A 'second childhood' for former NMP Claire Chiang

Ms Claire Chiang with her collection of books.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

From Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid's essays on cultural identity to texts on responsible entrepreneurship and Chinese philosophy, the books stacked in Ms Claire Chiang's study serve as testament to the diversity of her passions.

The former Nominated MP, who co-founded hospitality group Banyan Tree with her husband Ho Kwon Ping, was also president of women's group Aware and is the first corporate head of the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS).

But lately, another genre has caught the fancy of the striking 65-year-old, who became a grandmother last year - children's books.

"I'm going through my second childhood," Ms Chiang said laughingly, flipping through a pile of such books during an interview at her house in King Albert Park last week.

"I could never have looked at all these books in the last 20 years," confessed Ms Chiang, whose three children are now aged between 33 and 22. Her grandson Kang Peng will soon be celebrating his first birthday.

"But when I read to Kang Peng, he would chuckle at the sound of my voice. It brings layers of meaning, and layers of delight.That, I feel, is intergenerational bonding."

While Singapore literature has been making inroads in international markets recently, Ms Chiang believes that more can be done to promote local and regional Asian children's books, such as works by Singaporean writer David Seow, and create opportunities for collaboration between writers, translators and illustrators.

Boost needed for local and regional children’s books

She hopes that the book council's Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC), which kicks off on Wednesday and will go on till Sunday, can give the movement a much-needed boost.

There will be a range of free public events, including drama performances and storytelling sessions.

"We teach selected local titles in school, but there are still more than a hundred of them out there. We can look at more collaborations with the regional community, and position Singapore as a literary and translation hub to service the region and the world."

Ms Chiang, the youngest among six children in a lower-middle-class family, attended two primary schools at the behest of her "kiasu" mother - Nan Hua Primary School in the morning and Raffles Girls' Primary School in the afternoon.

She can attest to the value of having a bilingual education, and makes sure to speak to her grandson in Mandarin often, citing a recent National University of Singapore (NUS) study that found that bilingual babies learn languages faster than monolingual ones.

"I was between two languages since I was six, that's why I read both English and Mandarin now. I think and feel in different languages in different contexts. Translation can be an area for business and content-making."

It was her accountant father who nurtured her love for reading.

"I was a sickly child with an asthmatic condition. But each time I fell sick, my father would buy me a 30-cent copy of Er Tong Le Yuan (Children's Paradise, a series of Chinese picture books) - and I will feel like it was not so bad to be sick after all," she recounted.

She grew up in a two-room apartment in Race Course Road. The Bras Basah-Bugis precinct was her stomping ground, home to her two primary schools, the National Library and the Bras Basah Complex, known affectionately to many of her generation in Mandarin as City of Books.

She studied sociology at the then University of Singapore, and moved on to complete a master's in translation at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

While other Singaporean parents may be quick to "streamline and structure" their children with enrichment activities and classes targeted at honing specific talents, Ms Chiang believes in exposing children to a diverse range of experiences and content.

One of her favourite books is Japanese television personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi's Totto Chan, a memoir chronicling the unconventional education that the author received in a Tokyo elementary school.

"I thought that the liberal climate of being able to talk and ask about anything was just wonderful. If you observe a child enough, you will see an inclination surfacing, and that's when you can encourage his talent. It's important for parents to accept their children's choices."

That philosophy has played out in interesting ways in her own experience.

A case in point is her youngest son Ren Chun, 22, who has just completed his first year at the University of Cambridge where he is studying human, social and political sciences.

She used to take her children on weekly visits to Queenstown Community Library and the bookstores when they were growing up - and never said no if they wanted to buy books.

While Ms Chiang used to be against the idea of comic books, and would baulk at the cost of the Marvel comics that Ren Chun loved - "over $30 for just a sliver" - she has since seen how that exposure paid off.

Ren Chun published his own poetry collection, Shrines And Streetlights, in 2012, and was also the first Singaporean to top the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) English exam when he was studying at Anglo-Chinese School (International).

"He's now also a photographer, an artist, and writes very cryptic, funny things - all these came from the influence of the comics he read."

Mother and son now WhatsApp haikus to each other, after he taught her how the 5-7-5 syllabic structure of the three-line Japanese poem works.

Such is the subliminal influence of books, especially when children are exposed to them from young, she said. That is one of the goals of AFCC this year - to encourage parents to take young children to the book fair and other activities, and let these toddlers be comfortable among shelves of books.

That can be one way to arrest the low reading rate among Singaporeans, she said. A National Arts Council survey, released in March, found that less than one in two Singaporeans reads a literary book a year.

While her own grandson has not yet learnt to read, he is already grabbing at books and gnawing away at book covers - and she herself had to search high and low for plastic or fabric-covered books that would be more appropriate for him.

But technology for children under the age of three is a big no-no, believes Ms Chiang, who frowns upon parents who use videos on mobile phones to placate restless children.

"Don't buy them too many electronic toys, buy them books instead.

"Parents should be there to read with their children, tell stories to them - create narratives and counter-narratives to inspire their minds. It should not be restrained by exam requirements, or cost-benefit analysis. It's sheer enjoyment."

•For more information about the festival, go to afcc.com.sg


This article was first published on May 23, 2016.
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