Bringing 'belly of the carp' to life

Bringing 'belly of the carp' to life
Poetic: Roger Jenkins, author of From The Belly Of The Carp

The year 1977 is deeply etched in the mind of writer Roger Jenkins, who was born in Singapore to British parents.

It was the year former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called for the clean-up of the Singapore River.

It inspired his book, From The Belly Of The Carp, published in 1996.

On May 15 and 16, characters from his book - which features monologues from a mix of real and fictional characters - will come to life by the Singapore River as part of the Singapore HeritageFest.

Professional actors dressed as coolies and merchants will be performing his poems by the river and interacting with passers-by.

Jenkins' book, which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1995, takes its name from the river's shape.

Early traders called the river "belly of the carp" because of its shape and because the carp symbolises prosperity, said the 62-year-old, who works as a storyteller at libraries and schools.

Jenkins went to boarding school in the United Kingdom before rediscovering Singapore in his travels and returning in 1978. He is now a Singaporean and lives here with his wife and son.

"I still remember the time before the clean-up, when this was a working river with bumboats and bales of semi-processed rubber, and the pungent smell," said Jenkins.

He added that he feels lucky to have witnessed the tail end of a way of life by the river, before business activities at the river folded.

People who are interested in learning about the river's history should not be put off by the poetry in his book, he said, because the language is easy to understand.

"My critics think that my poems are too simple but I consider simplicity to be a virtue."

For instance, the first few lines of Coolie reads: "Rubber. Rice. Flour. Wood. / Coffee. Pepper. Charcoal. / It's all the same, / barrel, crate, gunnysack: / Heavy."

Jenkins says the one-word sentences show the coolie to be a man of few words and reflects his situation as part of the working class that may not have had much education.


His poems also include monologues inspired by historical records of figures such as Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar.

Historians have written to him to praise his depiction of their relationship, he said.

Recently, while watching a news clip about the Singapore River, it hit him that the young presenter would have no personal memories of the river before it was cleaned.

He feels particularly happy when readers from younger generations discover his book.

Knowledge of heritage anchors us, like poles along the river anchored the bumboats, he said.

"It is so important to have a sense of the past, so you can see how far you have come."

This article was first published on April 25, 2015.
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