eurasians.'

Rex Anthony Shelley died last Friday at the Assisi Hospice in Thomson Road at the age of 78. He is survived by two sisters, his wife, three children and six grandchildren.

An engineer who served for over three decades on the Public Service Commission, he started writing at a late age, publishing The Shrimp People at 61.

Prof Koh, who is with the Nanyang Technological University's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, believes that the award for his first novel encouraged him as he went on to write three more novels within the decade.

The Shrimp People, People Of The Pear Tree (1993), Island In The Centre (1995) and A River Of Roses (1998) together form a quartet about the Eurasian community in Singapore.

Shelley also published three non-fiction books during his lifetime: Culture Shock! Japan (1992), Cultures Of The World: Japan (1994) and Sounds And Sins Of Singlish (1995).

Professor Edwin Thumboo, 75, feels that Shelley's late start as a writer was actually to his advantage as a storyteller.

The poet and literary pioneer says: 'Rex was a sensitive and acute observer of life. Because he started writing late, the material that generated his fiction was well digested.

'He brought to bear on it all the insights of an engineer, businessman, administrator, public servant and a person who loved life. His character analysis was therefore penetrating, and his range of characters are fully reflective of the society he wrote about.'

Professor Kirpal Singh, 60, an associate professor at Singapore Management University who is also a writer and literary editor, adds that although Shelley's impact on the literary scene so far has 'been much less than it ought to be', the author's body of work is significant for both the Eurasian community and Singapore society at large.

'Rex belongs to the small but significant group of writers who have articulated the experiences of the Eurasians. I think, some over-writing notwithstanding, Rex's contribution in this respect is admirable,' he says.

'At its best, Rex's writing is passionate, humane and highly focused. Though he generally kept a low profile, his literary works will stand the test of time, combining a sharp sense of observed commentary with historical detail.'

Shelley belonged to the unique generation of Singaporeans who lived through the colonial era, World War II and the nation's journey to self-government and nationhood. Born in 1930 in Singapore, he took an honours degree in chemistry from the University of Malaya in 1952 under a university scholarship, then attended Cambridge University, where he studied engineering and economics.

After graduating, he worked in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan until May 1965, when he returned to Singapore to work for a company making pipes. He then ran his own business importing machinery. He served on the PSC for 31 years from 1976, interviewing a wide swath of society, from students applying for university scholarships to senior civil servants up for promotions.

Though he had a late start as a writer, some of his books are already being regarded as local classics. Earlier this month, Singapore-based house Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) republished two of his books that were on their backlist, The Shrimp People and Sounds And Sins Of Singlish.

Says Mr Chris Newson, 43, its general manager: 'Rex Shelley was an author whose works we felt a new generation could benefit from. We didn't want his books to be consigned only to the archives, and so decided to republish them with more contemporary covers.'

The late author's final work, a biography of his uncle, Eurasian gynaecologist Charles Paglar, will be published later this year by The Straits Times Press.

Mr Edward D'Silva, 58, the president of the Eurasian Association, which is supporting its publication, visited Shelley at Tan Tock Seng Hospital a month ago and found the author in good spirits.

'He was lucid and displayed his usual cheerfulness and dry sense of humour. When I asked him whether he had finished his book, he replied in Malay: 'Habis!' (Malay for 'finished', also a slang for 'hopeless'),' he says with a laugh.

Quartet of books on Eurasian community

The Shrimp People (Times Books International, 1991; Marshall Cavendish, 2009)

Spanning the 1500s to the 1980s but focusing on the 1950s and 1960s, its protagonist is Bertha Rodrigues, a strong and rebellious Eurasian woman who carves out a life for herself in the turbulent years after World War II.

People Of The Pear Tree (Times Books International, 1993)

Shelley's second novel tells the tale of the Perera family during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore and Malaya. Relationships such as one between a Japanese major and a Eurasian girl raise questions of identity and belonging.

Island In The Centre (Times Books International, 1995)

Set in the 1930s, the story follows Japanese characters who seek their fortune in Malaya, mingling with the Eurasian community even as the impending outbreak of war casts a shadow over all their lives.

A River Of Roses (Times Books International, 1998)

This epic follows four generations of the Rosario family in Malaya, including their relationships with people from various racial and religious backgrounds, as the region witnesses the ravages of war and the struggle towards independence.

All books can be borrowed from the public libraries. They can be found in the SING section under the call number ENG SHE.

The Shrimp People is on sale at most major bookstores at $18.50 before GST.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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